‘All Things are Nothing to Me: The Unique Philosophy of Max Stirner’ by Jacob Blumenfeld reviewed by Paul Stephan


All Things are Nothing to Me: The Unique Philosophy of Max Stirner

Zero Books, Winchester/Washington, 2018. 155 pp., £11.99 / $18.95 pb
ISBN 9781780996639

Reviewed by Paul Stephan

About the reviewer

Paul Stephan is pursuing a PhD on the conception of authenticity in Kierkegaard, Stirner and …

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Max Stirner resembles a ghost that haunts both modern philosophy and Marxism. He never made it into the exquisite circle of classical philosophers; many professional philosophers do not even know his name, only a few have ever read him; there exists neither any proper “Stirner research” nor a clear-cut history of the reception of Stirner which would count him among the “preeminent” philosophical thinkers. There exists, however, an odd fascination with Stirner, comparable to a rumour, which spreads, whispered only, through the sacred halls of official philosophy, saying: ‘There’s something yet to find.’ Is Stirner the forgotten one, the repressed spin doctor from whom many after him only borrowed and stole (as Nietzsche is often said to have done – and even Husserl)? Or is he just an overrated freak, someone who is simply not worth any earnest attention?

There are only two settings in which Stirner plays a more or less significant role. The first one is the anarchist tradition. In his recently published study Anarchistische Deutungen der Philosophie Friedrich Nietzsches, historian Dominique F. Miething speaks of the ‘Nietzsche-Stirner-complex’ that shaped the anarchist debate not only in Germany, but also in the anglophone and francophone worlds around the end of the 19th century. In this period –marked by the thought of Emma Goldman, Dora Marsden and Gustav Landauer, examples cited by both Miething and Blumenfeld (135) – Stirner managed not just to achieve an unforeseen comeback after he had been virtually forgotten for decades, but also entered the modern anarchist discourse as one of its “classics”. Until today, the only people honestly interested in treating Stirner not only as an odd peripheral figure of 19th century German philosophy but as a philosopher worth engaging in a serious manner are anarchists. Even in these circles however, Stirner’s status is ambiguous. Already in the first generation of “Stirnerian anarchism”, many wondered if a thinker so critical of seemingly any kind of politics, even sociality as such, could really be of any use for a socio-political movement. Nowadays most anarchists surely know his name – other theoreticians with a more social approach such as Kropotkin and Bakunin enjoy a much higher esteem, however.

The second tradition which is still haunted by Stirner is Marxism. This is ironic, of course, given Marx’s harsh polemics against him and the late Engels’ attempts to downplay Stirner’s intellectual significance, ridiculing his views in a manner that seems more suited to prevent one from reading him than to paying him any tribute. In both cases, Stirner is presented as the most absurd, most childish, most awkward summit of German ideology. Until today, hardly any Marxists have actually read his book (and even fewer have read Marx’s critique ) – but they nevertheless know his name and see him as an author worth reading in principle, if only in order to learn something about petty bourgeois ideology.

In his ambitious study, Blumenfeld attempts to revive Stirner’s ghost once more in two regards: he wants to actualise Stirner both as a philosopher to be taken seriously and as a contemporary point of interest for both anarchist and Marxist purposes, a theoretician of contemporary political resistance against postmodern capitalism exactly because he might overcome the split between these two traditions. Blumenfeld undertakes this from an explicitly Stirnerian point of view: he does not want to save Stirner by making any concessions to his critiques and yet he attempts to make Stirner as strong as possible in order to show that it is Stirner’s opponents who are to make the concessions.

This radical gesture – a very Stirnerian one in itself –makes Blumenfeld’s book a valuable resource for anyone interested in philosophy and/or political theory. Blumenfeld succeeds in convincing the reader that Stirner is a critical philosopher for our time, impressively refuting the standard claims against him, but without hesitating to criticize him as well.

According to Blumenfeld, Stirner is the advocate of a politically incorrect alt-left, who, like the Invisible Committee, ‘rage[s] against the insufferable liberalism, identitarianism, and pseudoactivism of today’s left’ (2). As Stirner does not ‘give a shit’ (83) ‘about all social norms, values and customs’, he is ‘one of the first trolls’. Yet Stirner is not just any critic of modernity: his main work ‘Der Einzige und sein Eigentum (1844) is the first ruthless critique of modern society.’ (1)

Blumenfeld undertakes his reconstruction of Stirner as a contemporary in four steps: in the first part of the book, titled ‘Stirner’s Revenge’, he develops a methodological framework; in the second part, ‘Stirner’s World’, he gives a reading of Der Einzige und sein Eigentum. The third and by far longest part, ‘My Stirner’, consists of a comprehensive reinterpretation of Stirner’s thinking and places it within the discourse of modern philosophy. In the last chapter, ‘All Things are Nothing to Me: Stirner, Marx and Communism’, Blumenfeld finally sums up his interpretation and argues for the relevance of Stirner today.

Blumenfeld commences with a rejection of all attempts to read Stirner not as a thinker in his own right but solely as a historical figure within the development of the history of ideas or social history in a broader sense, e.g. as a petty bourgeois ideologist or as a disciple of Hegel. Blumenfeld is surely right in claiming that if Stirner is interpreted at all, most of the time it happens in exactly this manner. Instead, he wants to take Stirner serious as ‘a practical philosopher, one who develops a whole grammar for living which fears no death.’ (16) This move transposes Stirner into an entirely different plane – and even changes the plane of history of philosophy itself: ‘[T]he history of philosophy needs to be redrawn so that Stirner’s text finds its proper place, side by side with Spinoza’s Ethics, Nietzsche’s Genealogy, and Levinas’s Totality and Infinity.’ (16f.) Moreover, Stirner should be read as a Stoic similar to Marcus Aurelius and Seneca.

Accordingly, Stirner should not be understood as an “egoist”, not even someone who develops a philosophy of the ego, the self or the I. Referring to one of Stirner’s own responses to his critics, Die philosophischen Reactionäre, published in 1847, Blumenfeld argues that the ‘I’ as the – apparent – core category of Stirner’s philosophy should not be regarded as a theoretical construction or something abstract but as a practical experience which refers to something which cannot be properly grasped by theoretical concepts at all. It expresses a nothingness which ‘requires different terminology and different methods, perhaps even a new ontology.’ (17) It should ‘not to be taken […] in the sense of emptiness, […] but rather as that from which and into which creation creates.’ (20) Not so much a thing but a vivid, anonymous force which hardly resembles an “I” in a philosophical or a colloquial sense of the word. It is rather ‘a practical force of negation’ (23). Stirner’s ‘I’ constantly negates its concrete manifestations (i.e. the world in which it lives), regarding them all as alienations from its essential indeterminacy. Blumenfeld even thinks Stirner himself is wrong to use the word “egoist” at all to describe this ‘I’ (24).

These considerations contain the basic elements of Blumenfeld’s further elaborations. It is in fact the main point of the whole book which he introduces within a few pages. This is not Blumenfeld’s fault, however, but is in fact the whole point of Stirner’s thinking. It can be summarised in one sentence: ‘All Things are Nothing to Me’ [Ich hab’ Mein’ Sach’ auf Nichts gestellt]. Stirner has nothing more to say, all his extensive remarks serve as mere illustrations of this one piece of wisdom stolen from a poem by Goethe and used as the book’s motto. This is precisely why Der Einzige und sein Eigentum is such a repetitive, tedious, and often boring read – maybe the most repetitive philosophical work ever written. In the second part of his interpretation, Blumenfeld stresses this peculiarity about Stirner’s style and summarises Der Einzige und sein Eigentum as such: it is a collection of analogies following the endlessly repeated pattern of the same critical operation showing how self-productions of the ‘I’ become external things separate from it and thus alien forces which have to be re-appropriated. The only part of the work Blumenfeld discusses in detail is Stirner’s critique of liberalism, which he calls his most original and relevant. Fortunately, Blumenfeld does not follow Stirner’s – probably parodistic – preference for repetition and divagation. He states his points in a precise and concise manner which makes the book definitely a more pleasurable read than Stirner’s.

The steps undertaken in the first and second part allow Blumenfeld to develop his own interpretation of Stirner’s philosophy, which consists precisely in a more detailed explanation of the basic points already stated. Within this third, main part of the book, Blumenfeld makes several reflections on the relationship between Stirner and many of the canonical thinkers of modern philosophy (with a special focus on Spinoza, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Levinas, Landauer and Marx), which are often very insightful and always demonstrate a deep comprehension of both Stirner and the philosophers in question. One of Blumenfeld’s most interesting insights is to demonstrate how the basic logical structure of Stirner’s thought is precisely the same as that one of Marx’s Das Kapital: within capitalist economies, the product of labour appears as a power separated from the producer, an alienated force, capital; the goal of the proletariat should be, accordingly, to re-appropriate its own product and make it its property in the full sense of the word again, namely something of its own power. This reading of Das Kapital as an essentially Stirnerian work allows Blumenfeld to turn the conventional Marxist narrative upside down: Marx appears now as a secret Stirnerian who only applies Stirner’s philosophy to a specific field. He thereby narrows Stirner’s more universal critique of alienation, however, by only attacking a single form of it. In order to get a comprehensive critique of alienation, one has to get back to the source, i.e. to Stirner. Stirner appears now as much more radical than Marx.

Moreover, his emphasis on Stirner’s ‘I’ being essentially an anonymous force rather than a stable entity of any sort allows him to draw a surprising line between Stirner and Spinoza, Nietzsche and Deleuze’s philosophies of forces. This is especially astonishing given the explicitly anti-materialistic appearance of Stirner’s thinking in which even the body and material objects within the world are seen as manifestations of the ‘I’. Yet force [Kraft] and power [Macht] are key concepts of Stirner’s thinking; this is an often overlooked materialist aspect of Stirner’s philosophy which certainly deserves more scholarly attention.

Does Blumenfeld finally succeed? I will leave this question open to the reader. One can at least hardly deny that he succeeds in making Stirner’s thought a threat again – and surely that is something.

9 January 2019

2 comments

  1. Wait, why is the author saying that Marx only conceived of economic alienation of labor? The concept of alienation was well established, Bruno Bauer used it for religion, and Marx conceived of it in many aspects of society and life. Calling him a Stirnerist makes little sense.

  2. This is an interesting and thought-provoking review, though I have some comments.

    “Blumenfeld makes several reflections on the relationship between Stirner and… Spinoza, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Levinas, Landauer and Marx.”

    Three of the figures on this list were politically reactionary (Nietzsche and Heidegger as well as Foucault, if we take into account his support for both Israel and Khomeini)… so what does that say about Max?

    Stirner’s theory is ethically disastrous; it is the opposite of the approach of Emmanuel Lévinas, who wrote about our infinite obligations toward the Other, as symbolized by their faces. In this sense, I reject the author’s suggestion that the ‘history of philosophy needs to be redrawn so that Stirner’s text [The Ego and Its Own] finds its proper place, side by side with Spinoza’s Ethics… and Levinas’s Totality and Infinity.’ As the Stanford Plato Encyclopedia entry on Max explains, according to Stirner, “there are no moral constraints on how an individual might relate to things and other persons.” Egoists view others as ‘nothing but—my food, even as I am fed upon and turned to use by you.’

    For these reasons, I can see the lines connecting Stirner to Nietzsche and Heidegger as far-rightists, and Foucault too, but not Lévinas or Marx unless we are talking about Max serving as a foil to their political and intellectual development. I agree with the previous commentator that the idea that Capital is Stirnerian is questionable.

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