All Commentary
Friday, February 1, 1963

Individualism Verses Communism

Individualists were in a major­ity at the outset of the conflict, of course. At the beginning of the twentieth century they held posi­tions of power and influence.

There is no difficulty today in get­ting assent to the proposition that something untoward has happened to individualism in America. It is a commonplace saying that con­formity has been raised to the position of a prime virtue and that the individual is being sacri­ficed to the group. There has been a spate of books since World War II devoted to expounding this thesis. William H. Whyte, in The Organization Man, contends that even the most powerful spokesman of individualism, the corporation man, is using the language of in­dividualism to “stave off the thought that he himself is in a collective as pervading as any ever dreamed of by the reformers, the intellectuals, and the utopian vi­sionaries he so regularly warns against.”’ David Riesman and colleagues, in The Lonely Crowd, de­tail the loss of independence by Americans and ascribe it to a change in the American character from “inner direction” to “other direction.” Erich Kahler, in a re­cent work, declares: “Today we are witnessing and are deeply in­volved in a huge process of human transformation. This transforma­tion seems to tend toward some formation beyond the individual. However, it manifests itself in diverse processes of disruption or invalidation of the individual.”

The literature proclaiming the existence and analyzing the phe­nomena of conformity is bountiful. It runs the gamut from novels to popular treatises to psychological explorations to sociological mono­graphs, from The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit to The Exur­banites to The Hidden Persuaders to A Nation of Sheep. The ease of manipulating Americans en masse is apparently to any perceptive observer.Reports come in that college students are passive, that young men seek  se­cure positions in giant corpora­tions, that home buyers seek domi­cile in suburbia with its row upon row of uniform houses, that men prefer public relief to migration in search of new jobs.

The ease of manipulating Americans en masse is apparent to any perceptive observer. For several decades now Americans have been prone to mass crazes from Mah Jong to hula hoops, to hero worship from Charles A. Lindbergh to Elvis Presley, to popular songs, to matinee idols, and to all sorts of fads. National propaganda has apparently been able, in the last twenty years, to get us to hate the Germans and Italians, despise the Russians, love the Finns, loathe the Japanese, embrace the Russians, ignore the Finns, admire the Germans, Italians, and Japanese, and suspect the Russians, in that order.

As I said, there is much agree­ment that individualism has de­clined precipitately in America. But at this point consensus ends sharply. There must be almost as many explanations of the pheno­mena as there are accounts of it. Some will offer such standard ex­planations as industrialization, ur­banization, the end of the frontier, and the population increase. Others attach the change to such developments as advertising, prop­aganda, the mass media of com­munication, the progressive meth­ods of education, the growth of the corporation, the spread of unionism, the enactment of near universal suffrage, or the strained international situation. As usual, we strain at gnats and swallow camels. The above developments doubtless have had a debilitating effect on the practice of indi­vidualism in America. But whether they are taken separately or considered in concert, they are symptoms of the ailment, not the efficient cause. They are the means by which individualism has been overturned, not the end which has wrought the change.

Confusing Terminology

The main reason why we have not recognized the sources of the change from individualism in America is that they have not been defined in terms of individ­ualism. Many of those who have worked to undermine the premises of individualism and to institute non-individualistic practices have done so in the name of the individ­ual. They have been able to do this because, in part, they were the proponents of and were able to operate within a context of rela­tivism, irrationalism, and disem­boweled romanticism. They could use vague language and did not find it necessary to define their ends clearly. In consequence, they have been able to hack away most of the framework of individualism with only a minimum of coherent objections from the defenders of it.

The task which I propose to undertake here is to define both individualism and that which has undermined it in such a way that they can be identified. This is only a first step toward understanding what has happened to individual­ism historically, but it is a neces­sary step. The definitions will both be abstracted from the actual his­torical development of the ideas in America.

The Individual as the Prime Unit

Individualism, as an idea or set of beliefs, is the belief in the pri­mary and final importance of the individual. That is, it is the be­lief that the individual is the prime unit out of which arise all other units, whether they be groups, collectives, organizations, societies, states, or civilizations. Individualists usually hold that since these groupings were brought into being by combina­tions of individuals, they exist for the individual. The individual is the final unit in that it is his ful­fillment for which the combina­tions exist. Eschatologically, the individual is the ultimate unit, in that he alone, not any group, sur­vives eternally. But final unit may be a better phrase because there have been individualists both among temporally oriented hu­manists and among those who be­lieve in life beyond this earth.

Modern (post-Medieval) thought about individualism has focused upon the uniqueness of each individual. It is a major tenet of individualism that it is the dif­ferences, the uniqueness, from one man to another which constitute the real significance of the indi­vidual. It is a man’s peculiar tal­ents, needs, interests, purposes, and possessions which differenti­ate him from other men and make him so important. All that he holds in common with other men can serve only to meld him into an undifferentiated mass. His distinct being, his creativity, his signifi­cant existence, derive and proceed from his uniqueness.

Room for Development

Room for the development of the uniqueness of the individual is the major social requirement of individualism. Many of the ideas associated with individualism de­rive from this need. Freedom, for example, is a sine qua non of indi­vidualism just as coercion is ana­thema to it. The individual must be free to determine his purposes, free to seek to fulfill his needs, free to associate or not to associate with others in pursuing his goals.

It does not follow that the way must be paved for him, or that he will achieve his fulfillment if he is solicitously aided by others. The individual needs a society in which he is put on his own to provide for his needs.Rather, the individual needs a so­ciety in which he is put on his own to provide for his needs, in which he is at liberty to pursue his goals, in which when he has developed his potentiality it stands a chance of being rewarded, in which relations are voluntary, in which pressures and forces are kept at a minimum. Such, at any rate, was the freedom which nine­teenth century individualists thought was pertinent to their de­velopment.

A Corresponding Duty

Such freedom would make so­ciety difficult if there were not a corresponding development of in­dividual responsibility. Individ­ualism was a social theory, and many exponents of it made indi­vidual responsibility a major re­quirement for its embodiment in society. Logically, if the individual is free to develop his potentiali­ties, he is responsible for the con­sequences of their development or for his activities as he develops.

Another corollary was that each individual’s freedom ends where another’s begins. When such a principle was applied to property rights, it meant that the law which protected one man’s prop­erty from trespass restrained him from trespassing on the property of another. Ideally, it would be better if the individual had de­veloped a strong sense of responsi­bility for his actions. Failing this, however, society was once thought to be serving a salutary function when it held an individual respon­sible when he violated the rights of other individuals. It would be in keeping with individualism to punish a man for intrusion upon the sphere of another. On the other hand, to remove the oppor­tunity for such intrusion would not be individualistic; it would result, most likely, in a curtail­ment of liberty.

Freedom of Choice

Individualism, liberty, and re­sponsibility were all premised upon the philosophical foundation of a belief in the freedom of the will, in the belief that it is possible to make free choices. It is anachron­istic to hold an individual respon­sible for behavior which he did not initiate. To state the principle positively, it is axiomatic that the originator of an action is respon­sible for its consequences. Logical consistency demands that if an in­dividual is to be held responsible for an action he must have ini­tiated it either by choice, by a derelict failure to choose, or, at least, that choice in that instance was possible. Once admit the rule of necessity or determinism and the foundation of individual re­sponsibility would be removed and the counterbalance to freedom have been destroyed.

Less obviously, the belief in in­dividualism, as the idea developed in the nineteenth century, was founded directly upon the role that choice was supposed to play in the development of a man. According to this interpretation, the unique­ness of the individual resulted from day to day choices which led either to the realization of the in­dividual or to his disintegration. Hence, the final or ultimate condi­tion of the individual depended upon his choices.

Once free choice ceases to be the primary factor in men’s as­sessment of a man’s position or actions, it will become increas­ingly difficult to defend practical liberty. If a choice has not played a primary role in producing the in­equities among men, for example, it will be hard to reconcile these in­equities with our sense of justice. Those who have less are deprived not because of their failure but by the scheme of things. In addi­tion, if men act out of necessity, liberty has no ultimate signifi­cance; it serves mainly to keep some portion of the population out of prison, for men cannot act otherwise than they do. Such lib­erty as a society permitted would probably be based upon calcula­tions about the desires of men and the practicality of restraining some of them by removing the op­portunity for their fulfillment. In short, liberty would be reduced to permission to do whatever it would be possible to do.

To sum up, the major tenets of individualism are: belief in the primary and final importance of the individual, emphasis upon that which is unique in each man, in­sistence upon liberty for the real­ization of the individual, individ­ual responsibility, and freedom of the will. These form the bedrock of ideas which are essential to in­dividualism. They have been sup­ported in the modern era by such divergent ideas as nominalism, Arminianism, rationalism, volun­tarism, and idealism. The ideas as­sociated with individualism have been articulated in American (and some European) society in such institutions and practices as con­stitutional government, establish­ment of a private sphere by re­stricting governmental actions by a Bill of Rights, private property, removal of social rules governing inheritance (abolition of primo­geniture and entail), free trade, voluntary church membership, in­dividual choice of marriage partners, private or voluntary associa­tions for providing charity, and so forth.Individualism has been losing it’s sway over Americans

Individualism has been losing its sway over Americans in the last seventy or eighty years, some­times gradually, sometimes dra­matically and swiftly. This loss is manifested in as simple a matter as the necessity which men now feel to begin any undertaking, re­gardless of its character or com­plexity, by forming a committee, establishing a foundation or in­stitute, chartering a corporation, or organizing a club or movement. It is apparent in the massive shifts to governmental responsi­bility and the proliferation of legalistic rules and regulations which govern our lives. It is evinced in the curtailment of the individual’s control of his affairs (compulsory health insurance re­quired by employers and social se­curity by the government), in the loss of parental responsibility for and control over children, in govern­mental propaganda and examina­tion of beliefs.

Men and Ideas

Circumstances have, of course, set the stage for this shift away from individualism, but they have not determined its direction nor guided us into the new course we have set for ourselves. That role has been played by men and ideas, or men under the sway of ideas. There has been a definite direc­tion and it was established on the basis of some fairly definite ideas. The trouble we have had in recog­nizing them has been the variety of names by which the proponents of these changes have been called and the different means they have proposed toward a common end which they have not been too for­ward in naming. These men have been supplanting individualism and implanting a new ethos in America. There are several words in current usage which do service as opposites of individualism, i. e., collectivism, socialism, commu­nism, and, I suspect, democracy, though some would heatedly de­bate the inclusion of the latter. Lester Frank Ward suggested sociocracy, but it did not catch on. The words in common usage are either too vague, too specialized, or too freighted with emotional content for descriptive use. I would like to use a coined word to describe the ethos which has been replacing individualism. The word is commonism.

Commonism has the disadvan­tage of differing from communism by only one letter in its spelling, but it is apt, nonetheless, for de­scriptive purposes. It implies the end or purpose of this ethos, dia­metrically opposes it to individual­ism, and describes the methods by which the end is to be achieved. Commonism focuses attention upon the common needs, interests, and purposes of mankind, not upon the ways in which men differ from one another. Its main con­cern is with those things which men share with one another. For example, all men share certain ap­petites, such as those for food, for warmth, and for attention. The commonist would organize so­ciety in such a way as to provide all of these efficiently to everyone.

Commonism is the belief that the individual derives his being from the commonality, and derives his raison d’etre from society. Im­plicitly, and sometimes explicitly, commonism is the view that the individual exists for society. The commonist is at ease among such terms and phrases as mankind, general welfare, humanity, the people, the common good, and the brotherhood of man, all of which he tends to interpret in the light of the shared physical needs or de­sires of men. To the commonist it is likely to be the group, collective, state, society, or mankind which endures while the individual term­inates with death. The individual has meaning only as he is a part of the group. Such rights and privileges as he possesses come to him from the group and are his during the sufferance of the group. The contemporary common­ist does not usually recognize any­thing beyond the collective—man­kind, humanity, common welfare—to which to appeal. When the peo­ple have spoken, the last word has been said.

The commonist may not be an absolute determinist, though he frequently is, but he does attach preponderant importance to hered­ity and environment in explaining human behavior and human dif­ferences. The terms in which he defines his view may differ—eco­nomic determinism, environmental­ism, psychological determinism—, but the belief that choice is un­necessary to account for human behavior is never far away. He accepts a common responsibility for everything that happens and proclaims the common responsibil­ity of each of us for all of us.

Two Points of Reference

Individualism versus common-ism—these two terms represent poles between which the changes and conflicts of recent American history can be fruitfully viewed. They may not encompass all that has taken place, but they include enough to throw the developments during these years into revealing relief. It places the conflicts within Congress, the difficult decisions of Presidents, the tendency of court actions into a meaningful context. It is not stretching the point to say that the major legislative and legal contests of the last seventy years—the contests over antitrust acts, the creation of regulatory agencies, espionage and sedition acts, the mobilizations for wars, the means of fighting depression, the regulation of organized labor—have had overtones of the gen­eral conflict between individual­ism and commonism.The choices have frequently been between means to the same end.

The battles between reformers and conservatives can be profita­bly viewed in the light of this con­flict. Reformers have tended to want to institute commonism and conservatives have stood, more often than not, for the old indi­vidualistic way—whether the re­former be Theodore Roosevelt or the conservative be Robert A. Taft. Of course, the issue has not always been clear-cut; the alterna­tives have not always been spelled out; the choices have frequently been between means to the same end.

The successes of commonism can be measured in terms of the spread of unionism, the growth of trusts and corporations, the cen­tralization of authority in Wash­ington, the ubiquitous activities of bureaucracies, the proliferation of welfare programs, the assumption of public responsibility for every­thing from education to housing, the triumph of the “clear and present danger doctrine” of the courts, the sanction of the curtail­ment of liberties under the rubric of the police powers of the state, and the general ease of legitimat­ing any governmental activity which is claimed to be in the in­terest of the general welfare. In­dividualists carried out successful holding actions when voluntarism was preserved, when individual liberty was sustained, when pri­vate property was preserved (though the attack has not been directly against private property any more than it has against in­dividual liberty), when govern­mental action was forestalled, when they succeeded in retaining any responsibility and function for the individual.

The Turning Point

Commonism began to take shape in the thinking and writing of some American intellectuals in the latter part of the nineteenth cen­tury. Its keynote can be found in a book published by the sociologist Lester Frank Ward in 1893. He said:

“The individual has reigned long enough. The day has come for so­ciety to take its affairs into its own hands and shape its own des­tinies. The individual has acted as best he could. He has acted in the only way he could. With a con­sciousness, will, and intellect of his own he could do nothing else than pursue his natural ends. He should not be denounced nor called any names. He should not even be blamed. Nay, he should be praised, and even imitated. Society should learn its great lesson from him, should follow the path he has so clearly laid out that leads to suc­cess. It should imagine itself an individual, with all the interests of an individual, and becoming fully conscious of these interests it should pursue them with the same indomitable will with which the individual pursues his inter­ests. Not only this, it must be guided, as he is guided, by the social intellect, armed with all the knowledge that all individuals combined, with so great labor, zeal, and talent have placed in its possession, constituting the social intelligence.”

The list of propagators and pro­genitors of commonism should in­clude Henry George, Richard Ely, Henry Demarest Lloyd, Edward Bellamy, Daniel De Leon, Eugene Debs, Thorstein Veblen, and Jack London, among others. It was for­warded by socialists, communists, muckrakers, preachers of the So­cial Gospel, nationalists, educa­tionists, and various and assorted Progressives. It was promoted by the development of a “social con­science” and instituted by people, who styled themselves liberals.

Individualists were in a major­ity at the outset of the conflict, of course. At the beginning of the twentieth century they held posi­tions of power and influence. They could denounce, cajole, laugh at, and perhaps persecute the propon­ents of commonism. Even so, the tide was turning the other way; many who talked the language of individualism were deeply em­broiled in the business of protect­ing corporations, promoting im­perialistic ventures, putting down unions by the national guard, and turning to government to solve problems. The hammer blows of twentieth-century wars and de­pression blinded many to the na­ture of the conflict of ideas, and the commonists stood ready with their programs to take over.

We are still in the midst of the massive shift from individualism to commonism so far as institu­tions and practices are concerned. But the great change in ideas and beliefs which prepared the way for it took place—so far as most of the populace was concerned—in the first three or four decades of this century. Commonist ideas became the common possession of Americans because they came to permeate the literature, the lan­guage, the sermons, the lectures and the thought of opinion makers.


  • Clarence Carson (1926-2003) was a historian who taught at Eaton College, Grove City College, and Hillsdale College. His primary publication venue was the Foundation for Economic Education. Among his many works is the six-volume A Basic History of the United States.