Stirner Philosophical Anarchism

Stirner’s Philosophical Anarchism and The Cult Of The Individual

Definition Anarchism

Stirner's book was written as the result of a wager. The nature of the circumstances and the character of the epoch that gave birth to it were chiefly these. Stirner was a member of a group of young German Radicals and democrats whom Bruno Bauer had gathered round him in 1840. They drew their inspiration from Feuerbach, and accepted the more extreme views of the Hegelian philosophy. Their ideal was the absolute freedom of the human spirit, and in the sacred name of liberty they criticized everything that seemed in any way opposed to this ideal, whether nascent communism, dogmatic Christianity, or absolute government. The intellectual leaders of the German Revolu­tion of 1848 were drawn from this group, but they were soon swept aside in the reaction of 1850. A few of them who were in the habit of meeting regularly in one of the Berlin restaurants assumed the name die Freien. Marx and Engels occasionally joined them, but soon left in disgust. A joint pamphlet by them, which bears the ironical title of The Holy Family, is supposed to refer to Bauer and his friends. A few of the German Liberal economists, including Julius Faucher among others, paid occasional visits to the Hippel Restaurant. Max Stirner, who was one of the most faithful members and a most attentive listener, although it does not seem that he contributed much to the discussion, conceived the idea of preparing a surprise for his friends in the form of a book in which he attempted to prove that the criticism of the supercritics was itself in need of criticism.

The extreme Radicals who formed the majority of the group were still very strongly attached to a number of abstract ideas which to Stirner seemed little better than phantoms. Humanity, Society, the Pure, and the Good seemed so many extravagant abstractions- so many fetishes made with hands before whom men bow the knee and show as much reverence as ever the faithful have shown towards their God. Such abstractions, it seemed to him, possess about as much reality as the gods of Olympus or the ghosts that people the imagination of childhood. The only reality we know is the individual; there is no other. Every individual constitutes an independent original force, its only law its own personal interest, and the only limit to his develop­ment consists in whatever threatens that interest or weakens its force. Every man has a right to say, "I want to become all that it is within my power to become, and to have everything I am entitled to." Bastiat had already expressed it as his opinion that there could be no conflict of legitimate rights, and Stirner declares that "every interest is legitimate provided only it is possible." "The crouching tiger is within his rights when he springs at me; but so am I when I resist his attacks." "Might is right, and there is no right without might."

Granting that the individual is the only reality, all those collective unities that go by the name of the family, the State, society, or the nation, and all of which tend to limit his individuality by making the individual subservient to themselves, at once become meaningless. They are devoid of substance and reality. Whatever authority they possess has been ascribed to them by the individual. Mere creatures of the imagination, they lose every right as soon as I cease to recognize them, and it is only then that I become a really free man.

I have a right to overthrow every authority, whether of Jesus, Jehovah, or God, if I can. I have a right to commit a murder if I wish it—that is to say, unless I shun a crime as I would a disease. I decide the limits of my rights, for outside the ego there is nothing. . . . It may be that that nothing belongs to no one else; but that is some­body else's affair, not mine. Self-defence is their own look-out.

The workers who complain of exploitation, the poor who are deprived of all property, have just one thing which they must do. They must recognize the right to property as inherent in themselves and take as much of it as they want.

The egoist's method of solving the problem of poverty is not to say to the poor, "Just wait patiently until a board of guardians shall give you something in the name of the community," but "Lay your hands upon anything you want and take that." The earth belongs to him who knows how to get hold of it, and having got hold of it knows how to keep it. If he seizes it, not only has he the land, but he has the right to it as well.

But what kind of a society would we have under such conditions? It would simply be a 'Union of Egos,' each seeking his own and join­ing the association merely with a view to greater personal satisfaction. Present-day society dominates over the individual, making him its tool. The ' Union of Egos'—for we cannot call it a society—would be simply a tool in the hand of the individual. No scruples would be felt by any­one leaving the union if he thought something was to be gained by such withdrawal. Every individual would just say to his neighbour, "I am not anxious to recognize you or to show you any respect. I simply want you to be of some service to me." It would be a case of helium omnium contra omnes, with occasional precarious alliances. But it would at least mean liberty for all.

Such strange, paradoxical doctrines are irrefutable if we accept Stirner's postulates. But we must reject his whole point of view and dispute the stress laid upon the individual as the only reality, as well as his denial of the reality of society. Granting that the individual is the only reality, then society and the nation are mere abstractions created by man and removable at his pleasure. But that is just the mistake. The individual has no existence apart from society, nor has he any greater degree of reality. He is simply an element, not a separate entity. His existence or non-existence does not depend upon himself. Nor is society merely an idea. It is a natural fact. The individual may be quite as appropriately described as an abstraction or a mere phantom.

The fundamental difference between Stirner and the other anarchists who will engage our attention is just this recognition of the reality of the social fact which Stirner denies in toto. It also marks the cleavage between literary and political anarchism.