Communitarism (20TH CENTURY)

Theory of democracy.

Because of the large number of voters in modern democracies, elections provide a greatly diluted form of political participation.

Representative, indirect politics – with voters meeting and discussing and choosing at local level – achieves some of the involvement in a political community which otherwise would be lost.

Anne Phillips, Engendering Democracy (Cambridge, 1991)


The philosophy of communitarianism originated in the 20th century, but the term “communitarian” was coined in 1841, by John Goodwyn Barmby, a leader of the British Chartist movement, who used it in referring to utopian socialists and other idealists who experimented with communal styles of life. However, it was not until the 1980s that the term “communitarianism” gained currency through association with the work of a small group of political philosophers. Their application of the label “communitarian” was controversial, even among communitarians, because, in the West, the term evokes associations with the ideologies of socialism and collectivism; so, public leaders—and some of the academics who champion this school of thought—usually avoid the term “communitarian”, while still advocating and advancing the ideas of communitarianism.

The term is primarily used in two senses:

  • Philosophical communitarianism considers classical liberalism to be ontologically and epistemologically incoherent, and opposes it on those grounds. Unlike classical liberalism, which construes communities as originating from the voluntary acts of pre-community individuals, it emphasizes the role of the community in defining and shaping individuals. Communitarians believe that the value of community is not sufficiently recognized in liberal theories of justice.
  • Ideological communitarianism is characterized as a radical centrist ideology that is sometimes marked by socially conservative and economically interventionist policies This usage was coined recently. When the term is capitalized, it usually refers to the Responsive Communitarian movement of Amitai Etzioni and other philosophers.

Czech and Slovak philosophers like Marek Hrubec,[2] Lukáš Perný[3] and Luboš Blaha[4] extend communitarianism to social projects tied to the values and significance of community or collectivism and to various types of communism and socialism (Christian, scientific, or utopian, including:

  • Historical roots of collectivist projects from Plato, through François-Noël Babeuf, Pierre Joseph Proudhon, Mikhail Bakunin, Charles Fourier, Robert Owen to Karl Marx
  • Contemporary theoretical communitarianism (Michael J. Sandel, Michael Walzer, Alasdair MacIntyre), originating in the 1980s
    • Pro-liberal, pro-multicultural (Walzer, Taylor)
    • Anti-liberal, pro-national (Sandel, MacIntyre)
  • The vision of practical, self-sustaining communities as described by Thomas More (Utopia), Tommaso Campanella (Civitas solis) and practised by Christian Utopians (Jesuit Reduction) or utopian socialists like Charles Fourier (List of Fourierist Associations in the United States), Robert Owen (List of Owenite communities in the United States). This line includes various forms of cooperatives, self-help instititutions, or communities (Hussite communities, The Diggers, Habans, Hutterites, Amish, Israeli kibbutz, Slavic community; examples include the Twelve Tribes communities, Tamera (Portugal), Marinaleda (Spain), the monastic state of Mount Athos[5] and the Catholic Worker Movement).


While the term communitarian was coined only in the mid-nineteenth century, ideas that are communitarian in nature appear much earlier. They are found in some classical socialist doctrine (e.g. writings about the early commune and about workers’ solidarity), and further back in the New Testament. Communitarianism has been traced back to early monasticism.

A number of early sociologists had strongly communitarian elements in their work, such as Ferdinand Tönnies in his comparison of Gemeinschaft (oppressive but nurturing communities) and Gesellschaft (liberating but impersonal societies), and Emile Durkheim’s concerns about the integrating role of social values and the relations between the individual and society. Both authors warned of the dangers of anomie (normlessness) and alienation in modern societies composed of atomized individuals who had gained their liberty but lost their social moorings. Modern sociologists saw the rise of a mass society and the decline of communal bonds and respect for traditional values and authority in the United States as of the 1960s. Among those who raised these issues were Robert Nisbet (Twilight of Authority),[6] Robert N. Bellah Habits of the Heart,[7] and Alan Ehrenhalt (The Lost City: The Forgotten Virtues Of Community In America).[8] In his book Bowling Alone (2000), Robert Putnam documented the decline of “social capital” and stressed the importance of “bridging social capital,” in which bonds of connectedness are formed across diverse social groups.[9]

In the twentieth century communitarianism also began to be formulated as a philosophy by Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement. In an early article the Catholic Worker clarified the dogma of the Mystical Body of Christ as the basis for the movement’s communitarianism.[10] Along similar lines, communitarianism is also related to the personalist philosophy of Emmanuel Mounier.

Responding to criticism that the term ‘community’ is too vague or cannot be defined, Amitai Etzioni, one of the leaders of the American communitarian movement, pointed out that communities can be defined with reasonable precision as having two characteristics: first, a web of affect-laden relationships among a group of individuals, relationships that often crisscross and reinforce one another (as opposed to one-on-one or chain-like individual relationships); and second, a measure of commitment to a set of shared values, norms, and meanings, and a shared history and identity – in short, a particular culture.[11] Further, author David E. Pearson argued that “[t]o earn the appellation ‘community,’ it seems to me, groups must be able to exert moral suasion and extract a measure of compliance from their members. That is, communities are necessarily, indeed, by definition, coercive as well as moral, threatening their members with the stick of sanctions if they stray, offering them the carrot of certainty and stability if they don’t.”[11]

What is specifically meant by “community” in the context of communitarianism can vary greatly between authors and time periods. Historically, communities have been small and localized. However, as the reach of economic and technological forces extended, more-expansive communities became necessary in order to provide effective normative and political guidance to these forces, prompting the rise of national communities in Europe in the 17th century. Since the late 20th century there has been some growing recognition that the scope of even these communities is too limited, as many challenges that people now face, such as the threat of nuclear war and that of global environmental degradation and economic crises, cannot be handled on a national basis. This has led to the quest for more-encompassing communities, such as the European Union. Whether truly supra-national communities can be developed is far from clear.

More modern communities can take many different forms, but are often limited in scope and reach. For example, members of one residential community are often also members of other communities – such as work, ethnic, or religious ones. As a result, modern community members have multiple sources of attachments, and if one threatens to become overwhelming, individuals will often pull back and turn to another community for their attachments. Thus, communitarianism is the reaction of some intellectuals to the problems of Western society, an attempt to find flexible forms of balance between the individual and society, the autonomy of the individual and the interests of the community, between the common good and freedom, rights and duties.[citation needed]

Communitarian philosophy

In moral and political philosophy, communitarians are best known for their critiques of John Rawls’ political liberalism, detailed at length in his book A Theory of Justice. Communitarians criticize the image Rawls presents of humans as atomistic individuals, and stress that individuals who are well-integrated into communities are better able to reason and act in responsible ways than isolated individuals, but add that if social pressure to conform rises to high levels, it will undermine the individual self. Communitarians uphold the importance of the social realm, and communities in particular, though they differ in the extent to which their conceptions are attentive to liberty and individual rights. Even with these general similarities, communitarians, like members of many other schools of thought, differ considerably from one another. There are several distinct (and at times wildly divergent) schools of communitarian thought.

The following authors have communitarian tendencies in the philosophical sense, but have all taken pains to distance themselves from the political ideology known as communitarianism, which is discussed further below:

  • Alasdair MacIntyre – After Virtue
  • Michael Sandel – Liberalism and the Limits of Justice
  • Charles Taylor – Sources of the Self
  • Michael Walzer – Spheres of Justice

One thought on “Communitarism (20TH CENTURY)

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