CRITICAL PERSPECTIVES ON STIRNER AND THE EGO AND ITS OWN-STIRNER AND THE ANARCHISTS

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Much of the analytic discussion of Stirner appears in surveys of the history of anarchist thought and social movements. Beginning with the interesting discussion and typology by Paul Eltzbacher, The Great Anarchists: Ideas and Teachings of Seven Major Thinkers, which originally appeared in1 894, several scholars and i ntellectuals attempted to subsume a discussion of Stirner’s i deas under the b roader rubric of anarchism.

Typically, these surveys treated Stirner as though he is merely the most extreme example of individualist anarchism and, thus, is part of an intellectual tradition that is best defined by a common desire to eliminate the state as a social institution.

 

These surveys of anarchist thought link Stirner with such diverse thinkers such as William Godwin, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Mikhail Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin, and Benjamin Tucker, but also have difficulty reducing Stirner to a compatriot of collectivist anarchists. The reduction of Stirner to an anarchist usually occurs through the studied neglect of Stirner’s critique of alienation through his concept of ” ownness” and his analysis of the m acrolevel social and political structures of modernity.

 

At issue is whether Stirner’s thought is a good fit with the anarchist tradition. In these surveys of anarchist thought, Stirner gets invited to the party, but is not a welcomed guest.

 

Eltzbacher’s book was first published in English by Benjamin Tucker, translated from the German by Stephen T. Byington, the same folks who made The Ego and I ts Own first available in English.

 

Eltzbacher was a German j urist who, partly because of his study of anarchism, became a professor of commercial law at the Handelshochschule in Berlin in 1906.

 

He was eventually elected to the Reichstag and became a proponent ofBolshevism after World War I. In The Great Anarchists, E ltzbacher sought “scientific” knowledge of anarchism through a review of the ideas of Godwin, Stirner, Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Tolstoy, and Tucker. For each of these theorists, Eltzbacher examines (a) the fundamental argument for anarchism, (b) the conception of law in society, (c) the nature and role of the state, (d) the legitimacy of the distribution of p roperty, and (e) how the new stateless society will appear and what it will look like.

 

Eltzbacher aims at the construction of an elaborate taxonomy of anarchist thought intended to demonstrate points of agreement and disagreement.

 

For Eltzbacher, Stirner is the supreme individualist whose self-interest or “self-welfare” must be pursued regardless of the specifics of time or space. The institutions that inhibit the egoist’s pursuit of his or her selfinterest, such as law and the state, have no legitimacy. In fact, law and the state exist by virtue of generalized beliefs that they are sacred, not because individuals recognize that they are favorable to “self-welfare.”

 

In Eltzbacher ‘s words, Stirner is an anarchist because his egoism leads to the idea that “every man’s welfare demands that a social human life, solely on the basis of its p recepts, shoul d take place of the State.

To his credit, Eltzbacher acknowledges that Stirner seeks something of a reconstruction of social life through the notion of the “union of egoists” and that much of Stirner ‘s thought is founded on the idea of “ownness” or the individual owning his or her life. Eltzbacher distorts Stirner by trying to fit him intoa leftist pigeon hole by equating his egoist critique of property with the socialist seizure of private property by an organ ized movement favorable to the l ower classes.

 

Eltzbacher does not discuss or develop Stirner’s critique of alienation and reification. The fundamental problem with Eltzbacher’s discussion is that Stirner’s presumed anarchism becomes the master concept or lens through which the entirety of his thought is interpreted.

 

Once Stirner is defined first and foremost as an anarchist, other elements of his thought, such as his emphasis on ownness, are relegated to supporting roles.

 

George Woodcock’s classic study of anarchism reveals a similar problem.

 

 Woodcock was a Canadian by birth, but lived much of his life in Great Britain. He became a left-oriented anarchist early in his adulthood .

 

He was a pacifist by conviction and a conscientious objector in deed during WWIl. After the war, he returned to Canada and taught at the University of British Columbia until the 1970s. He was a prolific writer and published highly regarded studies of Proudhon, Godwin, Kropotkin, Oscar Wilde, and George Orwell, in addition to Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements, which appeared in 1962. Woodcock devotes a brief eleven-page chapter to Stirner in his study, which is remarkable in the depth of its analysis of the communist anarchists, and the brevity and superficiality of its discussion of the individualist anarchists.

 

In addition to the scant treatment he gives Stirner, Woodcock dispenses with the entire tradition of individualist anarchism in America in two pages that completely faIls to discuss the ideas of Tucker and Lysander Spooner. Woodcock’s book considers communist anarchism to be the main course; the individualist variants are less interesting and far less important.

 

 

Stirner does not fare much better than Tucker or Spooner in Woodcock’s,account. Most of the chapter devoted to Stirner in Woodcock’s Anarchism does not discuss his ideas, but focuses on the known facts about Stirner’s life, dropping names and relating anecdotes about Stirner and the young Hegelians in Berlin. In fact, Anarchism spends no more than five pages discussing the content of The Ego and Its Own, much of which is Woodcock’s characterization, rather than an exposition of Stirner’s ideas. Woodcock does not discuss Stirner ‘s relationship to Hegel. He does not mention the dialectic nor Stirner’s understanding of modernity. He mistakenly credits Marx with having published Stirner ‘s essay The False Principle of Our Education and seems certain that N ietzsche was one of Stirner’s disciples.

 

To Woodcock’s credit, he recognizes that “ownness” is the central category of Stirner’s dialectical egoism, but he finds it repugnant that Sti rner attributes more importance to ownness than to freedom. He acknowledges that Stirner’s egoist and the anarchists share the state as a common enemy, but the anarchists, of course, have nobler goals and a valid rationale.

 

He says Stirner ‘s tract is “passionately anti-intellectual,” it”praises crime and murder,” and anticipates “the reckless criminals whose presence darkened the anarchist movement” during the 1880s and 1 890s.

 

Perhaps Stirner’s biggest affront to the anarchist establishment is that he produced “a brilliant essay” enshrouded by “tedious” and “appalling verbosity,” which is presumably absent from the anarchist tomes written by Godwin and Proudhon. Woodcock does not deign to examine Stirner’s writings as a body of ideas.

 

The Ego and Its Own is merely Stirner “crying out in the wilderness,” raging against his luckless, hapless, insubstantial, isolated life as a schoolteacher who spent much of his time evading numerous creditors and caring for a disturbed mother.

 

Woodcock is sympathetic to anarchism, but not the individualist, assertive sort propounded by Stirner and his progeny. Woodcock does not really know what to do with Stirner. He does not focus on Stirner’s ideas because they differ so markedly from the pantheon of antistate leftists he sees as the real or legitimate representatives of anarchist thought and practice.

 

Stirner is not a good companion of the more civilized likes of Godwin, Kropotkin, and Proudhon, anti statists who do not dispute the subordinate role of the individual to the collectivity. Woodcock’s antipathy to Stirner and his failure to discuss Stirner’s egoism in the context of its dialectical moorings is emblematic of the entirety of collectivist or communist critiques of Stirner.

 

John Clark in Max Stirner ‘s Egoism paints a similar portrait of Stirner from a communist anarchist viewpoint, or as he calls it a “social anarchism” that is not sympathetic to individualism because of its “inadequacy.”

 

 Clark’s study was published in 1976 by Freedom Press in London, a communist anarchist organization that was also responsible for publishing the long running anarchist newspaper called “Freedom.”

 

Clark’s book, although it aims at a fair and reasoned treatment of Stirner’s ideas, nevertheless intends to examine the “metaphysical and ethical dimensions of Stirner’s thought,” concepts that Stirner took great care to refute in The Ego and Its Own. Clark’s interest is in dealing with Stirner’s “metaphysical and ethical egoism.” The immediate problem is that Clark creates an analysis of Stirner using categories that are rejected in The Ego and Its Own.

 

 

Despite the problems inherent in his purpose, Clark begins his book in a promising manner by stating that the influence of Hegel on Stirner’s thought is inescapable and “is shaped from beginning to end by its relationship of opposition to the Hegelian system.” Yet, the only thing that Clark says about the Hegel-Stirner relationship is that Stirner opposed the Hegelian notion of Spirit as an “absorption of the individual into the totality” and proposes instead a “total reabsorption of the Absolute (or Spirit in any form) into the individual ego, its original creator.”

 

This is a nice turn of the phrase but it offers little substance about the Hegel-Stirner relationship. It says nothing about the dialectic or the nature of critique that Hegel and Stirner both employed. It is apparent early on in his discussion that Clark is interested above all in making the case for social anarchism as the political ideology that is most appropriate for dealing with the problems of the late twentieth century.

 

He says,

Anarchism is the one major political theory which has attempted to synthesize the values of negative and positive freedom into a single, more comprehensive view of human liberty. In its emphasis on community and equality, it recognizes the importance of self-realization through participation, and the ability of all to share in the benefits of society’s labor.

 

Stirner appropriately ridicules collectivist reifications such as “society’s labor” and the conflation of collectivist concepts like “community” and “equality” with “self-realization.” For Clark, the biggest issu e in the study of Stirner ‘s egoism is whether Stirner can be l egiti mately called an anarchist.

 

Clark cannot reconcile the issue because he knows that Stirner is both an enemy of the state and the collectivist utopia that “social anarchists” want to impose on individuals and society. Stirner critiques modernity.

 

Clark thinks the big issue i s the conflict between liberal ca pitalism and communism. Most significantly, perhaps, Clark refuses to engage in a conversation about Stirner’s notion of ownness. Clark understands that Stirner d i fferentiates freedom and ownness, but he does not develop the notion of ownness. Without explanation, he argues that

 

Stirner is not clear about the relationship between freedom and ownness.

 

 

He discusses at length Isaiah B erlin’s distinction between positive and negative freedom, but does not discuss how Stirner ‘s concept of ownness relates to or differs from either type of freedom.45 Clark attempts to outline what Stirner might mean by freedom . But, what i s ownness in Stirner ‘s writings? Why is Stirner interested in it? Why is it more important in Stirner’s work than either negative or positive freedom? How isn ownness the basis of Stirner ‘s critique of modernity, the state, and capitalism?

Clark discussion of Stirner suffers from (a) his imposition of a political agenda that is intolerant of individualism and (b) a failure to examine the core concepts in Stirner’s philosophy. Clark sets up and attacks a straw man, a pseudo-Stirner.

 

The basic issue that appears in the communist anarchist portrait of Stirner is whether he is an anarchist. The consistent conclusion is that Stirner, the enemy of the state, does not measure up as a bona fide anarchist because he does not share the collectivist enthusiasm for community and equality. The left-oriented anarchists simply cannot reconcile Stirner’s notion of ownness and the individual’s appropriation of life with their ideal of a s tateless society where property is owned in common, and the mob sets the moral agenda.

 

 

 

 

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