Communities, whether they are ancient or recent, of an ethno-cultural, linguistic, religious, sexual nature or other, are natural dimensions of membership. No individual can exist without membership, even if one should distance oneself from it. The self is always situated, i.e. incorporated into a narrative—which never boils down to a status quo, and even less to the past.
Community is a social form which predates society, just as it predates mankind taken in isolation. It has been present since before the birth of the State, before every institution. It reunites those who are close, fellow creatures, at the heart of families grouped in tribes before being grouped in cities. Language itself is a communitarian event—which implies a community of speakers capable of understanding one another. And likewise, the ‘us’ the ‘nostrity’ precedes all forms of ‘me’. Community proceeds from the common sharing and the common experience. “Man is a community being,” writes Francis Cousin,
not as a result of external and subsequent chance circumstances, but because of a dialectic of historical necessity, intimate and prerequisite. The human being is genetically the being of my conscious community. In other words, as soon as man emerges, the community of the ‘us’ and the reality of the ‘me’ appear as indissolubly unified in the same synthetic whole.1
The notion of community is as ancient as political philosophy, since it goes back at least to Aristotle. Traditionally, the adversaries of liberal individualism have always adhered to a concept of the social event in the sense of community rather than in the sense of society. The dichotomy community/society has been studied by numerous authors, starting from Ferdinand Tönnies, who, in his famous work of 1887, presents community and society as “two fundamental categories of pure sociology”, and interprets human history as that of a progressive replacement of the communitarian model by the societarian model.2 Announcing the work of Louis Dumont on holism and individualism, Tönnies shows that the individual is not an immediate given that might be found in every social organisation, but a notion tied to a particular social form, that of Gesellschaft (society), which is in opposition point by point to Gemeinschaft (community).
Community defines a mode of organic sociality, society a ‘mechanical’ type of relationship based on the predominance of the individual. Gemeinschaft constitutes a whole whose range is greater than that of its parts: solidarity and mutual aid are developed there from the notion of the common good, which is not a good that is distributed equally among all, but a good whose enjoyment is found from the start from the sharing of it. On the contrary, in the Gesellschaft model, whose idea is already in embryonic form in the theory of the social contract, people live together without being truly united or standing together. Society is thus defined as a simple addition of individuals. It is this idea that the ex-abbot Siéyès, during the period of the Revolution, claims to follow when he declares,
One will never understand the social mechanism if he does not decide to analyse society like an ordinary machine, to consider separately each of its parts, and to put them back together mentally afterwards, all one after the other, in order to grasp its harmonies, and to hear the general harmony which must result from it.3
Instead of resulting from the consensual effect of an ‘organic will’ (Wesenwille), the social bond of the modern era proceeds from the ‘rational will’ (Kürwille): the members of society decide to live together, not because they share the same values, but because they find a mutual interest in it. Concretely speaking, ‘social’ relations come down to a legal contract or to a commercial exchange. Tönnies writes, in regard to society:
Each is here for himself, and in a state of hostility in relation to the others. The various fields of activity and power are strongly determined in relation to each other, so that each prohibits the other from any contact or interference […] No one will do anything for others unless it is in exchange for a similar service or for a retribution that he judges to be the equivalent of what he gives. […] Only the prospect of a profit can bring him to let go of a good that he possesses. […] Whereas in the community, people remain united despite any separation, in society, they are separated despite any unity.
“The big city and society in general”, he adds, “represent the corruption and the death of the people”. The theses of Tönnies have sometimes been accused of ‘romanticism’, but we must understand that the notions that he contrasts, term to term, are idealtypes, in Max Weber’s sense. There is no ‘pure community’, nor ‘pure society’: every collectivity possesses, but in variable proportions, some communitarian traits and some ‘societal’ traits. What we must in fact retain from the notion of community is its character, more organic than that of society, an organic nature not to be taken in a strictly biological sense, but in a metaphorical one: on the inside of a body, the organs are not identical, but at the same time different and complementary.4
As an organic phenomenon, the community implies the application at all levels of a principle of finality (the common good), which we would not be able to reduce to an efficient causality, and also of the principle of subsidiarity, as it was defined in the 16th century by Johannes Althusius. In contrast with the state sovereignty, as Jean Bodin defines it (La République, 1576), which calls for the dissociation of the political and the civil society, as well as the elimination of intermediary bodies, Althusius defines Res Publica as a stacking up of “simple and private communities” (families, colleges and guilds), and of “mixed and public communities” (cities and provinces) crowned by a superior political community, each level being left free, as much as possible, to decide for itself about what concerns it. When qualified as “symbiotic”, politics is then no longer anything but the art of making people live in community, with sovereignty (majestas) being distributed at all levels of the social body.5
It is for this reason that the communitarian model goes so well with full federalism, which gives an important place to the intermediary bodies and to the principle of subsidiarity. The notion of ‘intermediary body’ does not obviously refer only to the guilds of the Ancien Régime, whose suppression by the Revolution left individuals on their own in view of the State at the same time as it (the Revolution) justified the prohibition of workers’ coalitions and trade unions.
“There is no federation possible between communes, between peoples or between production activities”, write Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, “except on the basis of cooperation. In other words, for better understanding, the federative principle implies a negation of the bases of capitalism”.6
Federalism itself is derived from the Empire model, which was, during the course of history, the great rival political form of the Nation-State. The characteristic of Empire, whose oldest theoreticians were Marsilius of Padua, Dante and Nicolas de Cues, was to aim above all at the articulation of differences. Sovereignty is shared therein, ethnic and cultural, religious and customary particularities are legally recognised therein, as long as they do not contradict the common law, the application of the principle of subsidiarity is the rule. Since nationality is not a synonym of citizenship, the political people (demos) is not confused with the ethnic people (ethnos), but one does not obstruct the other. One will notice that today the “republicans” put nationality over citizenship, while the holder of an ethnic conception of nationhood puts citizenship over nationality, both parties joining each other in the same indistinct ideal of the two concepts.
Historically, the Lumières’ philosophy [i.e. Auguste and Louis Lumière] first attacked the organic communities, whose way of life it denounced as being embued with irrational ‘superstitions’ and ‘prejudices’, in order to substitute it with a society of individuals. The central idea was that the individual existed, not on the basis of his memberships, but independently of them, an abstract vision of a ‘disengaged’ or ‘unencumbered’ subject (unencumbered self-[English in the text]), prior to its ends, which also constitutes the basis of the ideology of the ‘Rights of Man’. Carried by a profane version of the ideology of the Same, thus was formed the modern theory which defines humanity as an uprooting or a wrenching from all tradition.
Liberalism considers people to be interchangeable because it only conceives of them in an abstract, generic manner, as soulless beings extracted from any community and detached from all membership, this breaking-off being in its eyes the first condition of their ‘emancipation’. Also, it is only concerned with the freedom of choice, not with the empirical consequences of those choices (even a bad choice is always justified if it has been made freely). For liberals, the notion of the common good makes no sense because there exists no entity likely to benefit from it: since a society is composed uniquely of individuals, there is no ‘good’ that could be common to these individuals. The social ‘good’, in other words, can only be understood as a simple aggregate of the individual goods, a result of the individuals’ choice.7 It is in this sense that Margaret Thatcher was able to say that “society does not exist”.8
In a more general sense, all of modernity has been built from a theory based on individuals who could only be called ‘free and equal by law’ because they were considered untied or cut off from all community membership. The Lumières’ philosophy never ceases to repeat it when it opposes reason to tradition, civilisation to nature, universalism to particular cultures, and asserts that freedom and the capacity of the individual depend on his being wrenched from all familial, cultural or religious roots. At a recent date, it was more exactly the programme of Vincent Peillon, the [French] National Education Minister [2012-2014], when he declared that the role of school was “to wrench the pupil from all his determinisms: familial, ethnic, social, intellectual”.
Marx, in whose opinion man is defined as the set of his social relationships, agrees on the contrary with Aristotle when he postulates that man is first and foremost a political, social and communitarian animal (zoon politikon). He thus concurs with the opinion of all those who, in the history of thought, have opposed the liberal conception according to which man is nothing but an isolated atom, only tied to others by the set of his interests. As François Flahaut writes, “the social interdependence of individuals is not utilitarian, it is ontological”.9 Legal and commercial relationships are not enough to found a good society.
It is in this framework, here as a rough sketch, that we must place the appearance and the development in Anglo-Saxon countries, since the beginning of the 1980’s, of the communitarian trend, whose main representatives are Alasdair McIntyre, Charles Taylor and Michael Sandel. The objective of this school of thought was to expound a new theory, tightly combining moral and political philosophy, elaborated at the outset with reference to the particular situation of the United States on one side, marked by a real inflation of the ‘politics of rights’; and on the other side, in reaction to the liberal political theory, reformulated during the last decade by authors like Ronald Dworkin, Bruce Ackerman and especially John Rawls.10
By emphasising in particular the works of Tönnies, but also by working a healthy return to Aristotle’s thinking, the communitarian school set out to demonstrate the fictional character of liberal anthropology, based on a theory of subjective rights (‘the rights of man’) and on the idea of an individual always prior to his ends, i.e. rationally making his choices outside of any socio-historical context and defining himself as a consumer of utilities with unlimited needs.
The main criticism that communitarians direct at liberal individualism is precisely that it makes communities disappear, when they are a fundamental and irreplaceable element of human existence. Liberalism devalues political life by considering political association as a simple instrumental good, without seeing that the participation of citizens in the political community is an intrinsic good constituent of the good life. By reason of this fact, it (liberalism) is incapable of taking satisfactory account of a certain number of obligations and commitments, such as those which do not result from a voluntary choice or from a contractual commitment, like family obligations, the necessity to serve one’s country or of prioritising the general interest over personal interest. It propagates an erroneous conception of the self by refusing to admit that the latter is always ‘built-in’ to a socio-historical context, and, at least in part, made up of values and commitments which are neither objects of a choice nor revocable at will. It gives rise to an inflation of the politics of rights, which does not have much to do with law itself, at the same time as a new type of institutional system, the ‘procedural republic’. It fails to understand, finally, due to its legal formalism, the central role played by language, culture, morals, shared practices and values, as the basis of a true ‘politics of recognition’ of collective identities and rights.
For communitarians, a pre-social idea of the self is quite simply unthinkable: the individual always finds that society is already there—and that it (society) orders his thoughts, constitutes his manner of being in the world, and models his aims. The fundamental idea is that the self is discovered much more than chosen, for by definition, one cannot choose what is already given. As a result, the understanding of oneself is equivalent to discovering progressively of what our nature and our identity consist. It results from this that the socio-historical way of life is inseparable from self-knowledge. Memberships are a part of individuals’ identities, which means not only that individuals can make choices from a given way of life (including choices contrary to this way of life), but also that it is still this way of life which constitutes as values or non-values what individuals consider to be valuable or not.
An authentic community is not thus a simple meeting or addition of individuals. Its members have as such common ends, tied to shared values or experiences, and not just more or less compatible private interests. These ends are ends appropriate for the community itself, and not particular objectives which could end up being the same among all or among the majority of its members. In a simple association, individuals regard their interests as independent and potentially divergent from one another. The relationships existing between these interests therefore do not constitute a good in itself, but only a way of obtaining the particular goods sought after by each one of them. The community, on the contrary, constitutes an intrinsic good for all those who have a part in it.
The liberal ideology has generally interpreted the decline of the communitarian event as being closely linked to the emergence of modernity: the more the modern world imposed itself as such, the more the communitarian ties were supposed to weaken, to the benefit of more voluntary and more contractual modes of association, of more individualistic and more rational modes of behaviour. In this perspective, communities appear as a residual phenomenon, which institutional bureaucracies and global markets were called to eradicate or dissolve. In the end, it is the perspective of a unified world which was supposed to be drawn, in the image of that “celestial city”, which Saint Augustine said, “attracts citizens of all the nations and assembles around it a composite society, of people of all tongues, without worrying about the diversity of their customs, laws and institutions.11
But it was nothing of the sort. As Christopher Lasch wrote, “Uprooting destroys everything, except the need for roots”! The dissolution of the former communities had been accelerated by the birth of the Nation-State, an eminently societary phenomenon—society as a loss or disintegration of the communitarian intimacy—that could have been, not without reason, related to the emergence of the individual as a value. Significantly, the crisis of the nation-state model goes hand-in-hand today with the reappearance of political forms which go beyond this model, from above (the formation of continental blocks called to play a key role in a multi-polar world) as from below (localist demands, the multiplication of ‘communities’ and ‘tribes’, the rebirth of regional and transnational rootings).
Imposing itself as one of the possible forms for surpassing modernity, the community loses, by the same token, the ‘archaic’ status attributed to it for a long time by sociology. It appears less as a ‘stage’ of history that modern times might have abolished, than as a permanent form of human association, which, according to the eras, gains or loses more or less in importance. It also takes on new forms. In our day, communities no longer only bring people together on the basis of a common origin. In a world where influxes and networks are multiplied, communities present themselves with very diversified faces. But it is always they (communities) which do not let individuals find themselves any longer on their own before the state.
We know the Maffesolian theory of post-modern “tribes”. Post-modernism, according to Michel Maffesoli, sanctions the end of the age of pure individualism and translates a “Dionysian” renaissance of the need for close solidarity and communitarian memberships, sensitive and emotional, these communities being also chosen communities, “elective and plural”, which are not less effective, even if they only rarely fit in the long term. For Maffesoli, the “anticommunitarian incantation only leads to deepening a bit more the social divide between the peoples and the elites”, and:
Beyond the narcissism or the selfishness peculiar to a postulated individualism, it is really an ‘us’, that of the community, that of the common vibrations, which, surreptitiously, tends to spread itself.12
Challenging with more clarity Tönnies’ approach, Costanzo Preve feels, on his part, that the whole society must be transformed into a community. “The capitalist society, particularly when it is globalised”, he writes, “is in no way a community”, writes Preve.
A community, in fact, is a particular or universal human society, which is defined less by the physical proximity of the members composing it than by the existence of a custom (ethos) or, if you prefer, of morals (Sitten), i.e. a social ethic which prevails over the blind movements of the economy governed by nihilism and relativism.13
Costanzo Preve here claims to follow Aristotle, Rousseau, Fichte, Hegel and Marx all at the same time, by affirming that for the latter, the class struggle is only a tactical means to attain the strategic objective of the community (Gemeinwesen), where man will be able to find his natural generic being again (Gattungswesen).14 Preve also takes care to distinguish carefully the communities which allow people to build themselves up and those which lock them in obsolete hierarchies. Denis Collin is of the same opinion when he says that we must distinguish “between the communities which lock individuals into obedience to patriarchal or despotic hierarchies and the community of free men”.15
Recalling the absolutely central philosophical role that the first socialists applied to the concepts of mutual aid and of community, Jean-Claude Michée similarly promotes the “criticism of the republican mythology of the ‘Universal’, of which the State would be the civil servant, at least if by ‘Universal’, we mean the abstract universal, thought of as separate from the particular and opposed to it; the idea, all in all, that the basic communities ought to renounce everything that makes them particular in order to enter the large, standardised family of the nation or of the human race. As a good Hegelian, I believe, on the contrary, that the concrete universal is still a result— by definition a provisional result— and that it integrates particularity by way of an essential moment, i.e. not as a “lesser evil”, but as a sine qua non condition of its real effectiveness”.16 Never-ending dialectic of the one and the multiple, of the universal and the particular. “The ideology of progressive diversity of the left”, observes Stéphane Vibert, professor at the University of Ottawa,
perfectly marries the individualistic liberalism, claimed by the right, because both deny the historical and significant framework which give concrete meaning to the rights and responsibilities of each citizen. To believe that society is based on a contract entered into by rational, free and moral individuals, or that it is constructed by automatic regulations by means of a deal, are two identical versions of the same liberal myth. This double fiction produces an ersatz (substitute) of political community incapable of grasping its history and its cultural bedrock […] The new republicans should be aware that a political community is not only based on rules of coexistence, but also and above all, on a historical tradition, understood as a permanent reinterpretation of that which binds us.17
– Alain de Benoist born in 1943, lives in Paris. At the University, he has studied philosophy, political science, law and history of religions. He is the editor of the journals Krisis and Nouvelle Ecole, and the co-editor of the magazine Eléments. His main interests are political philosophy and history of ideas. He has published more than 100 books, 600 interviews and 2,000 articles. His latest book is Au-Delà des Droits de l’Homme (Paris: Pierre-Guillaume de Roux, 2016).
– Emile N. Joseph (translator) is the author of the short novel A Love that Spans the Ages (Nightlight Books, 2014). He teaches English to adult migrants living in Sydney, is fluent in several languages including French and shares a passion about all things connected to linguistics. Emile’s work has been published here at SydneyTrads and can be accessed through his ‘tag’ page.
- Francis Cousin, L’être contre l’avoir: Pour une Critique Radicale et Définitive du Faux Omniprésent (Le Retour aux sources, 2012) p. 82. On the “Community of habitus” or of arrangements, cf. also Olivier Ducharme, Michel Henry et le Problem de la Communauté (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2013).
- Ferdinand Tönnies, Communauté et Societé (Paris: PUF, 2010).
- Emmanuel Joseph Siéyès (Abbé Siéyès), Qu’est-ce que le Tiers Etat? (Paris: Société de l’Histoire de la Révolution Française, 1888) p.65.
- “The organic has an instituting sense, as much as it rests on a structuring vision of the social body. In this case, it serves to characterise a society whose members are tied one to another in a lively way, as the organs of the human body, so as to cooperate in view of the common good, of the whole body,” writes Marie-Pauline Deswarte in a work which is only at fault in idealising the ancien régime in an exaggerated way: La République organique en France. Un Patrimoine Constitutionnel à Restaurer (Versailles: Via Romana, 2014) pp. 15-16. Cf also, of the same author, “Retrouver la dynamique organique de la France” Valeurs Actuelles (8 January 2015) p. 79.
- Cf Alain de Benoist, “Johannes Althusius, 1557-1638” Krisis (22 March 1999) pp. 2-34. Cf also Jean-Sylvestre Mongrenier, “Johannes Althusius and subsidiary Europe” Institute Thomas More (text online) (25 June 2009).
- Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, Essai sur la Revolution du XXI° Siècle (Paris: Découverte, 2014) p. 461.
- The very libertarian Ayn Rand writes thus: “The tribe (or the public or society) is only a number of individual men. Nothing can be good for the tribe as such.” Capitalism. The Unknown Ideal (New York: Penguin, 1986) p. 20.
- At the time of the referendum on the independence of Scotland (September, 2014), Geraldine Vaughan, Senior Lecturer in History and British Civilisation at the University of Rouen, would explain the claims of the supporters of independence by their hostility to liberal individualism, “The Thatcherian ideology has been in conflict with Scottish values deeply anchored in the idea of community. The exaltation of individualism has not been understood and accepted. The neo-liberal politics of Thatcher has pulverised the Welfare State, and this has been experienced as an attack against the communitarian idea. An ideological and moral rift has been caused with the Scottish people in this era.”
- François Flahault, Pourquoi Limiter l’Expansion du Capitalisme? (Paris: Descartes & Co., 2003) p. 92.
- The English word “communitarianism” was used for the first time in 1841 by John Goodwyn Barmby, founder of the Universal Communitarian Association. You will note that the communitarian movement has greatly evolved since its origins. Some of its representatives, like Michael Sandel, have abandoned this label. Others have partly modified their positions under the influence of liberal criticisms. For a recent clarification, cf. Amitai Etzioni, “Communitarianism Revisited”, Journal of Political Ideologies (October 2014) pp. 241-260. Cf. also Shlomo Avineri and Avner de-Shalit (eds.), Communitarianism and Individualism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992); Elizabeth Frazer, The Problem of Communitarian Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); Paul van Seters, Communitarianism in Law and Society (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006).
- The City of God, Book XIX, 17, in Oeuvres, Vol. 2 (Paris: Gallimard-Pléiade) p. 876.
- Michel Maffesoli and Hélène Strohl, Les Nouveaux Bien-Pensants (Paris: Editions du Moment, 2013) p. 13.
- Costanzo Preve, Eloge du Communautarisme (Paris: Krisis, 2012) p. 213.
- Ibid., p. 32.
- Denis Collin, “La forme achevée de la République est la République sociale”, in Le Comptoir (online) (3 November 2014) p. 4.
- “On ne peut être politiquement orthodoxe” (One cannot be politically orthodox), text online, January 2015.
- Stéphane Vibert, “L’Égalité dans la Différence est un Slogan Creux” (The equality in the difference is a hollow slogan), in Causeur, October 2013, p.48.
This article is to be cited according to the following convention:
Alain de Benoist, “Irreplaceable Communities” Emile N. Joseph (translator) SydneyTrads – Weblog of the Sydney Traditionalist Forum (30 April 2016) <sydneytrads.com/2016/04/30/2016-symposium-alain-benoist-en> (accessed [date]).