Avowals of Selfhood: Review of Egoism

As the radical, insurrectionary affirmation of self, egoism is a direct and hostile challenge to politics, society, civilization, and economics. Unlike the various philosophical identifications and ideologies that it challenges, it is no pretender to the thrones of any mode of thought based upon duty or obligation, no attempt to place itself above or outside of the unique one. We may say, then, that egoism contemplates only an end to self-alienation, yet even then we say too much; egoism is not a volitional unit capable of wanting anything at all. As Apio Ludd writes in “An Egoist Method,” since flesh and blood individuals are “the center of egoism,” “it can’t very well be a philosophy.” Egoist thought is rather a collection of several ways of finding, apprehending, and thinking about conscious autonomy, self-discovery, and self-creation. With Egoism, Ardent Press offers a compendium of such ventures into the questions and possibilities of a creative, fulfilling life unfastened from alienating constraints. Spanning thinkers from James L. Walker to Apio Ludd, Egoism offers a compact but robust primer on the distinctive approach birthed by Max Stirner. Showcasing the diversity of egoist thought, and the changes in emphasis that occurred in the century or so that it spans, the volume begins with entries on its subject from The Anarchist Encyclopedia. In the first such entry, L. Wastiaux quotes the individualist anarchist and Stirner biographer John Henry Mackay, who writes, “To deny egoism is to deny life. There are no altruists; the word ‘altruism’ is a synonym of egoism, and not its antonym.” Egoism thus represents an escape from hypocritical moral posturing and pretensions to something apart from or higher than the arbitrary hungers of the unique — which need no independent justification.

The anonymously authored introduction to the collection presents its objective — to tell “the story of egoism, a mostly neglected tendency in anarchist thought.” That the contemporary anarchist movement has neglected egoism is a regrettable truth. Indeed at times tensions between egoist anarchism and its more traditionally leftist main current have escalated into open hostility. Egoists are repelled by utopian aspirations “to compose a single better world (for everyone),” motivated instead by “stories about winning, defined in individual terms by those who lived life fully.” The writers featured in this compilation had no use for one size fits all definitions of freedom, for moral crusades that demand the surrender of the individual will. It is hardly an accident, then, that several writers in the egoist tradition identify what it is they champion as “anarchist individualism,” where “anarchist” is set as the premodifier of “individualism.” As in Renzo Novatore’s “Anarchist Individualism in the Social Revolution,” it is individualism that is central, the “creative force, immortal youth, exalting beauty, redemptive and fruitful war on the belief that life [is] a duty, a calling, a mission.” For the egoist, individualism must precede anarchism, for the affirmation of self is the source of the denial of all authority — individualism being the more general thing, anarchism a specific implication. Any anarchism that sets itself up as above individualism becomes its own cause with its own designs and will, subordinating the unique individual, becoming a new “alleged higher interest,” in Apio Ludd’s words. Perhaps this is why many anarchists deny egoists the title, and likewise why many egoists repudiate it themselves, as did Sidney Parker and Dora Marsden.

This emphasis on self-realization in the here and now, together with the concomitant rejection of political movements and their dogmas, is what earned egoist individualism the supposed ignominy of the label “lifestyle anarchism.” Egoists themselves, though, are not necessarily unhappy with the epithet of lifestylism. After all, if anarchism is simply another political doctrine, a mere recapitulation of stock leftist commitments, it represents a rather anodyne challenge to the status quo. As a young anarchist, never did workerist, leftist anarchism seem less attractive, more like an orthodox religious sect, than in the hands of Murray Bookchin, who lamented the paucity of “social action and revolutionary politics in anarchism” in his Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm. Pitting “preoccupations with the ego and its uniqueness” against “the socialistic character of the libertarian tradition,” Bookchin pilloried the “narcissism” which he saw as the influence of “the bourgeois environment” on anarchism. It is precisely these easy, imperious dismissals of individualistic inclinations within anarchist thought which reveal the “principle of worship, mental slavery, [and] superstition” that James L. Walker attacked in The Philosophy of Egoism. Anarchists like Bookchin are positively scandalized that certain of us may want to live for ourselves and our own satisfaction rather than some abstract ideal cast into a totem to be yielded to and praised.

“No gods, no masters” is all well and good right up until some movement leader yanks your anarchist card for notions deemed excessively bourgeois, or insufficiently socialistic. But the vividly impenitent writers found in Egoism were not inclined to be bothered by their lack of inclusion in any group, their solitude being, as Marilisa Fiorina writes in “Freedom and Solitude,” the beloved “realization of their free thought.” It is not that egoists deny the social character of human life, that we desire to be hermits in a dark, atomistic exile from others. From the pages of Egoism stream forth affirmations of love and communication, genuinely aware relationships against the alienations and repressions of power. “The project of participation,” Raoul Vaneigem writes, “is born of the passion for playing, whenever group activity facilitates the self-realization of each individual.” And as John Beverley Robinson’s contribution to this collection observes, “egoism in its modern interpretation, is the antithesis, not of altruism, but of idealism”; it contemplates no necessary abandonment of the love of others, but simply places the individual “above all institutions and all formulas,” products of the human mind that are mistaken for realities, reified and allowed to rule. Walker too admits “that some constructive use for the term altruistic is not of necessity excluded from Egoistic philosophy.” Love for others, he argues, “is one form of Egoistic rejoicing,” or, as Cresencia Desafio and Katherine DiFiore put it just over a century later, relationships are stronger when their component parts — the distinct individuals involved — are independently strong. We continue and cultivate relationships, Desafio and DiFiore argue, as they continue to be relevant to our lives, a conscious, self-motivated way of appreciating social relationships akin to Stirner’s Union of Egoists.

Egoism offers a serviceable introduction to the egoist tradition and a worthy companion to Stirner’s masterwork, The Ego and His Own, showing egoism to be not a static monolith, but a dynamic assault on the various forms of philosophical orthodoxy. Whether contemporary movement anarchism will suffer such an irreverent posture toward its golden calves remains to be seen. In any event, one hopes that collections like Egoism, audacious and absorbing in their assertions of self-love, will excite renewed interest in egoism and in Max Stirner’s work.

Egoism by Various, published by Ardent Press. $8

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