Against Max Stirner

Taken from Non Serviam (1992) journal, issue 23.

Against Max Stirner: A Defence of Marxism’s Humanist Standpoint
by Alastair Mcleish


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»1 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».2 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».3

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»,5 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».7 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».9 It is against Humanism (and all meta narratives) that Stirner declares «all things are nothing to me»,10 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».11 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.12

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».13 He rejects moral principles like love or justice in his relations to others and resorts only to the «strength of my own might».14 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».15The 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 someideal 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 moralityprescribes, 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».16 (My italics)

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»,17 and makes far too much of the simple truism that «one individual is not some other individual».18 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»,19and that Ownness does not subscribe to an alien standard, but «is only a description of the – owner».20 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.

Stirner might have resolved his problem of content if, like some existentialists, he had expounded the Owner in terms of the individual’s authentic choosing of his life’s content. Thus someone might be a Christian, a Humanist or a Bolshevik through a committed, self-originated choice, and not through ideological enslavement. But the nihilist polemic of The Ego and Its Ownmakes such total war on all «causes», that it does not seem open to Stirner to defend a given content by saying that it is authentically chosen. Stirner is not like Nietzsche who also rejected a Hegelian «pre-established harmony between the furthering of truth and the well being of mankind»,21 but who looked for solace in the romanticism of new human beings who do not «flow out into a god»;22 or like Sartre who derived his idea of political commitment from the deathly struggle between thepour-soi (individual consciousness) and the en soi (world of objects).23 (Being free involves the continual projection of ourselves into new possibilities. However, we may also seek to occupy the being of things; to be an inert presence, an object among other objects, in order to relieve ourselves of this freedom – what Sartre terms «mauvaise foi»). Moreover, having pitted the Owner against the idea of community, Stirner cannot convincingly speak of communal alternatives, a conclusion that resists the claim that he is an anarchist. He does speak of a community of atomic individuals (Owners), but this looks a contradiction in terms, given that The Ego and Its Own consistently defines uniqueness over and against species life, denying that the Owner needs communal help to finally come into his own. Its claim to a more individualistic anarchy is also suspect since it concerns no practical action, only a mental resistance to external reality, including that of the state.

With some justice, Marx says that the extent of Stirner’s revolt is to criticise «all actual conditions by declaring them «holy» and combats them by combating his holy idea of them».24 Stirner appears to him to live out the extreme idealist principle that «reality is in the mind». (Of the «sacred» causes which are said to enslave men he says, «no thing is sacred of itself but by my declaring it sacred»).25 If so, Stirner’s self ownership can be achieved in any sort of community, not just one inhabited by Egoists. Stirner’s heroic idealism, which makes reality subject to consciousness, suggests that it is even possible to be an Owner in a concentration camp – «the fetters of reality cut the sharpest of welts in my flesh every moment. By my own I remain.»26 In this respect, The Ego And Its Own looks more like a philosophical self-help book, about how the individual is to get the most out of his life by adopting a stoical philosophy, than a political or anarchist tract devoted to a new society. Hegel had said Stoicism is where «consciousness holds something to be essentially important or true or good only in so far as it thinks it to be such».27 It is a proud withdrawal from objective reality, so as to deny its influence. The Stoic is indifferent to the external circumstances of life. He is free «whether on the throne or in chains».28 His «freedom of self consciousness is indifferent to natural existence».29 Hegel took this freedom, as did Marx, to be an incomplete one. Marx accepts that there is an element of self creation involved in becoming a person in the fullest sense, but this is achieved by acting upon the external, material world. Only in the constitution of the external world, which simultaneously acts upon us, (and under specific historical conditions) can we make ourselves what we potentially are. Like Hegel, Marx can make no sense of a subject who claims to be able to overthrow natural limits and circumstances, without engaging in any sensuous, practical activity. This makes The Ego and Its Own fundamentally apolitical, dramatising political existence in a quixotic way. The egoist slays political realities like the state, but only in his own imagination. The withdrawal from externality, instead of confronting and overcoming it, actually leads to self impoverishment. With Stirner, however, it remains the indispensible condition of maintaining the individual Ego over and against causes that make of individuals so much flotsam and jetsam of historical movements.

Stirner’s rejecton of social existence also makes it likely that he prizes only an empty, abstract individuality. On this, Marx is closer to the much maligned Feuerbach who said:

The other is my thou – the relation being reciprocal – my alter ego … the revelation of my own nature, the eye seeing itself. In another I first have the consciousness of humanity; through him I first learn, I first feel, that I am a man: in my life for him it is first clear to me that he belongs to me and I to him, that we two cannot be without eachother, that only the community constitutes humanity.30

To Feuerbach, becoming an «individual» is an effect of being a member of a species. Man has an I-thou generic awareness. In this sense, he can never «get loose from his species, his nature».31 There can be no true individuality in splendid isolation from the species, since what human beings do has sense only in relation to what others do. Marx repeats Feuerbach’s sentiment that «Man’s own life is an object for him, only because he is a species being».32 To him, the goal of individuality, in any valid sense of the term, is beyond the proletarian for whom «the existence of Capital is his existence, it determines the content of his life in a manner indifferent to him».33 Marx’ renowned aphorism that human beings are the ensemble of social relations takes direct issue with Stirner. For however we single out individual qualities from a person’s existence, this always has social meaning. Where someone has the ability to be creative in a particular way, (if this is a standard of individuality), this presupposes developments that have led to given forms of creativity being socially instituted, and where there are conventions about what it is to perform the activities well. What enables a human being to fulfil an individual potentiality is not just an act of will. It is as much a result of society in general. For human beings have never been unique «in the sense of not needing any connections with one another … they had to enter into relations with one another not as pure Egos, but as individuals at a definite stage of the development of their productive forces and requirements.»34Becoming a poet is not only a question of being a «born poet»35 as Stirner believed, but also of the pre-existing, collectively built institution of poetry itself. As Marx says with regard to painting:

whether an individual like Raphael succeeds in developing his talent depends wholly on demand, which in turn depends upon the division of labour and the conditions of human culture resulting from it.36

Stirner’s notion of the Owner thus turns out to be flawed; that of a unique being who engages in no practical, sensuous activity, political or otherwise, and who turns deliberately and proudly away from society. He is a being whose nihilistic refusal to be defined in terms of any explicit content or aim, makes the title of «Owner» appear gratuitous. However, a helpful image of what the Owner might be like is outlined in the fiction of Albert Camus, who was much taken by Stirner’s cheerful nihilism inL’Homme Revolte. (Unlike Nietzsche, who hurls himself against life’s walls looking for answers, «Il rit dans l’impasse»)37. The Stirnerian hero of the Outsider, Meursault, rebels in a way that is decidedly non-political. He does not act or think politically and only his style of personal existence, his neglect of moral conventions, is rebellious; the real crime for which he receives the death penalty. The opening sentences of the novel – «Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.»38 are a rejection of the standpoint of ought in terms of moral emotions. Later, Meursault politely refuses to commit himself to the values of friendship or romantic love. Unbound by these abstractions, he simply records his experiences and his enjoyment of them. He enjoys other people, and being with them. But he does not sanctify this with moral terms like friendship, love or obligation. In Stirner’s terms, he is only able to regard the other person as «an object in which I take an interest or else do not, an interesting or uninteresting object, a usable or unusable person».39 His only certainties concern sensual experience. He lives out Egoism’s call «to joy over ourselves, to self enjoyment»,40 a plea to make the most of our present lives, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, echoing Stirner’s advice that «The true man does not lie in the future, an object of longing, but lies existent and real, in the present».41 His only passion turns out to be a hatred for any sort of abstract ideas. In the condemned cell, he angrily says of his priest that «none of his (religious) certainties was worth one strand of a woman’s hair».42Meursault’s egoism enables him to reconciled to the «benign indifference of the universe»43 and also to hope that when he is led to the scaffold he will be met with the crowd’s howls of execration. In the end, he enjoys an inner, spiritual triumph over the machinery of the state while it prepares to kill him. Something of the same overcoming of state brutality by the power of mind is found in the stoicism of Stirner’s Owner.

Solutions to History: Cheerful Nihilism

Marx’ concern with Stirner’s verbal sorcery tends to spoil the German Ideology, where he obsessively attacks the philosophical art of «converting all external sensuously perceptible struggles into pure struggles of thought»;44 an art which he takes to grossly exaggerate the power of individual consciousness over alienating circumstance; a habit most pronounced in Stirner. In «the Holy Family» Marx returns briefly to this theme, saying «the mass must by no means hold … products of its self alienation for mere ideal fantasies, mere alienation of self consciousness, and must not wish to abolish material estrangement by purely inwardspiritual action».45 To Marx, this spiritualism is a false solution to history. He even accuses the Critical Critic Bruno Bauer (an accusation he might also have applied to Stirner) of claiming to be the Absolute. According to Marx, Bauer’s part in the philososphical midwifery of delivering a new consciousness posits Spirit (the Critical Critic) against matter (the rest of mankind). He takes «Criticism to be the Absolute Spirit and himself to be Criticism … Criticism sees itself incarnate not in the mass, but exclusively in a handful of chosen men, in Herr Bauer and his disciples … He consciously plays the part of the World Spirit in opposition to the mass of the rest of mankind».46 Bauer perceives Critical Criticism «in its Absolute existence as Herr Bruno».47 Likewise, Stirner’s solution to history, its spiritual end point, is the Owner’s uniquely proclaimed consciousness.

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.48

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»,49suggesting 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».54 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».55 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».56 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».57 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.60

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.»61 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.62 But we now know that material progress – «religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature»63 – 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-congratulation.


1 The term «cheerful nihilist» is suggested by Albert Camus in L’Homme Revolte, where he takes Stirner to be a markedly different kind of nihilist to Nietzsche. Whereas the latter hurls himself against life’s walls, looking for answers, Stirner rit dans l’impasse.

2 Karl Marx, The German Ideology, (London, Lawrence and Wishart 1965), p. 311.

3 Ibid., p. 56.

4 Ludwig Feuerbach, Lectures on the Essence of Christianity, (tr Manheim, Harper and Row 1967), p. 35.

5 Ibid., p.22.

6 Max Stirner, The Ego and Its Own, (London, Rebel Press, 1982), p. 126.

7 Stirner (1982), p. 143.

8 Ibid., p. 327.

9 Ibid., p. 67.

10 Ibid., p. 366.

11 Ibid., p 366.

12 Ibid., p. 320.

13 Ibid., p.182.

14 Ibid., p.256.

15 Ibid., p. 161.

16 Ibid., p. 161.

17 Marx (1965), p. 499.

18 Ibid., p. 498.

19 Stirner (1982), p. 182

20 Ibid., p. 171.

21 F. Nietzsche, Human, All too Human, (Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1884), p. 238. The truth which Nietzsche sees men become increasingly aware of is a tragic one – of a world without any objective values, where anything might be deemed to be true or false, good or bad.

22 F. Nietzsche, The Gay Science, (Vintage Books, New York, 1974), p. 230.

23 J.P. Sartre, Being and Nothingness, (Methuen, London 1969), pp 77, 93.

24 Marx (1965), p. 311.

25 Stirner (1982), p. 72.

26 Ibid., p. 157.

27 G.W.F Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1979), p121.

28 Ibid., p.121.

29 Ibid., p. 122.

30 L.Feuerbach (1957), p. 158

31 Ibid., p. 11.

32 Marx (1975), p. 328.

33 Ibid., p. 335.

34 Marx (1965), pp493/494.

35 Stirner (1982) p. 325.

36 Marx (1965) p. 442.

37 A.Camus, L’Homme Revolte, (Gallimard,1951), p.83.

38 A. Camus, The Outsider, (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1971), p.13.

39 Stirner (1982), p.311.

40 Ibid., p.163.

41 Ibid., p.327.

42 Camus (1971), p.118.

43 Ibid., p.120.

44 Marx, The Holy Family, (Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1975), p.103.

45 Ibid., p.103

46 Ibid., p.107/108.

47 Ibid., p.179.

48 Stirner (1982), p.320.

49 Marx (1975), p.348.

50 V.I.Lenin, The tasks of the Youth Leagues, in On Socialist Ideology and Culture, (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1978), p.143.

51 Ibid., On Proletarian Culture, p.158.

52 L.Althusser, For Marx, (Verso Books, London, 1977), p.221.

53 R. Barthes, Mythologies, (Vintage Books, New York, 1972) p. 101.

54 Marx, Early Writings, (Harmondsworth, Pelican Marx Library, 1975), p. 328.

55 Marx, Capital Vol 1, (tr Moore and Aveling, 1938), p.622.

56 G.Novack, Polemics in Marxist Philosophy, (Monad Press, New York, 1978) p.185.

57 Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, (Penguin Books, London, 1975), p.11.

58 F.Engels, Dialectics of Nature, (Progress publishers, Moscow, 1974), p. 63.

59 Feuerbach (1957), p. 5

60 Feuerbach (1967), p281.

61 Marx (1975), p.329.

62 M.Foot, Essays Old And New 1953-2003, (Politico’s Publishing, London, 2003) p. 92.

63 Marx (1975), p.244.