How Modernism Grows Up

Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach (1846) characterizes the young Hegelian idealists as basically bratty youngsters whose overeducation permitted their total dismissal of the actual material conditions of Germany. “The boasting of these philosophical commentators,” writes Marx, “only mirrors the wretchedness of the real conditions of Germany” (29). Hegel, and, later, Stirner and Feuerbach fail to get free of God and the state, because God and the state are not ideas. They are material conditions which arise out of specific improvements in the modes of material production of a given economy. The state emerges not out of God, but out of the competition of global market, which emerges out of new modes of material production. German philosophy can only treat ideas, and if the philosophy is bad, as Stirner’s was, then the “wretched material conditions of Germany are too blame. Who then can blame Stirner for, in his doctrine of Egoism, flipping wretchedness into virtue?

In Marsden’s magazine The Egoist, Marsden picks up the fight of ideas. That issue 1.18 of The Egoist begins with an essay on anarchism—a fantasy which can only ever exist in ideas alone—isn’t surprising. The success of the manifesto often depends on the brazenness of its ideas, not the pragmatism of its claims. That Marsden is writing about Egoism and Anarchism in the middle of the First World War is, however, surprising. On the surface, Egoism is built to destabilize nationhood and to challenge the The First World War as a crisis of nation as idea. Nations, to Marsden, are only ideas. But one can think them away. Revolution, Marx taunts, “is supposed to have taken place in the realm of pure thought” (30). The First World War was resoundingly not an idea. It killed several key modernist artists. Ideas did not kill them. The First World War proves Marx right. “Men must be in a position to live in order to ‘make history,’” he writes (49). The modernists who survived left behind, in large part, the idealism of the manifesto, as it appears in the little magazines, in order to become properly political. Joyce, for example, leaves the eternally thinking Stephen Dedalus to embrace the Jewish Leopold Bloom who is built to navigate the actual material conditions of prejudice, suicide, and marriage because of his dogged pragmatism. It is in this way the coterie of idealists that formed the corpus of literary modernism grew up.