Collectivism, as the political theorist Andrew Vincent has noted, was first used in the late 19th century to refer to those writers and intellectuals who sought to use the state and the apparatus of government to control or regulate the economy and other aspects of civil society. It also has been employed to refer to those who favor an organic view of society, as opposed to individualism. Collectivism is sometimes used to designate the same philosophical approach to social and political life as the term socialism, particularly in the sense of the favoring of the collective ownership of the means of production.
Collectivism may be contrasted with individualism in the areas of methodology and the explanation of social phenomena, and in terms of social philosophy and ethics.
Methodologically, the individualist emphasizes the actions of individuals and the consequences of these actions, whether intended or unintended. Individualists are of course prepared to acknowledge that the actions of individuals occur within a social context, and also that some of their actions may produce results that in turn affect us, as, say, in the case of interest rates or an economic depression. Yet for the methodological individualist, to understand the social world, it is necessary to conceptualize all phenomena in the social world as ultimately reflecting the actions and preferences of individuals. Nevertheless, there is some disagreement among methodological individualists as to what degree acting individuals should be looked at in social and cultural terms.
Methodological collectivism exists in both strong and weaker forms. Strong versions of methodological collectivism view the key explanatory factors in society and history as the product of social or other nonindividual forces, of which individual actors are merely the instruments. Examples of such collectivist views include the ideas that Divine Providence acts through history, which has been held by any number of religious philosophers; that the World Spirit realizes itself through history, as in Hegel; that individuals are merely the bearers of particular social positions, as in some interpretations of Marxism such as that of the French philosopher Louis Althusser; and that societies are possessed of certain mechanisms by which individuals can be imposed on to act in keeping with social needs, more or less willy-nilly. By contrast, some weaker forms of methodological collectivism, among them those that follow Durkheim in stressing the significance of the social or some interpretations of Marx, may, at bottom, be ultimately compatible with the view that it is individual actions that play the crucial role in shaping all social phenomena, although these views direct our attention to other things. Other views— such as, say, the noneconomic structuralism of Claude Lévi-Strauss and various kinds of poststructuralism, need to be considered on a case-by-case basis.
During the 1950s and 1960s, there was some broad discussion in the sociological literature of the relative merits of methodological individualism and collectivism, to which John O’Neill’s collection, Modes of Individualism and Collectivism, is a useful guide. However, the reader of O’Neill’s work might well conclude that the arguments for and against one view or the other would be better pursued by way of discussion of the relative merits of these contending theories.
With respect to questions of ethics and social philosophy, the situation is equally complex. The ethical individualist takes individuals to be the bearers of moral value. What is valued about them may differ, from an emphasis on the satisfaction of their preferences, their pleasures and pains, to ideas about self-development after the fashion of J. S. Mill’s ideas about individuality and autonomy. In addition, there is debate among a range of egoist and eudaimonistic views, which focus on the particular individual, on the one hand, and views of a utilitarian kind, on the other hand. While valuing the happiness of each individual, these views allow for trade-offs within which the welfare of a single individual is sacrificed to that of a collectivity of other individuals (although what counts, in such a calculation, is the well-being of each individual).
The literature provides both stronger and weaker versions of ethical collectivism. Plato’s Republic is a particularly dramatic version of the strong version. Plato’s concern centers on the well-being of society and on the functional role that each individual should play within it. Although some have found these ideas attractive, others have taken strong exception to the fact that, in Plato’s scheme, members of the society who appear to make no contribution are simply to be eliminated, and the welfare of slaves, although they serve a social function, is “beneath consideration.” Other theories of ethical collectivism have offered the view that societies, states, or particular nations may be accorded ethical priority over the individual, as was the case with various political regimes in the first half of the 20th century, whether fascist, national socialist, or communist.
Weaker forms of ethical collectivism tend to be those in which the values that underlie their collectivism are ultimately individualistic. Consider Marx’s early writings, in which a picture of a fulfilled life is painted in terms of individual flourishing that is not all that dissimilar to Mill’s ideas about individuality. However, Marx’s substantive social theory, and his practical political impact, placed a priority on working-class solidarity in a manner that seems ethically collectivist. But if what underpins his social theory are his earlier ideas, there is a kind of ethical individualism at work here. Its form, however, is distinctive. For in Marx’s account, the conditions for individual flourishing have reference to individuals being engaged in creative activities that meet the needs of other people. Ideals that depict an individual’s happiness as intrinsically involving participation in some shared form of life—from Aristotle’s view of us as political animals who flourish only when participating in civic life, through contemporary communitarianism—may likewise be ambiguous. These ethical views, which seem to be forms of collectivism strongly opposed to individualism, may rest on possibly mistaken ideas about the conditions for individual flourishing.
Greenleaf, William H. The British Political Tradition. 3 vols. London: Methuen, 1983–1987.
Marx, Karl. Karl Marx: The Essential Writings. Frederic L. Bender, ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1986.
O’Neill, John, ed. Modes of Collectivism and Individualism. London: Heinemann, 1973.
Popper, Karl. The Open Society and Its Enemies. London: Routledge, 1945.
Vincent, Andrew. Modern Political Ideologies. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.
Originally published .