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What is Collectivism?

Niki Acker
Updated May 23, 2024
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Collectivism describes any outlook or philosophy that stresses the interactivity between people. It is often considered the opposite of individualism, though both can be important within a single outlook. In a collective philosophy, the group or society is seen as having precedence over the individual.

There are two basic types of collectivism: horizontal and vertical. In the horizontal type, members of the collective are considered to be as equal as possible, sharing resources and responsibilities. The vertical variety includes a social hierarchy that society members work to maintain, and people submit to those above them in the hierarchy.

Collectivism is perhaps best known as one of the philosophies behind socialism. Communist and fascist societies have been described as collectivist, or more specifically as vertical forms. Early collectivist political thought, exemplified by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1762 Social Contract, was more horizontal or democratic in nature. Rousseau's work eventually inspired both communism and democracy.

While the writings of Rousseau and Marx, along with most socialist and democratic communities in practice, rely on the government to represent the will of the people, this is not a necessary component of a collectivist system. For example, collectivist anarchism calls for no government or private property ownership, but rather small communes that own property together. Small horizontal collectivist communities likewise may not have any leader or centralized authority. An example of such a community is the Israeli kibbutzim, small farming communities in which people voluntarily share all labor and property.

Criticisms against this philosophy often take the line that it is at the expense of the individual. Collectivist thought may promote a certain group identity to the point of stifling diversity. It also carries the danger of extreme statism, in which the government or political entity controls every aspect of the economy and society, and in which the people exist to serve the government rather than vice versa. Stalinism and fascism are two of the best known examples of such extreme forms.

Most political and social systems, in both theory and practice, contain a blend of collectivism and individualism. For example, in the present day United States, individuals can own property, but local, state, and federal governments fund some public social programs. Most thinkers agree that both the individual and the community are important to society. The disagreement stems from the nature and level of importance designated to each.

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Niki Acker
By Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a Language & Humanities editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of interesting and unusual topics to gather ideas for her own articles. A graduate of UCLA with a double major in Linguistics and Anthropology, Niki's diverse academic background and curiosity make her well-suited to create engaging content for WiseGeekreaders. "

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Discussion Comments
By anon997774 — On Feb 26, 2017

This really helped me with my assignment.

By bythewell — On May 25, 2012

@Iluviaporos - I think a little bit of both might be the right answer to the great individualism vs collectivism debate.

Because, really, society just doesn't seem to work when you don't put someone in charge in some way. People will almost always take advantage of a society which is structured so that no one takes precedence over anyone else.

And huge abuse of power can happen in a society in which everything is completely structured.

Likewise, a society in which everyone is out for themselves, with no importance placed on the group as a whole, would be an absolute mess.

I like the idea of people engaging in more horizontal collectivism than they do now, but I wouldn't advocate adopting it as a universal practice.

By lluviaporos — On May 25, 2012
Japan is often cited as a good example of one of the collectivism countries in the world, but I think they've grown more and more individualist as time goes on and they are more exposed to the influence of other countries.

But then, very few countries can really be called fully collectivist or individualist. Human beings are made to care about the group and about themselves.

There might be the odd person who is able to put the group over themselves, and the odd person who would refuse to do anything to help the group (i.e. their family or friends or community) but for the most part we need both kinds of reaction to be healthy and happy.

Niki Acker
Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a Language & Humanities editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide...
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