What is Communitarianism?


Communitarianism is a political doctrine that emphasises the importance of a given community over its individuals. While the view has existed for a very long time, and is present in, for example, Plato, its articulation as a doctrine has only become prevalent in the 20th century. Communitarianism is particularly opposed to both Libertarianism, a doctrine that places emphasis on the individuals’ independence and liberty (especially in the domain of economics). Elements of Communitarianism is to an extent incorporated in most major political doctrines, ranging from classical Liberalism to Conservatism.

The term ‘communitarian’ was coined in the 1840s by the British utopian Socialist Goodwyn Barmby. Barmby used the terms as a reference to the early communes – i.e. early social entities within the state that aimed for self-sufficiency and a level of independence from the rest of the state; to some extent, these communes are believed to have influenced Karl Marx and eventually 20th century Communism.

Communitarianism is closely associated with Collectivism. The latter is doctrine that emphasises human interdependence and thereby a need to approach political and economic matters through collectives. While Communitarianism does not think individual goals to be an anathema, it does rank them secondary to group goals, and thus focuses on the community and society in the first instance. Furthermore, unlike Collectivist approach to political theory, Communitarianism emphasises non-governmental agencies and institutions to advance the aims of communities. In this respect, Communitarianism deeply differs from the Collectivist approaches of Communism and/or authoritarian programmes.

Communitarianism does not have any specific proponents, because the label has been advanced by its critics who hold deeply individualist principles. Key thinkers that can be said to hold Communitarian principles are: Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor and Michael Walzer. While that is the case, none of these authors have identified themselves with Communitarianism in particular and only forwarded critical notes toward John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, thus emphasising that individual goals do not necessarily supplant those of the community. Their critique is threefold: 1) there is moral and political value in having a social context and holding to various traditions; 2) communities have an equal ontological and even a metaphysical foundation as do individuality and selfhood; 3) there are normative claims to be made about the community.

Types of Communitarianism

Communitarianism is typically used in either a philosophical sense or an ideological one:

  • Philosophical Communitarianism – an investigation into the metaphysical and epistemological concerns of the doctrine, as opposed to concerns in actual policy-making. There is a particular opposition to Liberalism that holds that communities are extensions of individuals that voluntarily join together. The key emphasis of Liberalism in this regard is that the role of the community is to support the individual and that communities do not have value separate from individuals’ wants and needs. Philosophical Communitarianism holds that under Liberalism, communities are not fully understood – the value of the community is precisely in the existence of the communal space itself, which is independent of individuals (e.g. the public space of discourse). Individual interests are thus only meaningful within the communal space and under the ‘guidance’ of communal moral and political objectives – i.e. that public discourse is only meaningful under the conditions set out by the community. For example, the meaning of the Holocaust is not independent of the community and any discourse about – ranging from anti-semitism to acceptance – is within the understanding of that community. Discourse is thus shaped by what the community provides as the array of alternatives.
  • Ideological Communitarianism – a concern with state policies and policy-making procedures, rather than the philosophical underpinning of these policies. Ideological Communitarianism is a centrist position that holds that disagreements can be resolved through communication and discourse in the public space – i.e. instead of holding to the left and right divide, Communitarians accept Anthony Giddens’s Third Way. Typically, Ideological Communitarians are to be found on the left when it comes to economics and on the right when it comes to social issues. They thus emphasise the importance of civil society, and believe that in order to achieve this there is a need for a strong state run programme focusing on bolstering positive rights of individuals, such as education, housing, environment, universal healthcare, etc.

Further Reading

Giddens, A. (2008). Third Way: The Renewal of Social Democracy, Cambridge: Polity Press.

MacIntyre, A. (2007). Afer Virture: A Study in Moral Theory, Notre Dame: The University of Notre Dame Press.

Sandel, M. (1998). Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, C. (2012). Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Walzer, M. (1983). Spheres of Justice: A Defence of Pluralism and Equality, Oxford: Blackwell.

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