Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Anthropology – individualism, collectivism or communitarianism

A conservative blog for peace quotes, with apparent approval, an article that denounces communitarians as boring, bossy and fascist.

The mind boggles!

When I hear the word “communitarian” the first person who springs to mind is Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement, and anyone less boring, bossy and fascist I cannot imagine.

What is communitarianism?

To quote the Catholic Worker movement

We are working for the Communitarian revolution to oppose both the rugged individualism of the capitalist era, and the collectivism of the Communist revolution. We are working for the Personalist revolution because we believe in the dignity of man, the temple of the Holy Ghost, so beloved by God that He sent His son to take upon Himself our sins and die an ignominious and disgraceful death for us. We are Personalists because we believe that man , a person, a creature of body and soul, is greater than the State, of which as an individual he is a part. We are personalists because we oppose the vesting of all authority in the hands of the state instead of in the hands of Christ the King. We are Personalists because we believe in free will, and not in the economic determinism of the Communist philosophy.

If one sets aside the rather overblown rhetoric, this is not all that much different from the Zulu proverb frequently quoted as an example of ubuntu: “umuntu ungumuntu ngabantu” — a person is a person because of people.

There have been a few reported cases of children who have been separated from their parents at an early age, and raised by wild animals, but in spite of the romantic legend of Romulus and Remus, such children usually find it very difficult to relate to other human beings, and are very deficient in personal development.

This is also similar to Orthodox anthropology — see, for example, the following books, passim:

  • Vlachos, Hierotheos. 1999. The person in the Orthodox tradition. Nafpaktos: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery. ISBN: 960-7070-40-2
  • Yannaras, Christos. 1984. The freedom of morality. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press. ISBN: 0-88141-028-4


Dorothy Day -- advocate of communitarianism

Dorothy Day — advocate of communitarianism

The young fogey often advocates libertarianism, as does the author he quotes. As far as I have been able to ascertain, libertarianism is liberalism on steroids, and libertarians are liberals with attitude. In other words, libertarians have turned liberalism from a political idea for governing a country into an ideology and a complete worldview. I must admit, however, that Stanley Fish has attempted to turn liberalism into such an ideology. Even though I can see what he is getting at, I am in fundamental disagreement with his thesis.

Liberals tend to see things in terms of practical politics, rather than a complete worldview. I was, briefly, a member of the Liberal Party of South Africa, at a time when its vision of a nonracial democratic South Africa was under extreme pressure from the government of the day. The Liberal Party had members of just about every racial and religious group in South Africa. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, pagans and Secular Humanists joined together in a common enterprise. Their theology and their anthropology, their understandings of human nature, may have been very different, but in spite of the differences, they were able to join in a common political vision of the kind of society they wanted South Africa to be — with freedom, justice, the rule of law, and a nonracial democracy in which all citizens would have a say in the government of the country.

Libertaranism, on the other hand, if I have correctly understood the article cited by the Young Fogey, seeks to impose a much wider worldview, and one that, as far as I can see, is essentially antithetical to a Christian one, in many ways as much so as the Communist worldview. It is based on a view of man that is fundamentally at odds with Orthodox Christian anthropology.

As Christians we have a model, the Holy Trinity, which is neither individualist nor collectivist. The persons of the Holy Trinity are neither three individuals, nor a collective. But libertarianism begins to look like a heresy.

Single Post Navigation

7 thoughts on “Anthropology – individualism, collectivism or communitarianism

  1. The Scylding on said:

    I have to agree with you, Steve, about the non-desireability of libertarianism. But personally I’d like to ditch the left-right, conservative-liberal rhetoric. That is why I normally list my political view as “other”.

    But Dorothy Day, Chesterton (especially) and even EF Shumacher has had some influence on me. But one should not make idols of any political view….

    People will chose based more on individual concerns (Maslow’s hierarchy and all that) than on anything else – see my latest blog post.

  2. Steve Hayes on said:


    It’s not so much the political views that concerns me, but linking them to a particular worldview and excluding others.

    For me the opposite of “liberal” is not “conservative” but “authoritarian”. In a free society, liberals will be conservative.

  3. Wonderworking Words on said:

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you asked “what is communitarianism?”

    The U.S. works with a strangely different set of political definitions than most of the world. Here, a “liberal” is a relatively mild fascist or socialist. A “conservative” is generally a classical liberal, because we still have a free society (at least that’s what the vast majority of the population still believes and for the most part experiences).

    If you asked me (and I am a self-described Libertarian living in the U.S.) what “libertarian” means, I’d tell you I’m a classical liberal.

    Here, most libertarians don’t consider communitarians to be their opposite. Their ideological opposites in America are best described as “statists” (either fascists or socialists, but generally people who want the central government of a country to be more authoritarian). In that way, the Times article referenced is just plain wrong. (And it angered a great many self-described libertarians with its false and misleading rhetoric.)

    Being a libertarian doesn’t mean one can’t care about community needs first. It simply means that you don’t want the *government* to tell you who/what your community is and what you owe it. Most of the Orthodox in my parish are libertarians because we believe that the best government for Orthodoxy to flourish under is a classically liberal one. You can’t say these people are anti-community. We are very pro-family, pro-community. We just believe that the community and our involvement in it/contributions to it ought to be *voluntary* and not *mandated* by the government.

  4. patrick kelly on said:

    “We just believe that the community and our involvement in it/contributions to it ought to be *voluntary* and not *mandated* by the government.

    I like that. I am another american orthodox christian who considers my politics to be libertarian.

    IMAO, strong, healthy community is planted and grown locally, and cannot be authoritatively structured or enforced by a distance, powerful, centralized government.

    Whatever the ramifications, our american “experiment” in constitutional governance was born out of rebellion against one of those distant, powerful, centralized powers, and that legacy still lives on here.

  5. Steve Hayes on said:

    Well, Dorothy Day was American. I don’t know if she was the original communitarian, but she was a fairly well-known one.

    I simply cannot imagine her advocating that community be established by a distant, powerful, centralized government.

  6. Wonderworking Words on said:

    “I simply cannot imagine her advocating that community be established by a distant, powerful, centralized government.”

    Hence my point about American definitions being out of kilter. Dorothy Day was a communitarian, but not the kind of “communitarian” (i.e. statist) that would be the opposite of a libertarian. That’s the fundamental flaw of the Times article referenced. It muddies the definition of libertarians and communitarians by opposing them to each other when they aren’t opposed at all.

    The opposite of a libertarian is a statist.

    The opposite of a communitarian is a radical individualist.

    Comparing libertarians to communitarians is like comparing apples to oranges. It’s not fair to either. One is a political/economic scale concerning the use of property. Which prevails: private property or state property? The other is a social scale concerning interests. Which prevails: community interests or individual interests?

    Dorothy Day was a communitarian in that she placed the needs/interests of communities above that of individuals (particularly the few powerful and/or rich individuals). Nevertheless, she was a borderline anarchist politically who felt that small, local communities were better at governing themselves than governments. This is one of the key positions taken by libertarians.

    It is therefore arguable, in my mind, that Day was a libertarian AND communitarian. She believed in serving communities and others first, yet she did not envision the government doing this (via Socialism or Communism). She envisioned and empowered individuals and families to come together and see to their own needs via collective farms, private ownership of family shops and businesses, charity, and hospitality. She valued private property above private enterprise. This vision is what most libertarians envision as well.

    So, once again, that Times article just muddies the waters. There are communitarian politics (socialism and communism come to mind), just as there are individualist politics (i.e. capitalism). But these are about political enterprise. They answer the question: who should undertake enterprise, the individual or the government?

  7. Wonderworking Words on said:

    P.S. After reading through my lengthy post (sorry about that), I realized I missed clarifying one key distinction.

    “Communitarian” as defined by the Catholic Worker movement *is not* the same thing meant by “communitarian” in the political sphere. In the political sphere, a communitarian is a statist and the opposite of a libertarian. It’s not fair to The Catholic Workers who (I think) coined the term, but in U.S. politics the term has been usurped by those with a political agenda akin to mild socialism.

    In my prior post, most of my thinking about the word “communitarian” regarded the Catholic Worker definition, not the political definition.

    That’s what I was trying to get at when talking about American definitions being out of kilter.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: