George Walford: Egos and Their Own

In 1845, in Bayreuth, Johann Kaspar Schmidt published a book. Why should this interest IC? Because he used the pseudonym “Max Stirner” and the book was Der Einziger and sein Eigentum, appearing in English as The Ego and his Own; the Case of the Individual Against Authority. The copy in front of us has been translated by Steven T. Byington, edited by James J. Martin and published by Western World Press, Chicago, 1982. It was supplied (for a remarkably low price) by EGO, journal of the British Stirnerians (address on request).

The theme of Stirner’s book is more than are the themes of most books, conveyed by its title; it is a proclamation of the independence of the individual human being, an attack upon all the social influences that would subordinate the person to themselves. God, mankind, truth, freedom, humanity, justice, nations and rulers, each of them, says Stirner, serves its own cause and, demands that individual people sacrifice themselves to it; “community, family, and so forth, as natural relations, are burdensome hindrances which diminish my spiritual freedom” (p. 24). He refuses to submit:

I for my part take a lesson from them, and propose, instead of further unselfishly serving those great egoists, rather to be the egoist myself […] My concern is neither the divine nor the human, not the true, good, just, free, etc., but solely what is mine, and it is not a general one, but is – unique, as I am unique. Nothing is more to me than myself. (pp. 4/5)

The egoist cares nothing for chastity, religion, morals, ethics, love, sanctity, god, holiness, vocation or truthfulness (pp. 56/65), but to strive for freedom from these influences is not enough. Why strive for freedom? To release the ego from its bonds. So why bother about freedom at all? Go straight to assertion of the ego:

Now why, if freedom is striven after for love of the I after all – why not choose the I himself as beginning, middle, and end?¬† Am I not worth more than freedom? Is it not I that make myself free, am not I the first? Even unfree, even laid in a thousand fetters, I yet am; and I am not, like freedom, extant only in the future and in hopes, but even as the most abject of slaves I am – present. Think that over well, and decide whether you will place on your banner the dream of “freedom” or the resolution of “egoism,” of “ownness.” (p. 163)

For Stirner, the deadly enemy of the individual person is the State, taking alI property to itself, allowing the individual to possess only at its will. Against this he insists on his right to what he can take for himself:

What then is my property? Nothing but what is in my power! To what property am I entitled? To every property to which I – empower myself. I give myself the right of property in taking property to myself, or giving myself the proprietor’s power, empowerment […] Take hold, and take what you require! with this the war of all against all is declared. I alone decide what I will have. (pp 256/7)

The bold simplicity of the approach is attractive. To take  what one wants without reference to law, morals or propriety Рis it not this that, without admitting it even to ourselves, we have all wanted all our lives? It may well seem so, but when we look more carefully at what Stirner actually did, the complications begin to appear. For all his proud declarations of complete independence, what he did was to write a book expounding his ideas, and he thereby showed to exist in relation to the people around him and, more, to be concerned with those relationships.

Stirner proclaimed his independent individuality both in the sphere of material possessions, the economic sphere, and in the sphere of ideas, the political sphere: but he did not assert it equally in both. We claim no knowledge of his life apart from what is provided by the preliminary pages in this book and that is of the skimpiest but, such as it is, it is concerned wholly with his intellectual activities. He is presented as student, critic, thinker, revolutionary; there is no suggestion that he actively pursued material possessions or economic power. In the realm of ideas, of politics, he asserted himself, in the realm of material possessions, in the economic field, he apparently did not strive to do so, and when considering what he means by individualism and ownership we need to bear this in mind. It shows that for Stirner the “ego” is primarily a spiritual and intellectual entity and the most important part of what it possesses, its “own,” is intellectual property, ideas. Stirner was emphatically an individualist, but he developed his individual powers in the field of politics and of ideas rather than in that of material possessions, he was a political rather than an economic individualist.

Once this has been noted his independence diminishes, because his ideas are far from being entirely his personal creations. He speaks of the “Ego” and its “Own,” and in the sense in which he uses these terms they are both among the products of nineteenth-century philosophy. His indebtedness to Hegel permeates the work (the American translation, reading very smoothly for the most part, provides one glimpse of a gum chewing-Hegel when speaking of “a truth whose untruth they tried to get back of” [p. 24]). He opposes Hegel, but without Hegel there as an anvil against which to shape his own ideas Stirner would not be the Stirner we know. And Hegel, self-subsistent as his work sometimes appears, is the outcome of the previous development of philosophy, related directly to Jacobi, Fichte, Schelling and Kant, and behind them to Hume, Hobbes, Spinoza, back to Plato, Socrates, the Eleatics and that forgotten genius who began the reduction of raw sensation to comprehensible and communicable form. Mankind, truth, God, freedom, humanity, justice and so on, all the influences Stirner repudiates as limitations of his individuality, when taken together go to constitute society, and it is society, through millenia of struggle, conflict and development, that has produced the individual Stirner strives to present as independent. Stirner, with his assertion of independent individuality, is an outcome of the whole previous development of society (and behind that the development of the natural world). Stirner’s individual is defined by his opposition to society, and is thereby shown to be dependent upon it.

Overlook that Stirner was mentally made and shaped by the society he lived in. Grant that all he knows and all he can do belongs to his separate ego. Then separate Stirner as he is now from society, place him in the position he claims to occupy, that of the independent ego, place him by himself in the natural world and let him make it his own by his unaided egoistic efforts. Let him, unhampered and unhelped by society, maintain himself alone in the face of cold, heat, hunger, pests, predators and disease. What sort of life will he live? What will his vaunted egoism be worth? His egoism can only be effectively expressed in relation to society; for him to repudiate society would be the foolish arrogance of a child presuming to repudiate the succession of generations which preceded and produced it.

Stirner is aware of this. His book falls into two parts: it opens with a bold assertion of independent egoism, leading up to:

Take hold, and take what you require! With this the war of all against all is declared. I alone decide what I will have. (p.
257)

With that declaration the self-contradiction in his position becomes apparent, for under the conditions he posits it is, quite clearly, not “I alone” who decide what I shall have, it is also those with whom this “I” is at war. The man who declares the war of all against all, warning his opponents to defend themselves against him, is not an egoist interested in himself alone but a collectivist feeling responsibility for the general welfare.

It is not by any features peculiar to himself that the individual is distinguished. If we take a concrete individual, somebody we know, and strip away, one by one, every feature possessed in common with other people, what we end up with is not a unique individual but (at most) a bare existence with no distinctive features whatever. Every person is, certainly; a unique individual,but that uniqueness lies in the particular combination of features, each of which is possessed in common with others. Every face is unlike every other, but its uniqueness resides in the particular combination of eyes, nose, mouth and cheeks, features found in every other face. If we interest ourselves, as Stirner does, in individuality,then in analysing it to find wherein it consists we find ourselves dealing with universal features.

Stirner’s claim to be an egoist, pursuing only his own interests, is a rhetorical device. Having provoked the reader’s attention with the aggressive declarations of the first part of his book he speaks more seriously and thoughtfully in the latter part, and here he speaks as an economic collectivist, seeking possession not only for himself, but for all: “If men reach the point of losing respect for property, every one will have property” (p. 258). He opposes Communism, but by this term he understands a system whereby the community owns all to the exclusion of the individual person: “According to the Communists’ opinion the commune should be proprietor” (p. 258). Against this Stirner asserts universal ownership. He says “everything belongs to me, I am proprietor of everything that I require and can get possession of” (p. 258) and this may read like a denial of universal ownership; but we have seen that this “I” is not just Stirner himself; everybody is “I.” His statement: “I must rather have so much as I am competent to appropriate” (p. 263) is a reformulation of the familiar communist slogan “to each according to his needs,” and if Stirner does not declare himself willing to contribute to the common stock according to his abilities he does better; instead of talking about a contribution he makes it, in the form of this book. He is saying, by means of brilliant paradox, that he seeks a society in which everybody has all he wants, and that is precisely what is intended by the left, by the moderate left as an eventual outcome in some indefinite future, by the communists as the next development beyond socialism, by the anarchists and anarcho-socialists as something to be established here and now.

The practical, direct, unsophisticated egoist, a young child for example, grabs what he can of material goods for himself and does not strive to develop ideas. If society is to survive in the face of such tendencies then God, love, truth, chastity, law, freedom and all the other principles and copy-book maxims have to be established and enforced against the self-assertive individual. Stirner is not an egoist of this sort but a sophisticated, theoretical one; he declares ownership by “I,” but recognising that everybody is “I” he is proclaiming ownership of material goods for all. There is no need for him to submit to the conventional restrictions since he has already internalised all necessary restraints; the economic functioning of society may be hindered by the endeavours of Stirner and his like to universalise their own lack of interest in accumulating material goods – the publishing industry would not last long if all publishers sold their goods as cheaply as the British followers of Stirner sold this copy of his book – but the economic structure will never be damaged by any self-interestedness on their part. It is in the, field of ideas that Stirner asserts his own unique individuality, it is here that he strives to assert himself against society. He does not struggle to achieve economic power over people; what he does is to write his book in an attempt to render his ideas dominant over those of the other egos around him.

But here also his individuality grows out of and depends upon the collectivity. It can only manifest itself by way of communication, and it is only by virtue of what is possessed in common with others that the individual can communicate. The farmers have a slogan: “If you criticise the farmer, don’t do it with food in your mouth.” Similarly, if you want to assert your mental independence of the collectivity, don’t try to do it by using the collective product of language.

from Ideological Commentary 17, March 1985.