Victor Yarros, “‘Egoism’ Bedeviling Anarchism”

The Critic and Guide, 4 no. 11 (November, 1950).


Benjamin R. Tucker’s rather sudden conversion to Max Stirner’s philosophy of Egoism was a calamitous accident. There is nothing in common between individualist and philosophical Anarchism as Tucker developed it on the foundations laid by Jefferson, Thoreau, Emerson, Warren, Spooner, Spencer, Herbert, Green and Andrews, and Stirner’s German political metaphysics. Some of Tucker’s adherents uncritically swallowed. Egoism and persuaded themselves that it was a corollary, if not a logical deduction from anarchistic premises. This was a gross error. Egoism is half platitudinous, half fallacious. Philosophical utilitarianism and evolutional ethics have not been discredited or undermined by the new sciences or the discoveries in the old sciences. No element of Superstition or dogmatic theology renders them alien to the modern temper and spirit. They remain sound and rational.

Tucker never even attempted a refutation of the postulates and principles of evolutional ethics. He printed my editorials on Spencer’s “Justice” with full approval, and certainly Spencerian treatment of ethics was not pseudo-metaphysical. Stirner would have quarrelled with it had he understood it and its vital connection with English philosophy, from Locke and Hume down to Mill and Spencer.

What the Stirnerites overlook is that undue emphasis on “The Ego and His Own” is inconsistent with the basic fact that man is a social animal, and that individual growth and self-realization requires a high degree of social evolution. The individual’s property is a social product. The right of the individual is limited by the equal rights of other individuals. Respect for the individual and his dignity is impossible in a society of a predatory and aggressive character. Peace, external and internal, is essential to freedom and equality of opportunity. Society is merely a name for many organizations and institutions, voluntary or compulsory, designed: to promote the education, security and other satisfactions of individuals. The “Ego” is a fiction.

Another egregious error of the Stirner school has to do with the question of “taste” and degrees of culture. To say that all tastes are equal in some sense is a half-truth. If you like whisky, and I prefer port or Champagne, or if you enjoy Sousa and I love classical music, you are entitled to Sousa programs as I am to Bach-Beethoven-Brahms programs. But it is absurd to contend that my taste is not “superior” culturally to yours. All cultured persons know that the taste for great music is acquired by acquaintance with the masters of great music, by hearing and reading about such music. The musical elite is small in any society, but common sense recognizes that it is an elite.

In morals or human behavior, likewise, there are recognizable differences of degree, if not of kind. The high-minded person is universally admired, and the selfish, crude and callous person is generally despised. Manners are inferior morals. Morals are superior manners. We do not cultivate the society of boors and vulgarians. We seek our social equals.

Human conduct is not easily described or characterized. But we know that certain acts are selfish, other acts altruistic, and still others ego-altruistic. We commend some acts and condemn others. We are aware that motives are complex, mixed and obscure, and our distinctions and classifications are rough and approximate. They serve useful purposes, however, and only the pedant fails to recognize them.

I have never seen any valid criticism of Spencer’s “Data of Ethics” and his discussion of justice, negative beneficence and positive beneficence, or altruism proper. I agree with Spencer that the highest product of social or moral evolution is the human being who finds pleasure in giving pleasure to others, and to whom “duty” is not a burden or sacrifice but a spontaneous expression of evolved natural feel.

These ideas are at no point in conflict with philosophical Anarchism. Stirner’s Egoism is based on German pseudo-science and pseudo-metaphysics. Tucker and his followers alienated many potential Anarchists by their thoughtless acceptance of that issue of half-baked nihilisms.

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Independent scholar, translator and archivist.