Damned by Amazon

On March 12th, 2020, Amazon.com swept all editions of Might is Right into the digital dustbin and suppressed the sale of the 123 year old book. They did not merely stop selling the book, they completely removed any trace that they ever sold them in the first place. While the 19th-century text had stirred up controversy over those years, the publishers of the most scholarly edition have never heard of it being banned before now.

Published in 1896, Might is Right is a work of bombastic poetry, scathing blasphemy, universal skepticism and is a deceptively literate tirade. Sometimes crude and often embellished with swaths of stolen phrases and facts, it is yet a bracing and inspiring paean to individual excellence, freedom and power that has found eyes and ears among anarchists and artists, communists and cranks, poets and Pulitzer Prize winners.

Might is Right registered a note of blistering dissent during the rise of the Progressive Era: skeptical of democracy, egalitarianism, the “dignity of labor,” suffrage and other causes of the day. With a background in Georgism and the labor movement, Arthur Desmond, writing under the name “Ragnar Redbeard,” seems to have crafted the book to serve as an expression of a profound transvaluation of his own values, championing the mighty individual over any and all human identities: religious, political, racial or otherwise. No longer was the abstraction of the “working man” a thing to be defended for the betterment of humanity, but an obstacle like all others that beset the path of the conquering unique man.

One man, many voices.

My freedom becomes complete only when it is my—might; but by this I cease to be a merely free man, and become an own man… You long for freedom? You fools! If you took might, freedom would come of itself. See, he who has might “stands above the law.”

Max Stirner, The Ego and His Own

Until the 1930s it was public knowledge that Arthur Desmond wrote as Ragnar Redbeard. The two names were bylined one after the other in newspapers reprinting his bombastic poetry, or they were referenced in recollections of revolutionary adventure penned by his comrades. Somehow that knowledge would be lost for a half-century, and would remain doggedly obscure for decades more, notwithstanding the best intentions of the few stalwart researchers who discovered the link. Not only was it known that Desmond wrote as Redbeard, but that he also wrote, lived or conducted business under a variety of curious aliases: Douglas K. Handyside, Adolph Mueller, Sirfessor Superight, Richard Thurland, Number 7, Keo Kaha, Gavin Gowrie, and others.It is, however, not true to say that Redbeard was Desmond.

It is no more true that what was written as Redbeard necessarily reflected Desmond’s views any more than any author writing any work of poetry or prose.

The book & the author in context.

“It is the making Claim by Right to that which they are incapable of securing by Might: the attempt to carry through the exchange by shouting and pious incantation which makes the democratic advocacy offensive. The democrats are sweedlers: from no point of view to be recognised as on a level of estimable equality with highway robbers who are gentlemen by comparison.

Dora Marsden, The Egoist

Might is Right is is a book written by an obscure figure from radical Antipodean and Chicagoan history. While most contemporary references treat the author as an isolated, decontextualized figure, who wrote a “proto-fascist” book, Desmond’s formative intellectual and cultural milieu was the anarcho-communist labor movement of New Zealand and Australia, though he would later cavort among the bohemian literati and syndicalist toughs of Chicago and the scattered Egoist philosophers of Europe and America.

After his book was published, it would elicit rebuff from the former Progressive Mayor of Chicago John Peter Altgelt and Russian Christian Anarchist Leo Tolstoy, among others. It would be championed by the Industrial Workers of the World, the legendary bohemian theater and hobo university The Dil Pickle Club, and the first wave of Nietzscheans in the Anlgosphere.

The author Ragnar Redbeard is regularly likened to is Friedrich Nietzsche (who was alive when early editions of Might is Right were in circulation), but his style and substance is actually far closer to that of the more obscure German philosopher, Max Stirner, who was the first to explicitly champion the phrase “might is right” as an expression of an egoist worldview. Redbeard would also play a major role in getting Stirner’s great work Der Einzige und sein Eigentum published in the English language for the first time in 1907.

As a man in Australia, Arthur Desmond was a street-fighting anarchist poet who fought for unemployed gum workers and Māori land-rights.

As a man in Chicago, he co-owned a candy-shop. He worked as a bookseller and publisher of radical literature, and he authored two books.

The only known crimes he was involved in were: plagiarism, defacing a bank, and fighting the police.As a man of history, he has been stripped of all that is interesting and complex and contradictory; the human author of Might is Right has, to borrow a fashionable term, been cancelled in favor of a conveniently fabricated bogeyman – one that is conspicuously more reflective of 21st-century fears and obsessions than of the marginal 19th-century efflorescence that he inhabited and helped to create.  And it is this crassly emotive incarnation – this bogeyman – that now complicates the possibility of honest remembrance.  A writer and thinker whose identity was for a time forgotten is now further reduced to some sort of quasi-Nazi racial supremacist, a vaguely imagined enemy whose book of Darwinian individual supremacy is now somehow purported to buttress a worldview that stripped the individual of his sovereignty in order to uphold a totalitarian dictatorial state and the phantasm of collectivist identity.

Satire or sincerity?

The intent of sincere humanitarians is to do good to society, just as the intent of the child who kills a bird by too much fondling is to do good to the bird.

Vilfredo Pareto

One of the debates surrounding Might is Right concerns whether it is a work of satire. Some seem to find, after discovering the radical-left background of the real author, that the book must be a work of Swiftian satire: taking the Social Darwinism of Spencer to the furthest extreme as a kind of reductio ad absurdum. This view is often proposed by those who seem to allow for an extreme expression of satire to exist where the same expression sincerely proffered should be suppressed.

This is a disgusting hypocrisy. 

There are some who believe only an elect intellectual class should have access to such incendiary works.

This is an even grosser hypocrisy.

Both expressions are, more and more frequently, not the product of the conservative religious prudery, but a manifestation of the frothing censorial demands of people who call themselves liberals. Calls for the suppression of books are now less voluble from within the ranks of moral majoritarians, while being ever more stridently pitched, often and ironically under the cloak of “justice,” by non-profit organizations with the word “Education” in their names.

While it is certainly possible to interpret Redbeard’s “later work” as “satire,” one could just as easily advance the same implication instead with reference to his earlier work. At what point did Desmond decide one thing over the other? What ideas are those of Desmond, and what are those of “Redbeard” that are not Desmond’s?

These are sensible questions to ask once one has resolved that anyone should be able to freely make intellectual inquiries about any topic, and that books should not be suppressed.

“Content Guidelines”

During our review process, we found that the subject matter of your book is in violation of our content guidelines. As a result, we cannot offer this book for sale.

Email from Amazon

A charge so vague that it could imply anything, and never clarified, is “violation of our content guidelines.” It is a claim that some unspecified something in a book goes against what Amazon will allow on their site. As has been stated many times, there is no way that such a policy can be consistently applied across their platform when an endless number of high-profile books of of potentially questionable merit – and with far “worse” content –  remain for sale.

Ultimately these are moral judgements, as there is nothing illegal about the content of Might is Right (even if one could claim there was plagiarism, all of the source material is NOW public domain).

Redbeard uses violent language. He is misogynistic, and uses blunt, racist terms. He mocks religious groups and their gods without mercy. There is nothing sacred to Redbeard but the self and the “manly virtue” of victory.

Suppression of all of this makes sense only if you believe that: a) people cannot think for themselves, and that words are magical devices that control the person reading them, or b) you cannot allow people to think for themselves, because you will lose control over them.

We do not protest Amazon expressing their might, as they are right to do: we just call them cowardly dogs for being so mealy-mouthed in justifying their nakedly censorious agenda. Their vague and selective invocation of “content guidelines” is a transparent ruse, a pusillanimous appeal to a fictional collective good that undermines the core value and utility of free inquiry.

Two year old Hitler.

I write because I wish to make for ideas, which are my ideas, a place in the world. If I could foresee that these ideas must take from you peace of mind and repose, if in these ideas that I sow I should see the germs of bloody wars and even the cause of the ruins of many generations, I would nevertheless continue to spread them. It is neither for the love of you nor even for the love of truth that I express what I think. No—I sing! I sing because I am a singer. If I use you in this way, it is because I have need of your ears!”

Max Stirner, The Ego and His Own

Might is Right was written a mere thirty years after the American Civil War ended, and just two decades before the First World War began. Suppressing it on the supposition that it is somehow responsible for the offenses of National Socialists a half-century later (who certainly had never heard of the book), or those would-be National Socialists 120 years later who selectively edit Redbeard’s text to remove parts they don’t like, is nothing short of absurd.

Even if, in Linz, Austria, a two-year-old Adolf Hitler read Otto Amon’s German translation of Redbeard’s poem “The Logic of Today” from a Frankfurt newspaper, this unlikely event would still have no delineable connection to the policies, practices or ideals of National Socialist Germany. One might just as easily – and just as fallaciously – speculate over the influence of Redbeard’s prose in shaping the policies New Deal America or Revolutionary Spain.

And even if, by some impossible feat of revelation, it could be shown that Baby Hitler did indeed read and absorb the translated words of a deceased Australian archist, this would still not be sufficient reason to intentionally suppress those words. Baby Hitler could have been wrong, after all. The interpretive question is rightly one that free people – not Amazon censors – should be at liberty to consider, or even to ignore.

It’s just downright selfishness.

“The law of God is most powerful and most just, which is this: ‘Let the stronger always be superior to the weaker.'”

Epictetus, The Discourses

From Protagoras to Epictetus to Machiavelli, and then from Sade to Stirner to Redbeard, we may trace a philosophical thread, articulated in different ways, and expressed in different styles and severities. The simplest name for it is Egoism, and it sings a song of the self-sovereign. To some it means that one must not accept mastery, nor exert it on others. To others, it means merely that one must be master of himself and all creation that he can possess.

Might is Right, in demanding that the mighty “question all things” opens itself up to interrogation. Indeed, in this sense, it is far braver than those who now seek to suppress it, for it invites scrutiny. This invitation is anathema to censors of all eras.

The text that Ragnar Redbeard crafted over a century ago thus continues to agitate those with power because it lifts the veil of their piety to reveal their own selfish impulses. Might is Right revels in the fluid essence of such selfish impulses that empowered censors demurely euphemize, sanctify and deny. It proudly wags a jester’s cock when the emperor and his entourage pretend his new clothes are beautiful, modest and regal.

We do not expect to convince censorious prigs to no longer be such; we can only wave my own proud cock at them for as long as I am master of myself to do so. 

— Kevin I. Slaughter
Publisher, Underworld Amusements
March 24th, 2020

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