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All Things are Nothing To Me by Jacob Blumenfeld

Douglas Groothuis thinks nothing of Max Stirner’s nihilism.

Books on the less-than-famous Max Stirner (1806-1856) are rare, but an intrepid author, Jacob Blumenfeld, has found something of note for the contemporary reader. Stirner’s only volume, The Ego and Its Own (1844), has been called both the most revolutionary book ever written and the worst book ever written. His thought has sparked the interest of anarchists, libertarians, existentialists, Bohemians, nihilists, and more. Stirner certainly presses a certain form of atheism to its ultimate end. Karl Marx wrote against Stirner in The German Ideology (1846), which may be a good prima facie reason to read Stirner; but, of course, the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend. Given his philosophy, I wonder if Stirner had any friends at all – although he did dedicate his book to ‘My Sweetheart’. Yet just possibly Stirner can inspire us to adopt a radical iconoclasm that frees us to resist all ideologies and find radical freedom.

Blumenfeld’s approach is to expropriate Stirner’s thought in the spirit of Stirner:

“ I will now reconstruct the strange logic of Stirner’s argument, step by step. My aim is to give a consistent reading of the text, articulated not in the order Stirner himself laid out, but as I reconstruct it through the text, perhaps even despite it. As Fred Madison said in David Lynch’s Lost Highway, ‘I like to remember things my own way. Not necessarily the way they happened.’ This is one way through the twists and turns of Stirner’s argument, my way.”

Nevertheless, the author does also take pains to explicate Stirner in terms of Stirner’s own thought. Indeed, in the long Chapter Two, ‘My Stirner’, Blumenfeld never seems to correct or amplify Stirner, so it’s sometimes hard to know if he is using Stirner as raw material for his own views or if he is agreeing with Stirner himself. He does advocate more for Stirner than critique him. And we should, Blumenfeld claims, resist the temptation to criticize Stirner as a philosopher who gave us a system. That was Marx’s error. Rather, Stirner is a philosophical provocateur who need not be held to standards of consistency or even intelligibility. Nevertheless, in reading this book, we must ask ‘Is it true that Stirner means X?’ and ‘Is X true?’

It is true that Stirner encouraged his readers to consume his work however they wanted. Consider Stirner’s view of truth:

“Truth is dead, a letter, a word, a material that I can use up. All truth by itself is dead, a corpse; it is alive only in the same way as my lungs are alive – namely, in the measure of my own vitality. Truths are material, like vegetable or weed; as to whether vegetable or weed, the decision lies in me” (p.105).

Of course, Stirner wants us to take this statement as true – as corresponding to reality – otherwise there is no reason to write it. The assertion of truth claims as being true is a necessary quality of any discourse – even the discourse that denies this fact. Even saying ‘There’s no such thing as truth’ is necessarily asserting that very proposition to be true. Moreover, if a philosopher contradicts himself, then his philosophy is illogical at that point, since a pair of real (as opposed to superficial) contradictions cannot both be true. And if a contradiction is found, the question then becomes how much that contradiction matters to a philosophical system. Some contradictions are minor. Others bring the whole system down into a pile of ruins. Nevertheless, one might still scavenge a few pieces of rubble for use in another edifice. Myself, I am hard pressed to find any usable stones in Stirner’s work.

Blumenfeld plies his trade with the tools of the continental tradition of philosophy. He relates Stirner’s ideas to the work of Foucault, Derrida, Heidegger, Levinas, and Badiou. But he also places Stirner in his historical and philosophical context, which consists largely of his relation to Hegel, Fichte, and Marx. So what was Stirner’s big idea – and what of it?

First, the title of Stirner’s magnum (and only) opus, Der Einzige und sein Eigentum (1844), is difficult to translate. It has been rendered as The Ego and Its Own, but others have translated it as The Unique One and Its Property. Its thesis is that each individual is unique and cannot be subsumed under any broader category – even the category of ‘human’. In other words, we define ourselves for ourselves, and should not let ourselves be defined by God, the Good, the state, the culture, or anything else. The Stirnerian self is neither a creature of God nor a member of a social class, such as ‘citizen’ or ‘worker’, nor a mere member of a biological species. To be defined or identified by anything alien to oneself is both to be limited, and to be made into the property of someone or something else. To submit to any ideology, religion, or philosophy outside of oneself is to become enslaved to spooks or specters that do not exist. All abstractions applied to the unique one must be rejected. For someone to claim that there are objective abstract categories beyond the unique one, is to suffer alienation from one’s own potency as a creator. That is, I am depriving myself of my rightful power through something unreal. Thus, to think I have moral responsibilities – say, to not murder a fellow human being simply because I am a human being, is a false reification of a mere idea into an objective (and absolute) reality. ‘Loving your neighbor as yourself’ becomes doubly impossible: there is no ‘neighbor’ (a spook) and there are no demands of ‘love’ (another spook). Stirner’s solution is the consistent affirmation of the ‘creative nothing’ of the unique one. When I know that ‘all things are nothing to me’, I resist both reification and alienation. The price of this endeavor, however, is the eradication of any given meaning, purpose, or value to life. Here’s the rub that Blumenfeld wants to avoid: nihilism.

Perhaps ‘the unique one’ in the title’s translation is better than ‘ego’ for Stirner’s use of the German word einzige. This is because Stirner has a particular idea of the individual in mind, as a evaluating entity who subjects all of his experience to his own expropriation and exploitation. In this sense, the unique one takes ownership of its property by its sheer assertion. One thinks here of Nietzsche’s idea that the strong – those who most consistently exercise ‘the will to power’ – create values for themselves. But Blumenfeld notes that Stirner goes further than Nietzsche, since the will to power is for Stirner but another spook – another false idealization of what’s not there, and ‘the unique one’ would be subsumed and alienated from its creative energies by employing the idea.

Some have accused Nietzsche of plagiarizing Stirner. But if so, Stirner could not object, since Nietzsche would be thereby exercising his own unique power over an object of consumption, and plagiarism would be only another spook to exorcise through autonomous valuation and expropriation.

So what of the title of this book on Stirner, All Things are Nothing to Me? Blumenfeld takes this phrase as the master concept for Stirner. The unique one grants whatever value there is to anything outside of itself. But all things are no thing in themselves; or, nothing has value power over me, the unique one. So, all things mean nothing to me. Even the unique one is a ‘nothing’, since it cannot be categorized abstractly or labeled essentially. Stirner claims it cannot even be named; and thus, like the Buddha, Stirner advocates ineffabilism at the core of his philosophy. This ‘something I know not what’ (to steal a phrase from John Locke), called for convenience ‘the unique one’, is ravenous, rapacious, and utterly singular. And somehow, contrary to the dictum ex nihilo nihil fit (‘Out of nothing comes nothing’), it manages to create meaning out of its own nothingness.

Max Stirner
Max Stirner by Friedrich Engels, c.1840

Moreover, Stirner’s quest for absolute autonomy alienates him from any moral truths outside of his own subjective property-making. Yet to deny objective moral truths is both counterintuitive and counterfactual. It is morally wrong to torture the innocent for pleasure, full stop. Female genital mutilation is an offense against women wherever and whenever it occurs, full stop. Human trafficking is wrong, full stop. Humans have certain ‘inalienable rights’, as The American Declaration of Independence puts it. The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights (1948) agrees when it affirms “the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” These ideas are not ‘spooks’, they are truths. Stirner’s paltry – if big-talking – ego is helpless to falsify or relativize them. There is such a thing as intrinsic moral meaning. The best I can say about Stirner here, is that at least he recognized that if there is no God and no objective moral values, then the unique one had to be ‘self-referentially confined’ – have no external reference point for its judgements – and thus have no recourse to anything beyond its arbitrary positing of value. If this is not nihilism, then nihilism does not exist. But nihilism does exist, and nihilism is false, given the objective existence of the moral truths just mentioned, and many more.

A final chapter assesses Stirner’s relation to Marx and communism. (Blumenfeld is sympathetic to the communist tradition, having co-translated a book called Communism for Kids.) Marx and Stirner seem in many ways to be opposites, but Blumenfeld takes Stirner’s to be a kind of prelude to Marx’s account of alienation and liberation. Stirner advocated an insurrection against all authority outside the unique one, but Marx went on to identify the particular social forces that subject people to class ideologies. This, at least, was how Marx used Stirner – and Blumenfeld tends to agree. But would not Stirner simply disavow Marxism as just another ism – another spook needing exorcism – since it trades on so many abstractions, such as the party, the proletariat, the state, and the very idea of class, without which concepts Marxism dissolves? Moreover, Marx’s theory of history as ‘dialectical materialism’, is a Spook of spooks, because it identifies a world-historical process encompassing all societies and individuals. If Stirner held any political doctrine it would be anarchism, which is the opposite of collectivism, the essence of Marxism.

© Prof. Douglas Groothuis 2021

Douglas Groothuis is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary.

All Things are Nothing To Me: The Unique Philosophy of Max Stirner, by Jacob Blumenfeld, Zero Books, 2018, 155pp, £11.99 pb

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