Individualist Review of “Max Stirner’s Egoism” by John P. Clark

This review, credited to “Individualist,” appeared in Cinfuegos Press Anarchist Review Number 2 (1977). British spellings retained from original.  – Trevor Blake

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Anarchism is not a doctrine of love, nonviolence or even freedom. This is a description of the society at which we are aiming. It is not for revolutionaries to idealise aims but resist oppression, even if it is the resistance of one person alone. But the parcelling up of anarchism by academics into “schools of thought” has both hindered such resistance and confused anarchist aims. Amongst the early pioneers of anarchism have been both activists – like Bakunin, to whom participation in the struggle rarely allowed time to finish any of his voluminous works – and non-activists, such as Max Stirner, the reserved teacher and family nan who nevertheless gave one of the most important and most abused contributions to the development of libertarian ideas The Ego & His Own – and has suffered greatly at the hands of the academics.

As an early critic of state socialism he provoked the anger of authoritarian contemporaries like Marx and Engels, and in stating his position boldly and with determination drew either hostility or too uncritical acceptance from within the ranks of the anarchists. This polarised and over simplified for-or-against response has sadly persisted until today, resulting in Stirner being too little read and too much maligned on the one hand and too uncritically acclaimed and distorted on the other.

Stirner‘s real strength lies in probing the motivations behind human action, explaining why people act as they do. This is not to say that he believed people would always do things in the same way (as claimed for him by his critics), only that whichever way they act they do so for the same reason: self interest, that of promoting their own welfare.

If I seclude myself, I do so because I no longer find enjoyment in society, if I remain with people, I do so because they still have something to offer me. To remain is no less egoistic than to seclude myself. (p. 41).

He cautioned strongly against mistaking freedom as an abstract end in itself. For him freedom was only the means to an end; the real end being control over ones own actions within an atmosphere of personal autonomy. Not being physically punished for holding a particular opinion is mot real freedom, for by holding an opinion the individual may be enslaved by that opinion itself.

Freedom is only desirable if it is in one’s own interest to be free, but acting from self determination, self-awareness and free will (real freedom) best serves the individual’s interest (“egoism”). And to be so, those things which stand in the way of that must be removed (by a free choice, consciously); the greatest obstacle being (for Stirner) the State in aid its forms:

The State’s behaviour is violence, and it calls its violence law; that of the individual ‘crime.’ (p.75).

The fact of the State’s legalising its restriction of the individuals freedom through institutionalised violence does not make it acceptable, but only calls attention to our resistance against being just as valid and more necessary. Stirner believed the individual must overcome the power exerted by the State and should not hesitate to do so by force; to “overcome the State’s violence when he thinks that the State is not above him, but he is above the State.” (p. 75)

This viewpoint was abstracted from the context of class struggle, and was certainly not unsympathetic to the workers’ movement. Stirner advocated insurrection as the road to freedom and strikes as a necessary tactic for the workers within capitalism:

The labourers who ask for higher pay are treated as criminals as soon as they want to compel it. What are they to do? Without compulsion they don’t get it, and in compulsion the State sees a self-help, a determination of price by the ego, a genuine, free realisation of value from his property, which it cannot admit of. (p. 83)

In opposition to Statism (both capitalist and communist) as a means of social organisation, Stirner proposed the “Union of Egoists” – which is fundamental to anarchist federalism as a truly libertarian way of re-constituting society around individual freedom. The union, as John P. Clark describes it,

… arises out of truly voluntary action and from a genuine choice of those participating in it, it is not a group into which one is born or socialised, like society, but an association into which one enters out of one’s own power, Since society lacks this element of free commitment and creative action, it is in essence static and lifeless, while the union is always dynamic and living, depending for its existence on continuing renewal through individual decisions, it is an “incessant self-uniting,” while “society is crystallised;” “come to a standstill, degenerated into a fixity” – in short “dead.” (p.78-9)

There are still (in Glasgow) a few survivors from a generation of syndicalists which interpreted Stirner’s union of egoists literally as a workers’ union, a way of organising freely within industry. Nothing in Stirner exists to prove them wrong. He believed, whatever social context the union was put in, that people should enter into it only if “… they are of themselves led to the point that they care best for their welfare if they unite with others…” Their coming together would not constitute a state or a nation, simply the recognition (which is fundamental to all anarchist thought) that the individual co-operates freely with others because it is in his (and therefore the others) interest to do so. “I shall find enough… who unite with me without swearing allegiance to my flag.”

The Egoism of Max Stirner is a skillfully written appraisal of “egoism” managing somehow to both illuminate and annoy at the same time, that sadly lacks something in the telling. John P. Clark adds little to any constructive understanding of Stirner‘s ideas, and confuses much. In the absence of a better introduction it is worth reading. But better still is Stirner‘s own writing, which has stood the test of time well and certainly rewards the effort of reading.

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Filed under Bibliographic, Book, Max Stirner, Sidney E. Parker, Trevor Blake