Communitarianism often informs much of our Western theologies and philosophies of community, society, and notions of social harmony. How might we understand it as a movement of thought?
In this interview with Ken Grasso, we discuss the various nuances of ‘communitarianism,’ and how a robust anthropology might be a corrective to ‘political communitarianism,’ yet also help to advance a kind of ‘social communitarianism’ that is meaningful for a pluralist theory of society.
Grasso is professor of political science at Texas State University. He has written extensively on Catholic social thought, the liberal tradition, and democratic theory.
Here are some excerpts from our interview:
As you know, ‘communitarianism’ is a rather heterogeneous movement of associated thinkers that seems united around a common conviction of what they are against: a radical individualism inspired by some variety political liberalism. What’s at the heart of this liberalism?
A vision of human beings as sovereign wills free to make of themselves and the world whatever they choose, unbound by moral ties antecedent to choice save perhaps for the duty to respect the autonomy of others. This vision of the person issues a thin theory of society in which human social relations are understood as artificial, external, and contractual; and in which human communities are viewed as temporary aggregations of individuals united for reasons of mutual utility.
So, communitarianism is a ‘reactive’ movement?
Communitarianism must be understood as an effort to address the modern crisis of community, the decline of community that seems to happen as an outgrowth of those socioeconomic changes that together constitute modernization. The loss of community – and resulting sense of isolation, alienation, etc. — is one of the defining cultural experiences of modernity. One cannot but think in this context about contemporary concerns about the erosion of our sense of civic solidarity and social connectedness, and decline of the institutions composing civil society.
What are the historical and contemporary varieties of communitarianism that you have identified in your scholarship?
Obviously, community can mean very different things and there are many types of communitarianism. I would say that the basic distinction in the modern world is between what might be called “political” and what might be called “social” communitarianism. The former has historically received expression in the thought of thinkers like Rousseau, Hegel and Marx, and in American context the thought of certain of the progressives such as Herbert Croly. It receives contemporary expression in the writings of thinkers like Robert Bellah, William Sullivan, Michael Sandel, Amitai Etzoni and Alan Wolfe.
What defines what I’m calling political communitarianism is a vision of social life which focuses single-mindedly on the individual and the state, and whose effect is to make the state the center of social life, and the political community the locus of community. Social communitarianism, in contrast, historically finds expression in the writings of thinkers like Althusius, Tocqueville, Durkheim and Burke as well as in modern Catholic and neo-Calvinist social thought (where it finds expression in the social teachings of the modern popes as well as in the thought of such figures as Heinrich Rommen, Jacques Maritain, Abraham Kuyper and Herman Dooyeweerd. In post-World War II America, it finds expression in the writings of thinkers like Mary Ann Glendon, Robert Nisbet, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Jean Bethke Elshtain.
What’s important to social communitarians?
For social communitarians, our nature as social beings finds expression in a wide variety of diverse institutions and social groups in society, as to be seen not as an aggregation of individuals united by citizenship in the political community, but as a community of communities. From this perspective, the state is not the primary institution in which our nature as social beings finds expression, and the polis is not the locus of community. For it, the institutions of civil society, rather than the state, are the center, as it were, of social gravity.
Does political communitarianism represent a dead end?
Yes. It is incapable of addressing the modern world’s crisis of community because both its theory and practice are destructive of the small-scale, highly personal, solidaristic institutions which are alone capable of addressing our need for community. At the same time, its celebration of state power is endangers liberty in its foundations. Only in social communitarianism can we find the resources to both revitalize community and secure liberty.
You can read the full text of this interview by clicking here.