‘Max Stirner’ reviewed by C. Richard Booher

Max Stirner

Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke and New York, 2011. 240pp., £57.50 hb
ISBN 9780230283350

Reviewed by C. Richard Booher

About the reviewer

C. Richard Booher is studying for a PhD on Johann Gottfried Herder at Syracuse University. He is …


Max Stirner was the enfant terrible of the left Hegelian circle, often referred to as the ‘young Hegelians’, that arose in Berlin in the 1840s. In his lifetime, Stirner’s sole book, The Ego and Its Own, sent shockwaves through left Hegelian intellectual circles, inciting critical responses by the likes of Bruno Bauer, Ludwig Feuerbach, and the young Karl Marx. By the end of Stirner’s life, however, he and his book were almost completely forgotten. Efforts have been made to revive Stirner several times, most importantly by the nineteenth-century anarchist John Henry Mackay, who is responsible for collecting and preserving Stirner’s writings and authoring a comprehensive biography of Stirner.

The present edited volume aims to bring about another resurrection of this egoistic gadfly by introducing Stirner to a broader public and demonstrating his relevance to contemporary radical theory. It contains a substantial introduction, six essays on Stirner’s thought and influence, a brief biography of Stirner by David Leopold, as well as a translation of an essay published in 1847 under the name G. Edward, which may have been authored by Stirner himself. The essays contained in this volume would serve as a helpful aid to those encountering Stirner for the first time, though there are also essays that will be of interest to scholars of Stirner, anarchism, and Marxism.

Many of the essays touch on the relationship between Stirner and Marx, and with good reason. The lengthiest section of Marx and Engels’ The German Ideology is devoted to attacking ‘Saint Max’, as he is mockingly referred to by Marx. This alone is prima facie evidence for the importance that Stirner had for Marx. Paul Thomas’ contribution to this volume develops an interpretation of the relationship between Marx and Stirner intended to show that Stirner’s impact on Marx was deep and substantive. In his central work, Stirner attacks a series of ideas – State, Family, Man – which he describes as fixed ideas lacking in substantive reality, and which are hypostasized by individuals in such a way that they come to dominate human life. According to Thomas, Marx’s arguments against Stirner reveal the shortcomings of Stirner’s approach, in that they demonstrate how Stirner succumbs to ideological illusions about the nature of individuality. Stirner, on Thomas’ reading, conceives of liberation as involving simply a change of belief and ignores the material realities of the oppressive apparatus of the state and other social and economic institutions. It was Marx, according to Thomas, who was able to see that liberation and freedom required changes in the material conditions of human society, and not merely changes in our ideas. On this account, it was the prodding of Stirner that led Marx to articulate his theory of ideology and to develop a materialist argument for the social nature of humankind. The upshot of this reading is that the development of some of the central tenets of historical materialism are in great part a product of Marx’s engagement with Stirner.

Saul Newman argues that Stirner’s account of the problem of voluntary servitude is a strong and valuable resource to which contemporary radical political theorists ought to pay more attention. It was Stirner more than any other modern radical thinker, according to Newman, who made the problem of persons’ submission to repressive and oppressive institutions a central theme for radical political thought. While Newman is correct that Stirner had a role in making this problem central, some aspects of his claims concerning Stirner’s value and originality seems to be overplayed. For example, Newman claims that one of the ‘major contributions of Stirner’s thought to anarchism, and indeed to radical politics generally today, is to bring to light what was the blind spot of revolutionary discourses based on the idea of universal emancipation – the problem of voluntary servitude.’ (206) As a historical point, this comment is apt and corresponds nicely with Paul Thomas’ account of Stirner’s role in the development of Marx’s account of ideology. However, Newman seems to intend his point to apply to the present and suggests that understanding the problem of voluntary servitude requires a return to the study of Stirner. It would not be accurate to claim that the problem of voluntary servitude has been a blind spot for radical political theory in the twentieth-century, as it is a problem dealt with by numerous thinkers who have sought to develop the Marxist theory of ideology, including but not limited to Gramsci, Althusser, and the members of the Frankfurt school. Perhaps the concept of voluntary servitude has not entered into public consciousness as it should, but there has hardly been a dearth of attention paid to it by radical political theorists. It might be that what Newman means, rather, is that Stirner’s approach to the problem is superior to other approaches. However, no argument is offered for this position and, it seems rather, that Stirner has a rather weak account of how the ‘spooks’ he aims to exorcise originate or how they come to have their power and what it would take to liberate ourselves from them. Stirner may have been one of the first to identify the variety of ways in which what he called ‘fixed ideas’ can cause people to reconcile themselves to oppressive and unfree social conditions, but he doesn’t seem to have a theory capable of thoroughly explaining this phenomenon. A stronger argument needs to be made for the strength of Stirner’s account relative to other theories in order to successfully establish Stirner’s importance for contemporary radical thought.

Because of Stirner’s opposition to the state and his reception by anarchists such as John Henry Mackay, Benjamin Tucker, and Dora Marsden, he is often included in anthologies and histories of anarchism, though he never described himself as such. If anarchism is simply the belief that the authority of the state is illegitimate, then Stirner is quite properly regarded as an anarchist. Some anarchists, however, have been uncomfortable with the inclusion of Stirner in their tradition. This is primarily because of Stirner’s stubborn individualism and his rejection of the idea of revolution and political programs. Stirner’s favored form of political action is the individual revolt or insurrection, a form of action which may perhaps not even be properly conceived of as political. Additionally, Stirner seems to reject all forms of association between individuals that are not temporary and he even encourages individuals to regard others as property or means to be made use of, rather than as deserving respect or recognition as having value of their own. Hence, for anarchists who aim to define an anarchist political program, or even to articulate the possibility of a stable anarchist society, Stirner is commonly seen as bad company to keep.

In her contribution to the present volume, ‘Why Anarchists Need Stirner’, Kathy E. Ferguson argues that Stirner offers a helpful corrective to doctrinaire tendencies of some anarchist theorists. Ferguson offers both a conceptual and a historical argument for her view. The historical argument documents Stirner’s influence on important anarchist thinkers such as Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, Gustav Landauer, and others. Ferguson’s conceptual argument attempts to lay out what these thinkers found attractive in Stirner, which is both his attack on various forms of reification and also the worries that he raises about the desire for authority that can threaten to turn allegedly liberatory political movements into repressive ones. Setting aside concerns about Stirner’s anarchist credentials, another essay in the present volume by Ruth Kinna offers a very fine, albeit brief, account of Stirner’s influence on John Henry Mackay and Dora Marsden, both interesting thinkers who developed different forms of egoism under the influence of Stirner. Both authors make it clear that the attempts to cleanse Stirner from histories of the anarchist tradition are untenable, though Ferguson’s argument that anarchists need Stirner is not entirely successful. For a great deal of Ferguson’s strategy consists in showing how Stirner’s ideas bear a family resemblance to recent work on ideology by Slavoj Žižek. If Ferguson’s argument is correct, then Stirner might possibly be a useful thinker to engage with. But if Marxist and post-Marxist work on ideology would also alert activists and theorists to the same dangers that Stirner warned against, then it isn’t clear that Stirner is needed. At least, more would need to be said about Stirner’s unique merits vis-à-vis other thinkers.

I will conclude by noting two general concerns about the present volume. The first is that too few of the essays engage in criticism of Stirner. Much effort is made to present Stirner’s ideas in a favorable light and some intriguing interpretations are offered, but Stirner’s failings and weaknesses are generally ignored or glossed over. This is unfortunate, as one can learn a great deal from a consideration of a thinker’s faults, and the opportunity to learn from Stirner in that way is missed. Second, there are several important topics omitted that deserve more attention. Among these are Stirner’s conception of property, his understanding of freedom, and his relationship to Hegel. These topics are frequently alluded to, but each deserves a more thorough discussion. These sins of omission are only venial, though, especially in a volume that was produced with the intention of stimulating rather than terminating discussion. In this respect this volume succeeds, and will serve as a valuable resource for students of Stirner and the movements or thinkers who he influenced.

2 October 2012


  1. It seems to me that the reviewer read Stirner far too literally. Stirner never wrote that changes in our ideas would suffice to bring about liberation. Stirner’s book is primarily a critique of the emancipatory claims of his contemporaries.

    The problem with this review is that two of the most important contributions to the volume have been omitted. Riccardo Baldissone and Widukind de Ridder offer a very refreshing interpretation of Stirner that goes beyond the trivialities that are generally contributed to Stirner.

    I learned from these contributions that Stirner was far more than the alleged philosopher of egoism or individualist anarchism.

  2. I for one, would like to know something more about an hitherto unknown text which is said to have been authored by Stirner. It’s entitled “The Philosophical Reactionaries” and part of this volume.

    Did anyone read this, please. I’m puzzled.

  3. In the end these marxists want to keep suggesting us anarchists should concentrate on marxism and marxists thinkers. I say we should delve deeper on Stirner, Kropotkin, Proudhon, Goldman and Emile Armand and “The right to be greedy” by for Ourselves and Charles Fourier. Also of course we should always remember Marx influenced too much the red totalitarian mutants of the 20th century so as to be careful with him and the marxists

  4. I don’t think the reviewer writes from a marxist perspective. He just reads Stirner far too literally. Marx dealt with the crisis of political subjectivity in “The German Ideology”. He might as well have said that he was inspired by Stirner.

  5. I would like to thank John Farlane for having so favourably reviewed my work (and Widukind’s): it is heartening to have a reader who is willing to learn something new and ( without the theological ‘therefore’ ) to think for himself.
    I would also thank my homonimous ‘official’ reviewer for having favourably reviewed the rest of the book.

  6. While it’s good to see this review at all, it is a predictably superficial, pro-Marx and anti-Stirner review of a mixed-bag of a book.

    The book itself will be reviewed in much, much more depth in the upcoming issue of Modern Slavery journal ( http://www.modernslavery.calpress.org ) — by myself. Suffice it to say here that, as John Farlane notes, the two most important contributions to the text are not mentioned by the reviewer here. Baldissone’s “non-reductionist” reading and de Ridder’s contributions (including the first published English translation of Stirner’s “The Philosophical Reactionaries”) are by far the most intelligent and interesting contributions to the book.

    The introduction and contribution of the editor are inconsistent, though better than we’ve grown to expect from most writers on Stirner. Newman gets some things very right, but others completely wrong. Unfortunately, he’s in good company of way too many previous writers on Stirner in the latter — he, like most of the more superficial critics (and supporters) of Stirner mistake his text for a defense of “the ego,” when Stirner never even uses this term in his work (“ego” in English, being of Latin origin, would be equally “ego” in German). And in the few places where Stirner instead speaks of “the I” he speaks critically of the concept. Stirner’s text is rather about the Unique, naming (pointing to) the entire nonconceptual person/life to whom it points, and intentionally not naming a concept. Obviously, the misconception that Stirner is advocating a philosophy of the ego can be largely attributed to the egregious mistranslations of the English-language title as The Ego and His/Its Own. I am presently engaged in a project to bring out a new, revised edition of the Byington translation under the title of “The Unique and Its Own.” And Stirner’s entire text is also well into the process of being newly translated throughout under the most appropriate title translation of “The Unique and Its Property” by Wolfi Landstreicher. (Landstreicher has already translated the entirety of “Stirner’s Critics” and “The Philosophical Reactionaries” under the title of “Stirner’s Critics” in December of 2012, jointly published by CAL Press and LBC Books. And I contributed the introduction to the translation.)

    As for the expected championing in this review of Marx’s hatchet-job on Stirner in The German Ideology, I doubt it will be possible for much longer to maintain the empty pretense that Karl Marx exhibits any significant understanding of Stirner’s work. Marx sets out to denounce the book, and continues to do so ad nauseam on every page after page after page after page after page. But to no effect for anyone with half a brain who reads it. Marx’s sophomoric attempts at parody and ridicule are nonsensical if applied to any contextual reading of Stirner’s work, and can only be mistaken as succeeding by those who don’t want to understand Stirner’s text in the first place. Why is it that so many people have read the (very short) abridged version of The German Ideology and almost nobody has ever actually read the entire unabridged text with its almost line-by-line denunciations of Stirner? Because it is basically unreadable. Unfortunately, of those very few who have actually read the entire text, most of them have been Marxists or other types of ideologically-disabled academics who either have not read Stirner, or refuse to ever take his criticisms seriously, and instead insist on reading into his position all kinds of things he never says. (Paul Thomas is a case in point. Though not as bad as many, he certainly doesn’t belong in any serious book on Stirner and his contribution lowers the overall quality of the collection.)

    By all means, though, anyone who is interested in Stirner should pick up this collection, if only for the contributions by Baldissone and de Ridder, and secondarily for Newman’s, Ferguson’s, and Ruth Kinna’s. You can get the Marxist incomprehension of Stirner provided by Thomas, and the condescending irrelevance of Leopold’s biographical commentary, elsewhere. It’s a shame they were included in this text.

  7. The reviewer explains why he appreciates the contributions by Paul Thomas, Ruth Kinna and Kathy Ferguson.Those who are critical of his selection should at least have the courtesy to explain WHY other chapters should have been included.

  8. I am pressed for time at the moment, but I just wanted to make two brief comments in response to the comments on my review.

    First, the omission of a discussion of the contributions of Riccardo Baldissone and Widukind de Ridder were the unfortunate consequence of having a word limit for my review. If they are reading this, I apologize. It was not going to be possible for me to discuss every contribution in detail, and I had to make a choice of what to admit. In making that decision, I tried to take into account (a) the likely audience of this website (many of whom I expected to be interested in Stirner’s influence on Marx) and (b) the number of words it would take me to discuss the review in question. I had richer and more complex disagreements with the arguments and hermeneutic assumptions of Baldissone and de Ridder. Articulating my criticisms of these articles in a small number of words would have come off as unfair to these authors. When faced with the constraints I had, something had to be omitted.

    Second, I did not discuss “The Philosophical Reactionaries” because I am not convinced that it is authored by Stirner. The evidence for and against his authorship is equally balanced in my view. Further, I don’t think that the text contributes much to understanding ‘Der Einzige und Sein Eigentum’. The short essay strikes me as superficial and poorly developed, unlike Stirner’s central work.

    Finally, I am not a rigid Marxist or anything of the sort suggested above. I am also not anti-Stirner, unless by that phrase one means that I don’t read him uncritically. I am critical of Stirner, but that doesn’t mean that I do not think he is a valuable and important thinker deserving of serious study. To see my review of this book of essays on Stirner as trying to dismiss him strikes me as quite strange. I think that there needs to be far more work on Stirner done from a variety of positions. I myself favor a contextual reading of Stirner (I welcome the translation that is said to be forthcoming above, but I doubt that any serious work on Stirner will be done without reading him in the original language). I hope to develop my own interpretation of Stirner in greater detail in the near future, I look forward to friendly interesting exchanges with others who find Stirner to be stimulating and valuable.

  9. Jason McQuinn and other admirers of Stirner often claim that Marx’s ‘The German Ideology’ (GI) totally fails to comprehend Stirner’s position. However, they have never bothered to demonstrate or argue for such a claim, but merely assert it. Isn’t it hypocritical for Jason to criticize Marx and “Marxists” for not taking Stirner seriously when it’s obvious they have no interest in taking the former’s critiques seriously? McQuinn’s comment merely reinforces the view that Stirner’s defenders are unwilling or unable to take up Marx’s challenge.

    Jason uses a third of his lengthy comment to castigate Marx on the flimsy grounds that Marx’s critique of Stirner in the section of GI titled “St. Max” is “unreadable”, and hence expurgated from most editions. This argument is not only superficial and irrelevant, not even touching upon the content of the book. It is also ignorant, inasmuch as Marx’s critique of Stirner is central to GI as a whole, not merely the latter “St. Max” section. GI, never completed by Marx, was only published after his death and with extensive reordering by editors. The book’s famous opening section outlining Marx’s materialist conception of history, mistitled “On Feuerbach”, was actually derived from the same materials presented (in unexpurgated versions) under the section title “St. Max”. The critique of Stirner, though implicit, is fundamental and most cogently elaborated in this section, included in every abridged edition.

    While Marx and his followers have often treated Stirner unfairly, Jason seems to be equally or more prejudiced and willfully ignorant towards Marx.

  10. Dear Paul,

    It is not up to me to defend Jason McQuinn, but the chapter on “St. Max” is indeed highly polemical. It also does not take into account all that has been written on Stirner and the Young Hegelians since the 1980s. There are only some remarks on Warren Breckman’s study.

    I’m not convinced that Marx’ assessment of Stirner is accurate. In de Ridder’s chapter a lot of attention is paid to Bruno Bauer. He argues that Stirner tried to break away from Young Hegelianism and Bauer in particular. My knowledge of Bauer is insufficient, but I did notice that Thomas didn’t even mention Bauer in his chapter. Why? Bauer was the subject of Marx’ s criticism in “The Holy Family”, which was written just one year before “The German Ideology”. How are both works related?

    It seems to me that there is more to this than Thomas is willing to admit.

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