What Is Communitarianism? Definition and Main Theorists

Sky at dawn over a small community
Sky at dawn over a small community. Stock Photo/Getty Images

Communitarianism is a 20th Century political and social ideology emphasizing the interests of the community over those of the individual. Communitarianism is often considered the opposite of liberalism, the theory that places the interests of the individual above those of the community. In this context, communitarian beliefs may have been most clearly expressed in the 1982 movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, when Captain Spock tells Admiral James T. Kirk that, “Logic clearly dictates the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

Key Takeaways: Communitarianism

  • Communitarianism is a socio-political ideology that values the needs or “common good” of society over the needs and rights of individuals.
  • In placing the interests of the society over those of the individual citizens, communitarianism is considered the opposite of liberalism. Its proponents, called communitarians, object to extreme individualism and unchecked laissez-faire capitalism.
  • The concept of communitarianism was developed throughout the 20th century by political philosophers and social activists, such as Ferdinand Tönnies, Amitai Etzioni, and Dorothy Day.

Historical Origins

The ideals of communitarianism can be traced to early religious doctrine as far back as monasticism in 270 AD, as well as the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. For example, in the Book of Acts, the Apostle Paul wrote, “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.”

During the mid-nineteenth century, the concept of communal—rather than individual—ownership and control of property and natural resources formed the basis of classical socialist doctrine, as expressed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in their Communist Manifesto of 1848. In Volume 2, for example, Marx proclaimed that in a truly socialist society “The condition for the free development of each is the free development of all.” 

The specific term “communitarianism” was coined in the 1980s by social philosophers in comparing contemporary liberalism, which advocated using the powers of government to protect individual rights, with classical liberalism, which called for protecting individual rights by limiting the powers of government.

In contemporary politics, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair applied communitarian beliefs through his advocacy of a “stakeholder society” in which businesses should be responsive to the needs of their workers and the consumer communities they served. Similarly, the “compassionate conservatism” initiative of former U.S. President George W. Bush stressed the use of conservative policy as the key to improving the general welfare of American society.

Fundamentals of the Doctrine

The basic theory of communitarianism is revealed largely through its supporters’ scholarly criticism of liberalism as expressed by American political philosopher John Rawls in his 1971 work, "A Theory of Justice." In this seminal liberal essay, Rawls contends that justice in the context of any community is based exclusively on the inviolable natural rights of each individual, stating that “each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override.” In other words, according to Rawlsian theory, a truly just society cannot exist when the well-being of the community comes at the cost of individual rights.

Communitarianism depicted on a two-axis political spectrum chart
Communitarianism depicted on a two-axis political spectrum chart. Thane/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 4.0

In contrast to Rawlsian liberalism, communitarianism emphasizes each individual’s responsibility in serving the “common good” of the community and the social importance of the family unit. Communitarians believe that community relationships and contributions to the common good, more so than individual rights, determine each person’s social identity and sense of place within the community. In essence, communitarians oppose extreme forms of individualism and unregulated capitalistic laissez-faire “buyer beware” policies that may not contribute to—or may even threaten—the common good of the community.

What is a “community?” Whether a single family or an entire country, the philosophy of communitarianism views the community as a group of people living in a single location, or in different locations, who share interests, traditions, and moral values developed through a common history. For example, members of the many foreign diasporas, such as the Jewish people, who, although scattered throughout the world, continue to share a strong sense of community.

In his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope, then U.S. Senator Barack Obama expressed communitarian ideals, which he repeated during his successful 2008 presidential election campaign. Repeatedly calling for an “age of responsibility” in which individuals favor community-wide unity over partisan politics, Obama urged Americans to “ground our politics in the notion of a common good.”

Prominent Communitarian Theorists

While the term “communitarian” was coined in 1841, the actual philosophy of “communitarianism” coalesced during the 20th century through the works of political philosophers such as Ferdinand Tönnies, Amitai Etzioni, and Dorothy Day.

Ferdinand Tönnies

German sociologist and economist Ferdinand Tönnies (July 26, 1855—April 9, 1936) pioneered the study of communitarianism with his seminal 1887 essay "Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft" (German for Community and Society), comparing the lives and motivations of individuals living in oppressive but nurturing communities with those living in impersonal but liberating societies. Considered the father of German sociology, Tönnies co-founded the German Society for Sociology in 1909 and served as its president until 1934, when he was ousted for criticizing the Nazi Party.

Bust of Ferdinand Tönnies in Schlosspark in Husum
Bust of Ferdinand Tönnies in Schlosspark in Husum. Frank Vincentz/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Amitai Etzioni

German-born Israeli and American sociologist Amitai Etzioni (born January 4, 1929) is best known for his work on the impacts of communitarianism on socioeconomics. Considered the founder of the “responsive communitarian” movement in the early 1990s, he founded the Communitarian Network to help spread the movement’s message. In his more than 30 books, including The Active Society and The Spirit of Community, Etzioni stresses the importance of balancing individual rights with responsibilities to the community.

Amitai Etzioni speaks during the 5th annual 2012 Clinton Global Initiative University meeting at George Washington University on March 31, 2012 in Washington, DC
Amitai Etzioni speaks during the 5th annual 2012 Clinton Global Initiative University meeting at George Washington University on March 31, 2012 in Washington, DC. Kris Connor/Getty Images

Dorothy Day

American journalist, social activist and Christian anarchist Dorothy Day (November 8, 1897—November 29, 1980) contributed to the formulation of the communitarian philosophy through her work with the Catholic Worker Movement she co-founded along with Peter Maurin in 1933. Writing in the group’s Catholic Worker newspaper, which she edited for over 40 years, Day clarified that the movement’s brand of compassionate communitarianism was based on the dogma of the Mystical Body of Christ. “We are working for the Communitarian revolution to oppose both the rugged individualism of the capitalist era and the collectivism of the Communist revolution,” she wrote. “Neither human existence nor individual liberty can be sustained for long outside the interdependent and overlapping communities to which all of us belong.”

Dorothy Day (1897-1980), American journalist and reformer in 1916
Dorothy Day (1897-1980), American journalist and reformer in 1916. Bettmann/Getty Images

Differing Approaches

Filling niches along the American political spectrum ranging from libertarian capitalism to pure socialism, two predominant approaches to communitarianism have attempted to define the role of the federal government in the daily lives of the people.

Authoritarian Communitarianism

Arising in the early 1980s, authoritarian communitarians advocated for giving the need to benefit the common good of the community priority over the need to ensure the autonomy and individual rights of the people. In other words, if it were deemed necessary for the people to cede certain individual rights or freedoms to benefit the society as a whole, they should be willing, even anxious, to do so.

In many ways, the doctrine of authoritarian communitarianism reflected the social practices of East Asian authoritarian societies such as China, Singapore, and Malaysia, in which individuals were expected to find their ultimate meaning in life through their contributions to the common good of the society.

Responsive Communitarianism

Developed in 1990 by Amitai Etzioni, responsive communitarianism seeks to strike a more carefully-crafted balance between individual rights and social responsibilities to the common good of the society than authoritarian communitarianism. In this manner, responsive communitarianism stresses that individual freedoms come with individual responsibilities and that neither should be neglected to accommodate the other.

The modern responsive communitarian doctrine holds that individual liberties can be preserved only through the protection of a civil society in which individuals respect and protect their rights as well as the rights of others. In general, responsive communitarians stress the need for individuals to develop and practice the skills of self-government while remaining willing to serve the common good of the society when needed.

Sources and Further Reference

  • Avineri, S .and de-Shalit, Avner. “Communitarianism and Individualism.” Oxford University Press, 1992, ISBN-10: 0198780281.
  • Ehrenhalt Ehrenhalt, Alan, “The Lost City: The Forgotten Virtues of Community in America.” BasicBooks, 1995, ISBN-10: 0465041930.
  • Etzioni, Amitai. “The Spirit of Community.” Simon and Schuster, 1994, ISBN-10: 0671885243.
  • Parker, James. “Dorothy Day: A Saint for Difficult People,” The Atlantic, March 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/03/a-saint-for-difficult-people/513821/.
  • Rawlings, Jackson. “The Case for Modern Responsive Communitarianism.” The Medium, October 4, 2018, https://medium.com/the-politicalists/the-case-for-modern-responsive-communitarianism-96cb9d2780c4.