This paper tries to defend a version of Marxist Humanism against Max Stirner’s Ego And Its Own, a work which could be said to have foretold the death of what we now call grand narratives and which involves the attempt to live cheerfully without values. It notes that Stirner’s nihilism separates him from existential atheists like Nietzsche or Sartre, (though not from Camus), since he is content to accept that, without God, values cannot be found; not even in some form of personal authenticity.
It also doubts that Stirner is an anarchist, since it is difficult to imagine any sort of community, anarchist or otherwise, that doesn’t uphold some moral principle or other. In any case, the Ego and Its Own is said to be much more of a philosophical self-help book than a political tract.
The first part of the paper insists that Stirner’s nihilism also means he cannot give any real substance to the task of becoming a unique being, in the person of the Egoist or Owner. To attempt to fill out the project of the Owner risks setting up an ideal of «the true self», the kind of notion to which The Ego and Its Own is generally hostile. As a result, Stirner is forced to account for his Owner in purely nominal terms, making it something of an empty vessel. This justifies Marx’ criticism that the Owner is a wholly verbal creation; one that mistakenly discounts the social basis of individual life.
The second part of the paper dwells further upon the implications of Stirner’s opposition to grand systems of ideas and values, like those of Feuerbach’s «pious» humanism, It does not agree that secular humanism necessarily yokes the individual to idolatory notions like Man’s essence. Stirner says we too easily allow ourselves to be placed at the standpoint of ought by general ideals like that of Man, and so to be taken over and betrayed by them. However, in the case of the human subject of Marx’ active materialism, this begs the question. Against the postmodern instincts of Stirner, it is said that Marx’ early humanism speaks generally and evaluatively about human beings, without losing touch with concrete individual life. It brings the philosophy of Man’s essence down to earth in the concept of labour.
Marx’ humanism is also optimistic about history’s (teleological) end point. In the grandest terms, history to Marx is something to which a human solution has to be found. The paper, however, admits that ambition on this scale is now frequently met with derision, within Marxism and elsewhere. Indeed, it allows that Stirner’s passion for individual uniqueness is now generally welcomed. These days, riotous consumers are indeed «cheerful nihilists»who mock the need for collective action to bring something called «reality» to account. To Stirner, there is no reality beyond the individual, a view which is ultimately apolitical and which reverts to a philosophical idealism wherein «people only have to change their consciousness to make everything in the world all right».
Marx takes strong issue with all «idealisms», including Stirner’s, for exaggerating the power of the individual mind over objective, alienating circumstance, saying that liberation is a «historical and not a mental act».
STIRNER’S PROBLEM OF CONTENT
The young Marx and Stirner denied and corrected Feuerbach in various ways. However, all three tried to deliver human beings from the opiates, abstractions and mysteries that were said to beset them. In this, there was a fair amount of agreement as well as mutual recrimination. When Feuerbach says things like, «I hate the idealism that wrenches man out of nature»,4 and «I never develop my ideas in the thin air of abstraction, but always ground them in real historical facts and phenomena, independent of my thinking»,Marx’ only complaint is that he failed to live up to his philosophical principles. But, whereas to Marx, Feuerbach only needed to be corrected, mainly by adding an active element to his materialism, Stirner tried to disown him completely, replacing the imaginary «species being» of The Essence of Christianity with the reality of the concrete individual.
Stirner’s critique of religion does not stop at generic human consciousness, but at a unique being who will not recognise humanity as his «all determining essence».6 Stirner’s anti-humanism accuses Feuerbach of reconstituting Christian ideals in human form. Feuerbach, he said, had created a new version of the «holy» out of the idea of our true humanity and replaced the Christian God with the humanist Man-God. To Stirner, Feuerbach’s Humanism made the individual accountable to his so-called essence, whose realisation was the product, somehow, of large scale historical forces.
The notion of Man’s historical development, like that of Hegel’s Absolute Spirit, negated the uniqueness of the individual. It exalted the general idea of Man at the individual’s expense – «for it is the highest thing in us all to be Man – but as nobody can become entirely what the idea … imports, Man remains to the individual a lofty other world, an unattained supreme being».
To try to overstep ourselves in the realisation of the human essence is unreal, since only the individual is «existent and real, in the present».8 But the more the individual seeks himself in the historical project of the Man God the more he is lost to himself. Man, says Stirner is so much «the God of today», that the individual ego is made to despise itself – «the value of me cannot possibly be rated high as long as the hard diamond of the not me bears so enormous a price as was the case with God».It is against Humanism (and all meta narratives) that Stirner declares «all things are nothing to me»,and founds his affair on nothing. Like the existentialists, he rejects the idea of a general human nature or essence saying that «no concept expresses me, nothing that is designated as my essence exhausts me».
He asserts that:
I can never take comfort in myself as long as I think that I still have to find my true self and that it must come to this, that not I but some other spiritual, ghostly, self (the true man) the essence of man and the like lives in me.
In this way, Stirner exempts the Owner or Egoist from the service of grand ideals and causes which history continually throws up. He refuses to be put at the standpoint of «should», wherein his task is to become what a religious/human or political ideal demands of him. Thus Stirner says that the Owner is only a description, lacking any explicit content, human or otherwise. The most he will say is that he is one who must learn to «satisfy himself».
He rejects moral principles like love or justice in his relations to others and resorts only to the «strength of my own might».
His wholesale indictment of causes means there can be no authentic cause, or generally true path towards virtue or excellence. Much of the pathos and force of Stirner’s defence of the individual, like that of Feuerbach’s advocacy of Man, derives from turning religious language against itself- «Therefore turn to yourselves rather than to your gods or idols. Bring out from yourselves what is in you, bring it to light, bring yourselves to revelation».
The pathos of Stirner’s protest makes the Owner a negative passion, which we grasp via his hatred of the content prescribed by various ideal supports. Hitherto individuals have been pathetically unable to live without evasions; without some ideal support whether it is God’s commandments, morality or the Enlightenment’s voice of reason. All have become intolerable burdens:
«What am I? each of you asks himself … How am I to obtain a correct answer, if, without regard to God’s commandments or to the duties which morality prescribes, without regard to the voice of reason, which in the course of history, … has exalted the best and most reasonable thing into law …» But all of these notions are so many cramping shells and wrappings from which the ego «is the kernel that is to be delivered».
However, Stirner’s precious «kernel» is to be understood nominally. His negation of the negation does not point to an explicitly richer content than before. This is presumably because Stirner does not wish to impose upon us that which, to become Owners, we must self create or discover by ourselves. He confines himself to forcefully stating that whatever my good is, it will always be different from man’s good, a fixed (obsessional) idea, which like all others of that ilk is a sacred idea.
This leaves Stirner open to Marx’ criticism that the Owner is a purely verbal creation and no individual of flesh and blood. Stirner’s much vaunted uniqueness is «shared by every louse or grain of sand»,and makes far too much of the simple truism that «one individual is not some other individual».
Marx’ point is that, in a sense, everything that exists is «unique», so that the value of its uniquness must involve something more than its existence, and must consequently have a standard beyond itself. However, because Stirner consistently opposes external sources of value as alien, the Owner turns out to be something of an empty vessel. Marx points to the nature of Stirner’s dilemma.
If the idea of the Owner is a verbal creation then it is of no account. But if it does indeed contain some genuine content then, as with the Man-God, it becomes a version of an ideal person or principle of the «true self», a principle which Stirner continually opposes. He professes to hate the alien measurements imposed by Humanism upon the existing individual. He says «It is not how I realise the generally human that needs to be my task, but how I satisfy myself»,19 and that Ownness does not subscribe to an alien standard, but «is only a description of the – owner».
However, his description of the Owner could still be said to suppress a teleology which assumes the individual is able to change dramatically for the better, in the interests of his «true self». If it is far better for a person to be a true individual, an Owner, than not to be, there remains, in the margins of The Ego and Its Own, despite Stirner venting his spleen against it, a transcendent ideal for us to aim at. It makes no difference that the Owner’s self creation is in terms of individual self renewal, and not prescribed by a general idea.
The tyrannical is-ought dichotomy is reintroduced, since the alienated individual is not what he ought to be – an Owner. Like the Humanists consequently, Stirner puts the individual at the standpoint of ought, since at some stage of his becoming, he must perceive the gulf to be crossed between his existing and ideal, egoistic self. And since there is no standard of what it is to be or to become an Owner, or no suggestion of his content, the project turns out to be a verbal one, as Marx said.