The Ego Made Manifest: Max Stirner, Egoism, and the Modern Manifesto

By | October 4, 2023

Max Stirner produced only a single book in his lifetime. Since the publication of this book, The Ego and its Own, in 1844, he has been portrayed as a founding figure in every radically dangerous ideology to haunt the modern mind. As a principal influence in the history of egoism—a branch of radical philosophy that sees the self as the source of all meaning and value—he has been called everything from idealist to nihilist, from libertarian to fascist, from atheist to saint. He has remained a quintessential example of the philosopher as a rebel throughout.

In 1889, Frederick Engels proposed that “Proudhon’s harmless, purely etymological anarchy […] would never have resulted in the present anarchist doctrines had not Bakunin laced it with a good measure of Stirnerian ‘rebellion’” (“Engels to Max Hildebrand” 394). Karl Marx directed more than 300 pages of bitter invective against him in a tirade that was virtually unpublishable until all the references to Stirner were expunged after Marx’s death, and it became The German Ideology. Stéphane Mallarmé, Rebecca West, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, Herbert Read, Tristan Tzara, Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, and Albert Camus all felt the weight of Stirner’s influence. In Specters of Marx, Jacques Derrida advised that we should “take seriously the originality, audacity, and, precisely, the philosophico-political seriousness of Stirner who also should be read without Marx or against him” (151). Nevertheless, for twenty-first-century readers, Stirner remains a relative unknown outside the fringes of anarchist philosophy.

            The research that underpins this book began as an enquiry into the intellectual history of the manifesto as used by avant-garde movements and political radicals. I wanted to understand how it was that the manifesto as a form—so closely aligned with the values of The Communist Manifesto—resonated so strongly with artists, writers, and radicals of very different political persuasions. Why would the modern manifesto as developed by Marx appeal to individuals as fundamentally opposed to the cause of communism as nationalists, reactionaries, and fascist fellow travelers? What potential did writers such as Jean Moréas, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, and Wyndham Lewis see in a form so immured in the history of a Marxist communism which they derided?

As I began to trace the shared influences on the diverse collection of artists, writers, and radicals to engage with the manifesto in the first decade of the twentieth century, I was surprised to repeatedly encounter references to Max Stirner, a name with which I had only a dim familiarity. Stirner appeared as an all-consuming preoccupation for Marx in the years immediately preceding the writing of The Communist Manifesto. He reappeared as a name used to brand Stéphane Mallarmé as a literary anarchist. I encountered him again and again: in the pages of Symbolist literary journals; in the work of Maurice Barrès; in discussions of Marinetti; in the pages of Dora Marsden’s modernist-cum-feminist journal, The Egoist; in the very heart of Wyndham Lewis’s Blast. While remaining focused on the development of the modern manifesto, the direction of my research began to shift towards an examination of how and why Stirner’s reception history became so entwined with the development of the avant-garde manifesto.

I found that many of the manifestos of Symbolism, Futurism, and Vorticism—along with several important Dadaist manifestos—adapted Stirner’s concept of egoistic insurrection to effect artistic revolts against tradition. Indeed, a generation of avant-garde authors used the manifesto as a way of seizing control of abstract ideals, both to liberate their own art and to take ownership of the work of others. When placed within the context of Stirner’s thought, manifestos represent a self-appointed leader’s effort to take ownership and control of a movement’s values and ideals. In the case of literary manifestos, egoism underpins an effort to create new forms of artistic convention that remain within the manifesto writer’s power. Such manifestos codify the values of a movement’s founder and self-appointed leader and apply them to people who wish to be members of the group. Meanwhile, the manifesto writer remains free to produce a stream of manifestos that either reconfigure the existing movement or found a new movement according to individual whims.

In The Ego Made Manifest, I explore the way the egoist’s desire to seize personal control over abstractions finds outlet in the manifesto, a form that by its nature transforms abstract ideals into personal property. In The Communist Manifesto—as Stirner would read the situation—the collective notion of communism became Marx’s personal vision of communism. The manifesto turns the abstract into the personal, and serves the practical, political ends of the individual.

Wayne Bradshaw, author of The Ego Made Manifest, is Adjunct Research Associate in the College of Arts, Society and Education at James Cook University, Australia. He holds a PhD in literary studies and the history of ideas and researches egoism’s influence on modernist literature.

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