All Commentary
Sunday, March 1, 1987

Collectives, Communities, and the Individual

The Reverend Doctor John K. Williams has been a teacher and is a free-lance writer and lecturer in North Melbourne. Victoria, Australia.

“The trouble with you is that you’re an individualist! You see yourself and other people as isolated atoms moving in an empty void! You forget that human beings are, as Aristotle taught us long ago, social animals! You forget the wider truth of St. Paul’s insight that we must be ‘members one of another.’ You forget the wisdom enshrined in John Donne’s famous insistence that no man is an island! You simply don’t understand what it is to be human!”

The speaker happened to be a clergyman. Yet his criticism of an advocate of individual and economic liberty—indeed, of such liberties themselves—has today become a commonplace.

By and large, critics and opponents of the free market in a free society have conceded that socialism has failed as an economic system. During the nineteenth century socialism was but a theory to be debated; during the twentieth century, however, socialism became a reality to be observed. The bare bones of theory took on flesh, countless variants of the socialist state being established.

The result was unambiguous. Without exception, the attempt to coordinate the productive activities of men and women by the edicts of central planners proved disastrous. Dreams of increased abundance were shattered against the reality of experienced destitution. Today socialist theorists such as Peter Rutland, author of The Myth of the Plan (Open Court, 1985)

have begun openly to suggest that failure in practice is indicative of a drastic error in theory. Socialist leaders have tentatively begun to move their countries in the direction of freer markets and financial incentives. Almost overnight, the advocates in Western nations of old-style socialism found themselves regarded not as daring innovators on the cutting edge of human thought, but as quaint anachronisms clinging to the discredited illusions of yesterday.

If socialism is understood as a prescription for increased material abundance, the case for socialism is in desperate straits.

The Need for Community

Today, however, socialism is frequently proffered not so much as a solution for economic problems but as an alleged remedy for “existential” problems. The problem with the free market in a free society is not any claimed economic inferiority to socialism or even any supposed tendency to widen the gap between rich and poor. Rather, the problem of capitalism is the sense of loneliness and isolation it allegedly spawns. Men and women rich in consumer goods begin to perceive one another—or so the story goes—as “things” to be possessed, used, and discarded. Individuals feel—or so it is claimed—cut off from one another. The warm bonds of human companionship allegedly are supplanted by impersonal contractual agreements. All sense of community is lost, and “the lonely crowd” is born.

Thus Marxist revisionists today frequently point not to the developed economic theories of Marx but to the somewhat impressionistic musings of the so-called “early Marx,” the Marx known through his Economic and Philosophical Manuscript. The key word becomes not “value” or “labor” or “exploitation” or any of the other terms popularly associated with Marx, but the word “alienation.” That word is interpreted in terms of experienced loneliness, apartness, isolation—an understanding of the word that departs drastically from Marx’s intended meaning.

In this way the supposedly “scientific critique” of capitalism launched by Marx is supplanted by the imprecise psychological ruminations of such “New Left” thinkers as Herbert Marcuse and Jürgen Habermas. Their language is notoriously opaque and muddled—indeed, clearing away the tangled linguistic undergrowth is a daunting task. Yet when that task is completed, one discovers claims not unlike that of the cleric quoted at the beginning of this article: To be human is to be a social animal, finding joy and meaning and significance in and through relationships of interdependence. The free market in a free society, rooted and grounded in individualism, effectively denies the “social nature” of human beings and thus deprives them of life’s deepest joys and values.

What Individualism Is Not

It is folly to deny that human beings, in several significant senses, are “social animals.”

For example, reasoned thought, in the absence of language, would be at best rudimentary. Yet language, as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein so powerfully argues in his Philosophical investigations (translated by G. E. M. Anscombe; Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1958) is an essentially social phenomenon. The notion of a purely “private” language generates—or so Wittgenstein argues—grotesque paradoxes.

Furthermore, substantial evidence exists that an infant deprived of “tender, loving care” is deprived of something vital for growth to maturity. In the affective as well as the cognitive domain, growth to mature humanness presupposes community.

Indeed, there is no need in this context to cite learned authorities. Everyday experience testifies that the life of the human mind and the joy of the human heart in large measure are born of creative interchange between people. The hunger of the human spirit for communion with others is universal and seemingly insatiable.

It also would be folly to assert that the material well-being of people is not served by inter dependence. Certainly the defender of a market economy makes no such assertion. At the very heart of a market economy lies the division of labor, itself an exercise in interdependence. In fact the genius of the market is constituted by its unrivaled capacity not simply to coordinate the diverse activities of countless market participants, but to enable individual men and women to draw upon and use a totality of information no single person could consciously even begin to assimilate!

Ironically, the opponents of interdependence, and thus the advocates of a perverted “individualism,” are to be found among the opponents of the free market. Marx perceived the division of labor as itself a cause of “alienation.” His utopia is an imprecisely defined social order in which not only the state, but the division of labor itself, is no more. He dreams of a day in which he will be able “to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic” (The German Ideology, in Karl Marx: Selected Writings, ed. D. McLellan [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977] p. 169).

Lenin elaborated this pseudo-individualism further, insisting that with the abolition of “the division of labor among people” a new humanity “able to do everything” will emerge (Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder [New York: International Publishers, 1940)] p. 34). If by “individualism” one signifies an advocacy of atomistic independence and abhorrence of the cooperative interdependence displayed by the division of labor and a free market economy, Marx and his original disciples are the “Individualists”!

What Individualism Is

Individualism, properly understood, begins with a fact about the world: Human beings exist. What is more, each human being perceives from a unique point in space and time. Each human being experiences sensations in his or her own body for himself or herself. Each person enjoys privileged access to the contents of his or her consciousness. Each human being is capable of initiating purposive action “from within.”

It might be objected that many significant human activities involve a group. From time immemorial, for example, human beings have met together and thought things through. Yet, while human beings engage in creative interchanges of ideas, this group activity does not presuppose some single “super-thinker” above the individual thinkers making up the group. Likewise, coordinated group action—the activities of people seeking to achieve a common purpose—ultimately signifies the self-initiated and self-directed actions of each member of the group.

The individualist denies that a “community” or a “society” or a “state” is a “thing” distinct from the concrete, flesh-and-blood individuals making up that community, society, or state, certain shared characteristics of these individuals, and certain relationships obtaining between them. A “society” thus is not a mysterious “super-thing” existing independently of the members of the society, the language, traditions, patterns of behavior, and so on shared by these members. Rather, to talk of a “society” is to use a shorthand term signifying what exists: individuals sharing certain characteristics and related in specifiable ways.

To deny this is to be guilty of what the philosopher A. N. Whitehead calls “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness” (Process and Reality [New York: Macmillan, 1929] p. II; Science and the Modern World [New York: Macmillan, 1929] p. 75). What in truth is “concrete” are the perceiving, thinking, valuing, and acting flesh-and-blood people sharing particular characteristics and related in various ways signified by the abstract word “society.” The collectivist mistakenly holds that the single word “society” refers to a single “thing” distinct from individual people, their qualities, and their relationships, and no less mistakenly pretends that this mysterious “thing” is “concrete” and individual people the “abstractions.”

The individualist reads thinkers such as Jean Jacques Rousseau with growing astonishment. Crucial to the social and political thought of Rousseau is what he called “the general will.” According to Rousseau, a society, as against a mere cluster of individuals, is coordinated and unified not by the will of any individual nor by the common will of any set of individuals, be that “common will” the “will of the majority” or even a “consensual will of all.” Somehow, a “general will” distinct from and other than any individual will or set of individual wills actually exists. This somewhat eerie “general will” allegedly is informed by a wisdom and goodness far exceeding the wisdom and goodness of any individual will or set of individual wills. Given this single “general will,” Rousseau affirms that there is a single supreme good—a single overriding goal—toward which a society strives. The Jacobins and Gir-ondins quite correctly appealed to Rousseau when, during the reign of terror that so devastated France, they outlawed all voluntary associations.

Rousseau affirms that rulers, by a process he does not identify or describe, are somehow sensitive to the dictates of the “general will” of their society, encoding these dictates in the specific laws they devise. The “good citizen” thus ascribes to the laws of his society a wisdom and goodness surpassing his or her own wisdom and goodness. In the unhappy event of an experienced tension between what an individual wills and what the “general will,” known in and through specific laws, decrees, a misperception must exist. For the “general will” allegedly reflects the “real” will of each member of society. A contrast can thus obtain between what a person may think he or she wills and what a person “truly” wills.

It is a short step from this strange cluster of teachings to the insistence of the German philosopher Hegel that the “general will” is the will of an existing entity, the State, and his further claim that the State is the earthly manifestation of the Absolute or God. It is but another short step from the political philosophy of Hegel to Marx’s and Hitler’s totalitarian systems.

The individualist insists that it makes no sense to subordinate what is real and concrete to a theoretical, abstract construct. For example, the individualist views any claim that the “rights”’ of society somehow take precedence over the “rights” of individuals as not so much a false claim but as a meaningless claim. “Rights” can no more be predicated of “society” than they can be predicated of triangles. Thought through, all “natural” or “moral” or “human” rights are rooted and grounded in the autonomy of the individual human being. A being incapable of self-directed behavior cannot be the subject of “rights”; inasmuch as “society” is not even a “being” at all, let alone a “being capable of self-directed behavior,” society cannot have “rights.”

Indeed, when politicians and others refer to the “aim” or “goal” or “good” of a society or a state, almost invariably they are referring to the aim or goal or good of an individual or set of individuals desirous of coercively imposing one particular vision of the “good life” upon others. The only sense the individualist can give to the notion of a “common good” is the freedom of each member of a society to be what he or she in fact is: an autonomous being able to formulate his or her own vision of the good life and to initiate behavior he or she hopes will lead to the realization of that vision.

So stated, individualism can sound like yet another abstract and even arid philosophical creed. Yet it was this creed that led to the impassioned moral cry that no person is a chattel, a means to another’s ends, a pawn on a political planner’s chessboard. It was this creed that gave institutional and “secular” expression to the ancient insight of Israel that even the humblest human being was created in the imago Dei—the “image of God”—and thus enjoyed a creativity and dignity no ruler could with impunity ignore. In the final analysis it was this creed that gave birth to the American Revolution and the challenging of all dominations and tyrannies, all bigotries and legally entrenched privileges, all predatory institutions debasing and enslaving the free spirit of humanity.


Most surprising of all, individualism unleashed an unprecedented measure of human interdependence and hitherto unknown forms of community.

•       As the free market grew, the business firm became increasingly important. What traits of individual character did the business firm foster? Surely the ability to work co- operatively with others as part of a team! Aristocrats admired the solitary and even eccentric individual; businessmen lauded the person capable of integrating his or her activities with those of others.

•       Pre-market societies were characterized by what one might call the “ubiquitous tyranny of the economic.” Family and other relationships were valued in large part as means to an economic end. The goal of most activities was the fundamental goal of acquiring sufficient goods and services for bare survival. The abundance created through the free market liberated men and women from total preoccupation with the economic dimensions of human activity. Human relationships could be valued not as means to an economic end but for the intrinsic pleasure they involved.

•       Free trade broke down barriers separating nation from nation. Bonds of interdependence between peoples who had never met and might never meet were forged. Far from denying the claim that “no man is an island,” the free market underscored thatclaim’s truth—members of communities joined by the ties of peaceful trade could not rationally perceive themselves as being isolated from those distant and individually unknown people with whom their well-being was entwined.


Paradoxically, it is the collectivists who foster and further the divisiveness and “competitiveness” they so deplore. An economic system run by political edicts breeds warring factions locked in zero-sum games, one special interest group prospering at the expense of people less powerful or less skillful at lobbying for their own advantage. It is the individualists—those affirming and cherishing the uniqueness of each and every human person—who, “as though led by an invisible hand,” inadvertently bring into existence a socio-political order making for peaceful cooperation, harmonious integration, and radical interdependence. It is only when the uniqueness and worth of the individual is affirmed, that a true and lasting community becomes a possibility.

  • The Reverend Dr. John K. Williams has been a teacher and is a free-lance writer and lecturer in North Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. He was resident scholar at FEE from April to October of this year.