Tag Archives: Anarchism


Hannah Askari took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2015. In this post she writes about ‘Individualism’ as a philosophical keyword.

Image from http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/8940211/in-defence-of-individualism/

Image from http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/8940211/in-defence-of-individualism/

Individualism (a)

‘The habit of being independent and self-reliant; behaviour characterized by the pursuit of one’s own goals without reference to others; free and independent individual action or thought.’[1]

I began my research with a simple Google of ‘individualism.’ It resulted, interestingly, with the discovery of a website titled Individualism. After a few more searches I found that this website has wholeheartedly embraced social media and also has a Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and a Facebook page. The website describes itself, rather paradoxically, as ‘a collective dedicated to celebrating men’s style.’ It’s a place where you (and the rest of the internet world) can find tips and tricks on how to express your individuality aesthetically. For myself, this online faction exemplifies what ‘individualism’ means today in the twenty-first century.

To be ‘individual’ can today often compliment a person with a unique fashion sense or eccentricity; something the website is adhering to. However, ‘individualism’ is still also a word with a range of connotations. It is a political philosophy that puts the individual’s moral worth at its centre. Left-wing commentator, columnist and author Owen Jones complains about the promotion of ‘dog-eat-dog individualism’[2] of contemporary Tories as a replacement for strong working-class values such as community and solidarity. In this sense, to be ‘individual’ is often associated with selfishness, egotism and greed; adjectives that most would agree is not particularly desirable.

Nonetheless, the political and aesthetic ideal of ‘individualism’ actually has a much longer history.

Oscar Wilde, is arguably one of the primary figures when thinking about aesthetic individualism. His flamboyant philosophy justified his colourful persona; which is articulated through fictional characters in his literature and essays. Wilde believed in the value that ‘aesthetics are higher than ethics’[3]; he believed the superior aim in life was to be able to ‘discern the beauty of a thing.’[4] His philosophy was an attack on the old-fashioned Victorian values of altruism. He, and other anti-altruists ‘wanted to create a new moral language and a new kind of ethics’[5]; one which focused on art and the individual. Although Wilde’s philosophy of aestheticism was not totally new or original, it did allow a real distancing from Victorian tradition. Wilde’s provocative interpretations are exemplified in De Profundis in which he writes of Christ that:

People have tried to make him out an ordinary philanthropist, or ranked him as an altruist with the unscientific and sentimental. But he was really neither one nor the other[6]

Ultimately, Wilde puts forward Christ as ‘the most supreme of individualists’[7] and proposes that one should be helpful and charitable to others, not for their benefit but for one’s own self-fulfilment.

Oscar Wilde flamboyancy in picture form. Image from http://www.oscarwildeinamerica.org/features/the-modern-messiah.html

Oscar Wilde: flamboyancy in picture form. Image from http://www.oscarwildeinamerica.org/features/the-modern-messiah.html

Degeneration theorist, Max Nordau, said that Oscar Wilde’s aesthetic individualism was only ‘a purely anti-socialistic, ego-maniacal recklessness and hysterical longing to make a sensation.’[8] Understandably for the conventional Victorian, Wilde was the incarnation of the signs of a troubling modern culture in the 1890s.

In the 1890s, English philosopher G.E. Moore was inspired by Oscar Wilde, and began to compare the importance of altruism and egoism as ethical moralities. He was asking himself questions such as ‘are we selfish?’ and ‘do we love ourselves best?’[9] His 1903 publication Principia Ethica, settles that:

Egoism is undoubtedly superior to altruism as a doctrine of means; in the immense majority of cases the best thing we can do is to aim at securing some good in which we are concerned, since for that very reason we are more likely to secure it.[10]

Principia Ethica is an innovative philosophical enquiry into what it is that constitutes ‘good’. For the forward thinking Bloomsbury Group it became a sort of Bible and laid the philosophical groundwork of their aesthetic principles. For both Moore and those of the Bloomsbury Group, the ethical ‘good’ was embodied by the importance of individual relationships and personal life. Moore furthered Wilde’s belief that detection of beauty ‘is the finest point to which we can arrive,’[11] defining beautiful as ‘that of which the admiring contemplation is good in itself.’[12] For G.E. Moore, it was in the goodness of art and beauty in which one found moral meanings, not in philanthropy and thinking of others.

Individualism (b)

‘The principle or theory that individuals should be allowed to act freely and independently in economic and social matters without collective or state interference.’[13]

Anarchist-feminist Dora Marsden worked for the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU ) but became motivated to express her individualism. She was known for her involvement in serious political demonstrations; which eventually led to a formal break from the WSPU. She established her own magazine near the end of 1911: The Freewoman: A Weekly Feminist Review. She wished to advocate a feminism which dealt with more than just suffrage; a ‘third-wave way before her time.

Dora Marsden being arrested for her suffragette activism in Manchester 1909. Image from Greater Manchester Police Museum

Dora Marsden being arrested for her suffragette activism in Manchester 1909. Image from Greater Manchester Police Museum

It was Max Stirner’s The Ego and his Own, which offered a philosophy dedicated to individualism that influenced Marsden even further. Stirner argues self-mastery is only able to exist when the individual is free from all obligations, only then than the individual be sure that they are never used by others for their ends but only by the individual for the individual’s own ends. Stirner believed that a platform concerned with the welfare of groups would ruin those exceptional individuals.

It was this concept of the individual (and the lack of funding) for The Freewoman, which drove Dora Marsden to create The New Freewoman: An Individualist Review; It followed that:

The New Freewoman is not for the advancement of Woman, but for the empowering of individuals—men and women; it is not to set women free, but to demonstrate the fact that “freeing” is the individual’s affair and must be done first-hand[14]

The New Freewoman was a short-lived publication and by January 1914 it had morphed into The Egoist: An Individualist Review. The Egoist became one of the primary magazines of modernism, and was home to a number of influential literary artists, such as Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, T. S. Eliot. Moreover, James Joyce’s first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was printed as a serial in The Egoist.

Marsden’s transformation to Stirnian individualism can actually be seen as a natural development. It all began as a protest against the Pankhursts’ methods and rejected the idea that the women’s movement was dependent on the sacrifice of individualism. Her magazines are a satisfying evidence for her changing and evolving perspective; firstly as a supporter of democratic suffrage and then an advocate of anarchistic individualism.

The transformation of the journal under Marsden's editorship. Image from http://modjourn.org/

The transformation of the journal under Marsden’s editorship. Image from http://modjourn.org/

Nevertheless it was not Dora Marsden who Russell Brand called the ‘icon of individualism.’[15] That instead is Margaret Thatcher, of course! Thatcher is often criticised for having ‘implanted the gene of greed in the British soul’[16], epitomised by the onslaught of the ‘yuppie’ culture. Aspiration became the thirst for a bigger ‘thing’ like a car, or house.

Following Thatcher’s death in 2013 there was a surge of discussion around her infamous quote:

There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.[17]

Thatcher, like many before her, saw individualism as an important aspect of life. Unfortunately her premiership has, and still does, create fierce debate. When David Cameron won the Conservative Party leadership in 2005 he stated that ‘there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state.’[18] He wanted to distance himself from the controversy which surrounds Thatcher who is still associated with a selfish and uncaring individualism.

Oscar Wilde once said that individualism ‘seeks to disturb the monotony of type, slavery of custom, tyranny of habit, and the reduction of man to the level of a machine.’[19] We are closer today than ever before to turning man into a machine and individualism is under threat. How interesting would it be to ‘do’ an Oscar Wilde, a Dora Marsden, even a Margaret Thatcher, let the individual loose and disturb … absolutely everything?

Further reading:

Dixon, T The Invention of Altruism: Making Moral Meanings in Victorian Britain, (Oxford: Published for the British Academy by Oxford University Press, 2008)

Clarke, B. Dora Marsden And Early Modernism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996).

Wilde, O. et al., The Complete Works Of Oscar Wilde (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

Brown, S. L. The Politics Of Individualism (Montréal: Black Rose Books, 1993).

Meiksins Wood, E. Mind and Politics: An Approach to the Meaning of Liberal and Socialist Individualism. (University of California Press, 1972)


Clarke, B. Dora Marsden And Early Modernism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996).

Dixon, T. The Invention Of Altruism (Oxford University Press, 2008)

Jones, O. Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, (London: Verso, 2011)

Wilde, O. et al, The Complete Works Of Oscar Wilde (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)


BBC News

The Guardian

Margaret Thatcher Foundation

Oxford English Dictionary

Modernist Journals Project

The Spectator

The Spectator Archive, 1828-2008


[1] [1] Oed.com, ‘Individualism, N. : Oxford English Dictionary’, 2015, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/94635?redirectedFrom=individualism&.

[2] Owen Jones, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, (London: Verso, 2011) p. 71.

[3] Oscar Wilde et al, The Complete Works Of Oscar Wilde (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). Vol. 4 p. 204. All sentiments are put forward by Gilbert in ‘The Critic as Artist’ first published in Intentions (1891)

[4] Ibid.

[5] Thomas Dixon, The Invention Of Altruism (Oxford University Press, 2008). p. 322

[6] Oscar Wilde et al. (2000) vol. 2, p. 176.

[7] Wilde et al. p. 176

[8] Max Nordau, Degeneration, (University of Nebraska Press 1993) p. 319. In Thomas Dixon, The Invention of Altruism, p. 333.

[9] Apostles papers given by Moore on 26 Feb. 1898 and 4 Feb. 1899. In Dixon 2008, p. 354

[10] G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica, (Cambridge University Press, 1993) p. 216 in Ibid.

[11] Oscar Wilde et al. (2000) p. 204.

[12] G. E. Moore (1993) p. 249

[13] Oed.com, ‘Individualism, N.: Oxford English Dictionary’, 2015, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/94635?redirectedFrom=individualism&.

[14] ‘Views and Comments’, The New Freewoman: An Individualist Review, (July 1st 1913), vol.1 no. 2., p. 25 http://library.brown.edu/pdfs/1303305900625129.pdf

[15] Russell Brand, ‘Russell Brand On Margaret Thatcher’, The Guardian, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/apr/09/russell-brand-margaret-thatcher.

[16] Simon Kelner, ‘Mrs Thatcher implanted the gene of greed in Britain’, The Independent, 2013, http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/mrs-thatcher-implanted-the-gene-of-greed-in-britain-8565716.html

[17] Interview for Woman’s Own, 1987. http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/106689 [last accesses 06/03/2015]

[18] David Cameron, ‘BBC NEWS | UK | UK Politics | In Full: Cameron Victory Speech’, News.Bbc.Co.Uk, 2005, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4504722.stm.

[19] Oscar Wilde et al., p. 260


Sebastian Packham took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2015. In this post he writes about ‘Nihilism’ as a philosophical keyword.

The dressOn February 27th, 2015, there began a worldwide debate about the colour of a dress. A picture of the dress in question had appeared on social networking sites the previous day, and divided opinion as to whether it was black and blue, or white and gold. ‘Dressgate’, as the phenomenon was dubbed, evoked distinct reactions from demographics across the globe, including among the more extreme, existential crises stemming from the apparent subjective nature of reality that the picture seemed to illustrate. If we cannot know for certain something as simple as the colour of a dress, then what can we really know about anything at all? Let alone abstract concepts such as morality, religion or the purpose of life. Of course, it would be foolish to assume that such philosophical sentiment was born from a viral picture in the same year that the once mythical hoverboard is set to become a reality, rather its roots date back over two millennia, and in the late eighteenth century formed the basis for the philosophical doctrine that would come to be termed nihilism.

From the Latin nihil, meaning nothing or ‘that which does not exist’, nihilism is the belief that all knowledge is baseless, and as such focuses on the rejection of values and constructs, including morality, religion and the inherent value of systems of government. A true nihilist would, according to Alan Pratt of the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘have no loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy.’[1] It may come as no surprise then, that nihilism has presented a profound philosophical problem, acting as the source of plentiful debate since its inception, and that the concept is often associated with deep pessimism, used pejoratively and with negative connotations.

The thinking that underpins nihilist philosophy can be traced back to the skeptics of ancient Greece, the subjectivity with which they imbue the idea of knowledge being summed up by Demosthenes, who held that ‘what he wished to believe, that is what each man believes’.[2] Such thinking was labeled as nihilism at the end of the eighteenth century, and the word’s invention is often credited to either Jacob Obereit, F. Jenisch or Friedrich Schlegel.[3] Becoming popularized through the period’s literature, perhaps most significantly the novel Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev – one of its protagonists being a staunch nihilist, the ideology began to capture the minds of contemporaries, becoming a significant influence on the work and thought of European philosophers, writers, artists and intellectuals.

Nihilism’s focus on the rejection of the various constructs that were conducive to human culture at the time, was attractive to the European revolutionary movements that advocated rearrangement of social structures and the dismantling of existing forms of government. Such movements found a particularly strong voice in Russia as a response to the heavy handed ruling of Tsar Alexander II.[4] The nihilist ideology of the Russian revolutionary anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin, is evident in his article for the Deutsche Jahrbücher in 1842, in which he wrote ‘Let us put our trust in the eternal spirit which destroys and annihilates only because it is the unsearchable and eternally creative source of all life –the urge to destroy is also a creative urge’.[5]

Mikhail Bakunin: Russian revolutionary anarchist embodying nihilistic values

Mikhail Bakunin: Russian revolutionary anarchist embodying nihilistic values

As Isaiah Berlin observed, Bakunin is advocating a ‘positive nihilism’, out of which ‘there will arise naturally and spontaneously… a natural, harmonious, just order’.[6] Among supporters of the state, or upholders of the religious authority which the revolutionaries rejected, however, the understanding of nihilism was that it was a philosophy concerned purely with mindless destruction. As such, the state began to actively oppress the activity of nihilist revolutionaries,[7] and nihilism became a blanket term, carrying connotations of subversion and chaos, for anybody involved in underground political or terrorist activity.[8]  Here we can observe two distinct understandings of nihilism developing – nihilism as a radical philosophy with  revolutionary potential, and nihilism as a destructive philosophy geared towards reversing progress. Both perspectives were tackled by Friedrich Nietsche, who in his work Will to Power, described nihilism as ‘a catastrophe…that is growing from decade to decade: restlessly, violently, headlong’.[9] Upon such a spread of nihilism, however, he remarked ‘whether [man] becomes a master of this crisis, is a question of his strength. It is possible…’[10] For Nietsche then, nihilism could pave the way either to chaos or to a new moral order, and it is uncertainty as to which path nihilism leads that keeps the topic so divisive and widely debated.

The same way that Russian nihilism had been a reaction to various social ills in the nineteenth century, expressions of nihilism across Britain throughout the last century can also, arguably, be correlated with periods of significant adversity or discontent. The wave of riots that swept the UK in 2011, which saw moral nihilism enacted through mass looting, arson, violence and clashes with police, are often attributed to a plethora of social ills including racism, classism and a feeling of hopelessness as a result of economic downturn and an ever growing divide between the rich and the poor.[11]

A shop front and flats burn after being set alight by rioters in Tottenham, London in 2011

A shop front and flats burn after being set alight by rioters in Tottenham, London in 2011

Let down by society, it is argued, the rioters turned to rejection of moral authority and instead turned to violence and destruction to establish their position. Similarly, it can be argued that the anti-austerity protests the previous year were triggered by those involved, feeling betrayed, rejecting the authority of government and instead seeking to impose their will through violence –[12], effectively adopting Bakunin’s model of revolutionary nihilism.

Rejection of authority: Protesters vandalise a police van at anti-austerity protests in 2010

Rejection of authority: Protesters vandalise a police van at anti-austerity protests in 2010

Similar preconditions, along with the very real prospect of nuclear war have been put forward as causes for the wave of nihilism that swept the UK in the form of the punk subculture. The hedonism, crass behavior and drug abuse of those such as John ‘Sid Vicious’ Beverly of the Sex Pistols[13] acted as a means of rejecting moral authority and implementing a new way of living. Beverly popularized the phrase ‘no future’ (the original title for the single God Save the Queen)[14] during this period, which articulates the nihilistic tendencies of those involved with the subculture.

John ‘Sid Vicious’ Beverly enjoying the hedonism through which nihilism was expressed

John ‘Sid Vicious’ Beverly enjoying the hedonism through which nihilism was expressed

Such theories as to why nihilism has been expressed the way it has across Britain in the last century are not universal however, and with each of the aforementioned movements or incidences there has been a school of thought that places them in the broader context of moral decline. The liberalization of society, such as the prohibition of corporal punishment, it is argued, has restricted the means with which people can be disciplined, leading to a lack of respect for authority. The moral decline argument is often coupled with decline in religious belief, owing largely to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.  Such an argument perhaps holds most weight with the moral nihilism advocated by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, in which he writes ‘do you really mean to tell me the only reason you try to be good is to gain God’s approval and reward…?’[15] Here, Dawkins is rejecting the notion of absolute morality, and in doing so imbues morality with a new sense of meaning: if there are no moral absolutes and a subject is free to act abhorrently, the choice to act in a way they believe to be good means more than simple obedience to absolute authority.

The varying ways that nihilism has been understood and expressed can act as a means through which we can read the past and to understand the collective minds of the cultures that occupied it. An extreme philosophy, nihilism often picks up a pace in extreme times. Whether you believe it is a reaction to, or a precursor of discontent and social ills, its existence nevertheless demonstrates the extremity of emotion felt at the times it is rife. What relevance though, does the concept of nihilism hold in the present day? Can a philosophy centered around rejection really bring anything to human culture? Does nihilism represent a crisis for humanity, or can we use it as a way to remove absolutes and create our own meaning or ways of living? Is the inception and propagation of nihilism indicative of a desire for progress, or does it highlight moral decline in society? As a nihilist, I’d tell you there’s no way we can really know, but what we can be sure of is that a brief discussion of the concept’s history can help to prepare us for the next time an inanimate objects shakes the foundations of our reality.

Further Reading

Shane Weller, Modernism and Nihilism, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)

Karl Löwith, Martin Heidegger and European Nihilism, (New York: Columbia University press, 1995)

Ofelia Schutte, Beyond Nihilism: Nietzsche Without Masks, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984)

Keith Ansell-Pearson, An Introduction to Nietzsche as a Political Thinker: The Perfect Nihilist, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994)

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, (New York: Vintage Books, 1968)

Mikhail Bakunin, God and the State, (New York: Dover, 1970)

Peter C Pozefsky, The Nihilist Imagination: Dmitrii Pisarev and the cultural origins of Russian Radicalism (1860-1868), (New York: Peter Lang International Academic Publishers, 2003)


Books and Articles

Karen Leslie Carr, The Banalization of Nihilism: Twentieth Century Responses to Meaninglessness, (New York: State University of New York Press, 1992).

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, (London: Bantam Press, 2006).

Michael Gillespie, Nihilism Before Nietzche, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

Ronald Hingley, Nihilists: Russian Radicals and Revolutionaries in the Reign of Alexander II, (New York: Delacorte Press, 1969).

Paul Thomas, Karl Marx and the Anarchists Library Editions: Political Science, Volume 60, (London: Routledge, 2009).

Databases and E-Resources

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2011





[1] http://www.iep.utm.edu/nihilism/

[2] http://www.iep.utm.edu/nihilism/

[3] Karen Leslie Carr, The Banalization of Nihilism: Twentieth Century Responses to Meaninglessness, (New York: State University of New York Press, 1992), p.13.

[4] Ronald Hingley, Nihilists: Russian Radicals and Revolutionaries in the Reign of Alexander II, (New York: Delacorte Press, 1969), p.15.

[5] Paul Thomas, Karl Marx and the Anarchists Library Editions: Political Science, Volume 60, (London: Routledge, 2009), p.289.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Michael Gillespie, Nihilism Before Nietzche, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), p.163.

[8] www.iep.utm.edu/nihilism/

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-14483149 [Accessed 28/2/2015].

[12] http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2036392,00.html [Accessed 28/2/2015].

[13] Michael T. Thornhill, ‘Vicious, Sid (1957–1979)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2011 [http://0-www.oxforddnb.com.catalogue.ulrls.lon.ac.uk/view/article/40644, [accessed 1/3/2015].

[14] Ibid.

[15] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, (London: Bantam Press, 2006), p.259.