G.V. Plekhanov

Anarchism and Socialism

CHAPTER IIIThe Historical Development of the Anarchist Doctrine

The Point of View of Anarchism.

“I have often been reproached with being the father of Anarchism. This is doing me too great an honor. The father of Anarchism is the immortal Proudhon, who expounded it for the first time in 1848.”

Thus spoke Peter Kropotkin in his defense before the Correctional Tribunal of Lyons at his trial in January, 1883. As is frequently the case with my amiable compatriot, Kropotkin has here made a statement that is incorrect. For “the first time” Proudhon spoke of Anarchism was in his celebrated book, Qu’est-ce que le Proprieté, ou Recherches sur le principe du droit et du Gouvernement, the first edition of which had already appeared in 1840. It is true that he “expounds” very little of it here; he only devotes a few pages to it. And before he set about expounding the Anarchist theory “in 1848,” the job had already been done by a German, Max Stirner (the pseudonym of Caspar Schmidt) in 1845, in his book Der Einzige und sein Eigenthum. Max Stirner has therefore a well defined claim to be the father of Anarchism. “Immortal” or not, it is by him that the theory was “expounded” for the first time.

Max Stirner.

The Anarchist theory of Max Stirner has been called a caricature of the “philosophy of religion” of Ludwig Feuerbach. It is thus, e.g. that Ueberweg in his Grundzüge der Geschichte der Philosophie, (3rd part, Philosophie der Neuen Zeit) speaks of it. Some have even supposed that the only object Stirner had in writing his book was to poke fun at this philosophy. This supposition is absolutely gratuitous. Stirner in expounding his theory was not joking. He is in deadly earnest about it, though he now and again betrays a tendency, natural enough in the restless times when he wrote, to outdo Feuerbach and the radical character of his conclusions.

For Feuerbach, what men call Divinity, is only the product of their phantasy, of a psychological aberration. It is not Divinity that has created man, but man who creates Divinity in his own image. In God man only adores his own being. God is only a fiction, but a very harmful fiction. The Christian God is supposed to be all love, all pity for poor suffering humanity. But in spite of this, or rather because of it, every Christian really worthy the name, hates, and must hate, the Atheists, who appear to him the living negation of all love and all pity. Thus the god of love becomes the god of hate, the god of persecution; the product of the phantasy of man becomes a real cause of his suffering. So we must make an end of this phantasmagoria. Since in Divinity man adores only his own being, we must once for all rend and scatter to the winds the mystic veil beneath which this being has been enveloped. The love of humanity must not extend beyond humanity. “Der Mensch ist dem Menschen das höchste Wesen” (Man is the highest being for man).

Thus Feuerbach. Max Stirner is quite at one with him, but wishes to deduce what he believes to be the final, the most radical consequences of his theory. He reasons in this fashion. God is only the product of phantasy, is only a spook. Agreed. But what is this humanity the love of which you prescribe to me? Is not this also a spook, an abstract thing, a creature of the imagination? Where is this humanity of yours? Where does it exist but in the minds of men, in the minds of individuals? The only reality, therefore, is the individual, with his wants, his tendencies, his will. But since this is so, how can the individual, the reality, sacrifice himself for the happiness of man, an abstract being? It is all very well for you to revolt against the old God; you still retain the religious point of view, and the emancipation you are trying to help us to is absolutely theological, i.e., “God-inspired.” “The highest Being is certainly that of man, but because it is his Being and is not he himself, it is quite indifferent if we see this Being outside of him as God, or find it in him and call it the ’Being of Mankind’ or ’Man.’ I am neither God nor Man, neither the highest Being, nor my own Being, and therefore it is essentially a matter of indifference if I imagine this Being in myself or outside myself. And, indeed, we do always imagine the highest being in the two future states, in the internal and external at once; for the ’Spirit of God’ is, according to the Christian conception, also ’our spirit’ and ’dwells within us.’ It dwells in heaven and dwells in us; but we poor things are but its ’dwelling-place,’ and if Feuerbach destroys its heavenly dwelling-place and forces it to come down to us bag and baggage, we, its earthly abode, will find ourselves very over-crowded.”

To escape the inconveniences of such over-crowding, to avoid being dominated by any spook, to at last place our foot upon actual ground, there is but one way: to take as our starting-point the only real being, our own Ego. “Away then with everything that is not wholly and solely my own affair! You think my own concerns must at least be ’good ones’? A fig for good and evil! I am I, and I am neither good nor evil. Neither has any meaning for me. The godly is the affair of God, the human that of humanity. My concern is neither the Godly nor the Human, is not the True, the Good, the Right, the Free, etc., but simply my own self, and it is not general, it is individual, as I myself am individual. For me there is nothing above myself.”

Religion, conscience, morality, right, law, family, state, are but so many fetters forced upon me in the name of an abstraction, but so many despotic lords whom “I,” the individual conscious of my own “concerns,” combat by every means in my power. Your “morality,” not merely the morality of the bourgeois philistines, but the most elevated, the most humanitarian morality is only religion which has changed its supreme beings. Your “right,” that you believe born with man, is but a ghost, and if you respect it, you are no farther advanced than the heroes of Homer who were afraid when they beheld a god fighting in the ranks of their enemies. Right is might. “Whoever has might, he has right; if you have not the former you have not the latter. Is this wisdom so difficult of attainment?” You would persuade me to sacrifice my interests to those of the State. I, on the contrary, declare war to the knife to all States, even the most democratic. “Every State is a despotism, whether it is the despotism of one or many, or whether, as one might suppose would be the case in a Republic, all are masters, i.e., one tyrannizes over the rest. For this is the case whenever a given law, the expressed will perhaps of some assemblage of the people, is immediately to become a law to the individual, which he must obey, and which it is his duty to obey. Even if one were to suppose a case in which every individual among the people had expressed the same will, and thus a perfect “will of all” had easily been arrived at, the thing would still be the same. Should I not today and in the future be bound by my will of yesterday? In this event my will would be paralyzed. Fatal stagnation! My creation, i.e. a certain expression of will would have become my master. But I, in my will should be constrained, I, the creator should be constrained in my development, my working out. Because I was a fool yesterday, I must remain one all my life. So that in my life in relation to the State I am at best – I might as well say at worst – a slave to my own self. Because yesterday I had a will, I am today without one; yesterday free, today bound.”

Here a partisan of the “People’s State” might observe to Stirner, that his “I” goes a little too far in his desire to reduce democratic liberty to absurdity; further, that a bad law may be abrogated as soon as a majority of citizens desire it, and that one is not forced to submit to it “all one’s life.” But this is only an insignificant detail, to which, moreover, Stirner would reply that the very necessity for appealing to a majority proves that “I” am no longer the master of my own conduct. The conclusions of our author are irrefutable, for the simple reason that to say, I recognize nothing above myself, is to say, I feel oppressed by every institution that imposes any duty upon me. It is simply tautology.

It is evident that no “Ego” can exist quite alone. Stirner knows this perfectly, and this is why he advocates “Leagues of Egoists,” that is to say, free associations into which every “Ego” enters, and in which he remains when and so long as it suits his interests.

Here let us pause. We are now face to face with an “egoist” system “par excellence”. It is, perhaps, the only one that the history of human thought has to chronicle. The French Materialists of the last century have been accused of preaching egoism. The accusation was quite wrong. The French Materialists always preached “Virtue,” and preached it with such unlimited zeal that Grimm could, not without reason, make fun of their “capucinades” on the subject. The question of egoism presented to them a double problem. (1) Man is all sensation (this was the basis of all their speculations upon man); by his very nature he is forced to shun suffering and to seek pleasure; how comes it then that we find men capable of enduring the greatest sufferings for the sake of some idea, that is to say, in its final analysis, in order to provide agreeable sensations for their fellow-men. (2) Since man is all sensation he will harm his fellowman if he is placed in a social environment where the interests of an individual conflict with those of others. What form of legislation therefore can harmonize public good and that of individuals? Here, in this double problem, lies the whole significance of what is called the materialist ethics of the 18th century. Max Stirner pursues an end entirely opposed to this. He laughs at “Virtue,” and, far from desiring its triumph, he sees reasonable men only in egoists, for whom there is nothing above their own “Ego.” Once again, he is the theorist “par excellence” of egoism.

The good bourgeois whose ears are as chaste and virtuous as their hearts are hard; they who, “drinking wine, publicly preach water,” were scandalized to the last degree by the “immorality” of Stirner. “It is the complete ruin of the moral world,” they cried. But as usual the virtue of the philistines showed itself very weak in argument. “The real merit of Stirner is that he has spoken the last word of the young atheist school” (i.e., the left wing of the Hegelian school), wrote the Frenchman, St. Rene Taillandier. The philistines of other lands shared this view of the “merits” of the daring publicist. From the point of view of modern Socialism this “merit” appears in a very different light.

To begin with, the incontestable merit of Stirner consists in his having openly and energetically combatted the sickly sentimentalism of the bourgeois reformers and of many of the Utopian Socialists, according to which the emancipation of the proletariat would be brought about by the virtuous activity of “devoted” persons of all classes, and especially of those of the possessing-class. Stirner knew perfectly what to expect from the “devotion” of the exploiters. The “rich” are harsh, hard-hearted, but the “poor” (the terminology is that of our author) are wrong to complain of it, since it is not the rich who create the poverty of the poor, but the poor who create the wealth of the rich. They ought to blame themselves then if their condition is a hard one. In order to change it they have only to revolt against the rich; as soon as they seriously wish it, they will be the strongest and the reign of wealth will be at an end. Salvation lies in struggle, and not in fruitless appeals to the generosity of the oppressors. Stirner, therefore, preaches the class war. It is true that he represents it in the abstract form of the struggle of a certain number of egoist “Egos” against another smaller number of “Egos” not less egoist. But here we come to another merit of Stirner’s.

According to Taillandier, he has spoken the last word of the young atheist school of German philosophers. As a matter of fact he has only spoken the last word of idealist speculation. But that word he has incontestably the merit of having spoken.

In his criticism of religion Feuerbach is but half a Materialist. In worshipping God, man only worships his own Being idealized. This is true. But religions spring up and die out, like everything else upon earth. Does this not prove that the human Being is not immutable, but changes in the process of the historical evolution of societies? Clearly, yes. But, then, what is the cause of the historical transformation of the “human Being”? Feuerbach does not know. For him the human Being is only an abstract notion, as human Nature was for the French Materialists. This is the fundamental fault of his criticism of religion. Stirner said that it had no very robust constitution. He wished to strengthen it by making it breathe the fresh air of reality. He turns his back upon all phantoms, upon all things of the imagination. In reality, he said to himself, these are only individuals. Let us take the individual for our starting-point. But what individual does he take for his starting-point? Tom, Dick, or Harry? Neither. He takes the individual in general – he takes a new abstraction, the thinnest of them all – he takes the “Ego.”

Stirner naively imagined that he was finally solving an old philosophical question, which had already divided the Nominalists and the Realists of the Middle Ages. “No Idea has an existence,” he says, “for none is capable of becoming corporeal. The scholastic controversy of Realism and Nominalism had the same content.” Alas ! The first Nominalist he came across could have demonstrated to our author by the completest evidence, that his “Ego” is as much an “Idea” as any other, and that it is as little real as a mathematical unit.

Tom, Dick and Harry have relations with one another that do not depend upon the will of their “Ego,” but are imposed upon them by the structure of the society in which they live. To criticize social institutions in the name of the “Ego,” is therefore to abandon the only profitable point of view in the case, i.e., that of society, of the laws of its existence and evolution, and to lose oneself in the mists of abstraction. But it is just in these mists that the “Nominalist” Stirner delights. I am I – that is his starting-point; not I is not I – that is his result. I + I + I + etc. – is his social Utopia. It is subjective Idealism, pure and simple applied to social and political criticism. It is the suicide of idealist speculation.

But in the same year (1845) in which Der Einzige of Stirner appeared, there appeared also, at Frankfort-on-Maine the work of Marx and Engels, Die heilige Familie, oder Kritik der Kritischen Kritik, gegen Bruno Bauer und Consorten. In it Idealist speculation was attacked and beaten by Materialist dialectic the theoretical basis of modern Socialism. Der Einzige came too late.

We have just said that I + I + I + etc. represents the social Utopia of Stirner. His League of Egoists is, in fact, nothing but a mass of abstract quantities. What are, what can be the basis of their union? Their interests, answers Stirner. But what will, what can be the true basis of any given combination of their interests? Stirner says nothing about it, and he can say nothing definite, since from the abstract heights on which he stands, one cannot see clearly economic reality, the mother and nurse of all the “Egos,” egoistic or altruistic. Nor is it surprising that he is not able to explain clearly even this idea of the class struggle, of which he nevertheless had a happy inkling. The “poor” must combat the “rich.” And after, when they have conquered these? Then every one of the former “poor,” like every one of the former “rich” will combat everyone of the former poor, and against every one of the former rich. There will be the war of all against all. (These are Stirner’s own words). And the rules of the “Leagues of Egoists” will be so many partial truces in this colossal and universal warfare. There is plenty of fight in this idea, but of the “realism” Max Stirner dreamed of, nothing.

But enough of the “Leagues of Egoists.” A Utopian may shut his eyes to economic reality, but it forces itself upon him in spite of himself; it pursues him everywhere with the brutality of a natural force not controlled by force. The elevated regions of the abstract “I” do not save Stirner from the attacks of economic reality. He does not speak to us only of the “Individual”; his theme is “the Individual and his property.” Now, what sort of a figure does the property of the “Individual” cut?

It goes without saying, that Stirner is little inclined to respect property as an “acquired right.” “Only that property will be legally and lawfully another’s which it suits you should be his property. When it ceases to suit you, it has lost its legality for you, and any absolute right in it you will laugh at.” It is always the same tune: “For me there is nothing above myself.” But his scant respect for the property of others does not prevent the “Ego” of Stirner from having the tendencies of a property-owner. The strongest argument against Communism, is, in his opinion, the consideration that Communism by abolishing individual property transforms all members of society into mere beggars. Stirner is indignant at such an iniquity.

“Communists think that the Commune should be the property owner. On the contrary, I am a property-owner, and can only agree with others as to my property. If the Commune does not do as I wish I rebel against it, and defend my property, I am the owner of property, but property is not sacred. Should I only be the holder of property (an allusion to Proudhon)? No, hitherto one was only a holder of property, assured of possession of a piece of land, because one left others also in possession of a piece of land; but now everything belongs to me, I am the owner of everything I need, and can get hold of. If the Socialist says, society gives me what I need, the Egoist says, I take what I want. If the Communists behave like beggars, the Egoist behaves like an owner of property.” The property of the egoist seems pretty shaky. An “Egoist” retains his property only as long as the other “Egoists” do not care to take it from him, thus transforming him into a “beggar.” But the devil is not so black as he is painted. Stirner pictures the mutual relations of the “Egoist” proprietors rather as relations of exchange than of pillage. And force, to which he constantly appeals, is rather the economic force of a producer of commodities freed from the trammels which the State and “Society” in general impose, or seem to impose, upon him.

It is the soul of a producer of commodities that speaks through the mouth of Stirner. If he falls foul of the State, it is because the State does not seem to respect the “property” of the producers of commodities sufficiently. He wants his property, his whole property. The State makes him pay taxes; it ventures to expropriate him for the public good. He wants a “jus utendi et abutendi;” the State says “agreed” – but adds that there are abuses and abuses. Then Stirner cries “stop thief!” “I am the enemy of the State,” says he, “which is always fluctuating between the alternative: He or I.... With the State there is no property, i.e., no individual property, only State property. Only through the State have I what I have, as it Is only through the State that I am what I am. My private property is only what the State leaves me of its own, while it deprives other citizens of it: that is State property.” So down with the State and long live full and complete individual property!

Stirner translates into German J.B. Say’s Traite D’Economie Politique Pratique (Leipsic, 1845-46). And although he also translated Adam Smith, he was never able to get beyond the narrow circle of the ordinary bourgeois economic ideas. His “League of Egoists” is only the Utopia of a petty bourgeois in revolt. In this sense one may say he has spoken the last word of bourgeois individualism.

Stirner has also a third merit – that of the courage of his opinions, of having carried through to the very end his individualist theories. He is the most intrepid, the most consequent of the Anarchists. By his side Proudhon, whom Kropotkine, like all the present day Anarchists, takes for the father of Anarchism, is but a straight-laced Philistine.


Last updated on 19.7.2004