A review of “The Unique and Its Property” by Max Stirner. Translated with a new introduction by Wolfi Landstreicher. Underworld Amusements.
By Keith Preston
An apparently controversial publisher has issued a new translation of a controversial book. The original work in question is Max Stirner’s egoist classic, originally published in Germany in 1844 under the title Der Einzige und sein Eigentum. This book was later translated into English by the American individualist-anarchist writer Steven T. Byington and published in 1907 by Benjamin R. Tucker, the most prominent of the American individualist-anarchists of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, under the title The Ego and His Own. All subsequent English editions of Stirner’s work have essentially been reprints of the 1907 translation. However, Underworld Amusements has released a new translation by Wolfi Landstreicher under the title The Unique and Its Property. Landstreicher has also provided an interesting introduction of his own to this new translation that touches on many of the most salient aspects of Stirner’s thought.
I have written an extensive overview of Stirner’s life and thought elsewhere, so I will not rehash all of that for this review. The full text of my previous discussion of Stirner, “The Dissolute Life of an Egoist,” is available at AttacktheSystem.Com. It is instead sufficient to say that Landstreicher’s translation is far superior to the Byington version and far easier for a contemporary person to read. Those of us with extensive experience of trying to dissect English translations of texts originally written in German understand that the German language often does not translate well into English minus the efforts of a highly skilled translator. Fortunately, Landstreicher is such a translator, and this new translation of Stirner is clearly a labor of love, reportedly seven years in the making. The finished product makes for an enjoyable read and, without question, serves to make Stirner’s writing and ideas for more accessible to an English reader. The physical design of this work by Underworld Amusements is magnificent as well, and this new translation clearly sets the standard for those who are interested in Stirner.
Perhaps just as significant as the radical nature of Stirner’s thought is the way in which he is commonly misunderstood, if not subjected to outright abuse. When the Byington translation was issued over a century ago, Tucker said of the work, “Some call it The Anarchists’ Bible, others call it The Billionaires’ Bible.” But that’s clearly the point. The egoist philosophy advanced by Stirner contains no ideological, let alone moral, prescription. Stirner’s ideas are just as applicable to the predatory billionaire capitalist (see the current US President) as they are to revolutionary anarchist assassins. A consistent application of Stirner’s philosophy would simply involve going about the business of pursuing one’s interests while giving no thought to either prescribed notions of virtue or to societal interests. For an egoist, there is no such thing as society: only an agglomeration of individuals locked in mortal and eternal combat with one another in pursuit of their own wish-fulfillments. When the Byington translation was originally issued, the New York Times reviewer James Huneker referred to it as a “veritable Breviary of Destruction, a striking and dangerous book”.
I have been both an anarchist and an atheist for my entire adult life, and yet I have found that these two outlooks are generally far less offensive to many others than my adherence to moral skepticism of the kind advanced by Stirner. The normal reception of my anarchist views has been that others typically find them to be eccentric and amusing, perhaps a bit over the top, but not especially offensive. Contrary to the claims of persecution sometimes advanced by the organized atheist movement, I have found that being an atheist in Christian America is quite comfortable. The normal reactions typically range from puzzled “So you don’t believe in anything at all?” queries to sincere and well-meaning promises to pray for my soul. However, it is my moral skepticism that seems to generate the greatest amount of offense: “Surely, you don’t believe there is no such thing as right and wrong? What about murder? What about rape? What about child molesters?”And, of course, the standard: “What about Hitler?!!!”
One often overlooked aspect of Stirner’s biography is that he apparently lived by his philosophy, even if he was not particularly successful in this endeavor. Most of his life was devoted to dodging debt collectors while pursuing failed businesses and sham marriages. Stirner was, by any reasonable standard, a loser, a fact pointed out by Ernst Junger, and not unlike many of our present day “anarchists.” However, one of the most interesting aspects of his life is that as a representative of the radical intellectual currents that developed in the early to middle nineteenth century, Stirner’s philosophy was far more radical than that of his rivals Marx and Engels. Landstreicher touches on this point in his introduction:
“Though Stirner’s mockery is an attack on all fixed ideas, on all ideals placed above each unique being and his self-enjoyment, its central attack is on the humanism that Feuerbach, Bruno and Edgar Bauer (and the other ‘critical critics’), and the various liberals and radicals of the time, put forwards as the replacement for Christianity and theism.”
Indeed, Stirner lambasted such thinkers as “pious atheists”, which, as Landstreicher points out, was “a particularly biting barb in a country where the most extreme Christians were known as ‘pietists.’” As much as any other aspect of Stirner’s thought, it is these observations that are perhaps the most relevant for our own time. With great irony, these musings of Stirner are also highly relevant to a controversy surrounding this translation and its publisher.
Underworld Amusements is owned by Kevin Slaughter, a man who has been attacked as an OFFICIAL BAD PERSON by leftist critics of Landstreicher’s work. As a caveat, I will say that I know Kevin personally, though not well, as I have run into him at a few conferences within the alt-right and paleoconservative milieus over the years. I will leave it to Kevin to defend himself and his own work against the inquisitors. However, of much greater interest to me is the fact that Landstreicher has been accused of some great moral failure for allowing an alleged OFFICIAL BAD PERSON to publish this translation. A screed titled “Wolfi and White Supremacy: What Happened and What It Means” was originally posted on the TheConjureHouse.Com website. The post was a stereotypical “fascist creep” screed authored by a “Dr. Bones” individual, whose online avatar features an emaciated-looking young man with a hammer and sickle scarf masking his face. As of this writing, the post has apparently been removed. Meanwhile, claims of Landstreicher’s repentance have been circulated in anarcho-leftoid circles. The following comments by William Gillis, a left-libertarian market-anarchist SJW transhumanist antifa (yes, you read that correctly), who edits the sometimes interesting/sometimes left-wing parody site C4SS.Org, are typical:
“Wolfi admitting he made a mistake in publisher is pretty much what I wanted. Don’t buy his book, learn from this, stop circling wagons.”
Perhaps Landstreicher can be induced to receive Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as his Lord and Personal Savior while clutching a crucifix welded to an anarchist Circle-A and reciting a few dozen “Hail Sophie Scholls” in the process. I have no idea whether this is an accurate description of Landstreicher’s reaction or not. What I find more interesting is the absolute betrayal of the spirit of egoism represented by the attacks he has experienced.
Leftists with proclaimed egoist sympathies regard as “spooks” the standard right-wing pieties such as tradition, nation, race, family, religion, morality, duty, order, obedience, etc. Good for them. But is this the limit of what it really means to be an egoist? Could not freedom, social justice, progress, tolerance, human rights, civil rights, gender equality, anti-racism, queer liberation, the environment, animal liberation, socialism, communism, anarchism, etc. also be regarded as “spooks”? Stirner apparently would have thought so. Certainly, someone could embrace these things by means of sheer force of desire or perceived self-interest, but in what sense should such abstract pieties be regarded as obligatory or binding?
One of the most common features of the left-anarchist subculture is empathy-mongering on behalf of those presenting credentials of having been oppressed (“safe spaces” and all that). One example is the present SJW fixation on “rape culture.” But what, from an egoist point of view, would be inherently wrong with a responding to a critique of “rape culture” by quoting the Rhett Butler character from Gone With the Wind: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”? Why should one not respond to the complaints of the LGBTQ movement by citing the words of Jim Goad: “Perhaps it hasn’t occurred to you, but human history is not entirely summarized by the bold struggle for the ‘right’ to poke your veiny ding-dong through disco-bathroom glory holes.”
The legendary Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver came pretty close to embracing Stirnerism, at least in an indirect way, as a young African-American prisoner developing a sense of black militancy.
“I attacked all forms of piety, loyalty, and sentiment: marriage, love, God, patriotism, the Constitution, the Founding Fathers, law, concepts of right-wrong-good-evil, all forms of ritualized and conventional behavior.”
Similarly, could not an alt-right militant of today attack left-wing pieties in a similar way and be just as legitimate in doing so from an egoist perspective? Could not an egoist simply decide, out of pure force of desire or perceived self-interest, to be a racist, sexist, homophobe, capitalist, fascist, Nazi, or religious fundamentalist? Could egoists not join the ranks of the military or police simply because they willed to do so? In a discussion of Calvinism, the Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart implicitly acknowledged that the Calvinist God is the ultimate egoist and that, from the perspective of the Calvinist believer, the only reason to worship God over Satan is prudence. And would not the Calvinist believer be practicing egoism by worshipping God for the sake of sheer self-interest?
What possible way is there to reconcile egoism with the moralistic crusading associated with “social justice” other than to embrace the latter out of self-interest or personal preference? Would not the following description of the criminal personality offered by the one-time Chicago journalist and crime reporter Ben Hecht be perhaps even more appropriate as the guiding principles of an egoist?
“The criminal in the time of his lawlessness is one of the few happy or contented men to be found among us. He has a blood lust, an exploding temper, a savage pleasure in breaking heads. But in a criminal, his blood lust is business equipment. He uses it as naturally as a banker uses a frock coat. And if he has other neuroses than a need for bloodletting, these are equally untroublesome. He lives his primitive instincts (called neuroses by society) to the hilt. While he remains a criminal, he is as free of conscience pangs as the most right-doing of bookkeepers. He eats well, sleeps well, lives well, and his only disadvantage is that he may die ahead of his time from an enemy bullet, the gas chamber, or electric chair.
When I was a newspaper reporter in Chicago, I saw a dozen men executed by hanging. Those of them who had been urged into murder by misplaced loves or accidental rages were usually numb with the terror of dying. It was otherwise with the authentic criminal. He usually faced death casually—as does the ape.”
Could not an egoist simply flout the most inviolable societal norms and become a criminal, rapist, pedophile, or serial killer? What follows is the text of a likely apocryphal conversation between serial killer Ted Bundy and a victim, most likely written by a religious moralist attempting to demonstrate the implications of moral skepticism:
Laura: Where have you taken me, Ted?
Bundy: To a place where no one can follow us—or find you—at least not until long after I have disappeared—and you are dead.
Laura: What do you mean?
Bundy: What I mean is that I intend to rape and murder you.
Laura: Oh, my God, my God, why?
Bundy: Because, my dear, it will give me the greatest possible pleasure to do so.
Laura: Please, please, spare me. Send for ransom, ask anything. I know my parents and their families and friends will do anything to save my life.
Bundy: But you fail to understand me. I don’t want anything from anyone else. It is raping and murdering you that I want, and nothing can substitute for it. By the way, unless I have lost count, you will be the 89th young woman—person I should say—who has been good enough to gratify me in this way. Believe it or not, I am very grateful to my victims—although I do not think of them as victims, but rather as those making the sacrifices necessary for my freedom—the freedom to live my life the way I choose to live it. Nations praise those who sacrifice their lives for the freedom of others, as you will shortly be doing. I would be glad to erect a monument to your memory—and to that of all the others, past and future, who have made and will make the same sacrifice—although I do not think it is practicable for me to try to do so.
Laura: But Ted, how can you possibly call raping and murdering your “freedom”? What about my life and freedom?
Bundy: I recognize that your life and your freedom are very valuable to you, but you must recognize that they are not so valuable to me. And if I must sacrifice your life and freedom to mine, why should I not do so? The unexamined life was not worth living to Socrates. And a life without raping and murdering is not worth living to me. What right do you—or does anyone—have, to deny this to to me?
Laura: But rape and murder are wrong. The Bible says they are wrong, and the law says they are wrong.
Bundy: What do you mean by wrong? What you call wrong, I call attempts to limit my freedom. The Bible punished both sodomy and murder with death. Sodomy is no longer regarded as a crime, or even as immoral. Why then should murder—or rape? But, you say, rape and murder are against the law, and if the law catches me, it will punish me. Very well, and if it does not catch me, what then? After so many highly successful and immensely gratifying rapes and murders, I do not think the law has much to say to me. In any case, it can hardly punish me any more for what I am about to do, than for what I have already done. So I see little benefit for you in this argument.
Laura: But surely, surely, Ted, you must see that killing an innocent human being is wrong. Did you, or do you not have a mother and a father, or a sister or a brother, or friends, in whom you recognize a life like your own, that should be as precious to you as your own life? Is there not something within you—a conscience—that tells you that to be a human being is to recognize that everything is not permitted? And that your own happiness—indeed your own freedom—depends upon on living within the bounds prescribed either by God or the moral law?
Bundy: Well, Laura, I am glad we are having this talk. None of my other victims ever asked me to justify myself as you are doing. And so I must tell you—and hope it will afford you some satisfaction—that you are, if possible, increasing the pleasure I am having from our acquaintance, short as it must be.
I want you to know then that, once upon a time, I too believed that God and the moral law prescribed boundaries within which my life had to be lived. That was before I took my first college courses in philosophy. Then it was that I discovered how unsophisticated—nay, primitive—my earlier beliefs had been. Then I learned that all moral judgments are “value judgments,” that all value judgments are subjective, and that none can be proved to be either “right” or “wrong.” I even read somewhere that the Chief Justice of the United States had written that the American Constitution expressed nothing more than collective value judgments. Believe it or not, I figured out for myself—what apparently the Chief Justice couldn’t figure out for himself—that if the rationality of one value judgment was zero, multiplying it by millions would not make it one whit more rational. Nor is there any “reason” to obey the law for anyone, like myself, who has the boldness and daring—the strength of character—to throw off its shackles. And I was assured, by what I regarded as the highest possible authority—a Harvard-trained philosophy professor—that, the root notion of [true] freedom is . . . the spontaneous, uninhibited expression of the integrated self . . . [and that] the absence of freedom means . . . the presence of blocks or limitations that prevent unfettered expressions of the self.
I discovered that to become truly free, truly unfettered, I had to become truly uninhibited. And I quickly discovered that the greatest obstacle to my freedom, the greatest block and limitation to it, consisted in the insupportable “value judgment” that I was bound to respect the rights of others. I asked myself, who were these “others”? Other human beings, with human rights? Why is it more wrong to kill a human animal than any other animal, a pig or a sheep or a steer? Is our life more to you than a hog’s life to a hog? Why should I be willing to sacrifice my pleasures more for the one than for the other? Surely, you would not, in this age of scientific enlightenment, declare that God or nature has marked some pleasures as “moral” or “good” and others as “immoral” or “bad? In any case, let me assure you, my dear young lady, that there is absolutely no comparison between the pleasure I might take in eating ham, and the pleasure I anticipate in raping and murdering you. That is the honest conclusion to which my education has led me—after the most conscientious examination of my spontaneous and uninhibited self.
Hear Ted as he “speaks his truth”!! Of all the intelligent religious believers I have ever encountered, either personally or by reputation, the theological arguments they typically seem most persuaded by are the moral arguments rather than those of a teleological, ontological, or cosmological nature. Echoing Freud’s The Future of an Illusion, their great fear appears to be that without divinely inspired moral truths, humanity will be left in a state of predatory, amoral chaos. This statement by a formerly atheist Harvard student whose Christian friend induced her to become a convert is typical:
“And he did something else: He prodded me on how inconsistent I was as an atheist who nonetheless believed in right and wrong as objective, universal categories. Defenseless, I decided to take a seminar on meta-ethics.”
Apparently, this young lady found the “seminar on meta-ethics” to be unsatisfactory, as she ended up getting baptized.
It is not widely known that William Jennings Bryan’s principle objection to Darwinism was not its incompatibility with a literal reading of the first chapter of Genesis as much that, as a Christian committed to the Social Gospel, he was concerned that Darwinism would lead to an embrace of amorality and disregard for the weak. It was this “argument from morality” that persuaded the eminent scientist Francis Collins, who rejects both creationism and intelligent design in favor of a kind of transcendent metaphysical theism, to embrace a kind of C.S. Lewis-like Christianity. Indeed, it was the argument from morality that C.S. Lewis, widely regarded by Christians as the “apologist to the intellectuals,” found to be among the most persuasive. He once said that without absolute moral truths, one could be no more legitimate in condemning the Nazis for their actions than for the color of their hair, although it might still be necessary to fight them. Of course, the appropriate egoist response to such objections would likely be something along the lines of “So what? Shit happens, dude. Get over it.” It was the process of recognizing the amoral implications of modern science and philosophy that Nietzsche described as “looking into the abyss.”
Egoism grants permission to dare to ask the forbidden questions: What, if anything, is actually wrong with racism? Is society’s condemnation of criminals merely a reflection of individual or collective value judgments or self-interests rather than a statement of objective facts or moral truths? Why shouldn’t Satanists be given equal time during the course of “interfaith dialogue”? Is not “progressivism” just another tribe with its own moralistic value judgments like everyone else? What is inherently unattractive about being one that possesses an “unburdened mind”? If anything, it could be argued that the leftist, “anarchist,” or “egoist” critics of Landstreicher are the villagers in Nietzsche’s “Parable of the Madman”?
Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!”—As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated?—Thus they yelled and laughed
The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.
“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us—for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.”
Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars—and yet they have done it themselves.
It has been related further that on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there struck up his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but: “What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”
Of course, it can be argued that the real danger that humanity faces is not an excess of egoism but an excess of conformity and obedience. As Arthur Koestler observed:
“…a series of fundamental misconceptions…which prevented (man) from learning the lessons of the past, and…now put his survival in question. The first of these..is putting the blame for man’s predicament on his selfishness, greed, etc.; in a word, on the aggressive, self-assertive tendencies of the individual…I would like to suggest that the integrative tendencies of the individual are incomparably more dangerous than his self-assertive tendencies.”
Far from having “killed God,” our present day “progressives,” social justice warriors, “anti-fascists,” “anarchists,” and, apparently, even “egoists” have replaced the traditional pieties with a whole pantheon of new pieties. The hilarity of a translation of Stirner being attacked on the grounds that its publisher is not moral enough almost defies comprehension. A little less piousness, please. Or as Richard Pryor is alleged to have remarked, “Have a Coke and smile, and shut the fuck up.”
[Update: Apparently, Underworld Amusements will be discontinuing this title once all of its current on hand copies are sold. Instead, the title has been picked up by the presumably more moral Little Black Cart.]