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From the Land of Proudhon, vol. 4

Karl Marx: Not Infallible

The French Marxist philosopher Étienne Balibar, a pupil of Louis Althuser, published in 1993 The Philosophy of Marx. This text is now, after twenty years, republished. In a new introduction, he asks”: what is the purpose of the re-published book? Balibar says ‘in order to understand Marx in the 21st century he should be read, not as a monument to the past, but like an actual author.’


Balibar assumes that the actuality corresponds to the fact, that the questions posed by Marx rest in fundamental value to the philosophy and concepts he develops. The importance of his philosophy is greater than ever, declares Balibar. I doubt that highly. Par example it is not surprising that one hears repeatedly, that a new Marx would have to stand up. This is not surprising because Karl Marx proved to be fallible in many ways.


The thing which disturbs me is that Balibar, in his text from 1993, highlights the discomfort of Marx on the anarchists like Stirner and Proudhon, without commenting on it (which I was not expecting him to do, but after twenty years reconsidering nothing is impossible…). Apparently Balibar still requires pushing Marx in that way to show his superiority. In his criticism, especially of anarchists, Marx has the self-styled aura of infallibility, while he worriedly sneered about them. He indeed called the individualist anarchist Max Stirner (1806-1856) ‘Saint Max’. Did he read him? Presumably. From this assumption, it can be concluded that he was in bad faith where he spoke about him as ‘Saint Max’. If there is somebody who has dismantled religion, it is Stirner.


After the dialectical fiasco in 1871 a new doctrine had to be devised on the dictatorship of the proletariat, whereby the state would be dismantled in the course of a phase of transition. Marx had not experienced the effects of such a vision. In the footsteps of other great classical philosophers, like those in the eyes of Balibar; Lenin, Stalin, Mao (and others) have shaped this. Keep in mind that this trio appear with Balibar in his new introduction – that of 2014. It is incredible that he should categorize this kind of men, butchers in fact, among the ‘great classical philosophers’.


Marx was on ‘the wrong side of history’ (Balibar recognises this several times). Marx has basically – so ‘systemic’ – made mistakes. Although the end of capitalism each time has been announced by Marx, it still exists. In short, the erudition of Marx notwithstanding, for the contemporary world of the 21st century Marx has been played out. His philosophy has not evidenced lasting value, whatever Balibar claims.


Karl Marx versus Max Stirner


Marx and Stirner lived in the nineteenth century. Marx longer than Stirner. The latter wrote the book entitled The Ego and Its Own that had been sharply criticized by Marx. Stirner could not have read that

Max Stirner
Max Stirner

criticism, because it was not published in his lifetime. Thus, there is no response from him on this critique, but others did for sure. The German anarchist Jochen Knoblauch has included this in his recently published book, titled Marx vs. Stirner (Lich / Hessen, 2014).


Max Stirner (1806-1856), pseudonym for Johann Kaspar Schmidt, has belonged to the Berlin circle of left Hegelians called ‘Die Freien’ (The Free). Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) often contested this circle. Stirner and Marx never met eachother. Stirner joined the circle when Marx had already left Berlin. Engels in contrast, must have known Stirner even if only briefly.


Stirner’s book that provoked much controversy, The Ego and Its Own, was published at the end of 1844. Knoblauch explains why there is a difference in the dates. It is the effect of the ruling government censorship. The censors have indeed seized what remained of the edition of The Ego. The book, however, was released again with the remark that “the work is too absurd to be dangerous,” as quoted Knoblauch.


Anyway, Stirner’s book was published and appeared afterwards in several reprints. It was different with the text written by Marx / English, The German Ideology, which – among other things – criticized Stirner. So, they wrote that text in the years 1845/1846, but it was only published in 1932 for the first time. The part containing the Stirner-criticism, appeared as St. Max in 1903/04. The Marxists rejoiced over it by speaking about him as Saint / Sankt or ‘Holy Max’. This was all about ridiculing libertarian ideas.


Stirner focuses on the individual. If you are yourself and know what you want, then you do not need a leader. Knoblach about this: it denotes the idea of a personality that says, ‘I do not want to lead nor be led’. That is a libertarian personality. Marx / Engels were out for followers, preferably slavishly. Their ideological descendants like Lenin, Stalin, Mao took this on as well. Who would not follow slavishly, would feel the force of it anyway. Millions of people have therefore – under the dictatorship of the proletariat – paid with their life. Knoblauch notes here that Marx obviously is not responsible for what Stalin or Pol Pot have done wrong, but he is responsible for formulating a dogmatic ideology. The scientific claim that Marx made needed a kind of acceptance of authority that would always lead to catastrophe.


In a further elaboration of the Stirnerian optics Knoblauch refers to the existence of differences in emphasis between individual and social anarchism. At the same time, there is also talk of complementarity. Knoblauch thus points to the similarity in the description of freedom in the sense of Stirner and Bakunin. In both freedom of the individual depends on the extent to which other individuals are free. Isolated freedom is unthinkable for both. It does not matter to whom one relies Knoblauch seems to say. The blurring of the difference is also evident in the emergence of new social movements in the 1970s with their citizens’ initiatives, local social action groups, canteens and so on. Along that path reflected libertarian virtues like solidarity, elaborations of basic democracy and creation of power-free areas. Today’s Occupy movement works as an example, although not anarchic, past some libertarian lines. We are everywhere, Knoblauch exclaims. ‘For me as an anarchist,’ he says, ‘freedom means above all creating power absence and anti-patriarchal structures. Here the state has no right to exist, because it involves society. The basic braid that links society by social interaction’. And who has followed closely what has happened: there is no more matter of Marx.

Thom Holterman

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