Translated by F. Roger Devlin
Communities, whether old or recent, whether ethno-cultural, linguistic, religious, sexual, or something else, are natural dimensions of belonging. No individual can exist without belonging, even if only to distance himself from it. The ego is always situated, i.e., incorporated in a history — a history never reducible to a status quo, and still less to the past.
Community is a social form anterior to society, just as it is anterior to man considered in isolation. It is present before the birth of the State, before any institution. It unites close or similar people within families then collected into tribes, before being collected into cities. Language itself is a communitarian fact — it implies a community of speakers capable of understanding one another. In the same way, “we” and what is ours precedes any “I.” Community proceeds from sharing and from shared experience. “Man is a communitarian being,” writes Francis Cousin,
not due to exterior and ulterior contingencies but because of an intimate and pre-required dialectic of historical necessity. The human is genetically the being of my conscious community. In other words, as soon as man emerges, the community of “we” and the reality of “I” appear as indissolubly united in a single synthetic totality.
The concept of community is as ancient as political philosophy, since it goes back at least to Aristotle. Traditionally, the adversaries of liberal individualism have always adhered to a conception of social reality running in the direction of community rather than that of society. The dichotomy community/society has been studied by numerous authors beginning with Ferdinand Tönnies who, in a famous work from 1887, presents community and society as “two fundamental categories of pure sociology” and interprets human history as a gradual replacement of the communitarian model by the societal model. Anticipating the work of Louis Dumont on holism and individualism, Tönnies shows that the individual is not an immediate given that one finds in any social organization, but a concept tied to a particular social form, Gesellschaft (society), which opposes at every point that of Gemeinschaft (community).
Community refers to an organic mode of sociality; society refers to a “mechanical” type of relations founded on the preponderance of the individual. Gemeinschaft constitutes a whole whose reach exceeds that of its parts: solidarity and mutual aid develop within it from the notion of the common good, which is not a good equally distributed among all but a good whose enjoyment is prior to any division. On the contrary, in the Gesellschaft model, the idea of which is already in germ in social contract theory, men live together without truly being in solidarity and united. Society is there defined as a mere sum of individuals. It is this conception that the Abbé Siéyès appealed to at the time of the Revolution when he declared:
One will never understand the social mechanism if one does not decide to analyze a society like an ordinary machine, considering each part separately, and then joining them in one’s mind, each after the other, in order to grasp their agreement and hear the general harmony which is to result from that agreement.
Instead of resulting from the consensual effect of an “organic will” (Wesenswille), the social bond of the modern age proceeds from the “rational will” (Kürwille): the members of the society decide to live together not because they share the same values but because they find it in their mutual interest. Concretely, “social” relations derive from the legal contract or commercial exchange. Tönnies writes of society:
Here everyone is for himself and in a state of hostility toward the others. The various fields of activity and power are strongly determined in relation to one another so that each denies the others any contact or mixture. . . . No one will do anything for anyone else unless for a similar service or a retribution he judges equivalent to what he is giving. . . . Only the chance for a profit can lead him to give up a good he possesses. . . . Whereas in community men remain bound despite all separation, in society they are separate despite all bonds. . . . The large city and society in general represent the corruption and death of the people.
Tönnies’ doctrines have sometimes been accused of “romanticism,” but it must be understood that the concepts he opposes point by point are ideal types in Max Weber’s sense. There are no “pure communities” or “pure societies”: all collectivities possess, in variable proportions, communitarian and “societal” traits. What must be remembered about the concept of community is that it is more organic than society, such organicism not being intended in a strictly biological sense, but metaphorically: Within a body the organs are not identical, but both different and complementary.
As an organic phenomenon, community involves the application at all levels of a principle of finality (the common good) which cannot be reduced to efficient causality. It also involves the principle of subsidiarity as defined in the sixteenth century by Johannes Althusius. In contrast with state sovereignty as defined by Jean Bodin (La République, 1576), who calls for the dissociation of political society from civil society as well as the elimination of intermediate bodies, Althusius defines the res publica as a stacking of “simple and private communities” (families, colleges, and corporations) and “mixed and public communities” (cities and provinces) crowned by a “superior political community,” each level being left as free as possible to make its own decisions regarding what concerns it. Described as “symbiotic,” politics is then nothing more than the art of getting men to live in community, with sovereignty (majestas) being distributed to all levels of the social body.
This is why the communitarian model can easily be combined with integral federalism, which grants considerable room for intermediate bodies and the principle of subsidiarity. The concept of “intermediate body” obviously does not refer only to the corporations of the Ancien Régime, whose suppression by the Revolution left individuals alone in face of the State even as it justified the prohibition of workers’ coalitions and unions. “No federation is possible between communes, peoples, or productive activities,” write Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, “except on the basis of cooperation. In other words, rightly understood, the federative principle implies a negation of the bases of capitalism.”
Federalism itself derives from the model of Empire, which over the course of history was the great political form competing with the nation-state. The characteristic of Empire, whose oldest theoreticians were Marsilius of Padua, Dante, and Nicholas of Cusa, is to aim above all at the articulation of differences. In Empire, sovereignty is divided; ethnic, cultural, religious, and customary particularities are legally recognized as long as they do not contradict the common law; the principle of subsidiarity is applied as a general rule. Nationality not being synonymous with citizenship, the political people (demos) must not be confused with the ethnic people (ethnos), but neither is an obstacle to the other. Today we see “republicans” reducing nationality to citizenship, while those who hold to an ethnic conception of the nation reduce citizenship to nationality: both agreeing in the same ideal of not distinguishing the two concepts.
Historically, the philosophy of the Enlightenment first of all attacked organic communities, whose way of life they denounced as ridden with irrational “superstitions” and “prejudices,” in order to replace them with a society of individuals. The central idea was that the individual exists not on the basis of belonging but independently of it, an abstract vision of an “unencumbered self” anterior to its ends, which also constituted the basis of the ideology of the rights of man. Born by a secular version of the ideology of Sameness, thus was constituted the modern theory which defines humanity as uprootedness or release from all tradition.
Liberalism considers men interchangeable because it only conceives of them in an abstract, generic manner, as beings unattached to the Earth, free of all community, and detached from all belonging, this break being in liberalism’s eyes the very condition of their “emancipation.” Similarly, it only concerns itself with their “freedom of choice,” not the empirical consequences of these choices (even a bad choice is always justified if it has been taken freely). For liberals, the notion of the common good has no meaning since there is no entity capable of benefiting from it: a society being composed only of individuals, there is no “good” which could be common to these individuals. The “social good,” in other words, can only be understood as a simple aggregate of individual goods, the result of individual choices. It was in this sense that Margaret Thatcher was able to say, “There is no such thing as society.”
In a more general sense, it is the whole of modernity which has been built from a theory founded on individuals who can only be called “free and equal in right” because they were considered as unbound or cut off from any communitarian belonging. The Enlightenment philosophy continues to repeat this when it opposes reason to tradition, civilization to nature, universalism to particular cultures, and assures us that freedom and the capacity of the individual depend on his uprooting from all familial, cultural, or religious roots. Quite recently this was the exact program of Vincent Peillon, Minister of National Education, when he declared that the role of the school is “to uproot the pupil from all determinisms: familial, ethnic, social, intellectual.”
Marx, on the other hand, according to whom man is defined as the totality of his social relations, agrees with Aristotle in positing that man is first of all a political, social, and communitarian animal (zoón politikon). He thus joins all those who, in the history of thought, have opposed the liberal conception according to which man is merely an isolated atom who can only be bound to others by the play of his interests. As François Flahault writes, “the social interdependence of individuals is not utilitarian; it is ontological.” Legal and market relations are an insufficient basis for a good society.
It is in this context, painted here with a very broad brush, that we must situate the emergence of the communitarian current in English-speaking countries from the beginning of the 1980, the current whose principle representatives are Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, and Michael Sandel. The objective of this school of thought was to lay out a new theory closely combining moral philosophy and political philosophy, elaborating it from the beginning with reference to the particular situation of the United States marked by a real verbal inflation of the “politics of rights” and in response to liberal political theory as reformulated during the preceding decade by authors such as Ronald Dworkin, Bruce Ackerman, and especially John Rawls.
It has been by basing themselves notably on the work of Tönnies, but also carrying out a salutary return to the thought of Aristotle, that the communitarian school has set about demonstrating the fictive character of liberal anthropology founded on a theory of subjective rights (the “rights of man”) and the idea of an individual always anterior to his ends, i.e., declaring his choices rationally apart from any social-historical context and defining himself as a consumer of utilities with endless needs.
The principal criticism communitarians address to liberal individualism is precisely that it makes communities disappear, communities which are a fundamental and irreplaceable element of human existence. Liberalism devalues political life by considering political association as a mere instrumental good, without seeing that the participation of citizens in the political community is an intrinsic good constitutive of the good life. Because of this it is unable to give a satisfactory account of a certain number of obligations and commitments, viz., those that do not result from a voluntary choice or contractual obligation, such as family obligations, the necessity of serving one’s country, or of giving the common interest priority over personal interest. It propagates an erroneous conception of the ego by refusing to admit that it is always embedded in a social-historical context and, at least in part, constituted by values and engagements which are neither the objects of a choice nor revocable at will. It gives rise to an inflation of the politics of rights which has little to do with right itself, as well as to a new type of institutional system, the “procedural republic.” Finally, because of its legal formalism, it fails to recognize the central role played by shared language, culture, mores, practices, and values as the bases of a true “politics of recognition” of identities and collective rights.
For communitarians, a pre-social idea of the ego is simply unimaginable: the individual always finds society already there — and it is society which orders his preferences, constitutes his manner of being in the world, and models his aims. The fundamental idea is that the ego is discovered much more than chosen, for by definition one can only choose what is already given. Consequently, self-understanding amounts to gradually discovering what our nature and identity consist in. It follows that the socio-historical way of life is inseparable from identity, just as belonging to a community is inseparable from self-knowledge. Belongings are part of individual identities, which means not only that it is from a given way of life that individuals can make choices (including choices opposed to that way of life), but also that it is this way of life which constitutes as values or non-values what individuals consider valid or not.
So an authentic community is not a mere collection or sum of individuals. Its members have common ends as members, bound to shared values or experiences, and not merely more or less congruent private interests. These ends are proper to the community as such, and not particular objectives that happen to be the same for all or the majority of the members. In a mere association, the individuals regard their interests as independent and potentially divergent from one another. The relations existing among these interests thus do not constitute an intrinsic good, but only a means for obtaining the particular goods sought by each member. Community on the contrary constitutes an intrinsic good for all those who form a part of it.
Liberal ideology has generally interpreted the decline of communities as closely related to the emergence of modernity: the more the modern world imposes itself, the more communal bonds are supposed to loosen to the benefit of more voluntary, contractual forms of association, more individualistic and rational forms of behavior. From this point of view, communities appear as a residual phenomenon which institutional bureaucracies and global markets are called upon to eradicate or dissolve. In the end, this is the perspective of a unified world that is supposed to emerge in the image of that celestial city of which Augustine said that it “attracts citizens of all nations and gathers around itself a composite society, men of all languages, without concerning itself with the diversity of their habits, laws, and institutions.”
But none of this has been realized. As Christopher Lasch has written, “uprooting destroys everything except the need for roots!” The dissolving of old communities was accelerated by the birth of the nation-state, an eminently social phenomenon — understanding society as loss or disintegration of communal intimacy — which has not unreasonably been related to the emergence of the individual as a value. Significantly, the crisis of the nation-state model today goes hand-in-hand with the reappearance of political forms which conflict with this model both by exceeding it (the formation of continental blocs summoned to play a key role in a multipolar world) and by falling short (localist demands, the multiplication of “communities” and “tribes,” the recognition of regional and transnational rootedness).
Imposing itself as one of the possible forms of transcending modernity, the community simultaneously loses the “archaic” status long attributed to it by sociology. It appears less as a “stage” of history that modern times have abolished than as a permanent form of human association that gains or loses importance according to the historical epoch. It is also taking on new forms. In our day, communities no longer associate persons merely on the basis of a common origin. In a world where currents and networks multiply, they appear in very diversified guises. But it is always communities which allow individuals to no longer find themselves facing the State alone.
The Maffesolian theory of postmodern “tribes” is well-known. Postmodernity, according to Michel Maffesoli, marks the end of the age of pure individualism and expresses a “Dionysian” renaissance of the need for solidarities of proximity and for sensible and emotional communitarian belonging. Such communities can also be chosen, “elective and plural,” while being no less active thereby, even if they rarely last a long time. For Maffesoli, “the anticommunitarian incantation only serves to deepen the break between the people and the elites. . . . Beyond the narcissism or egoism proper to a postulated individualism, there is indeed a we, that of the community, that of common vibrations which tend to spread surreptitiously.”
More clearly rejecting Tönnies’ approach, Costanzo Preve for his part thinks that it is society as a whole which should be transformed into a community:
Capitalist society, particularly when it is globalized, is in no way a community. . . . A community, in fact, is a particular or universal human society that defines itself less by the physical proximity of the members who compose it than by the existence of a custom (ethos) or, if one prefers, of mores (Sitten), i.e., of a social ethics which prevails over the blind movements of the economy ruled by nihilism and relativism.
Costanzo Preve is appealing here to Aristotle, Rousseau, Fichte, Hegel, and Marx by affirming that for the latter, the class struggle is only itself a tactical means of reaching the strategic objective of community (Gemeinwesen) where man can find his natural generic being (Gattungswesen). Preve also takes care to distinguish communities which allow men to construct themselves and those which enclose him in obsolete hierarchies. Denis Collin is of the same opinion when he says that “communities that enclose individuals in obedience to patriarchal or despotic hierarchies” must be distinguished from “the community of free men.”
Recalling the “absolutely central philosophical role that the first socialists attributed to mutual aid and community,” Jean-Claude Michéa similarly preaches
critique of the republican mythology of the “Universal” of which the State is supposedly the functionary, at least if by “universal” one understands the abstract universal imagined as separated from and opposed to the particular. In sum, this is the idea that the basic communities should renounce all that which particularizes them in order to enter into the great uniform family of the nation or the human race. As a good Hegelian, [Michéa] thinks on the contrary that the concrete universal is always a result — provisional by definition — and that it integrates particularity as an essential moment, i.e., not as a lesser evil but as a conditio sine qua non of its real effectiveness.
This is the eternal dialectic of the one and the many, the universal and the particular.
“The diversitarian progressive ideology of the Left,” remarks Stéphane Vibert, professor at the University of Ottawa,
makes a perfect marriage with the individualism demanded by the Right, since both deny the historic and substantial framework that gives concrete meaning to the rights and duties of each citizen. To believe that society is founded on a contract made between rational, free, and moral individuals, or that it is constructed from automatic regulations mediated by the market, are two versions of the same liberal myth. This double fiction produces an Ersatz political community unable to grasp its own history and cultural underpinnings. . . . The neo-republicans should note that a political community is not founded exclusively on rules of coexistence, but also and above all on a historical tradition understood as a permanent reinterpretation of what binds us.
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 Francis Cousin, L’être contre l’avoir, Le retour aux sources, 2012, 82. On the “community of habitus” or dispositions, cf. also Olivier Ducharme, Michel Henry et le problème de la communauté, L’Harmattan, Paris 2013.
 Ferdinand Tönnies, Communauté et société, PUF, Paris 2010.
 Siéyès, Qu’est-ce que le Tiers Etat? Société de l’histoire de la Révolution française, Paris 1888, 65.
 “The organic has a constitutive sense insofar as it rests on a structuring vision of the social body. In this case, it serves to characterize a society whose members are vividly bound to one another like the organs of the human body in order to cooperate in view of the common good, of the entire body,” writes Marie-Pauline Deswarte in a work whose only fault is excessive idealization of the Ancien Régime (La République organique en France. Un patrimoine constitutionnel à restaurer, Via Romana, Versailles 2014, 15-16). Cf. the same author’s “Retrouver la dynamique organique de la France,” in Valeurs actuelles, January 8, 2015, 79.
 Cf. Alain de Benoist, “Johannes Althusius, 1557-1638,” in Krisis, Paris, March 22, 1999, 2-34. Cf. also Jean-Sylvestre Mongrenier, “Johannes Althusius et l’Europe subsidiaire,” online text, June 25, 2009.
 Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, Commun. Essai sur la révolution du XXIe siècle, Découverte, Paris 2014, 461.
 The very libertarian Ayn Rand writes, “The tribe (or the public or society) is only a number of individual men. Nothing can be good for the tribe as such.” (Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, Penguin, New York 1986, 20).
 At the time of the referendum on the independence of Scotland (September 2014), Géraldine Vaughan, lecturer in British history and civilization at the University of Rouen, explained the demands of the partisans of independence by their hostility to liberal individualism: “Thatcherian ideology ran up against Scottish values deeply anchored in the idea of community. The exaltation of individualism was not understood or accepted. Thatcher’s neo-liberal politics has crushed the Welfare State, and this has been felt as an attack on the communitarian idea. An ideological and moral divide from the Scots was dug at that time.”
 François Flahault, Pourquoi limiter l’expansion du capitalisme? Descartes & Cie, Paris 2003, 92.
 The English word communitarianism was first used in 1841 by John Goodwin Barmby, founder of the Universal Communitarian Association. We should note that the communitarian movement has greatly evolved since its origins. Some of its representatives, such as Michael Sandel, have abandoned the label. Others have partly modified their positions under the influence of liberal critiques. For a recent clarification, cf. Amitai Etzioni, “Communitarianism Revisited,” in the Journal of Political Ideologies, October 2014, 241-260. Cf. also Schlomo Avineri and Avner de-Shalit (eds.), Communitarianism and Individualism, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1992; Elizibeth Frazer, The Problem of Communitarian Politics, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1999; Paul van Seters, Communitarianism in Law and Society, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham 2006.
 La Cité de Dieu, book XIX, 17, in Œuvres, vol. 2, Gallimard-Pléiade, Paris, 876.
 Michel Maffesoli and Hélène Strohl, Les nouveaux bien-pensants, Editions du Moment, Paris 2013, 13.
 Costanzo Preve, Eloge du communitarisme, Krisis, Paris 2012, 213.
 Ibid., 32.
 Denis Collin, “La forme achevée de la République est la République sociale,” in Le Comptoir [an e-journal], November 3, 2014, 4.
 “On ne peut être politiquement orthodoxe,” online text, Janurary 2015.
 Stéphane Vibert, “L’égalité dans la différence est un slogan creux,” in Causeur, October 2013, 48.
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