Egoism and its Discontents

“Egoism is the law of the ego” said Malfew Seklew. Egoism is a description of what I do, not a prescription of what I should do or a proscription of what I should not do. Egoism is no more the cause of my ego than Newton’s laws of motion are the cause of movement. I am the territory and egoism is the map. Only as it serves me does it matter whether anyone is or is not an egoist. One simply does not recruit or exile oneself. Not this one, anyway.

My draw to egoism is the high degree it places on the descriptive over the prescriptive. It has an internal consistency that no other philosophy has. Far more than A = A, I = I. To avoid confusing the territory and the map, it’s good to avoid overly promoting egoism as ‘something other people should do.’ It’s also good to keep an eye on critics, who might catch me saluting a flag instead of patting myself on the back. Here are selections from three critics of egoism.  I rib them as peers rather than revere them as idols.

For Ourselves (circa 1973 – 1976) was a situationist-inspired group in San Francisco. They never quite did get the masses to stop acting like masses and, in a mass action, assert their individuality. In “The Right to be Greedy” (1974) they criticize egoism in favor of “communist egoism” …

“Nothing is more to me than myself.” Fine. As it stands, this theorem is wholly acceptable. This is a classic statement of the egoistic postulate by the classic exponent of individualist anarchism and narrow egoism, and an early antagonist of Marx, Max Stirner. His latter-day followers, conscious and unconscious, include the “Objectivists,” the “classical liberals”, and the so-called “libertarian right” in general. The problem is that, in the further elaboration of his own book, Stirner’s own understanding of his own statement proved to be unequal to it. Stirner proved to be insensitive to what the concept of “self” – in order to be adequate to reality – must entail; what must be its content, if it is expanded (i.e., developed) beyond the level of its self-contradiction – namely all of the other selves which intermutually “constitute” or produce it; in short, society. This error in general must be attributed to undeveloped concrete self-knowledge; Stirner did not know himself, his own true identity. He did not know himself as society, or society as his real self. If the validity of the egoistic moment has not been understood, then nothing has been understood. For each social individual, when his life is at stake, everything is at stake. If I allow myself to be sacrificed, then I have allowed the whole world – all possible values – to be sacrificed as far as I am concerned. If I am lost, then all the world is lost to me. Each time a person dies, a world dies. The community of egoists is the only possible community not founded on the repression of individual development and thus ultimately of collective development as well. “Communist egoism” names the synthesis of individualism and collectivism, just as communist society names the actual, material, sensuous solution to the historical contradiction of the “particular” and the “general” interest, a contradiction engendered especially in the cleavage of society against itself into classes. This “solution” cannot be of the form of a mere idea or abstraction, but only of a concrete form of society.

Murray Bookchin (1921 – 2006) was an anarchist who wrote about anarchists who did more than write about anarchism. He grew disenfranchised with anarchists who only wrote about anarchism and founded his own school of thought, communalism, which wrote about communalism. Before he left the fold he wrote a Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism (London: AK Press 1995), which calls egoism “petty-bourgeois.”

With the emergence of anarchosyndicalism and anarcho-communism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the need to resolve the tension between the individualist and the collectivist tendencies essentially became moot. Anarcho-individualism was largely marginalized by mass socialistic workers’ movements, of which most anarchists considered themselves the left wing. In an era of stormy social upheaval, marked by the rise of a mass working-class movement that culminated in the 1930s and the Spanish Revolution, anarchosyndicalists and anarchocommunists, no less than Marxists, considered anarcho-individualism to be petty-bourgeois exotica. They often attacked it quite directly as a middle-class indulgence, rooted far more in liberalism than in anarchism. The period hardly allowed individualists, in the name of their ‘uniqueness,’ to ignore the need for energetic revolutionary forms of organization with coherent and compelling programs. Far from indulging in Max Stirner’s metaphysics of the ego and its ‘uniqueness,’ anarchist activists required a basic theoretical, discursive, and programmatically oriented literature, a need that was filled by, among others, Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread (London, 1913), Diego Abad de Santill’n’s El organismo economico de la revolucion (Barcelona, 1936), and G. P. Maximoff’s The Political Philosophy of Bakunin (English publication in 1953, three years after Maximoff’s death; the date of original compilation, not provided in the English translation, may have been years, even decades earlier). No Stirnerite ‘Union of Egoists,’ to my knowledge, ever rose to prominence – even assuming such a union could be established and survive the ‘uniqueness’ of its egocentric participants. […]

That lifestyle anarchism itself is a ‘narcotizing’ self-deception can best be seen in Max Stirner’s The Ego and His Own, where the ego’s claim to ‘uniqueness’ in the temple of the sacrosanct ‘self’ far outranks John Stuart Mill’s liberal pieties. Indeed, with Stirner, egoism becomes a matter of epistemology. Cutting through the maze of contradictions and woefully incomplete statements that fill The Ego and His Own, one finds Stirner’s ‘unique’ ego to be a myth because its roots lie in its seeming ‘other’ – society itself. Indeed: ‘Truth cannot step forward as you do,’ Stirner addresses the egoist, ‘cannot move, change, develop; truth awaits and recruits everything from you, and itself is only through you; for it exists only – in your head.'[38] The Stirnerite egoist, in effect, bids farewell to objective reality, to the facticity of the social, and thereby to fundamental social change and all ethical criteria and ideals beyond personal satisfaction amidst the hidden demons of the bourgeois marketplace. This absence of mediation subverts the very existence of the concrete, not to speak of the authority of the Stirnerite ego itself – a claim so all-encompassing as to exclude the social roots of the self and its formation in history.

And there are more, many more, critics of egoism to be found in the Max Stirner Bibliography. You’d think less of me if I gave them all away, wouldn’t you? What kind of a failed egoist would I be then?

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Filed under 1946-Today, Malfew Seklew, Max Stirner, Trevor Blake