by Jason McQuinn
Max Stirner (pseudonym for Johann Caspar Schmidt) is best known as an early European anarchist and as a central figure in the dissolution of the post-Hegelian philosophical milieu during the years leading up to the Prussian Revolution (and wider revolutionary events) of 1848. Born in 1806, he went to gymnasium (somewhat equivalent to U.S. high school) and universities in an education system dominated by Hegelianism, studying philosophy, philology and theology – at times in lectures from G.W.F. Hegel himself. After achieving only limited success in his university exams, Stirner taught at a girls’ gymnasium in Berlin by day while frequenting coffee houses and wine bars during his off hours. Here he began associating with die Freien (“the Free,” a group of Young Hegelians), often at Hippel’s wine bar on Friedrichstrasse, where he developed friendships with some of the major members of this rebellious intellectual circle like Bruno Bauer, Friedrich Engels (with whom he became duzbruder, addressed with the familiar “du”), and Arnold Ruge.
Stirner’s notoriety is almost entirely due to his masterwork, Der Einzige und sein Eigentum (literally, “The Unique One and Its Property”), which is usually translated into English under the misleading title of The Ego and Its Own. Although Stirner had written and published earlier essays and reviews, the appearance of this book in late 1844 came as a shock to both his comrades of die Freien and the larger liberal and radical sociocultural milieu in contemporary Prussia. Not only was his text far more radical than any other of the time (or, arguably, since), but it dealt devastating critical blows to Hegel’s philosophical system, the humanism of Ludwig Feuerbach, the critical criticism of Bruno Bauer, the communism of Wilhelm Weitling, the mutualist-anarchism of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and even the nascent Feuerbachian communism of Karl Marx. Following the immediate reactions to his text by Moses Hess, Feuerbach and Bauer, Stirner published a reply titled “Recensenten Stirners” (“Stirner’s Critics”) in 1846 to clarify their rather obvious misreadings. Once Engels’ initial enthusiasm for Stirner’s text had been disciplined by Marx he recruited Engels to write with him a monumentally incoherent polemic in response which, unfortunately, Stirner was never able to see, not least due to the unpublishability of Die Deutsche Ideologie, much later translated into English as The German Ideology. (Even after Marx became a god in the lands of the Communist gulags, commissars and secret police, allowing The German Ideology to finally appear in print as a textual equivalent to religious revelation, it almost always appears with the nearly unreadable bulk of the book dealing with Stirner expurgated.) Then as quickly and surprisingly as Stirner’s amazing text had appeared in 1844, it was overshadowed and eventually almost forgotten during the uprisings and confrontations of the 1848 revolutions, and the reaction which followed, only to be resurrected more than once in later decades up to the present day.
There had certainly been plenty of de facto anarchists before the European anarchist milieu began to arise at the end of the 1700s and the beginning of the 1800s – most notably throughout prehistory. However, Max Stirner was not only one of the first to elaborate a consistently anarchist theoretical orientation, he was also the most sophisticated and important anarchist critic of philosophy then and since. However, his influence both within and without the anarchist milieu has almost always been extremely controversial. Stirner’s descriptive, phenomenological egoism and absolute refusal of any and all forms of enslavement have been a perennial source of embarrassment for would-be anarchist moralists, ideologues and politicians of all persuasions (especially leftists, but also including individualists and others). By clearly and openly acknowledging that every unique individual always makes her or his own decisions and cannot avoid the choices of self-possession or self-alienation and enslavement presented at each moment, Stirner scandalously exposes every attempt not only by reactionaries, but by self-proclaimed radicals and “anarchists” to recuperate rebellion and channel it back into new forms of alienation and enslavement. In Der Einzige und sein Eigentum Stirner has harsh criticisms of moralists who attempt to legislate slavery through the imposition of compulsory morality, ideologists who attempt to justify submission to the political state and capitalist economy (or equivalent institutional forms), and politicians who ride herd on the rabble in an attempt to keep everyone in line. Throughout their history, Marxist ideologists, militarists and politicians have treated Stirner as the arch-anarchist. But amidst the anarchist milieu, from Proudhon to Bakunin, from Kropotkin to Faure, from Maksimoff to Arshinov, and especially amongst the rank-and-file ideologues of the anarcho-left throughout the twentieth century the words of Max Stirner have been anathema or worse!
Still, (and quite infuriatingly to the left-anarchist milieu) there has always been a minority of spirited radicals, including the undomesticated and undisciplined uncontrollables among the anarchists, who have heeded Stirner’s warnings and criticisms and refused to allow any words, doctrines or institutions to dominate them. As Stirner proclaimed, “Nothing is more to me than myself!” Which clearly implies, I am only free when I choose how to live my own life. Politicians, economists, ideologists, priests, philosophers, cops and every other con-man with or without official papers, plans and/or bombs and guns, get the fuck out of our lives! And that includes any fake “anarchists” who think they can pull the wool over our eyes!
(This short essay was written — at the request of the editors — for Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed double-issue #68/69 as a short introduction to Max Stirner in order to preface my much longer essay, Part I of “John Clark’s Stirner” — which itself appeared under the Anarchy editors’ preferred title of “John Clark’s Spook.” Unfortunately, although “Max Stirner: The anarchist every ideologist loves to hate” has been posted and reposted many times on the web, every other version begins with the Anarchy magazine editors’ mangled first line that appeared uncorrected in Anarchy magazine. The original, correct version appears here. If anyone who has posted this essay elsewhere happens on this site, can you please repost the original version of this essay!)