The REDSTAR2000 Papers

Listen to the worm of doubt, for it speaks truth. - Leftist Discussion

The Myth of "Individualism vs. Collectivism" October 5, 2003 by RedStar2000

From elementary school onwards, we are assiduously taught that "capitalism upholds individuality" while "communism" turns people into "ants". So ubiquitous is this myth that even lefties often let it pass uncriticized.

That's a mistake.

We always need to critically re-examine the "ordinary assumptions" of life in capitalist society...the background noise that everyone "knows" is "true".

As like as not, it isn't really true at all.



An individual’s nature is best pursued by contributing to the collective good rather than the individual good. An individual will best develop in society if they subscribe to the collective good, otherwise they will be abused by capitalism, a system in which individuals only pursue the interests of the individual.

An a-historical muddle. Capitalism came into existence because of changes in the means of production...not because someone got up one morning and said "hey, let's be individualists" and the outcome was capitalism. "Individualism" (insofar as there is such a thing) is a by-product of capitalism...not the other way around.

Beyond that, I frankly think the whole "individualist vs. collectivist" dichotomy is false. I would be quite amazed if people in a communist society would ever be found hurling epithets at one another: "You fucking individualist!" or "You collectivist asshole!".

"Collectives" are, first of all, made up of "individuals" who have chosen to be part of that collective (and the other individuals in that collective have agreed to accept her/him) and who have the right to withdraw from that collective at any time for any reason. (The collective has the right to boot her/him out on the same basis, of course.)

Collectives can only exist as viable organizations when they actively reflect and serve the interests of the individuals who are in them.

So I don't think there's any real conflict there at all; though I can see how it would serve the interests of the capitalist class to create an artificial ideological "conflict".

And I might add that most of the so-called "individualism" in capitalism is fake: e.g., "You Are What You Buy!"


The relationship between a boss and subordinate is as natural as friend-friend, teacher-student or lovers. -- emphasis added

Natural? Are you suggesting that there is a genetic basis for this?

The human species is about 150,000 years old (at least) and class society is around 10,000 years old (at most). For most of our history there were no bosses or "subordinates" least not in any sense comparable to what we've found in recorded history. Hunter-gatherers may select a "chief of the hunt" or a "war chief" or even a "chief" who takes care of relations with the supernatural world. Such persons might be held in considerable respect, but there is no question of automatic deference.

To suggest that domination/submission is "natural" is only supported by evidence from class societies.

That's not good enough.


There is nothing essentially antagonistic about this relationship. It is only those who cannot accept discipline or obedience that reject this relationship in any form.

Again, that's just an assertion...and a tautology.

What you should be arguing here is why should people accept discipline or obedience? Under what circumstances is it justified? What are the limitations of acceptance, if any?

As a "general principle", the doctrine of "discipline and obedience" is, as I'm sure you must be aware, a core value of fascism. Read any fascist author on the subject and he will tell you that a few are chosen "by destiny" to lead and everyone else is "meant" to obey.

He'll even tell you it's "natural".(!)


It seems to me that your primary critique of Leninism as ‘un-Marxian’ is based on this idea. Therefore I see your criticism of Leninism as unfounded.

Well, it does completely escape me how we are supposed to become "free" by elevating obedience to a "virtue"...frankly, it sounds Orwellian. You know, "slavery is freedom" and all that.

I can't imagine what any of that has to do with Marx or Marxism...except as an enemy of both.


You mentioned that I only see the concept of a vanguard party necessary as I see myself as ‘one of the guys in charge’. I cannot substantiate this, however, I put it to you that I do not see myself as ‘one of the guys in charge’. I am not skilled in leadership or in socialist theory to a degree that I would see myself fit for such a role and nor do I desire to be in such a role.

Ok, I'm willing to take your word for it.

But I trust you realize the logical implications of what you just said. What you're saying, effectively, is that you want to be told what to do by a leader.

You want to be something less than fully human, one of Aristotle's upright talking "tools", at the disposal of whoever is your master. Or leader. Or General Secretary of your Party.

Personally, I think this is symptomatic of how deeply you (and Leninists generally) are still rooted in bourgeois ideology.

You may read Marx and Engels, but it's still just words to you; the "liberating impulse" is still absent from your understanding. You fall back on a "charity" view of "Marxism"--you will be "nice" to the workers. You will be "good shepherds".

That's not good enough either.

We do not want "good masters".

We want to be free!
First posted at Che-Lives on September 26, 2003


Redstar2000 I think you are being rather pedantic in your assertion that individualism and collectivism don't actually exist...however I still think that we can identify these two terms at play in society.

If I notice some trash on the sidewalk at the bus stop in the morning and I go to the trouble of picking it up and putting it in the trash bin, am I being an "individualist" or a "collectivist"?

Dirty sidewalks are unappealing to me; by picking up the trash I am pleasing my personal aesthetic sense by removing something ugly from my view.

But in so doing, I am making a tiny contribution to "a cleaner city", one more pleasant for all to live in...surely a "collectivist" act.

Either way, no one ordered me to do it. Or even paid me.

I like to think of it as a communist act.

I've noticed over the years that there's actually a fair amount of this kind of thing that goes on...completely beneath the radar of the bourgeois media. People do "small" things both to satisfy their own individuality as well as to benefit the larger community. They don't create a bureaucracy or even an organization...they just do them because it seems like a good thing to do.

I think that both "individualism" and "collectivism" are twisted and perverted constructs of class societies.

The "individualism" that capitalist society celebrates is almost entirely that of patterns of consumption. You are "free" to construct an "identity" based on the clothes you wear, the car you drive, where you live, etc., etc.

The utter emptiness of such an "identity" is obvious.

And at the same time we have our own version of "corporate collectivism"...where any sort of genuine individuality is about as welcome as shit on the dinner table. Believe me, I've been there, I know.

In communist society, perhaps there will be people who will argue for this or that course of action based on an appeal to "individualism" or "collectivism". If that happens, I hope others will attack such arguments at once...pointing out that such distinctions are irrelevant! A proposed course of action should be debated on its objective merits (or lack of same) insofar as they can be determined. Appeals to "individualism" or "collectivism" in the abstract are just shabby rhetorical maneuvers...probably intended to obscure the real substance of the controversy.

In short, I do not see why we should feel "compelled" to "choose" between "alternatives" that were generated by class society in the first place.

The "dumpster of history" is capacious...there's plenty of room for outmoded concepts like "individualism vs. collectivism".
First posted at Che-Lives on September 27, 2003

It seems to me that with the best intentions in the world, schemes like these are based on a misunderstanding of social reality. It's not really a matter of "cleverness" or lack of same on our's trying to achieve two aims that are fundamentally incompatible.

Think about it. Why does a person want to "advance" him/her self--have a rising "standard-of-living"? You folks know as well as I that past a certain point it becomes just a meaningless acquisition of "stuff".

I think the reason is clearly a social one and has little or nothing to do with what may or may not be "innate" in humans.

In our society, not to "advance" is to decline. Both in one's own eyes and in the eyes of others, to fail to advance is to reveal one's own "inferiority".

It has been noticed by many observers that people are quite willing to go on network dummyvision or to the tabloids and talk freely--actually boast--of their unusual sexual behavior, the details of their bodily malfunctions, their strange families and bizarre personal relationships, etc. The "taboo" questions are all about income and wealth: how much do you actually make? what's your real net worth?

"That's none of your goddam business!"

The same thing is true, of course, of the major players in capitalism...and much more urgent. To "grow profits" is to be a winner and even a celebrity; failure is a personal catastrophe, not just a business one. Remember Ken (Enron) Lay's wife complaining that nobody who was anybody would return Ken's calls?

Thus it is that abstract proposals to increase the degree of egalitarianism in capitalist society run up against extremely powerful disincentives both among the proposed "winners" (the working class) and the proposed "losers" (the capitalist class).

Fairness is really not an issue...except down at the very base of the pyramid. And who give's a rat's ass about them? They are permanent "losers"...the "base line" against which everyone else can measure their "advancement".

If Marx was right, then at some point in the future nearly all of us will find ourselves down at the base-line or very close to it. He speculated that we would be so outraged at this degradation that we'd make a revolution to stop it. It remains a speculation, of course; the French General Strike of May 1968 is the closest approach to his hypothetical proletarian revolution in an advanced capitalist country thus far...and it was not very close.

In the meantime, it seems to me that proposals--however well-considered--to make the present system more equitable will face insurmountable opposition...even from those who would "benefit". As along as the possibility of "advancement" retains any degree of plausibility, most people will probably opt for the chance.

Look at all the folks who buy lottery tickets.
First posted at Urban75 on October 5, 2003
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