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Study notes

Collectivism (Socialism)

  • Levels: A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel

Collectivism refers to the notion that we can achieve valuable goals on a shared rather than individual basis.

In a practical sense, this may entail joining a trade union to protect our rights in the workplace. Acting in solidarity with others thereby strengthens our position in relation to management. Secondly, collectivism assumes that action taken by organised groups is more effective than the sum of individual actions. Collectivism is underpinned by the assumption that man is by nature a social animal.

For collectivists, the inherent problem with individualism is that it serves no higher purpose or objective, save perhaps for the maintenance of individualism – a goal that collectivists instinctively oppose anyway. Collectivists fear that a ‘society’ based upon a dogmatic commitment to individualism is characterised by an all-pervading sense of what the sociologist Emile Durkheim (1912) called anomie. When individuals consider themselves to be the centre of their own moral universe they fail to develop any meaningful connection to others. The inevitable result is a world in which individuals pursue their own self-interest contrary to any wider concerns for society; leading to the impoverishment of both the individual and society itself. In response to these problems, collectivist theorists claim that there is no such thing as the unencumbered self and that society is greater than the sum of its parts. It is therefore necessary and desirable to construct a system which facilitates shared goals and our common humanity. Collectivism has a lengthy history within political ideology and several influential theorists and figures have argued persuasively in favour of a collectivist approach.

The socialist stance on collectivism rests upon an assumption that the number of those disadvantaged by the unfettered marketplace is far greater than those who benefit. Numerically, those who might be classed as members of the proletariat (or even precariat – those workers with unstable work and few rights) are greater than those who might be classed as the bourgeoisie. This is particularly striking in the context of the global economy, where the benefits and rewards are distributed in a dramatically uneven manner. According to the socialist argument, the accumulation of wealth within a system based upon capitalism is neither fair nor justifiable. Despite what those on the right of the political spectrum might claim, wealth does not trickle down towards all members of society. Even in one of the wealthiest economies in the world, signs of extreme wealth exist only a few blocks away from food banks and homeless people sleeping rough.

It is also important to note that the socialist conception of democracy differs to that of a liberal. Whereas the latter claim that collectivist action will inevitably lead to the tyranny of the majority, socialists argue that democracy represents people working together to achieve a better society. The socialist view of democracy is therefore built around a collectivist conception rather than atomised individualism. Whereas liberalism sides with the individual, socialism prescribes a collectivist stance. Left-wing movements throughout the world strongly emphasise the need for solidarity amongst the downtrodden and oppressed. Progress towards a more humane society requires the many to rise-up in common cause against the few. In the UK, these aims are reflected throughout the labour movement. For instance, Labour’s Clause 4 states that “by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone.”

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