Mar 11, 2014
Egoism in Rand and Stirner
Ayn Rand and Max Stirner argued different versions of egoism.
The legacy of Russian-born novelist Ayn Rand has inspired millions, her many books remaining perennial bestsellers, the philosophical tradition she originated, Objectivism, continuing to ignite debate. Provocative and polarizing, the philosophy that Rand distilled into her writing, both fiction and nonfiction, depicted the individual as exceptional, indomitable and defiant — a kind of Übermensch, to borrow Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept. Motivated and directed by Rand’s “rational egoism,” John Galt, the hero of her novel Atlas Shrugged and the embodiment of her philosophy, defied a meddlesome government hateful of excellence and bent on stifling creativity. The strictly defined notions of rationality and morality arrayed in that novel now infamously make selfishness a virtue, self-sacrifice the ultimate vice. Rand’s deliberately contrarian use of “selfishness” as a positive ethical trait challenged orthodoxy and made her one of the twentieth century’s most controversial thinkers.
Similarly incendiary in its challenges to accepted modes of thought is the work of the nineteenth century German philosopher Max Stirner. First published in 1844, Stirner’s The Ego and His Own1 is regularly called the most radical book of all time, submitting a sweeping and penetrating indictment of society, morality, and even civilization itself. In Stirner’s work, truly nothing is sacred; the egoism he offers us is unfalteringly subversive and iconoclastic. He writes, “[E]ven if I saw the bloodiest of wars and the fall of many generations springing up from this seed of thought, — I would nevertheless scatter it.” Though his influence has waned, Stirner’s work shaped the libertarianism of the nineteenth century in important and enduring ways. And while she never acknowledged a debt to Stirner, Ayn Rand’s writings carry echoes of the egoism that he developed in the preceding century. For all the many interesting similarities between these two heretical thinkers, relatively few direct comparisons have been undertaken, leaving a lacuna in the literature of individualism and liberty. The enduringly popular work of Ayn Rand provides a lens through which contemporary readers may be introduced to Max Stirner’s remarkable contribution to libertarian thought.
Ayn Rand’s relationship with libertarian thought and the movement built up around it has been the subject of much contention and discussion. Beyond her vigorous and categorical rejection of anarchism, Rand also damned libertarianism (at least in name) on the grounds that it simply represents anarchism, a political philosophy Rand’s student and successor Leonard Peikoff unequivocally dismisses as “the breakdown of law and order” and “merely an unusually senseless form of statism.” Rand regarded anarchism as just another “naïve floating abstraction,” the phrase she often employed to describe any concept used “without relation to the concrete.” To Objectivists, the term “anarchism” does not simply stand for a society without the state, but instead necessarily connotes “gang rule” resulting from something closely resembling the Hobbesian war of all against all. And while many have argued that Rand’s other commitments — in particular those involving individual rights and the repudiation of aggressive force — must inevitably lead to anarchism, Rand herself reviled anarchism as directly opposite to freedom. In an appendix to the essay collection Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, Rand set out her conception of a political system consonant with individual rights and free markets, writing, “A government is the means of placing the retaliatory use of physical force under objective control—i.e., under objectively defined laws” (emphasis in original). For Rand, government is uniquely defined in a way that makes the objectivity of a code of rules inconceivable without its monopoly status. Accepting that the “necessary consequence of man’s right to life is his right to self-defense,” Rand nevertheless insists that this right “cannot be left at the discretion of individual citizens.” Because of that commitment to a minimal state — one similar to Robert Nozick’s night-watchman state — Rand argued directly against the libertarian anarchism that would see competing agencies of defense.
In contrast, egoists of an earlier age, extrapolating the radical, often opaque ideas of Max Stirner, found themselves arguing for just that kind of libertarian anarchism. Benjamin Tucker, for example, called for competing, voluntarily funded “defensive associations” and said that the “multiplication of States involves the abolition of the State.” Still, Stirner’s own egoistic political vision is somewhat different from those of his students. The anti-state thought in The Ego and His Own contemplates a “Union of Egoists” based on the insurrection of “the unique.” Insurrection here is positioned in contrast to revolution, with the latter focused on and starting from the desire to transform social and political circumstances. For Stirner, this is precisely backwards. If the correct cause — which Stirner describes as “men’s discontent with themselves” — does not precede the “transformation of circumstances,” then the overthrow of the established order will ultimately prove nugatory. The rising up and exalting of the unique individual is the necessary precondition for meaningful social change and the abolition of the state. If the alienation of authentic selfhood is not understood and repudiated, no political or social change could mean true agency and autonomy. In the Union of Egoists, it is the conscious, self-interested will of each participant that holds the framework together. The abstract human posited by liberalism’s “society of men,” Stirner argues, is merely another way of subjecting the concrete and unique individual to a will that is not her own.
Conscious egoism, as opposed to any number of what Stirner calls “fixed ideas,” must be the only adhesive holding individuals to the union — which Stirner admits “will still contain enough of unfreedom and involuntariness.” Perfect freedom, after all, is not the goal of Stirner’s novel political formula. It is ownness that Stirner address himself to, the end of self-denial and the shedding of everything that is alien to authentic self-interest. The treatment of private property rights in the politics of Max Stirner’s egoism provides another interesting point of divergence with contemporary libertarianism. The words of Dyer D. Lum in his “The Fiction of Natural Rights” provide a serviceable expression of the Stirnerite egoist position on rights, arguing that they “are not fixed and unalterable,” that the term “natural rights” itself “still carries with it the implication of rigidity.” No one possesses any rights, yet at the same time all are entitled to take whatever they can as their property, with only the prudence of self-interest to delimit their actions. As Stirner writes, “Everything over which I have the might that cannot be torn from me remains my property.” Stirner thus undermines the primacy and inviolability of private property while furnishing fertile ground for a generation of his disciples to construct a theory of property informed by his idea of individual fulfillment. Among the most adept and alluring of Stirner’s American popularizers was the physician James L. Walker, whose bold columns under the pseudonym Tak Kak piqued the anger and interest of his readers.
The first English language book to be written on egoism, Walker’s The Philosophy of Egoism, published in 1905, was the culmination of an acidulous career in philippic. Walker had tested his debating mettle in the pages of Benjamin Tucker’s libertarian journal Liberty, wherein he instigated a continual argument on the merits of egoism. That debate proved to be one of the journal’s most impassioned and even acrimonious, compelling many of Liberty’s frequent contributors to part company with the publication. Frank H. Brooks observes that in spite of these departures, egoism became the predominant position in Liberty due in large part to the persuasiveness of Walker’s contributions and the influence of Tucker’s close friend, George Schumm. Schumm, a proofreader for The Nation and translator of Friedrich Nietzsche, had studied under Max Stirner and assisted Steven T. Byington in the translation of The Ego and His Own. As such influences prevailed on Tucker, a version of Stirner’s egoism filtered into his writings and savaged morality along with the notion of rights. The result was an egoist anarchism largely peculiar to Walker and Tucker, their circle, and their moment in time; Walker’s book stands as the most complete account of this unique position. In his Publisher’s Preface to the first-ever English translation of Stirner’s masterwork, Tucker calls the book “a very able and convincing exposition of Stirner’s teachings.” In it, Walker attempts a far less abstract exposition of egoism and assumes a more ideological tone, beginning by calling egoism “the seed-bed of toleration” and differentiating the invention of “artificial rule” with “digging … for bottom facts.” From his first words, then, Walker departs significantly from Stirner, whose purpose in The Ego and His Own — if indeed one may be discerned — was to vindicate “the unique one” against haunting, oppressive “fixed ends” and “fixed ideas.” Stirner was not motivated by a desire to craft political propaganda or to discovery permanent truths; his motivating force was the exorcism of “spooks,” the abstract ideas we hold sacred, apart from and above criticism and questioning. Stirner argued that we give birth to ideas and then project them outward, only to have these ideas — our creations — lord over us and dictate our behaviors and ways of life; these ideas thus become reified, taking on a life of their own. The result is enslavement to moralities, ideologies and religions, a condition that neuters the experience of life and subordinates the true interests of the individual.
Stirner’s view of selfishness and self-fulfillment stands in sharp contrast to that of Ayn Rand. Where Stirner vindicates the unbridled fulfillment of the unique individual without regard to, for instance, external morality, the rigidity of Rand’s positions reveals the kinds of “fixed ideas” Stirner excoriated. And if Rand’s “rational egoism” led her philosophy to an unyielding, intensely moralistic position, then Stirner’s apprehension of the Einzig was, in the words of philosopher Eugene Fleischmann, “not at all a question of moral category, but of simple existential fact.” The “irreducible individuality” on which the works of both Rand and Stirner rotated led them in strikingly different directions. Rand insisted that the complete and ultimate fulfillment of the individual required the adoption of certain narrowly defined prescriptions, all of which were contemplated as bringing the individual into alignment with the unchanging demands of reality. The Objectivist philosophy was thus a unified, canonical whole, its component parts inextricably and necessary bound by Rand’s “integrated view of existence.” To consider philosophical questions on a piecemeal basis was to invite all of the disastrous practical consequences of irrationality. In Rand’s philosophy, happiness, though important and “the purpose of ethics,” must be secondary to “man’s proper code of values.” Under Objectivism, the nature of man could not abide “moral grayness,” and the contours of that nature entailed all kinds of moral constraints. The antithetical, Stirnerite position was staked out by the egoist writer John Badcock, Jr. in his extended essay Slaves to Duty: “Instead of pretending to be ‘doing my duty,’ I will in [the] future go direct to the naked truth, acknowledge I am actuated in all I do by self-interest, and so economize in brain-power. What I want is to discover where my true, most lasting interests lie. I am the more likely to find that out, if I allow no moral considerations to obscure my view.” The distinction between Stirner’s egoism and Rand’s is perhaps most clear here, in the discussion of “moral considerations.” The former will countenance none, while the latter regards them as an indispensable curb on and guide to genuine self-interest. Though a strict atheist, Ayn Rand’s thought develops an objective and binding moral system. Stirner, on the other hand, assails all morality as a disembodied “spook,” an attempt to withhold from the individual the chance at defining her interests for herself, subjectively and in each and every moment. Again, it is the estrangement of the individual from her true, distinct self in favor of some abstraction-made-idol that Stirner attacks.
Through Max Stirner and Ayn Rand, egoism became an important part of libertarianism’s history. To the extent that our ideas as contemporary libertarians are suffused with theirs, egoism remains vital as an ideological force, impacting the ways in which we conceive of and communicate the philosophy of liberty. And while Rand has continued to enjoy a prominent role in the libertarian culture and movement, Stirner has largely and regrettably fallen into obscurity. As radical thinkers, both Stirner and Rand offered avant-garde perspectives on everything from moral and political philosophy to epistemology; their ideas are worthy of continued attention and examination, daring to test the philosophical status quo and pushing the limits of individualist thought.
- I will use this translation (The Ego and His Own) of Stirner’s title, though there has been debate about how to most accurately translate the German; this is the title used in Benjamin Tucker’s 1907 publication of the book, the first ever in English. Stirner scholar Jason McQuinn calls Tucker’s choice “extremely unfortunate” and argues that “a more accurate translation would have been The Unique and Its Property.” For his part, Tucker contended that his rendering, while “admittedly erroneous,” was “an excellent title in itself,” more euphonious and incisive. The title of the original German edition is Der Einzige und sein Eigenthum. ↩