After reading this article you will learn about the antithesis between collectivism and individualism.
If by individualism we mean a belief in the rights of individual persons, and by collectivism we mean a belief in the collective service owed and rendered to such rights by government, we shall see no opposition, but rather a necessary connexion.
It is possible, indeed, to draw a distinction, as some thinkers have done, between a period of individualism, dominated by the influence of Bentham and his followers and marked by the idea of liberation, which lasted into the third quarter of the nineteenth century, and a period of collectivism, marked by the extension of the idea of protection, which succeeded the period of individualism from 1870 onwards. But the distinction is a distinction of the study; and it may even be said to show a class or professional bias.
Some classes or professions might mourn a loss of individual rights after 1870: others, and those were numerous, began to enjoy an increase. Generally the whole of the nineteenth century, far from being divided into two different parts, was a century of a single and homogeneous process; a process of the extension of personal rights, which may be called individualism, but a process entailing, at the same time, an extension of the service of government on behalf of those rights, an extension which may be called by the name of collectivism, but is really and in fact the consequence and the other side of the extension of personal rights which is called by the name of individualism.
Individualism is a word which is easily used in different and even conflicting senses. It can be used, and is often used, to denote a doctrine that the State leaves the individual alone, ‘letting him do and letting him go’ (laissez faire et laissez passer) as he himself thinks best. The phrase is a phrase of the French Free Trade economists of the eighteenth century: it originally belonged only to economics, and only to one part of that—the part concerned with commerce.
It was a good enough phrase in its day, and it has its value still, in its own restricted field. But it cannot be properly applied to economics generally, or made to include the field of industry as well as the field of commerce: still less can it be applied to the whole broad field of politics.
Individualism of the laissez-faire order in that field, individualism which meant that the State should leave each individual alone in the general business and whole conduct of life, would not only mean dereliction of its duty by the State; it would also mean the destruction of the individual’s power to do anything freely or to go anywhere freely.
A true individualism, in the field of politics, involves a recognition of the State’s liberating power, coupled with a recognition of its duty to use that power according to its nature, and therefore for liberation and the removal of obstacles.
Individualism so conceived starts, indeed, from individual personality, and from the inherent title of each individual person to enjoy the conditions necessary to the development of his capacities. But just because it starts from that basis, it cannot end in any conclusion of laissez faire, or issue in any doctrine that it is the duty of the State to leave individuals alone.
The conditions necessary for the development of each individual person are not to be had for the whistling, and they do not come of themselves in obedience to each person’s call. They have to be assembled by a collective effort which is only possible to an organized State. They are assembled for the sake of the individual; but he cannot assemble them himself, or be left alone to shift for himself by his own unaided devices.
On the contrary, he must be surrounded with service; a collective service which, in union with others, he himself helps to provide for others as well as himself: a service which becomes all the greater, the more fully the conditions necessary for his development are recognized and the more his rights are thereby extended.
The State which is based on regard and respect for the worth of individual persons is not a ‘let-alone’ State: it is a State which follows and attends, ‘with unperturbed pace’, and with a constant office of service. To argue for individuality is not to argue for the un-served and unattended individual.
It is rather the opposite: it is to argue for the general legal framework, and the whole system of collective service, which individuality needs for its development: it is to argue for the rights it requires, for the system of Right which is the other side of these rights, and for the service of the State in declaring and enforcing the common conviction about that system.
The argument seems to result in a paradox: ‘the greater the liberty of the individual, the greater the interposition of government: the more rights, the more law, and therefore the more the activity of the State in declaring and enforcing law. The statement of the paradox suggests a reflection. There is always a price to be paid for rights.
That price, is partly financial, or a matter of payment in money; partly spiritual, or a matter of payment in the acceptance of control. We need not pause to discuss the nature and the implications of the financial price. That is a matter of economics: of national finance and the balancing of national income and national expenditure.
It is the spiritual price which matters most; and the crucial balance to be struck is the balance between the spiritual profit gained in the increased enjoyment of rights and the spiritual loss incurred or involved in the increased acceptance of control. When we seek to strike this balance, we have two calculations to make.
The first is a calculation of the gain and loss in the private account of each individual: it is a matter, as it were, of the private bank-book of each; it is a business of reckoning individual gain of liberty against individual loss. The second is a calculation of the gain and loss in what may be called the common account of the whole community: it is a matter of reckoning between classes or sections of the community; it is a business of computing the gain of one class or section, in liberty and personal rights, against the loss of another.
The necessity of reckoning spiritual gain and spiritual loss in the private account of each individual is a necessity which may easily be forgotten; but it still remains a necessity. Men readily accept new rights and the enlargement which they immediately bring: they are less ready to remember the price and the restrictions which may be entailed.
The rights comprised in a system of social security are precious; but they are necessarily accompanied by administrative control and regulation, and they necessarily involve the performance of prescribed and compulsory acts in the channels of regular routine. There is at once an increase of liberty and an increase of automatism; and the question is whether the increase of liberty is more than enough to offset the increase of automatism.
To enjoy the rights of social security is to be liberated from fears and dangers; to be more of a freeman, and to have more freedom for the development of personal capacity. If the freedom is grasped and used, and if the development is actually achieved, the game is well worth the candle, and the commodity is worth far more than the price. On the other hand there is a price.
To be liberated from a set of risks is also to be liberated from the responsibility of facing those risks: indeed it is even more, under a system of collective insurance; it is also to be subjected to the control involved in the system. Only if the liberty gained is actively grasped and used; only if it is something more than a passive acceptance of benefits; only then will there be a net gain on the whole of the transaction.
The man who is formally made more free by a system of social security must actively use his freedom to make something more of himself if he is to be really and actually more free.
The necessity of reckoning gain and loss between different classes or sections is a still more obvious necessity, daily forced upon our attention by the process of class-debate. The extension of rights for one class may mean the limitation of rights for another; and it is possible that the one class may lose even more than the other gains. But that, in itself, does not necessarily mean that the bargain is bad.
The previous distribution of rights between classes may have been unfair and inequitable: one class may have been entrenched in the possession of a superfluity, and the other depressed below the level of bare necessity. If the greatest number are to enjoy the greatest possible development of the capacities of personality, correction is inevitable, and it may be as just (in terms of the sovereign justice which assigns rights equally to each and all) as it is inevitable.
The distribution of rights among classes is not a thing fixed forever. It is a matter for constant adjustment and readjustment, as social thought about justice grows and as the interpretation of the principles of liberty and equality broadens with its growth. But there is still a limit to the process of adjustment and readjustment.
It may be fair to ask one class, particularly when in numbers it is a small and limited class, to surrender old rights and responsibilities for the sake of another and larger class, and in order that the members of that class may enjoy new rights and responsibilities. But it will only be really fair if two conditions are satisfied.
The first of these conditions is that the rights and responsibilities surrendered should be used by those who receive them for their own higher development, and not merely accepted as prizes or trophies. Otherwise there may be no gain, and there may even be loss, in terms of that development of personality which is the final criterion.
The other condition is that the class surrendering rights (such as the right to ownership of capital resources and the management of those resources on the basis of personal responsibility) should not be made to surrender so much that it becomes impotent to contribute any energy of initiative or originality of experiment to the development of the national economy and the general national culture or type of civilization.
Under any system of organization a national community will always need an initiatory and experimental class which can generate and distribute the electricity of ideas. The recruiting of that class should be broad and generous; and every talent should have an open way into its ranks.
But however recruited, and however broad, this class will always require the conditions necessary for the discharge of its electric work; and there will always remain a modicum of rights and responsibility which it must necessarily retain if it is to be itself and to contribute its own gifts to the cause of general development.
The days of hereditary aristocracy are gone; but there is no numbering of the days of what may be called the professional aristocracy, in the widest sense of the word ‘professional’. The more a national community moves towards the greatest possible development of the capacities of personality in the greatest possible number of persons, the more it needs the stimulus which professional skill and managing capacity can give to the whole development of the whole community.
It has been argued that there is no antithesis between individualism, in the sense of a belief in the development of individual personality, and collectivism in the sense of a belief in the collective service necessary for individual development. On the other hand, it has also been argued that though there is no antithesis there is or may be tension—a tension between the ‘pull’ of individual development and the ‘pull’ of a collective service which must always be in some measure also a collective control.
The two may be complements to one another; but they are complements which need a nice and delicate adjustment. There is a principle of polarity in the political nature of man, as there is in human nature generally: a ‘quality of exhibiting opposite or contrasted properties’, a ‘tendency to develop in two opposite directions’.
In his general nature man has the contrasted properties of privacy and sociability; and though he is one being, and though he needs them both, he is also divided between them, and he also feels the tension between their different pulls.
Similarly in his political nature he has the contrasted and yet complementary properties of the individualist who would fain be himself and the collectivism who would merge himself in a fellowship of service; and though he is one being and needs both these properties, he is also divided between them and feels in himself the tension of a ‘tendency to develop in two opposite directions’.
Individualism and collectivism are not the banners of two separate armies, composed of two separate bodies of men. All of us fly them both, and we all serve under both. There is a polarity in each of us, as well as in the whole community to which we all belong. We need not dread the resultant tension. That would simply be to dread life; for life is tension, as tension is life.
We have to accept it as it exists, both within ourselves and within the community; and we have constantly to find, in each new conjuncture, the new adjustment which the new conjuncture demands, surrendering neither individual development nor collective service, but endeavouring to find an adjustment which preserves them both and may even make them both mutually serviceable to one another.
There is another polarity, and another tension, besides the tension within the State between the call of individual development and the call of collective service.
This is the polarity or tension between the State and Society; between the community permanently organized in a single legal association, for the one legal purpose of declaring and enforcing universal and uniform rules, and the community organized, or rather constantly organizing itself, in a number of voluntary associations for a variety of purposes (religious, cultural, recreational, charitable, economic, and whatever else may be comprehended under the general designation of ‘social’), which adorn and supplement, and may even stimulate or anticipate, the activity proper to the purpose of the legal organization.
The question which thus emerges, and the tension thus presented, bring us back at the end to the theme from which the argument originally started. What is the province of the State, and what is the province of Society? Is there any definite boundary, or how shall we conceive their relations?
In attempting to answer this question we may begin by asking ourselves whether the goal which is set before us—the securing of the greatest amount of rights for the greatest number of persons; the providing of the conditions for the highest possible development of the capacities of personality over the widest possible range—is a goal which can be simultaneously attained by two parallel lines of action, or a goal to be attained by one and only one.
Can the extension and spread of rights ‘in widest commonalty’ be partly secured by voluntary action in the social area, or must it be altogether secured by uniform and compulsory action in the legal area, with a large consequential growth of State-action and a large increase of the functions of government in the necessary service of rights? There is a good case to be made in favour of the first of these alternatives.
Voluntary action in the social area is needed as well as, and no less than, the uniform and compulsory action of the organized State in its own legal area. Both are necessary, but the first comes first; and the prior thing, in the order of time (though not necessarily in order of importance) is the voluntary action of Society.
We do our best if we do what we can for ourselves, by voluntary social co-operation, before we invoke the action of the State—which indeed is also ourselves, wherever it is democratically organized, but is ourselves engaged in the making and enforcing of compulsory rules. There is a time for voluntary and varied experiment as well as for the uniform obligatory rule.
Indeed the distinction between social action and the legal action of the State is perhaps rather a distinction of time than a distinction of space or area. It is not always the case that one sort of action is concerned with one area or set of subjects, and the other with another area or set: on the contrary, both sorts of action may well be concerned with the same areas or sets of subjects.
Rather it is often the case that the one sort of action belongs to one time or conjuncture, the time of the laboratory’ and the experiment, and the other to another time or conjuncture—let us say, in a metaphor, that of mass-production, when a result of the laboratory is being put on the market as a standardized uniform commodity.
If we follow this line of thought, we shall be led to believe that a reorganization of the economic process, such as will introduce the principles of liberty and equality into this process, and will therefore secure to all who are concerned in it the rights involved by these principles, may well begin, and may even sometimes remain, as the level of voluntary agreement between voluntary associations (those of the workers and those of the employers), an agreement based on voluntary consultation and issuing in voluntary co-operation.
But often the matter will not end there, and there will come a time and conjuncture for acting in a different way and by a different mode. Voluntary social effort, feeling its way, making its experiments, proceeding by trial and error, may discover a best which is so obviously best that it deserves to be made the general rule.
In that case the State, which is not the enemy of Society, but rather stands to it in something of the relation in which a solicitor may stand to a family, will register and endorse this best as a rule for general application and enforcement. But just as it is wise to avoid going to a solicitor unless or until you have a case to submit, so it may also be wise to avoid recourse to the State (to which we are perhaps too prone to carry our problems instantly) until social thought and experiment have done their preparatory work.
The issue between Society and the State, if we can speak at all of an issue, is riot an issue between opposites. How indeed can it be so, when the State is just Society writ legally—Society organized in the form and for the purposes of a legal association? It is either an issue between two alternatives, either of which may serve, but one of which, at a given moment, may serve better than the other, or an issue between two complements, both of which are needed, but one of which is needed as the forerunner of the other.
The conclusion to which we are thus led is not a conclusion in favour of the individualism which means leaving individuals alone, to shift for themselves by their own devices: nor again, on the other hand, is it a conclusion in favour of the form of collectivism under which the State serves individuals so much that they have little or nothing to do for themselves, and thus lose much of their liberty in the very act of their own liberation.
It is rather a conclusion in favour of the maximum of voluntary self-help by groups of individuals, voluntarily acting for themselves in the social area; thinking out for themselves, in their own sphere of interest, the requirements and conditions of their own development; and, when they have thought them out for themselves, going on to achieve them by themselves, and by their own efforts, so far as in their own sphere they can.
In one sense this may be called individualism; for it involves a belief in the value of the spontaneous activity of individuals, freely associated for the purpose of shifting for themselves, by their own devices, in a scheme of voluntary self-help.
In another sense, however, it may also be called collectivism; for it involves a belief in the value of the concerted activity of collective groups, each knit together by a common interest of all the members in a common object, and each seeking to achieve its object by means of common effort.
But on a broad view the method of voluntary self-help by the concerted effort of a voluntary association is neither individualism nor collectivism, in the ordinary sense of those terms; it is a happy bridge between them. The essence of the method is a spirit of ‘voluntary community’, which marries voluntas to communitas; and the essence in turn of that spirit is the power not of force but of persuasion.
The power of persuasion, issuing in the spirit of voluntary community, has studded the world in which we live with a profusion of social institutions. Professor Whitehead, in one of the most suggestive of his essays, has spoken of the transformation wrought in the problem of liberty by ‘a profusion of corporations originated by explicit thought’.
In his view the development of these autonomous institutions, limited to special purposes, places the problem of liberty at a new angle: and he holds accordingly that the novelty of our days, and the modern method of solving the problem of liberty, ‘consists in the deliberate formation of institutions, embodying purposes of special groups, and unconcerned with the general purposes of any political state’.
His authority and his persuasive power reinforce the argument here advanced. The future will largely lie with the development and the activity of a variety of social institutions. What such institutions can do, and what they may ultimately achieve, in the economic field, is a matter already touched upon in the previous course of the argument. But there are other fields besides the economic in which the development of social institutions may contribute greatly to the solution of the ancient problem of liberty.
There is, for example, the field of education, which is not, and never can be, a monopoly of the State. Educational associations—of parents, of teachers, of workers, and of members of religious confessions—are all concerned in the development of educational experiments, and in offering that liberty of choice among types of school and forms of instruction which is essential to the growth of personal and individual capacity.
Indeed on a general view, and looking beyond particular fields to the general field of the way of life and the type of civilization common to the whole community, we cannot but notice that social institutions are active in all its range and over all its extent. ‘Our lives are passed from the first not in a monistic, homogeneous circle, but in a number of circles. … we live in various social complexes which are in the last resort concentric and each of which has its own intellectual content.’
These circles and social complexes, each with its intellectual content, and all with their moral aim of mutual aid and common service, are essentially personal unions, enlisting personal interest and eliciting fully the initiative of their leading personalities. The greater the part which they play, on that basis and in that form, the greater their contribution to the development of the capacities of individual personality in the community at large, and thereby to the growth of a better way of life and a higher type of civilization.
But they must be true to their personal basis, and retain their personal form, if they are to contribute effectively. Social institutions can easily become ossified, no less than political: they can become official organizations, in lieu of personal associations – they can dictate to their members, instead of responding to the lift and surge of their minds.
They must constantly be renewed and reviewed – sometimes, when they have served and outlived their purpose, they may even have to be destroyed, in order that something new and better may be able to take their place. It might be a motto for a community – ‘Never rest content with your institutions, whether social or political—but least of all with the social: there is a virtue in continuity, but there is no less virtue in change.’
All in all, the question before us is not a question of ‘the man versus the State’, or of individualism versus collectivism. There is no point in the question: there is no such antithesis; there is, at the most, a tension, which is as healthy as it is necessary. Nor is the question before us a question of ‘Society versus the State’, or of the voluntary principle versus the principle of legal control and regulation.
There may be more point in that question; but again there is no antithesis, for both of the things thus opposed are needed, and both may be needed equally. Here, however, the tension is greater; and here, there is a reasonable ground for debating, not so much what the State should do and what Society should do (both handle equally a number of matters, and few matters can be said to belong exclusively either to the one or to the other), as when and in what conjuncture Society should be the agent, and when and in what conjuncture the agent should be the State.
Each mind has a drawing bias, which makes it naturally run in some particular direction. The bias of the writer has always inclined his thought—the more, the older he grows—towards a belief in the value of the social mode of action. With all its imperfections and its possible inefficiencies, it is none the less a mode of action which permits and even demands the free energy of the mind.
The movement of the State is the regular revolution of steady and unfailing machinery. The movement of social institutions is a varied and irregular movement, like the movement of trees and plants as they spring from the seed in the ground: here one group, and there another, thrusts up its fresh particular idea into the varied field of social life and experiment.
The humming automatism of the State is about us and all our doings, engaged in constant service and constantly intending our good. The varied field is untidy, irregular, unregulated: it has many gaps: it has even more redundancies. But may the time never come when all our life spins round on the revolving wheels of legal regulation.