AskDefine | Define communitarian

Extensive Definition

Communitarianism, as a group of related but distinct philosophies, began in the late 20th century, opposing in its opinion exalted forms of individualism while advocating phenomena such as civil society. Not necessarily hostile to social liberalism or even social democracy, communitarianism emphasizes the interest of communities and societies over those of the individual.


Though the term communitarianism is of 20th-century origin, it is derived from the 1840s term communitarian, which was coined by Goodwyn Barmby to refer to one who was a member or advocate of a communalist society. The modern use of the term is a redefinition of the original sense. Many communitarians trace their philosophy to earlier thinkers. 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 resp. grounded in liberal theories of justice.
  • Ideological communitarianism is characterized as a radical centrist ideology that is sometimes marked by leftism on economic issues and conservatism on social issues. This usage was coined recently. When the term is capitalized, it usually refers to the Responsive Communitarian movement of Amitai Etzioni and other philosophers.

Philosophical communitarianism

Communitarian philosophers are primarily concerned with ontological and epistemological issues, as distinct from policy issues. The communitarian response to John Rawls' A Theory of Justice reflects dissatisfaction with the image Rawls presents of humans as atomistic individuals. Although Rawls allows some space for benevolence, for example, he views it merely as one of many values that exist within a single person's head.
Communitarians claim values and beliefs exist in public space, in which debate takes place. They argue that becoming an individual means taking a stance on the issues that circulate in the public space. For example, within the United States debate on gun politics, there are a number of stances to be taken, but all of these stances presuppose the existence of a gun politics debate in the first place; this is one sense in which the community predates individualism. Similarly, both linguistic and non-linguistic traditions are communicated to children and form the backdrop against which individuals can formulate and understand beliefs. The dependence of the individual upon community members is typically meant as descriptive. It does not mean that individuals should accept majority beliefs on any issue. Rather, if an individual rejects a majority belief, such as the historic belief that slavery is acceptable, he or she will do so for reasons that make sense within the community (for example, Christian religious reasons or reasons deriving from the Enlightenment conception of human rights) rather than simply any old reason. In this sense, the rejection of a single majority belief relies on a deep tradition of other majority beliefs.
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.

Ideological communitarianism

Communitarian philosophy

Social capital

Beginning in the late 20th century, many authors began to observe a deterioration in the social networks of the United States. In the book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam observed that nearly every form of civic organization has undergone drops in membership exemplified by the fact that, while more people are bowling than in the 1950s, there are fewer bowling leagues.
This results in a decline in "social capital", described by Putnam as "the collective value of all 'social networks' and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other". According to Putnam and his followers, social capital is a key component to building and maintaining democracy.
Communitarians seek to bolster social capital and the institutions of civil society. The Responsive Communitarian Platform described it thus :
"Many social goals . . . require partnership between public and private groups. Though government should not seek to replace local communities, it may need to empower them by strategies of support, including revenue-sharing and technical assistance. There is a great need for study and experimentation with creative use of the structures of civil society, and public-private cooperation, especially where the delivery of health, educational and social services are concerned."

Positive rights

Central to the communitarian philosophy is the concept of positive rights, rights or guarantees to certain things. These may include state subsidized education, state subsidized housing, a safe and clean environment, universal health care, and even the right to a job with the concomitant obligation of the government or individuals to provide one. To this end, communitarians generally support social security programs, public works programs, and laws limiting such things as pollution and gun ownership.
A common objection is that by providing such rights, they are violating the negative rights of the citizens, rights to not have something done for you. For example, taking money in the form of taxes to pay for such programs as described above deprives individuals of property. Proponents of positive rights, by attributing the protection of negative rights to the society rather than the government, respond that individuals would not have any rights in the absence of societies, and are thus obligated to give something to it. Some have viewed this as a negation of natural rights. However, what is or is not a "natural right" is a source of contention in modern politics; for example, whether or not universal health care can be considered a birthright, or how far the government can go to protect the environment.
Alternatively, some agree that negative rights may be violated by a government action, but argue that it is justifiable if the positive rights protected outweigh the negative rights lost. In the same vein, supporters of positive rights further argue that negative rights are irrelevant in their absence. Moreover, some communitarians "experience this less as a case of being used for others' ends and more as a way of contributing to the purposes of a community I regard as my own" .

Comparison to other political philosophies

Communitarianism cannot be classified as being wholly left or right, and many claim to represent a sort of radical center. Liberals in the American sense or social democrats in the European sense generally share the communitarian position on issues relating to the economy, such as the need for environmental protection and public education, but not on cultural issues. Communitarians and conservatives generally agree on cultural issues, such as support for character education and faith based programs, but communitarians do not support the laissez-faire capitalism generally embraced by American conservatives.


Communitarianism and libertarianism emphasize different values and concerns. Libertarianism is an individualist philosophy, with a strong focus on the rights of citizens in a republic. Communitarians believe that there is too much focus on these concerns, arguing that "the exclusive pursuit of private interest erodes the network of social environments on which we all depend, and is destructive to our shared experiment in democratic self-government" A think tank called the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies is also directed by Etzioni. Other voices of communitarianism include Don Eberly, director of the Civil Society Project, Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, and Patrick Hunout, founder of The Social Capital Foundation.

Influence in the United States

Reflecting the dominance of liberal and conservative politics in the United States, no major party and few elected officials advocate communitarianism. Thus there is no consensus on individual policies, but some that most communitarians endorse have been enacted.
President Bill Clinton was open about his support for much of Amitai Etzioni's philosophy, though whether this reflected on his actual policy program is debatable. It has also been suggested that the "compassionate conservatism" espoused by President Bush during his 2000 presidential campaign was a form of conservative communitarian thinking. Cited policies have included economic and rhetorical support for education, volunteerism, and community programs, as well as a social emphasis on promoting families, character education, traditional values, and faith-based projects.
Dana Milbank, writing in the Washington Post, remarked of modern communitarians, "There is still no such thing as a card-carrying communitarian, and therefore no consensus on policies. Some, such as [John] DiIulio and outside Bush adviser Marvin Olasky, favor religious solutions for communities, while others, like Etzioni and Galston, prefer secular approaches."


There has been very little systematic criticism of ideological communitarianism, if only because its exact premises and policy consequences are difficult to pin down. Those wary of it tend to be individualist thinkers who argue that communities are already naturally most benefitted when everyone is free to act in their individual self-interest and that self-described communitarians are actually stealth collectivists; or, more plausibly, that the main effect of well-intentioned communitarian rhetoric is to provide cover for collectivists with a much farther-reaching and harsher agenda than the communitarians intend.
Conversely, many on the Left would see communitarianism as a nostalgic form of conservatism.
Liberal theorists such as Simon Caney disagree that philosophical communitarianism has any interesting criticisms to make of liberalism. They reject the communitarian charges that liberalism neglects the value of community, and holds an "atomized" or asocial view of the self. If they are correct in this, then communitarian doctrine reduces to little more than traditionalism and moral relativism, a kind of small "c" conservatism.

Articles on communitarianism

Some potentially useful references, transported from the Sourcewatch, which also links additional articles of relevance to this topic:
communitarian in Danish: Kommunitarisme
communitarian in German: Kommunitarismus
communitarian in Spanish: Comunitarismo
communitarian in Esperanto: Komunumismo
communitarian in French: Communautarisme identitaire
communitarian in Indonesian: Komunitarianisme
communitarian in Icelandic: Félagshyggja (stjórnmálaheimspeki)
communitarian in Italian: Comunitarismo
communitarian in Dutch: Communitarisme
communitarian in Japanese: 共同体主義
communitarian in Polish: Komunitaryzm
communitarian in Russian: Коммунитаризм
communitarian in Serbian: Комунитаризам
communitarian in Serbo-Croatian: Komunitarizam
communitarian in Finnish: Kommunitarismi
communitarian in Swedish: Kommunitarism
communitarian in Vietnamese: Chủ nghĩa cộng đồng
communitarian in Chinese: 社群主義
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