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Max Stirner: A Durable Dissident — In a Nutshell
Max Stirner? The philosophizing petit bourgeois to whom Karl Marx had given the brush-off? The anarchist, egoist, nihilist, the crude precursor of Nietzsche? Yes, he. Having a very bad reputation in the world of philosophy, he is mentioned at most in passing, but even now he possesses that intellectual dynamite which a famous successor claimed to have provided.
The mere mention of Stirner’s name evokes catchy sayings such as, “I am unique,” “Nothing is more to me than Myself,” “All things are nothing to Me,” which cause him to appear the epitome of the uninhibited egoist or naïve solipsist or… — No, he has not been forgotten. His book, »Der Einzige und sein Eigentum« (1844) — he wrote only this one — can be found even today in “Reclam’s Universalbibliothek” [in English: »The Ego and His/Its Own«, 1907…1995], as it were, as the classical author of egotism. Yet this does not mean that anyone today considers him to be of current interest.
My thesis, on the other hand, states that his time has only now arrived. The meaning of this declaration is probably best conveyed through the story of the impact of his book, which was strangely clandestine particularly throughout its momentous passages, and is still barely known. The account also makes it understandable that Stirner’s specific central idea did not really become relevant for the times until more than one and a half centuries later and why this should be so.
Stirner composed his book »Der Einzige und sein Eigentum« in the context of Left Hegelianism in the eighteen-forties. Excepting its beginnings as a criticism of the Bible, this philosophical school of thought tried for the first time in Germany to develop a consistently Enlightenment atheist theory (“true”/”pure” criticism) and practice (“philosophy of action”). Its leading theorists were Ludwig Feuerbach and Bruno Bauer, while Arnold Ruge and Moses Hess made names for themselves practically and politically as fighters for the causes of democracy and social justice.
Max Stirner was initially a rather inconspicuous figure in the group surrounding Bruno Bauer. The scathing criticism of the entire Left Hegelian thought he presented in his »Der Einzige…« consequently came as a surprise to all. Unlike the numerous opponents of the post-Hegelian New Enlightenment, Stirner criticized Feuerbach’s and Bauer’s philosophies not on account of the two ex-theologians’ atheism but rather due to their lack of intellectual consistency. They had indeed managed to emancipate themselves from Hegel’s all-integrating system, but they did not really succeed in abandoning the “magic circle of Christianity.” Stirner’s derisive conclusion: “Our atheists are pious people.”
The targets of the criticism themselves recognized that Stirner had resolutely continued along their path, the path of criticism. They even went so far as to admire Stirner’s audacity, although shrinking back from its result, which, in their eyes, was a moral nihilism.
Privately fascinated — Stirner was “the most ingenious and freest writer I’ve ever met,” wrote Feuerbach to his brother; Ruge, Engels, and others spontaneously proved themselves to be similarly impressed — and publicly rejecting, aloof, or silent, this intellectual avant-garde reacted ambivalently and cunningly to the most daring of their colleagues. No one wanted to follow Stirner’s step beyond the New Enlightenment. His “nihilism” simply could not be the result of enlightened thought. Greatly alarmed, all were blind to the fact that Stirner had already opened up ways “beyond nihilism.”
The automatic rejection of Stirner’s line of thought is also characteristic for the bulk of the subsequent story of the re(pulsion and de)ception of »Der Einzige und sein Eigentum«. However, the book was initially forgotten for half a century. Only in the eighteen-nineties did Stirner’s ideas experience a renaissance that continued into the next century. However, he always stood in Nietzsche’s shadow, whose style and rhetoric (“God is dead,” “I, the first immoralist”, …) fascinated the entire world.
Some thinkers, to be certain, perceived that Stirner, although officially considered a narrow-minded forerunner of Nietzsche, was the more radical of the two philosophers. Yet they were the ones who neglected to come to a public confrontation with Stirner. Edmund Husserl once warned a small audience about the “seducing power” of »Der Einzige« — but never mentioned it in his writing. Carl Schmitt was as a young man deeply moved by the book — and maintained his silence about it until “haunted” again by Stirner while in the misery and loneliness of a prison cell (1947). Max Adler, Austromarxist theorist, privately wrestled his whole life with the ideas in Stirner’s »Der Einzige.« Georg Simmel instinctively avoided Stirner’s “peculiar brand of individualism.” Rudolf Steiner, originally an engaged, enlightened journalist, was spontaneously inspired by Stirner; however, he soon believed Stirner was leading him “to the edge of an abyss” and converted to theosophy. Lastly, the anarchists on whom Stirner is often pushed as a precursor either kept a silent distance (for example, Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin) or had a lasting ambivalent relationship to him (Landauer).
Prominent philosophers of our time voice a shudder of their own when confronting the principal idea in »Der Einzige,« which they conceive as being unfathomably demonic. Leszek Kolakowski said that Stirner, next to whom “even Nietzsche seems weak and inconsequent,” is indeed irrefutable; nevertheless, he must be banished at any cost, because he destroys “the only tool that enables us to make ethical values our own: tradition.” Stirner’s aim of “destruction of alienation, i.e. the return to authenticity would be nothing but the destruction of culture, a return to an animal state … to a pre-human condition.” Hans Heinz Holz warned that “Stirner’s egoism, were it to become actualized, would lead to the self-destruction of the human race.”
Continue at the site: The LSR Project