Thursday, September 1, 2011

Fascism and radical egoism

Max Stirner (1806-1856) advocated absolute egoism: my ego is for me the only reality and the only value, and in affirming it I am simply myself. All general values and ideals (God, progress, humanity, etc.) are foreign to myself and do not concern me.

But Stirner believed that our minds are forever besieged and manipulated by such ideas and ideals which he saw as alien values, toxic abstractions:

"Man, your head is haunted ... You imagine great things, and depict to yourself a whole world of gods that has an existence for you, a spirit realm to which you suppose yourself to be called, an ideal that beckons you." The Ego and its own (Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 43).

In the manner of memes (as described in recent years by Susan Blackmore and others), such ideas subject the individual to themselves: they call the tune.

On the face of it such a philosophy would encourage individualism and perhaps anarchism, and indeed Stirner's writings inspired anarchists in the 1890s and beyond. But, curiously, Stirner's ideas also inspired various German proto-fascist groups.

Leszek Kołakowski tried to make sense of this apparent paradox at a time when the chief threat to liberal democracy seemed to be from the left. Today, when the far right has regained a prominent place in the political landscape, his reflections are of even greater interest than they were when they were first published (in Polish) in 1976.

"At first sight, Nazi totalitarianism may seem the opposite of Stirner's radical individualism. But fascism was above all an attempt to dissolve the social ties created by history and replace them by artificial bonds among individuals who were expected to render explicit obedience to the state on grounds of absolute egoism. Fascist education combined the tenets of asocial egoism and unquestioning conformism, the latter being the means by which the individual secured his own niche in the system. Stirner's philosophy has nothing to say against conformism, it only objects to the Ego being subordinated to any higher principle: the egoist is free to adjust to the world if it is clear he will better himself by doing so. His 'rebellion' may take the form of utter servility if it will further his interest; what he must not do is to be bound by 'general' values or myths of humanity. The totalitarian ideal of a barrack-like society from which all real, historical ties have been eliminated is perfectly consistent with Stirner's principles: the egoist, by his very nature, must be prepared to fight under any flag that suits his convenience." (Main currents of Marxism (W.W. Norton, 2005, pp.137-138))

It seems clear to me that many of the 'historical ties' that once anchored Europeans and Americans have indeed been stripped away by various cultural and technological forces, so that large segments of the population in Western countries may now be vulnerable to something like a new form of fascism.


  1. Brrrr ... but you're spot on. And you may have the hint of a shadow of an outline solving a problem that has troubled me often: how to separate conservatism from fascism. Often they are associated in popular essays (editorials) probably because "traditionalism" and "conformism" are related impulses, both often seen as "reactionary." But increasingly some observers find a fascist tendency in radical liberals: the "statist" view of government, for one thing and the general attitude of "political correctness" for another, both imposed from above rather than growing from common consent. Looking at egoism as above, it might be possible to figure out where the line is crossed from true liberal (which at its core means freedom) to fascism on the left. Perhaps it is that point at which natural individual egoism is suppressed not by the individual, but by authority.

    Or something like that.

  2. Generally, there is a close and complex relationship between the individual and state authority which makes it difficult to draw the line you want to draw. Regimes which rely solely on violence arguably don't have authority - they just exercise power.

    I tend to favor a narrower definition of fascism than you seem to be employing, one based on characteristic features of those movements of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. So, for example, traditional conservatism - even reactionary conservatism - would not be classed as fascist.

  3. I think that any link between the little-known Stirner and the mass phenomenon of fascism could be made plausible only by broadening the picture. And, I suggest, the missing link here has the initials "FN", whose radical individualism was mass marketed -- and maybe travestied into radical conformism -- by his charming sister.

  4. Alan, it seems to me that there are two distinct ways of looking at this - historically, or in terms of the basic ideas. Yes, some of Nietzsche's writings influenced fascists and Nazis. But his best works are full of deep and subtle insights into human nature, human psychology and culture. His outlook is - in my opinion - not compatible with fascism (and certainly not with National Socialism). He read Stirner, by the way, but apparently didn't discuss him.

  5. Interesting. I didn't know whether Nietzsche knew Stirner.

    I agree with your general perspective. But I think Nietzsche's great failure was his inability to see how elements of his thinking could be misused. He predicted a catastrophe that was about to occur but did not know that he would be such a big part of it. Terrible.

    Nietzsche had no prudence, I think. No?

  6. One must remember, however, that the poor fellow had a progressive disease that slowly destroyed his brain. His writings got crazier and crazier and more and more extreme leading up to his final collapse into madness and dependency in January 1889.

  7. In the long Kołakowski quote you provide, the crux observation is Fascist education combined the tenets of asocial egoism and unquestioning conformism. Assuming Kolakowski has accurately described Fascist education, he's identifying the fault line between two tectonic plates (individual vs state) which Fascist doctrine attempts to fuse (in favor of the state) but cannot do without subverting individual freedom. Try as one might, one cannot say "you are free to capitulate to the state" in theory without connoting in practice "you are free only to capitulate to the state" -- and there's the fault line. That's where Fascism breaks. You can create a world in which it's in everyone's best interest to submit to authority, but it will not be a happy world -- in fact it will be a police state.

    What's interesting here is, by the end of the quoted section, the self-interested solution is pure Hobbes: the individual fights under whatever flag is convenient. Hobbes observed that loyalty to the state is contingent on its ability to provide order and protection. When the regime can no longer do that, the citizen can switch loyalties to a regime that can. Notice in both cases -- the Nazi state in practice, and the Hobbesian state in theory -- the emphasis is on a strong leader who is enabled by power more than by goodness, wisdom or virtue. Authority trumps morality -- it becomes the morality. Or, more simply: might makes right. Arbeit macht frei. Eventually such a system will break because the human being -- call it the ego -- will rise against any regime based on conformity rather than (or above) freedom.

  8. GC, your view of Hobbes is popular but contrary to what Mr H said. Viz:

    "it is a precept, or general rule of reason: that every man ought to endeavour peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek and use all helps and advantages of war. The first branch of which rule containeth the first and fundamental law of nature, which is: to seek peace and follow it. The second, the sum of the right of nature, which is: by all means we can to defend ourselves."

    Hobbes was a peacenik.

  9. GC, I too was feeling you had been a little hard on Hobbes (for whom I feel some affinity), but I see the logic of what you say about fascism: a forced choice is no choice at all. And I agree that fascism is unsustainable. In practice, fascist regimes have been short-lived, but I have put that down to the impossibility of maintaining a general sense of urgency and heightened consciousness (as in a war) for an extended period.

  10. Alan I can read the same quote and find the peace-at-any-cost "Chamberlain peace" embedded right there. As I read Hobbes, he was concerned mostly to defend monarchy as a form of government, and his first criterion was how much "stability" (or order) any form of government provided. He did say what I outlined above, and I don't think the quote you give us is necessarily inconsistent with that. He is famous for his view that humans, without any form of government, are in a war of all against all and for his belief that individuals are justified in doing anything necessary (including loyalty to a despot -- but only if it is advantageous) to ensure their own survival. For such views, some commentators accuse him of being a prototypical relativist (when actually he is a pragmatist, but why quibble). I am always hard on Hobbes. His conservatism is the old Tory kind, making order more important than how it is achieved. Obviously many people think otherwise.

  11. I think you would agree that Hobbes accepted the legitimacy of the Commonwealth, once it had become the established order. What he basically held was that there has to be some final order, otherwise social conflict is unstoppable, and we then end up in the war of each against each, from which we all lose. He didn't think there was any actual state of nature, because he thought such a condition was impossible.

    If Hitler offers peace, as a ruse to divert us from his true intentions, then there is no reason to accept the offer, on Hobbesian grounds. The mere fact of Hitler's "might" doesn't make him "right". But if peace is genuinely offered, then it is wrong to refuse to accept it.