Max Stirner’s book, The Ego and His Own (1844), is one of the most brilliant and challenging works of philosophy. It has been called “the Individualist Manifesto” because it so powerfully articulates an individualist vision of human existence. In his book, Stirner attacks the ideas of what we would today call “the New Left” – communism, socialism, collectivism, and even anarchism. All these ideologies are understood by Stirner as ideologies of the left because they share a common belief in some kind of universal principle that must be upheld above all else: i.e., the rights of man, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the general will, or natural rights that all people possess by virtue of being human. For Stirner there is no universal principle above individual self-interest; rather than being members of a universal class or species with unique attributes that set us apart from one another and oblige us to subordinate our own interests to those principles as part of a greater good — as Marxists and Socialists argued — individuals are only connected through their shared desires for things like wealth or happiness and can only advance their own interests by subordinating any universal principles to their own personal interests: in other words, egoism.
Individualist anarchism is a school of anarchism that was first fully articulated in the 1840s and 1850s by a group of European social philosophers who were also active in the workers’ movement of the time. The most famous of these figures is Max Stirner, whose book, The Ego and His Own (1844), is one of the most brilliant and challenging works of philosophy. Stirner’s vision of a society without rulers or state authority has rightly earned him the title of “the only consistent anarchist.” The other important figures in the development of early Individualist anarchism were Victor-Marie-Barbe-Albert Cleaves, William Godwin, Benjamin R. Tucker, and Lysander Spooner. All these anarchists were part of a broader movement of “philosophical anarchism” that was flourishing in Europe at the time. Although Stirner’s impact on 19th-century European philosophy is undeniable, his ideas have not been as influential in the anarchist movement as one might expect. This may be because his critique of anarchism was so devastating that no one in the anarchist movement has been able to answer it. Stirner argued, in effect, that the anarchist movement was already philosophically flawed at the root. The anarchists, who were at that time mostly Bakuninists (loosely speaking, followers of the Russian anarchist and socialist theorist Michael Bakunin), claimed to be fighting for the rights of the “working class.” But, Stirner argued, if they were really fighting for the rights of the working class, they would be fighting for the rights of individuals and not the rights of a collective entity like “the workers” or “the people” or “the proletariat” or “the common good.” If they were really fighting for the rights of individuals, there would be no need for a movement. Individuals would be perfectly capable of defending their own rights. What Stirner saw in the self-proclaimed anarchist movement was a substitution of one kind of collectivism for another. Although they claimed to be fighting for the rights of individuals, they were in fact fighting for the rights of a collective entity — “the workers” — and were consequently denying the rights of individuals like property owners and bourgeois. What the anarchists needed to do, Stirner thought, was to drop their false universal and simply defend the rights of the individuals who actually existed — that is, working-class individuals. But this, Stirner held, would be a one-sided and fundamentally dishonest fight because the anarchists would be fighting for the rights of a universal collective and not for the rights of individuals. Collectives, Stirner held, had no rights because they were not really real or actual. This is the central point of his thought: there is nothing that actually exists that has rights. Only the individuals who make up the collective have rights.
Stirner’s analysis leads him to conclude that there are no universal principles that actually exist. Concepts like the “rights of man,” “the general will,” “the common good,” “natural rights,” “equality,” and so on are simply ideas in people’s heads and are completely lacking in reality. They are merely illusions created by individuals to serve their interests and desires. The only universal that actually exists is the concept of Nothingness, or “the absence of all ruling principles.” Stirner’s vision of a society without rulers is one in which individuals have been liberated from the illusions that bind them and are free to pursue their own interests without hindrance. This has always been the anarchist vision: a society without rulers or state authority. However, Stirner’s anarchism is not the same as the anarchism of others, who purportedly have as their goal the liberation of the working class from oppression. Stirner’s anarchism is about the liberation of the individual from the illusions that bind him and lead him to pursue false goals such as the common good or the rights of man. Stirner’s occasional comments on human nature and social life have drawn criticism from anarchists who see them as a kind of concession to the ideas of the political left. However, it is important to note that Stirner’s comments on these issues are incidental to his critique of political ideologies and that he never intended for them to be taken as a general theory of social life. Stirner’s only real point in mentioning human nature and social life is to rebut the idea that his anarchism is a form of extreme individualism that would leave no room for cooperation between people. He is not, as he says, “a man who says, ‘everything is private,’ but ‘everything is common’” (The Ego and His Own, p. 370). What he means is that ideas of “common” and “private” have no real existence and that only individuals exist. Individuals can cooperate with one another in all sorts of ways. But they can do so only inasmuch as they are individuals, i.e., insofar as they are distinct beings with their own particularities. In addition to rebutting the charge that his anarchism is extreme individualism, Stirner also defends his anarchism from another common criticism — the claim that it is an irrational and immoral “selfishness.” Stirner argues that egoism is not “selfishness,” and that it is not in any sense irrational or immoral. On the contrary, he argues that “egoism spurns not only sympathy, but also all philosophy and wisdom” (The Ego and His Own, p. 341) because it rejects all ruling principles, including those that philosophers and moralists consider to be universal: i.e., reason and morality. Stirner’s anarchism is thus a form of enlightened self-interest in which each individual acts in his own best interest. But Stirner’s anarchism is not selfish in the ordinary sense of the word. This is because Stirner’s “self” is not the ego as philosophers understand it — a thing that possesses attributes and is distinct from other things. Stirner’s “self” is nothing but the collection of all the desires and interests that “I” have. Thus, every desire or interest that is “mine” is an aspect of my self.