The Early Days of a Better Nation

Friday, March 11, 2011

Max Stirner's Dialectical Egoism: A New Interpretation, John F. Welsh, Lexington Books, 2010

It seems apt that Stirner's work has found its greatest appreciation among the self-taught. Academic works that give so much as a fair-minded exposition of Stirner can be counted on the fingers of one hand. This book, a welcome addition to their number, reviews them all - as well as the more numerous others that give Stirner anything but a fair exposition - in a few pages. Stirner's place in intellectual history has likewise often owed more to imagination and indignation than investigation. Welsh traces Stirner's influence by a method so blindingly obvious that it has hitherto escaped even sympathetic academics: rather than tease out possible influences of and parallels to Stirner in the work of thinkers, activists and artists with individualist or egoist views, he looks at the work of people who explicitly stated that they were influenced by Stirner.

The structure of the book is clear and straightforward, as is its style. Part One deals with Stirner himself. The first chapter outlines Stirner's life, his historical and intellectual context, and his critical reception: from his contemporary Young Hegelians and their breakaways Marx and Engels, through later Marxists, existentialists, anarchists, and academics. The next two chapters, 'Humanity - the new Supreme Being' and 'Ownness and Modernity', are a concentrated but lucid exposition of the major themes of The Ego and Its Own, firmly locating Stirner as a critical Hegelian, and carefully differentiating Stirner's concept of 'ownness' from 'freedom' in its many guises. These two chapters are the best guide available to Stirner's book, and significant original arguments in their own right.

The three chapters of Part Two discuss in turn three of Stirner's most influenced, and most influential, disciples: the individualist anarchist Benjamin R. Tucker, the egoist philosopher James L. Walker, and the feminist and 'archist' Dora Marsden. For anyone whose acquaintance with these has come primarily from the efforts (handsomely acknowledged by Welsh) of egoist websites such as this one and anarchist or individualist small presses and little magazines, these chapters shed a flood of new light. Tucker, Walker and Marsden were much closer to what might be called the mainstream of the intellectual avant-garde than their present relative marginality suggests: Tucker's Liberty carried the first discussions and translations of Nietzsche in the United States, Walker was a prominent journalist and editor as well as noted atheist and anarchist publicist, and Marsden's journals published early works of Pound, Joyce, West, Lawrence and Eliot. Again, intellectual and historical context, clear and accurate exposition, and original development of the arguments, are combined and smoothly presented.

Part Three's first chapter examines the evidence for Stirner's alleged influence on Nietzsche, and, in finding it wanting, presents a survey of Nietzsche's thought and its contrast with Stirner's on numerous points. The final chapter of the book, 'Dialectical Egoism: Elements of a Theoretical Framework', lays out the toolkit for applying Stirner's approach, as analytical intrument and intellectual weapon, in the struggles and debates of today. This chapter has the potential, and no doubt the aim, of making egoism and dialectics available and accessible to students, scholars and activists seeking an alternative to the collectivism, statism and irrationalism in which critical theory is so often shrouded and buried. Egoism, Welsh argues, can be prised from the hands of capitalism's partisans, and dialectics wrested from those of communism's. Given the truly shocking state of academic critical theory, some of whose authentic products are indistinguishable from their wickedest parodies, this aim is neither quixotic nor ignoble. The impulse to cut a dash, if nothing else, could incite many a young or old academic to cut a swathe with the dialectical egoist scalpel.

To sum up: any reader of this journal, and anyone who has ever tried to grapple with Stirner, will enjoy and benefit from this book. Scholars and students seeking a clear, honest, up-to-date introduction to Stirner need look no further. Individual-minded individuals outside the academy will also find this book of use: 'Society, the state, and humanity cannot master this devil: the un-man, the individual, the egoist.'

A few critical remarks:

First, and least: while the proof-reading and production are fine over-all, there are several sentences that baffle the reader until a dropped word is spotted.

In his first chapter, Welsh misses a key point in his discussion of Marx's critique of Stirner: the role of Stirner in the genesis of Marx's own distinctive viewpoint, historical materialism. As first argued by Nicholas Lobkowicz in his 1969 article 'Karl Marx and Max Stirner', subsequently expanded on by Chris Tame in his 'Stirner in Context', a 1984 commentary on Lobkowicz's article, and now entrenched by Gareth Stedman Jones in his scholarly introduction (2002) to the Penguin Classics edition of The Communist Manifesto, it was the challenge of Stirner that made Marx a Marxist. The challenge, as Stedman Jones puts it, was twofold. Not only did Stirner implicate Marx in the humanistic religiosity of Feurbach, he also dissipated the Left-Hegelian sense of crisis. One reading of Stirner, after all, could be that the egoism of bourgeois society, against which Marx as humanist had inveighed, is the genuine culmination of history, and already the best we can get!

Here, Welsh's commendable, closely argued - and of course textually defensible - reading of Stirner as a radical social and political critic leaves him little room for considering possible conservative or cynical implications of egoism. The same blindspot occurs in his survey of Dora Marsden, where he regrets, and seems almost surprised, that she failed to develop as an egoist philosopher and social critic after her brilliant formulation of 'archism'. The reason, surely, is that she had nowhere to take it! Once acknowledge that the world is pretty much what you'd expect it to be if everyone - or at least, everyone with their head screwed on - were already an egoist, and there's very little point in arguing for egoism. It's casting pearls before oysters.

Finally, and not so much a criticism as a pointer to further investigation: Welsh throughout uses 'humanism' in Stirner's sense of a doctrine like Feurbach's (and the pre-Stirner-impact Marx's) in which 'Man is the highest being for man'. Modern secular humanists are - in too many instances to ignore - closer to Stirner than to Feurbach in their rejection of this particular spook, and their work is as well worth the egoist's time as this book is the humanist's.

But these are very small points, and this is a very good book.

[This review appeared in i-Studies, Issue 1 and is posted here by kind permission of its editor, Svein Olav Nyberg.]

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Interesing seminar on Saturday 12th. Thanks for signing my (your) novels.

Thanks for the review. One more book on my to read list; just need to find time. I read Stirner many years.

Thanks very much for the review, and especially for the links. I had managed not to learn anything about Doris Marsden's place in literary history. Looking at the details casts light on something I had always wondered about: individualist anarchist influences on James Joyce and, in particular, two lines in Finnegans Wake that have the exact cadence of individualist anarchist writers: "anarchistically respectsful of the liberties of the noninvasive individual" is pure Tucker, whereas there's a more Stirnerite tone to "Nay, condemned fool, anarch, egoarch, hiresiarch, you have reared your disunited kingdom out of the vacuum of your own most intensely doubtful soul. Do you take yourself then for some god out of the manger, Shehohem, that you will neither serve nor let serve, pray nor let pray?"

That's just the sort of ideological connection that tends to get suppressed in mainstream literary history, and I'm glad to know of it.

William - I'm relieved I wasn't the only one to have not known about Marsden's literary connections!

My impression of Joyce scholarship is that discovering some new connection, however apparently trivial, is greatly welcomed. (I recall one article inquiring whether the word 'berial' in Finnegans Wake was an allusion to Beria, and concluding that it wasn't.) You might find it worth investigating and, if you are the first to spot the Tucker/Marsden/Stirner connection, sending in your finding as a note to one of the journals.

Thanks for this, Ken — it's a fab book, although badly proof-read. Welsh is planning a book on Dora Marsden, and he tells me that Brown University is soon to upload PDFs of Marsen's journals The New Freewoman and The Egoist as part of their Modernist Journals Project.

Paul - good news about both Marsden projects. A writer with a style that's a bit gnarly to modern eyes but one who gives plenty to think about.

Please drop me an email if you'd like some further discussion.

Interesting. I've been systematically recommending two books, irrespective of 'patient' or 'ailment', for the last two decades. You can probably guess the first, and the other is Korzybski's Science & Sanity. I'm always astounded as to how little known, or respected, they are. Possibly because neither can easily be reduced to the polarised tropes cherished within academic debate. That said, I'm eternally grateful to my history teacher for introducing me to Stirner.

Very thoughtful and interesting review. Thank you.

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