From The Anvil Review
All Things Are Nothing to Me is one of the latest books to emerge from the ongoing revival of interest in the work of Max Stirner. The title is taken from the opening line of the first English translation of Stirner’s The Unique and its Property, which can also be translated literally but more prosaically as “I have based my affair on nothing.” In his introduction, the author, Jacob Blumenfeld, says that his intention is to “reconstruct” Stirner’s unique philosophy1 and show a “contemporary, critical, and useful Stirner”. This already makes the book ambitious, as Stirner is all too often reduced to merely a meme or a punchline by both his detractors and his champions. Blumenfeld acknowledges this, considering and rejecting Stirner as a precursor to the troll culture of the alt-right as well as a would-be accommodator of the neoliberal status quo. Instead, he prefers to see Stirner as a kindred spirit of the notorious Invisible Committee, as both offer critiques of ideology and alienation. As he wraps up his introduction, Blumenfeld says that in the first chapter of his book he “discover[s] something interesting, namely, that one does not need the concept of the ‘ego’ to understand Stirner at all. In fact, this might have been the biggest stumbling block toward understanding his philosophy.”
All Things Are Nothing to Me
It’s curious that Blumenfeld calls this a discovery, when anyone capable of reading German could tell you that Stirner never used the word “ego” in his book, only “egoist” and “egoism.” The confused picture of Stirner as a philosopher of “the ego” mostly stems from the mistranslation of Der Einzige und Sein Eigentum into English as The Ego and its Own. Blumenfeld acknowledges the mistranslation (unfortunately the majority of his book was written before Wolfi Landstreicher’s new, much more accurate translation became available), but continues to make references to the ego throughout the text anyway.
This “discovery” highlights what is by far one of the most frustrating things about Blumenfeld’s book: his habit of writing as if he’s being heretically original even if he’s only saying what people interested in Stirner have been saying since at least the 1990s and very likely earlier. For instance, later in the book he spends a few pages hemming and hawing about whether Stirner actually believed in Hegel’s racial (and racist) philosophy of history or was parodying it, eventually ruling in favor of the latter, calling it one of Stirner’s “allegories.” I feel that this should be obvious to anyone familiar with Stirner’s background or the decent secondary literature. Even if this is simply a stylistic choice, it’s tiring, and undermines the genuinely original aspects of Blumenfeld’s work.
In chapter one, “Stirner’s Revenge,” Blumenfeld touches on Stirner’s relationship with Hegel, in a more in-depth way than the usual biographical bullet points about Stirner’s time at university and among “the Free” Young Hegelians. Those who (like me) haven’t read much Hegel will probably find this information interesting and useful. Blumenfeld then presents several “versions” of Stirner from various sources: Stirner the Young Hegelian, Stirner the petty bourgeois, Stirner the nihilist, existentialist, post-structuralist, and a dozen other Stirners. For Blumenfeld, what mars all these Stirners is historicism, which he defines as “the tendency to reduce one’s work (or thought) to a necessary result of a socioeconomic, political, and philosophical aggregate which one can call ‘historical context’ or ‘age.’” Instead, Blumenfeld wants to fashion a non-historicist practical and ethical Stirner. Blumenfeld reads Stirner as a practical philosopher in the same way that Deleuze reads Spinoza: “a…. philosopher…. who develops a whole grammar for living which fears no death,” placing him and Spinoza alongside Nietzsche and Levinas as the developers of a “non-moralist ethics.” It is this practical, ethical Stirner that Blumenfeld seeks to develop throughout the book, reading Stirner “not only at a point in time, but as an interruption of time, as someone whose thought defiantly evades time.”
Blumenfeld wishes, very appropriately, to consume and, he says, desecrate Stirner. He spends the remainder of the chapter examining how exactly to go about this, proposing “translations” of typical Stirnerian terms. For example, he brilliantly glosses property as expropriation and unique as nonidentical. Less successfully, he equates ownness with responsibility, which is fairly nonsensical, and union with commune, an interpretation he owes to the heavy influence of The Invisible Committee, one I would only be prepared to accept with some extremely careful qualifications.
Blumenfeld nicely points out the difficulty of expressing what is ultimately nonsymbolic and nonconceptual in symbolic and conceptual terms. Stirner had to use language to express himself, but the words that he used were arrows pointing to his target, not the target itself; as Blumenfeld says, “the content exceeds the form.” Blumenfeld also takes the time to clarify the very important differences between Stirner and Fichte, with Fichte’s absolute I that “is everything” standing in sharp contrast to Stirner’s transitory I that “destroys everything.”
Returning to issues of language, Blumenfeld is unhappy with Stirner’s use of the term “egoist,” considering it an invitation for misunderstanding and mistranslating “unique” as “ego.” He seems to either not realize or not care that Stirner was being deliberately provocative, even though he quotes Stirner’s admission late in his book that the “egoist” is just the old spook, the devil, under a new, secular name. Anarchist, he says, would be a better label, without pointing out that the only person calling himself that at the time was Proudhon, for whom moralism, as Stirner noted, served as a surrogate religion. He finally seems to join Juliet and ask, What’s in a name? “For who needs an identity when one has nothing left to identify?”
The next chapter explores the structure and logic of Stirner’s work, particularly Stirner’s use of triads and subtriads to organize his arguments; in effect, using Hegelian structures in order to advance his own anti- or post-Hegelian point. Something that is a major strength for the entire text but that is particularly useful here: the original German words are often printed in brackets next to their English translations, which helps readers see how how Stirner exploited words with related etymologies or formal similarities to make points.
There are a number of charts throughout this chapter that annoyed me on my first read through, but when revisiting it for this review I actually found them to be very helpful. For example, Blumenfeld illustrates what he calls Stirner’s “quasi-dialectic” of alienation, in which owned property (“one’s power over an idea, relation, thing;” keep this definition in mind throughout the book) becomes alienated from its creator and ultimately reified into alienated property or alienty, like so:
[Owner (property) > Property (owner)] > Alienty
Stirner goes on to use more or less this same formula with different components throughout his book, and Blumenfeld interestingly points out that Karl Marx, hostile as he was to Stirner, also used a similar logic in Capital when describing commodity fetishism:
[Labor (commodity) > Commodity (labor)] > Commodity-Fetish
In the remainder of the chapter, Blumenfeld points out Stirner’s use of parody, satire, allegory, and humor throughout his book, especially in the context of his apparent dialectically progressive view of historical, individual, and political development. While exploring Stirner’s attacks against political liberalism, social liberalism (socialism or communism), and humane liberalism (humanism), he notes in a few very amusing paragraphs that all three of these are still with us. Political liberalism is now called “democracy” and is the framework of most political discourse in the world today. Socialism is still the driving force between most attempts at establishing an alternative to capitalism, and humanism is the basis of international human rights discourse. I was particularly interested in the way Blumenfeld addressed Stirner’s critique of socialism. Stirner largely agreed with the communists in their criticisms of the bourgeois order; however, he recognized that these critiques were coming from a deficient standpoint: the standpoint of labor. As Stirner observed:
“That the Communist sees in you the man, the brother, is only the Sunday side of Communism [so conceived]. According to the work-day side he does not by any means take you as man simply, but as human laborer or laboring man. The first view has in it the liberal principle; in the second, illiberality is concealed. If you were a ‘lazy-bones,’ he would not indeed fail to recognize the man in you, but would endeavor to cleanse him as a ‘lazy man’ from laziness and to convert you to the faith that labor is man’s ‘destiny and calling’.”
Labor has become the standpoint of critique, but not the object of critique. The critique of the standpoint of labor is now considered a contemporary development, says Blumenfeld, citing Baudrillard and Moishe Postone. I think that if he was willing to dig a little more he would find that it isn’t such a contemporary development after all2, but it’s hard to object when he says “Stirner is then already our contemporary.”
In the third and longest chapter, “My Stirner,” the author gives his own reading of Stirner’s text, “articulated not in the order Stirner himself laid out, but as I reconstruct it through the text, perhaps even despite it.” The sections elucidating key aspects of Stirner’s thought such as ownness, property, union, and insurrection are Blumenfeld at his strongest and a genuine joy to read. These alone would make the book worth reading, and I prefer to let them speak for themselves rather than to spend a large portion of this review dissecting them. Even where the occasional lapse in rigor (or gratuitous quote from a David Lynch movie) shines through, it’s not enough to be very distracting.
Unfortunately, his attempts to put Stirner in a dialogue with other thinkers are also scattered throughout this chapter, drawing all-too-often tenuous connections between Stirner and Spinoza, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Levinas, and Gustav Landauer. In the introduction, he says that he does this in order to “sharpen the argument,” but most of these digressions, in my opinion, confuse more than they clarify. The two strongpoints are the sections on Spinoza and Nietzsche.
Blumenfeld uses Spinoza, mentioned earlier as a practical and ethical philosopher in the same vein as Stirner, in an attempt to show that Stirner’s “individualism” is “an ontological statement about what there is, not a moral statement about individual persons.” Spinoza, says Blumenfeld, helps divorce the meaning of singular from the meaning of individual by tying the meaning of singular – the identity of an individual – to action and effect. “An individual does not have an identity except in its relation to a series of causes and effects which are determined by other individuals, which themselves have no identity except in their relation to a series of causes and effects, and so on ad infinitum…. How can many things be one individual, and how can many individuals be a singular thing? Through their composition in forming a single effect, whether or not their individual causes are completely different.” This “dialogue” between Stirner and Spinoza produces something fresh and useful.
Whether Nietzsche was influenced by Stirner has remained an open question since the 1890s. Certainly many people have taken it for granted that he was, some even accusing Nietzsche of plagiarism, and in many books on anarchist theory and history Stirner and Nietzsche are referred to as if they were conjoined twins. Others have dismissed the idea out of hand. Blumenfeld takes a fairly neutral approach, admitting that the question is still “up in the air,” even if elsewhere in the book he appears to forget this. He still touches on many similarities between the two: Stirner’s emphasis on the use and abuse of property as consistent with Nietzsche’s On the Use and Abuse of History for Life, the using or burning up of life, and mutual advocacy of a type of autonomous self-mastery. Both were outspoken critics of the socialism of their day, though for different reasons. Stirner’s critiques of what he calls social liberalism or communism are aimed mainly at the utopian socialism of the 1840s, not actual revolts of the poor and exploited. Nietzsche saw what Blumenfeld calls “the actual socialist movements” as poisoned at the root by slave morality; he provides a lengthy quotation criticizing socialism as nothing more than a means of agitation employed by weak individualism, the “most modest stage of the will to power.” The socialist “does not oppose [the state or the church] as a person, but only as an individual….” Though I personally found this section too brief, before he concludes Blumenfeld offers a memorably-phrased summation of the differences between Stirner and Nietzsche:
“While Nietzsche’s individual gives birth to gods, Stirner’s I consumes them. This is perhaps the greatest difference between Stirner and Nietzsche. Stirner eats gods, dissolving their potency and using their power for himself. Nietzsche births gods, creating new ones beyond himself that one day will exceed him as well.”
Consciously or not, Blumenfeld here echoes the attempts of figures such as James L Walker, Enzo Martucci, and even the Christian theologian JN Figgis to clarify the differences between Stirner and Nietzsche’s approach. Unfortunately, he hardly develops this point at all before moving on.3
Oddly, with the exception of Landauer and possibly Foucault, Blumenfeld makes no effort in these digressions to explore the impact of Stirner’s thought on those influenced by him more directly and explicitly. Blumenfeld presents Landauer’s anarchism as some sort of hodgepodge of Stirner and the Kabbalah, which he regards as essential to understanding Landauer, even though the article he quotes, “Anarchic Thoughts on Anarchism,” was published long before Landauer expressed any interest in Kabbalah. He goes on to say that for Landauer, demanding, wanting, hoping for new forms of freedom (as opposed to acting and doing) was “too Christian.” This would have surprised Landauer, whose writings are filled with references to Christianity; he was heavily influenced by figures in the Christian mystical tradition such as Meister Eckhart. Blumenfeld goes on to quote Landauer’s declaration that an anarchist is someone who realizes “the way to Heaven is narrow,” which is taken from an esoteric reading of the Gospel of Matthew. Landauer’s eventual break with Stirner goes unmentioned, as does Nietzsche’s significant influence. Blumenfeld also seems to treat Landauer’s anarchism as synonymous with communism, even though Landauer was not a communist. Bearing all this heavily in mind, Blumenfeld’s treatment of Landauer’s views still make the section worth reading. It at least partially succeeds in showing us ways to “consume Stirner without letting his thinking get stale.” The misrepresentations, however, make me wonder if Blumenfeld has done the same thing to the other thinkers explored throughout the chapter, especially the ones I’m less familiar with.
Blumenfeld concludes his book by putting Stirner in a dialogue with Karl Marx, usually treated as the main villain of Stirner’s story even though Marx himself was content to leave his massive, unpublished diatribe against Stirner “to the gnawing criticism of the rodents.” Blumenfeld explores the possible influence of Stirner on Marx and Engels’ development of the materialist conception of history and presents a series of quotations showing Marx’s most “Stirnerist” moments. How faithfully this represents the “real” Marx is a moot point; this chapter could have easily been titled “My Marx” as a counterpoint to chapter three’s “My Stirner.” Blumenfeld’s formula “Stirner’s egoism is Marx’s communism seen from the first-person singular perspective” is bound to be challenging, if not outrageous, to more than a few people. Blumenfeld praises the short-lived Bay Area pro-situ group For Ourselves, who in their most famous tract, The Right to be Greedy, observed that “The essence of communism is egoism; the essence of egoism is communism. This is the world-changing secret which the world at large still keeps from itself.” Bob Black, in his preface to the pamphlet, lamented that “For Ourselves didn’t try to Marxize Stirner as it Stirnerized Marx: then we might have a better sense of the level at which it just might be possible to harmonize the two great revolutionary amoralists.” Blumenfeld’s book goes a long way toward “Marxizing” Stirner, though I would have to disagree with him when he says “the ‘secret’ of communist egoism has not been taken up since – neither by communists nor individualists, Marxists nor anarchists.” Whether they use the term egoist or not, I feel that this “secret” has indeed been taken up by many post-leftists, ultraleftists, “type three” anarchists, some communizers, and so on. As Blumenfeld concludes, he characterizes the proletariat, in its role as the class of negation, as a creative nothing alongside Stirner’s unique. As the unique both negates and realizes property, the proletariat negates and realizes capital, which amounts to the same activities – insurrection and expropriation. I have no objection to this, though I think the conclusion could be reached without Blumenfeld’s heavy reliance on Marxian categories and analysis.
As far as its goal of reconstructing a contemporary, critical, and useful Stirner, the book is successful in spite of its shortcomings, though the reconstructed Stirner is certainly Blumenfeld’s Stirner. Each reader will have to decide how much they wish to appropriate as they construct their own. It’s refreshing to read a Stirner-focused book that neither deliberately misrepresents nor uncritically accepts his ideas. While at times frustrating, the book is never boring, and I highly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in Stirner, especially for those also interested in communization theory. Even people who have been grappling with Stirner’s work and its implications for quite some time will find new insights, new challenges, and , one hopes, new weapons on reading it.
1 Some Stirner enthusiasts (notably Jason McQuinn and Wolfi Landstreicher) have questioned the classification of Stirner as a philosopher, saying Stirner’s logic followed to its conclusion necessarily leads to the refusal of philosophy. For the sake of readability and a desire to deal with Blumenfeld’s book on its own terms, I use the words “philosopher”and “philosophy”when he does.
2 For instance, Paul Lafargue’s The Right to Be Lazy, William Morris’s “Useful Work vs Useless Toil,”or the writings of Charles Fourier.
3 For more thorough explorations of the Stirner/Nietzsche relationship, see Welsh’s Max Stirner’s Dialectical Egoism and Nishitani’s The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism.