Certainly, the spectre of Stirner’s extreme individualism seems to haunt the contemporary world, in the sense that «unique identities» are one of the selling points of the commodity. In Stirner’s terms, there are also undoubted feelings of incredulity towards grand narratives like Humanism and Marxism, and of having been betrayed by them. In these circumstances, it is perhaps understandable that a (vacuous) cult of individuality accompanies the differentiated world of commodities, where the making and spending of money creates a sense of personal difference.
However, it may be that the individuality commodities sell is the latest form of religious consolation in that, no matter how unfulfilled a life is, its owner can always console himself with the trivially true statement that he is unique; a trivial statement that is made to sound like a resounding truth in the Ego and Its Own. The hyperbole of the Owner is a feature of advertising’s flattery of the consumer. If we buy the right products we are enhanced, unique individuals. In the process, there is a retreat from politics into a solipsistic world which, via a plethora of commodity choices, each consumer can purpose build to his own specifications. Albeit in debased form, the riotous consumer lives up to Stirner’s remark that:
Henceforth, the question runs, not how one can acquire life, but how one can squander, enjoy it; or, not how one is to produce the true self in himself, but how one is to dissolve himself, to live himself out.
In a way, this is how the riotous consumer joyfully rejects the offer of humanist enlightenment. Cultural production as a whole could be said to be aided by audiences of happy nihilists, who continually switch themselves to something different irrespective of its quality. Adorno forgot to mention this nihilistic hedonism in his critique of popular music. It appears there is pleasure to be had in unending novelty and in switching continually and ironically from the serious to the trite. Marxism’s own fate in this scenario includes having some of its key notions playfully twisted against itself. False consciousness seems no longer to be a symptom of the suffering individual. Enlightened consumers, as anticipated by Adorno and Marcuse, are well aware of the commodity’s illusions, but cheerfully go along with them. They prefer the pleasures of false consciousness to a drab Enlightenment; to mimic the characters who inhabit publicity and make an art form of consuming. Commodity fetishism, one of Marxism’s dark themes, has become the new scene of authentic fulfilment. We are all commodity fetishists now, the New Labourists might be heard to say.
The notion of the Stirnerian consumer could be used to extend Frankfurt style critiques of the culture industry, whose economic oppression sanctifies the constantly changing, «unique» tastes of consumers, and is forever quoting the sovereignty of individual choice in its defence. (Nietzschians might say that too much choice in culture might only be like the sick man restlessly changing position). In the face of a constant, profiteering turnover of new cultural commodities, Marxism’s traditional wish for art’s higher meaning to be universally disseminated has come to sound tedious, old fashioned and elitist. However, a cheerful postmodern sensibility does not have a monopoly on incredulity.
Perhaps a Marxian Humanist is entitled to be incredulous at a culture in which every consumer, qua consumer, is now credited by its publicists with being a connoisseur; whose choices in fashion, personal technology and the like fulfil their aesthetic and communicative potential; and where the role of high culture in common life which, to its credit, the Soviet Union defended as well as censored, has no more importance than any other. One aspect of this consumer aesthetics, whose pleasure in everything new connects so well to capitalist economics, is its disregard for any creative continuity or «conversation» between past and present. To Marx, progress was always, in a sense, backward looking. He said that human advancement «takes place within the entire wealth of previous periods of development»,suggesting a complete break with the past and fetishization of the new is a mistake. When it comes to our cultural past Marxism aspires to be destroyer and preserver. Even Lenin was humanistic in this sense. Speaking of the old Russian schools he says:
does the fact that we must abolish them, destroy them, mean that we should not take from them everything mankind has accumulated that is essential to man? Does it mean that we do not have to distinguish between what was necessary to capitalism and what is necessary to communism?50
He adds elsewhere that Marxism is evidence of the right approach to cultural development, having «assimilated and refashioned everything of value in the more than two thousand years of human thought and culture. Only further work on this basis and in this direction … can be recognised as the development of a genuine proletarian culture».51 This humanist standpoint resents a self-important present with its fragmented taste, in which the culture industries invest so heavily.
Of the two so called spent meta narratives of Marxism and Humanism, Humanism has probably suffered the bigger catastrophe. In hindsight, its faith in the potentialities of something called human nature looks to have been too optimistic. Its talk of new standards of happiness, of human enrichment, over-reached itself. Instrumental reason was cynically indifferent to these human ends, so that despair in reason’s capacity to give life purpose eventually set in, perhaps explaining the renewed interest in subjects like the occult and astrology. On a more serious level, Humanism’s castigations of world history, being ineffectual, have come to smell of liberal bad conscience.
Latterly, world history has shattered its moralistic hopes. If, following Auschwitz, there can be no more poetry (Adorno) what can be said for Humanism? Perhaps it was its sudden decline that gave force to Althusser’s attack on Marxist Humanism, much more so than his arguments about a rupture or epistemological break between Marx’ early and mature writings; (after all, the social circumstances of an argument may account for its success as much as its logical force). Althusser was also helped by the fact that a new individuality, force fed by exploding cultural preferences, had made relics of ideas like man’s essence and its true fulfilment. Jokes even became possible at their expense, as when Althusser queried:
whether Socialist Humanism is not such a reassuring and attractive theme that it will allow a dialogue between Communists and Social democrats, or even a wider exchange with those «men of good will» who are opposed to war and poverty. Today, even the highroad of Humanism seems to lead to Socialism.52
Barthes was another who took Humanism to task. The humanist, «in scratching the history of men a little, the relativity of their institutions or the superficial diversity of their skins … very quickly reaches the solid rock of a universal human nature».53 He intuits a cultural change in which the idea of the «great family of Man» (Barthes) is becoming a myth.
However, it does not follow from these setbacks, specifically from a lack of continuity between the early and mature writings, that Marxism should give up its humanist standpoint, or that this standpoint may not still inform public debate.
The violence of Stirner’s criticisms of Feuerbach quite possibly encouraged Marx to drop his early Humanism from his developing scientific agenda, though it does not follow he needed to do so altogether; only that he make clearer that his great priority of scientific exegesis is also a means, in the sense that it will eventually lead to conditions in which, for the first time, questions about «real» human ends and purposes can take a practical form. In any event, Marx stopped using terms like Feuerbach’s «species being» even though the species being of the 1844 Manuscripts has a different content and conducts a degree of existential, self-willed creation. Marx describes Man as a Promethean being, who in a certain fundamental sense owes his existence to himself. He is the self creating being of nature whose life is an «object of his will and consciousness».
He is not passively sculpted by his environment, as Feuerbach had suggested, and is essentially free in respect of his capacity to act upon the world. If this celebratory Humanism has no rightful place within Marxism’s scientific edifice, it can still help to ensure that Scientific Socialism does not suffer from an impoverished sense of possible human ends, something that is itself linked to the current distaste for speaking generally about human beings; a distaste shared alike by much of «scientific» Marxism and by postmodernism. Admittedly, as Marx said repeatedly, a too general account of human beings abstracts disastrously from concrete human life. But it does not follow that all such generalisations are like this. Nor does it follow that because Marx settled his accounts with Young Hegelian philosophising, that he rejected all philosophy. Indeed, the age old question of man’s essential being, which posits a general human nature, is brought down to earth in Marx’ category of labour. As the subject of active materialism, Man is finally defined according to the only distinctive feature (not consciousness, religion or pure reason) that reveals his nature in his concrete life; an insight which discovers the key to human enrichment through the potentialities inherent in the social organisation of the labour process.
In Capital, he gave support to the idea of «a human nature in general as well as one modified by each historical epoch».Allowing that human beings can freely engage in this modification, his remark suggests a task for the communist epoch of debating the constitution of the most valuable human ends, a task beyond the scope or interest of bourgeois scientific reason which regards it as superstitious. Yet the science of Marxism could never go along with this debunking, since it looked to the «good society» beyond itself.
In Capitalism, the physicist may not be required by his scientific community to consider the human implications of his research too deeply. But this applies only up to a certain investigative point within Marxism, whose grand solution to history is in some sense a human one. The contingent fact of labour’s subservience to capital, for example, initiates thinking about new forms of life, which might be said to be real potentialities of existing productive capacity, if its organisation was not tilted so much against their realisation.
If Marxism forgets the importance of human ends, it sides with contemporary derision of them. Works like Dialectic of Nature (Engels) or Materialism and Empirio Criticism (Lenin), may have fought the materialist case against idealist philosophy, but in a way that put a type of scientific thinking on a pedestal. One of their advocates, George Novack, agrees that «Marxism is both humanistic and scientific; it does not recognise any insurmountable opposition between human activities and aspirations and the researches into reality that are indispensible to their realisation».
But his defence of works like Dialectics of Nature does not see their human/existential bankruptcy. Unlike the materialism of Feuerbach and the young Marx, Engels’ enthronement of science lacks human import, a point made about scientific truth in general by Albert Camus, who says that Galileo did right to abjure it when it endangered his life – «That truth was not worth the stake. Whether the earth or the sun revolves around the other is a matter of profound indifference».
He implies that there are higher causes for us, to which science is, at best, only a means. Marxism’s own economic discoveries are, in the final analysis, means of achieving a new society. But apart from having no revolutionary import, topics like Engels’ «law of the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa»58 diminish our sense of human possibility. His emphasis on science also blighted Marxism’s polemical resources, which are better exploited if they have a human centre. To the polemic of changing the world, the pathos of human reification is as important as its scientific demonstration.
Marx’ scientific achievement was arguably to succeed in connecting the abstract and general side of his enquiries to that of concrete human particularity; how for example to connect the individual fate of the proletarian with the invisible laws of capital or how to connect the presence of the commodity to the world of Metropolis. To fail to properly connect the general and the particular in this sense, was to be one-sidedly abstract in one’s thinking. In this respect, Engels and Stirner are false extremes. They take leave of the social world of human beings in different directions. To Marx, Stirner’s outlook can only be corrected by a depth and a totality of perspective.
Finally, Humanism remains important for the defence of secular society against religious excess, a polemical task beyond the dead weight of Engelsism. A far more attractive materialism is found in Feuerbach, one of the few philosophers to celebrate materialism partly by mocking the Christian and idealist reverence for Spirit and its ultimate motions. Instead, Feuerbach revered the material world and tried to awaken men to its independently existing sensuousness. The idealist camp, whether empiricist or Kantian, did not acknowledge this world as fully real. Similarily, religion does not acknowledge our earthly origins and seeks them in another, ontologically superior and transcendent place. But to Feuerbach, this transcendent thinking is a debasement of ourselves and of nature. The world, as it presents itself to the senses, is irreducibly our world. Feuerbach eulogises this presentation as a human one that should not be spirited away. His materialism advances the claims of nature, sensously perceived, because it is in this reality that man becomes acquainted with himself and knows himself, not in some abstract and artificial world of sense data, platonic forms or whatever. He says, «Man is nothing without an object … In the object which he contemplates, therefore, man becomes acquainted with himself; consciousness of the objective is the self consciousness of man».59 With his buoyant materialism goes an attack upon Christianity, which has distorted man’s desires and objectives by removing them from a human scale:
By promising man eternal life, it deprived him of temporal life … by giving him faith in a better life in heaven, it destroyed his faith in a better life on earth and his striving to attain such a life. Christianity gave man what his imagination desires, but for that very reason failed to give him what he really and truly desires.
Marx’ own humanist standpoint also takes a transcendent account of human beings to be demeaning. Whereas Feuerbach says that «in the object which he contemplates … man becomes acquainted with himself», Marx links contemplation to productive activity; «Man contemplates himself in a world he himself has created.»
But his more active materialism, which takes the empirical, sensuous world of man to be the objectification of human labour power, did not fully emulate Feuerbach’s sprightly ultimatum on the Christian epoch. Today, criticism of religion needs to recover something of his ebullient spirit. Thankfully there can be no return in Europe to a religious excitement of the kind that made the Bishop of Paris in 1815 order that the remains of Voltaire and Rousseau be dug up from the Pantheon and thrown into a ditch.But we now know that material progress – «religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature» – is not quite enough to have done with religion. There still needs to be a secular politics which actively campaigns, for example, to turn mosques, synagogues and churches into homes, community centres, and museums.
This paper has suggested that perhaps the spectre of Stirner now haunts a contemporary culture in the form of a cheerful nihilism, which regards grand narratives like Marxism and Humanism with incredulity. Something of his rhetoricised and fatuous notion of the Owner and his banal quest for self realisation is said to accompany the highly differentiated modes of capitalist consumption. The paper also suggests that Stirner’s individualistic portends a nihilist culture where individual choice is the sole criterion of value and authenticity, dismissing the idea of generally sanctioned human purposes. Admittedly, like the categorical imperative, Humanism can sound hypocritical in a system of class exploitation. But for all its faults, it did try to celebrate what human beings had in common rather than their differences, a concern pushed to the side by the current obsession for differences.
Marxist Humanism gambled on Enlightenment’s successes being taken up by Socialism. Without this happening both were doomed to failure, since only in Socialism could instrumental reason acquire properly human ends. Marxism could be said to have tried to put the ancient question of the good life for human beings on a realistic footing. Only in a society without slaves, serfs or proletarians could the question of what constituted a truly human life be seriously put, as a practical and not an abstract question. Commodity culture, backed by a nihilist individualism, may have made such a project appear utopian. But if so, this is a disaster, not an occasion for postmodern self-congratulatio