Notes on: Thomas, P. (1975) Karl Marx and Max Stirner. Political Theory 3 (2): 159--79.

Dave Harris

Much of the German Ideology is about Stirner's book (
The Ego and Its Own)  but this is often omitted, although it is central to the argument. Stirner represents the best Left Hegelians and Marx thought that he also indicated the clearest shortcomings — that is changing consciousness would change the world, that material forces could be reduced to personal forces.

The whole emphasis was upon the individual self, contrasting particular selves with true selves. Only an association of egoists (Verein , aka society)  would encourage suitable aspirations on the part of individuals, far more effectively than any 'political, social, ideological or religious' systems (160). Instead, particularity, self assertiveness
had to be enlarged, and any system that depended on an ought should be resisted.

Marx was already sure that this would be bogus revolutionary politics. Stirner was right to question whether following revolutionary ideals would simply involve another form of subjection, and this was the theme of Marx's response, trying to show that 'communism and individuality, properly understood, are anything but incompatible', and that abstract categories or principles should be replaced by understanding real movements of history. In particular, 'communism transcends the Kantian is-ought distinction'. Like the attack on Feuerbach, however, this was something of a volte-face: Stirner had actually led to this attack on Feuerbach [he criticised Feuerbach himself, possibly on the grounds that replacing God with humanity still left humanity as some sort of religious icon].

Stirner initially worked with Feuerbach's terms of 'alienated attributes and their reappropriation'(161), but saw Feuerbach as offering 'oppressive spirituality'. For Feuerbach man was already divine, but this would become an oppressive concept just like any other spirit or collectivity. Feuerbach's atheism was therefore 'half-hearted', not iconoclasm but inversion. The collectivity 'mankind' is still sacred and oppressive in its relation to real individuals. The point was to move beyond any notion of a higher power that involved renunciation of the self.

Marx did not exactly agree with this, but his attacks on Feuerbach  were similar, and he was influenced by 'Stirner's assault on Feuerbach's anthropocentrism' (162) which took the form of an 'abstract love for an abstract "man"', ignoring sensuous real activity. Marx had the same objection to 'true socialism', that also focused on '"man"' and thus retreated into ideology. Stirner actually saw similarities between Marx and Feuerbach, though, especially in terms of their common notion of '"species being"' [specifically in On The Jewish Question]. Thomas thinks that the two concepts were quite different, however because for Marx removing alienation does not just require an adjustment of consciousness, that the reality demonstrated by the state has to be tackled by doing more than critique at the level of consciousness [which includes just doing ideology critique]. The real world had to be transformed. For Stirner, this was a different version of Feuerbach's materialism.

Marx had to reject Feuerbach's humanism, while avoiding 'extreme individualism' (163) in Stirner. He then extended the critique of Stirner to all the young Hegelians. We can see the importance of Stirner even in the opening words to the Preface, about men making up false conceptions about themselves which have come to rule them, which is a précis of Stirner and Young Hegelianism for Thomas.

For Stirner,  consciousness dominated history, and so thoughts had to be corrected or mastered. This is quite unlike psychological determinism, say in Hobbes or Spinoza, where egos act only for themselves. History was seen as a series of submissions to outside beliefs, idees fixes which stop egos acting on their own behalf. The future of politics was the autonomous individual, but first alien consciousness had to be overcome [classic Young Hegelianism says Thomas]. Such egos would destroy all forms of society, but there was no absolute ego or rational universality, no higher obligations or reciprocity. Instead, obstacles to the free development of the ego, grounded in consciousness, have to be identified.

The development of spiritual consciousness had helped dominate the natural environment, but not for the benefit of the individual, 'for its own sake' (164). We could see S's spiritual drive to autonomy as manifested in history, however, a broad debt to Hegel. Christianity was the main obstacle, with its disdain for the world and devaluation of the individual. Descartes too in thinking that human beings lived only as mind. This stops love for any particular person, in favour of love of God and the spirit. Like Feuerbach, Stirner thought of that as enslavement to categories created by men themselves. But Feuerbach had made the wrong inversion to arrive at his notion of human essence, still opposed to real individuals, still with some notion of essential self, still lacking a proper break with Christianity [apparently, you can find support for this in Hegel himself]. If we are to find self-fulfilment in spirituality, we will lose ourselves in reality, and this can be seen in several stages. Protestantism is an important stage, developing a personal conscience, an '"internal secret policeman"' to regulate every impulse. The absence of intermediaries is also found in liberalism — for Stirner, rather as with Marx, religious freedom and political freedom both mean only freedom for religion or the state. Although liberalism did introduce some notion of real conflicts, they still thought that '"nothing but mind rules the world"' (166) — abstract man has rights, general collectivities can enslave individuals, citizens or political men emerge instead of individuals, there is impersonal authority and an increase in submissiveness. The whole existence of the state depends on this notion of abstract man.

The opposite of this conception should be valorised — the pauper with nothing to lose. [Apparently Stirner uses the word proletarian, but this is not the same as Marx's proletariat, and this is an unwarranted generalisation]. He thought that the bourgeoisie maintained pauperism to justify their own superiority, using the state where necessary, and its empty moralism [the state also refuses to deal with pauperism]. The state needs pauperism if it is to manage and get value from people.

This leads Stirner in the wrong direction, for Thomas, thinking that the exploitation of labour simply depends on the operations of the enemy, with the labourer as the desired egotist. This is an unwarranted extension of some underlying ideological principle for Thomas, which 'led him to suppose that disparate elements of reality are linked because they express some "principle" or other' (167) [endemic to philosophical thinking?]. He also failed to see any alienating or oppressive consequences of enshrining egoism as an essence — it remained as a term helping to define the oppressiveness of society and state, '(which he fails to distinguish clearly)'. He embraced anarchism by arguing that the exercise of will would destroy the state, although he did not see the self as a revolutionary — those who did were just displaying another variant of faith requiring submission. [Apparently this extended to Proudhon's socialism as well] This was another point at which Marx disagreed with Stirner. Nevertheless, as an anarchist, Stirner believed that freedom had to be asserted and the state overcome, and tried to distinguish revolution from insurrection, a social and political act to overturn some order as opposed to a rising of individuals 'without regard to future arrangements', [sounds a bit like Derrida] opposing arrangement, leading only to a '"union of egoists"'. Marx apparently regarded this as '"comic"' (168).

Stirner was prepared to see the state as the historical embodiment of morality, as in Hegel, but this led him to reject both the state and morality, which were linked together in an oppressive '"apparition"' (168). This led him to 'play down the coercive force of state repression', and he was not interested in different forms of the state since they were all despotic. All states, including the liberal one, 'moves the clockwork of individual minds' necessarily restricting autonomy. However, the state itself is not a simple delusion, and Stirner learned from Marx here — but it emanated simply from the general process of human beings 'being ruled by their own illusions'. One implication, which led to Marx's ridicule, was that 'law embodies no coercive force'. Nor do we get much specific politics. The state is an agent of sacredness and so is society, morality, and even revolutionary organisation. The state is just an organ [the result of the division of labour?]that necessarily oppresses and requires regulation and surrender.

For Marx, the 'total debasement of the individual' was alienation in the labour process (169). The social division of labour was crucial in The German Ideology. The issue for Stirner, however, was not this sort of debasement, but a particular one — the 'denial of his Eigenheit [peculiarity]'. This was upside down for Marx: the state does require limited understanding from its subjects, and there is contentment with bondage of human beings — but Stirner therefore concluded that 'the valueless individual is made the bondsman of himself' [which confirms the organic link between social life and the state which I thought I detected above — it's a bit like the argument in functionalism that says that what's functional for society might well be dysfunctional for individuals, even though society might be made of individuals?]. Marx had already written the EPM on the economic and social processes of self bondage, rooted not in the state in the labour process.

For Stirner, any society involves influence and constraint unless it is produced by individuals themselves. We should not aim at 'the chimera of community', but combine with others to multiply our own powers, and then only to achieve specific tasks. Marx saw in this an idealised version of Hegel's civil society. Stirner realised it would turn into a free for all, and it is easy to see that '"egoistical property… Is nothing more than ordinary or bourgeois property sanctified"'. Stirner seems to be advocating '"possessive individualism"'.

All social relations seem to be based on agreement, all property relations are temporary. In practice, agreements are only made cynically, and rejected at the first occasion [paraphrasing Marx]. It is absurd to see property as something belonging to individual egos, which makes actual forms of private property into something abstract and universal.

This unthought out notion of society just reproduces the older one, with all its existing forms of ownership and divisions of labour. It is division of labour that produces peculiarity. It is also obvious that the egoist for Stirner can only be 'an imaginary being', like an Hegelian category for Marx. Celebrating peculiarity for Stirner involves making peculiarity into something holy, an abstract principle again that will force all analysis into privileged categories. It is also hard to deny that privileging peculiarity is just a particular value for Stirner — there is no way to generalise into an agreed social principle.

Since historical stages and societies are the embodiment of ideas, all the egoist can do is overcome ideas, struggle against concepts. Historical conditions are turned into ideas [without much systematic research, so that the dominant ideas of the epoch have to be taken as literal truth --one of my favourite bits from GI]. It is impossible to disentangle this from Hegel's system. Individuals are turned into consciousness, while the world becomes simply an object, and history proceeds according to the relation between them — successive stages of consciousness and 'a ready-made world' (171). Stirner's method is even simpler than Hegel's, and more dogmatic [Marx's notion of praxis was apparently derived partly from Hegel's conception of the will. This might lead to Marx defending Hegel against the Young Hegelians, as in the dead dog metaphor]. Consciousness is not originary, but is made, this is a mistake common to Feuerbach and Stirner, despite the differences. [The actual quote from Marx is lovely, arguing that since the holy must be alien, everything alien must be holy, and by the same token a mere idea, which can be overturned just by protest]. The same charge against Feuerbach can be made against Stirner — both deal with 'generalities with no meaning'. In Stirner's case this involves '"man"' as the main propellant of history, the operator of abstract ideas. As we saw with the paraphrase above, Stirner rejects atheism and communism, any revolutionary action, as a sin against the holy [so Stirner is a functionalist when it comes to the social, but objects in particular to the form of the state as the policeman of the social? Using the sacred to critique the profane forms it takes?].

As soon as he moves from ideas, Stirner 'makes serious mistakes' (172). Historically, capitalism has fettered self activity through the division of labour. It is that that has increased productive force though, not just the productive forces of individuals or their consciousness. Germany's industrial underdevelopment conceals that. It is true that labour can re-appropriate individual powers, but it requires the end of capitalism first to develop these abilities — communism. Thus Marx's apparently general remarks are really a response to Stirner — individualism was not an issue with Feuerbach, but central to young Hegelians and true socialists.

This response helped clarify Marx's own view about young Hegelians. He 'fully appreciated'(173) the importance of individualism, and this led to the idea that social relations have an existence independent of the bearers, that social division is reproduced as divisions within individuals who experience their own powers as something alien. The point is, however, how to get to emancipation.

Stirner attacks communists because they do not see a theoretical contradiction between the ego and self-sacrifice — but that is because they are interested in the material base which engenders this contradiction. They do not enshrine individualism, but they do not just want to sacrifice individuals to the wider movement. Stirner is wrong to see labour as inevitably egoistic, because in capitalism it is dominated by material conditions, which suppress individuality and introduce dependence through the division of labour. As a result labour does not resemble life activity at all, but stunts it. It is not a matter of achieving self activity as much as one of survival. If we could only reappropriate the instruments of production, we would develop the total capacities of individuals. This broader social and political change is required if individuals are to become free to manifest themselves. Without grasping that, 'the individual can be conceived as being opposed to the collectivity only if he is conceived mystically as "unique"' (174).

As well as offering critique, Marx also developed his own ideas about individuality. One critic thinks that he realised for the first time that there was a need to consider ideas and how they develop in the minds of intellectuals, whereas before he had been thinking only in terms of classes. However, the real focus for Marx was rethinking the relation between individual and class in capitalism — 'thanks in no small measure to Stirner himself'. [I must say I went back to re-read my abridged copy of The German Ideology after reading this article, in 2020, and there are indeed some remarks at the end of the section on Feuerbach, about individuals and how they can only flourish after the revolution. That was new to me! There is more predictable stuff in the section on 'unique individuals' like great artists and scientists --M&E insist on the importance of social context and the contingency it produces for individuals -- and on the allegedly universal drive to self-assertiveness -- only realistic for the bourgeoisie at the moment is the response there]

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