Max Stirner’s Philosophy Is Actually Worth Reading

February 5, 2024

Max Stirner is mainly remembered as the “nihilist” thinker derided by Karl Marx. But, a newly translated article by German socialist Hermann Duncker argues, Stirner’s philosophy of self-liberation has important lessons for the working-class movement.

Essay By Hermann Duncker

Translation by Jacob Blumenfeld

Translator’s Introduction

Does the working class need a philosophy — and if so, which one? There is perhaps no answer more shocking than that given by the socialist politician and historian Hermann Duncker in 1897. He answered that yes, it does need one — and it should be the philosophy of Max Stirner.

Proletarian philosophy as the philosophy of the famous anarchist nihilist Max Stirner? This makes no sense at all — if we assume that Stirner’s philosophy is simply anarchist and nihilist. Such a ridiculous description of Stirner’s thought has been bandied around since the publication of his book Der Einzige und sein Eigentum (The Unique and its Property, often mistranslated as The Ego and its Own) in 1844. And yet such a description contains nary a shred of truth.

We tend to think of Stirner as either a negative foil to Karl Marx or a positive analogy to Friedrich Nietzsche. Rarely is he read on his own terms. Squeezed between anarchists appropriating him and Marxists denouncing him, Stirner has had almost no room to breathe. And yet it was not always like this. Rather than reading him as a bad Hegelian or a good Nietzschean, we should take him at his own word, as a grand critic of modern society, a ruthless destroyer of idols and identities, a thinker who despised the platitudes of patriotism, the essence of ethics, rituals of religion, the gods of gender, and the norms of nationality.

Stirner advocated the self-liberation of the individual from fixed dogmas and sacred conventions through combining with others in voluntary associations to accomplish what no one could do on their own: be free. For Stirner, the struggle to live one’s own life free from the domination of others requires starting from oneself, from one’s own needs and desires, and building from there. No more fighting for God’s cause, the nation’s cause, the people’s cause — but for oneself, one’s own cause. This cause is not reducible to maximizing utility, acquiring wealth, or seeking pleasure — rather, it names a multiplicity of incommensurable ends that each individual pursues throughout their changing life, sometimes failing, sometimes reaching, always striving anew. To fulfil such ends is impossible on one’s own, thus egoism, as Engels once noted, immediately turns into communism, for one cannot appropriate one’s own life without the power that comes from fighting with others in common, for ourselves, joyfully and in solidarity. This insight, lost and found throughout the ages, finds apt expression in this short, optimistic piece by Hermann Duncker, originally published in Sozialistische Monatshefte in July 1897 and here translated into English for the first time.

Duncker is quite an impressive figure in German socialist history. Born in 1874 as the son of a bankrupted Hamburg merchant, the Duncker family moved to Göttingen where Hermann attended high school, raised by his mother. In 1897, when he wrote this article, he was a twenty-three-year-old member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), studying political economy and philosophy in Leipzig under Wilhelm Wundt, Karl Bücher, and Karl Lamprecht, having just finished a degree in music. Shortly thereafter, he married Käte Duncker (née Döll), a remarkable socialist in her own right. Together, they traveled around giving lectures on socialist themes, and during World War I, they split from the SPD to help found the Spartacist League with Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, and Clara Zetkin, and eventually helped found the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). Both were on the KPD’s first central committee. Hermann founded the Marxist Workers’ School in 1925 and remained committed to a united front with the Social Democrats. During Nazi rule, Käte escaped to the United States, while Hermann made his way through Denmark, Britain, France, Morocco, and eventually the United States. After the war, they returned to eastern Germany and joined the Socialist Unity Party (SED), while Hermann taught at Rostock, eventually becoming head of the German Trade Federation (FDGB). He died in 1960, and was buried in Berlin’s Friedrichsfelde Cemetery next to the Memorial for the Socialists, commemorating Luxemburg and Liebknecht.

This article below may seem out of place today, as words like “justice” and “rights” dominate the discourse of the Left. But the idea that Stirner can be read positively by workers, the fact that his thought can be seen as an inspiration to the working class, should finally awaken socialists from the dogma that we must fight for a higher cause than our own. For Duncker, following Stirner, proletarians need not look outside themselves and their own needs. Trusting that workers can think and decide for themselves is a basic prerequisite for social emancipation. As Duncker pointed out in a note to this text, Stirner’s “main philosophical work can be bought in the Reklam edition for 80 pfennig, and thus everyone can form his or her own judgment on the basis of the work itself.” For who knows more than the worker how much their work degrades them? What a “philosophy of the proletariat” can do is remove some of the ideological barriers to self-emancipation, but it can never achieve that itself. That is the burden of those who want such emancipation, and fight for it.

A Philosophy for the Proletariat by Hermann Duncker

One speaks of a science for the people, of an art for the proletariat — and not only in theory; practice has also provided the people with works that seek to meet their needs, to expand their education and knowledge. The various histories from the Dietz publishing house, the scientific and economic books of the Workers’ Library give the proletarian — as long as they find their way into his hands — a treasure trove of knowledge that can already make him intellectually superior to the bourgeoisie, baptized with so-called “higher education.” Given the diversity of these intellectual products, it is surprising that one area seems to be almost completely passed over: philosophy!

Does not the socialist worldview demand its anchoring in philosophy? The feeling of this necessity probably led [Friedrich] Engels in his time to conduct the polemic against [Eugen] Dühring in a broader, popular style, but his revolution of science offers only a stringing together of philosophical fragments, as the critical nature of his task entailed. It is difficult to extract a system from it. The attempt to create such a system was undertaken by Leopold Jacoby in his Idea of Development, of which the first two parts have been published; the death of the author has made it impossible to expand and complete the work into a whole. But what Jacoby develops is more or less a philosophy of nature — he himself was a natural scientist by profession. Philosophy as a by-product of natural science has given rise to a number of popular philosophical treatises. But the more or less serious dubiousness of its hypotheses condemns it. We cannot be content with the fact that their theories, which have long since been since obsolete and disproven, seep through the channels of cheap popular editions into the working masses, as happened with [Ludwig] Büchner’s Force and Matter. And why should the modern view of life be developed and promoted only by the long detour via natural science?

The epistemological philosophy of the Kantian school (to which [Joseph] Dietzgen, the worker-philosopher, still adheres in his Positive Outcome of Philosophy), has been replaced by the philosophy of nature; but this, too, had to make way for a new philosophical approach that sought a psychological foundation. With this change in scientific horizon, the philosopher’s object also changed; if earlier one passed from the idealistic soul to the materialistic body, now, as it were, both objects are combined into one. And since one was aware of this connection in oneself, the “realistic I” became the starting point and object of philosophical reflection.

The “I-philosophy,” as it sounds aphoristically from the modern artistic creations of [Henrik] Ibsen, [Fyodor] Dostoyevsky, [Richard] Dehmel and others, and as it has found its youngest and most dazzling representative in Friedrich Nietzsche, starts from the individual alone. This lack of presuppositions, the restriction to one’s own self-knowledge, makes this philosophy particularly suitable for the worker. The capitalist system, which made him take his hide to the market at an early age, thus awakens the feeling of personality in him far more readily than in a bourgeois boy who only puts a colorful cap on his ego at university. The life experiences that the worker gathers in abundance in the struggle for existence soon prompt him to think about the value or worth of his labor power, and since this cannot be separated from himself, he easily comes to reflections about the value of his personality or about its lack of worth in relation to the world of the propertied classes.

What sustains the socialist movement, if not the awakened self-awareness of the masses! Self-consciousness and self-confidence are correlative terms, here; the one is not conceivable without the other. It is a well-known fact that one thinks more about what one does not have than about what one does have; thus thoughts about justice and violence, state and law, property and family easily nestle in the head of the disinherited and dispossessed proletarian. His thoughts are not bound to the status quo, he need not stop at the hallowed institutions of the state, for he has nothing to lose, but a world to win!

Doesn’t this whole line of thought run parallel with the “philosophy of the individual?” Only that the latter tried much more laboriously and incompletely to conceptually get rid of the phenomena that already ceased to exist objectively for the proletariat. However, this philosophical treatment has the great advantage that it awakens and supports individual observation through the entire structure of its system, and makes it easier for the philosophizing individual to gain insight and overview of the world circling around him.

The clearest and deepest builder of this I-philosophy is Max Stirner, and his philosophy of The Unique and its Property is a book that should be in the hand of every thinking worker.

Nietzsche has often been called Stirner’s successor, and judging by the chronology, nothing could be said against it. Stirner wrote about forty years before Nietzsche. But according to the content, one would like to reverse the relationship, since Stirner completes and synthesizes Nietzsche’s fragments. However, a great contrast between the two must be mentioned, since this is what most recommends Stirner to us as a philosophical teacher of the proletariat.

Nietzsche is an aristocrat, Stirner a plebeian (meant in its proper sense). Nietzsche writes for the cultured, weary of culture, in a refined, artistic style, which presupposes an infinite amount of leisure time and positive knowledge for understanding — and the worker can acquire both only with difficulty. Stirner addresses the egoist, who is to shake off the yoke of centuries of servitude to prejudices and illusions, but also to state power and exploitation. His language is unvarnished and coarse; he presupposes nothing but a free gaze and a free heart. In various places he appeals to proletarian feeling and proletarian power.

There is no question that one must first read into Stirner; one must skip over some parts of his long polemic against Christianity and the liberalism of the forties. Above all, terms like “people,” “liberalism,” and “communism” have to be explained in their historical context. Nevertheless, one will soon forget that the book is already more than fifty years old.

His remarks on the history of the development of the bourgeoisie, on church and state, his theory of law, and more, contain a wealth of far-reaching insights. What he says about the question of pauperism, i.e. the “social question” of his time, is right on p. 294 (but perhaps a few examples give the best insight):

States are being asked to eliminate pauperism. This is like asking the state to cut off its own head and lay it at its feet.

And further, on p. 296:

Pauperism is my worthlessness, the fact that I cannot make use of myself. Thus, the state and pauperism are one and the same. The state does not let me achieve my worth and only exists through my worthlessness: it always seeks to draw benefit from me, i.e., to exploit, to deplete, to consume me, even if this consumption only consists in my supplying proles (proletariat); it wants me to be ‘its creature.’ Pauperism can only then be removed when I make use of myself as myself, when I give myself value, and make my own price myself. I must revolt in order to rise.

At this point, another point may be touched upon, which unfortunately is often decisive today. It is the fact that Stirner is discredited — as a “philosopher of anarchism.” One cannot oppose this discrediting of his philosophy sharply enough: anyone can be exploited by anyone! And it is true that Stirner knows nothing of modern socialism, he even fights the utopian communism of [Wilhelm] Weitling and [Pierre-Joseph] Proudhon. But he doesn’t put his philosophy at all into the narrow frame of a sociopolitical system, for him what matters is the I — and the union! The union is nothing other than a type of modern fighting organization, the trade union, as Stirner himself (pp. 315–318) describes a strike by such a union in the most vivid colors!

A French critic calls Der Einzige (The Unique) a book that one leaves as a monarch — un livre qu’on quitte monarque. Well, the proletariat has been a slave long enough to be allowed to play the master for once. But for the role of master it must also possess the master’s consciousness, and this is the great lesson and fruit of reading Stirner.

It is not recognized in the whole fullness of the word that all freedom is essentially — self-emancipation, i.e., that I can only have as much freedom as I get through my ownness. Of what use is it to sheep that no one curtails their freedom of speech? They stick to bleating!


Hermann Duncker was a Marxist historian and leading figure in the German workers’ education movement. He was a member of the Social Democratic Party and later the German Communists.

Jacob Blumenfeld is author of All Things Are Nothing to Me: The Unique Philosophy of Max Stirner.


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