Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract is considered an example of collectivist political philosophy, which maintains that human society is organized along the lines of an implicit contract between members of society, and that the terms of this contract (e.g. the powers of government, the rights and responsibilities of individual citizens, etc.) are rightfully decided by the "general will" - that is, the will of the people. This idea inspired the early socialist and communist philosophers such as Hegel and Marx.
According to Moyra Grant, in political philosophy "collectivism" refers to any philosophy or system that sees any kind of group (such as a class, nation, race, society, state, etc) as more important than the individual. According to Encyclopædia Britannica, "collectivism has found varying degrees of expression in the 20th century in such movements as socialism, communism, and fascism. The least collectivist of these is social democracy, which seeks to reduce the inequities of unrestrained capitalism by government regulation, redistribution of income, and varying degrees of planning and public ownership. In socialist systems collectivist economics are carried to their furthest extreme, with a minimum of private ownership and a maximum of planned economy.
However, political collectivism is not necessarily associated with support for states, governments, or other hierarchical institutions. There is also a variant of anarchism which calls itself collectivism (see collectivist anarchism). Collectivist anarchists, particularly Mikhail Bakunin, were among the earliest critics of authoritarian communism. They agree with communists that the means of production should be expropriated from private owners and converted to collective property, but they advocate the ownership of this collective property by a loose group of decentralized communes rather than a government. Nevertheless, unlike anarcho-communists, they supported a wage system and markets in non-capital goods. Thus, Bakunin's "Collectivist Anarchism," not withstanding the title, is seen as a blend of individualism and collectivism. Anarcho-communism is a more comprehensive form of non-state collectivism which advocates not only the collectivization of the means of production but of the products of labor as well. According to anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin, "And as long as dwelling-houses, fields, and factories belong to isolated owners, men will have to pay them, in one way or another, for being allowed to work in the fields or factories, or for living in the houses. The owners will accept to be paid by the workers in gold, in paper-money, or in cheques exchangeable for all sorts of commodities. But how can we defend labour-notes, this new form of wagedom, when we admit that houses, fields, and factories will no longer be private property, and that they will belong to the commune or the nation?
Collectivism in economics may or may not involve a state as a manager and steward of collective property. For instance, anarcho-communists, who argue for the immediate abolition of the state, wish to place all goods under communal access without a state or manager. They argue that since, according to them, the value of labor cannot truly be measured, individuals should be free to produce and consume to their own self-determined needs. In 1876, at the Florence Conference of the Italian Federation of the International, where the principles of anarcho-communism were first laid out, it was stated:
"The Italian Federation considers the collective property of the products of labour as the necessary complement to the collectivist programme, the aid of all for the satisfaction of the needs of each being the only rule of production and consumption which corresponds to the principle of solidarity."
Anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin believed that a lack of collectivization of goods would be a dis-service to individuals .
Collectivism can be typified as "horizontal collectivism", wherein equality is emphasized and people engage in sharing and cooperation, or "vertical collectivism", wherein hierarchy is emphasized and people submit to authorities to the point of self-sacrifice. Horizontal collectivism is based on the assumption that each individual is more or less equal, while vertical collectivism assumes that individuals are fundamentally different from each other. Social anarchist Alexander Berkman, who was a horizontal collectivist, argued that equality does not imply a lack of unique individuality, but an equal amount of freedom and equal opportunity to develop one's own skills and talents,
"equality does not mean an equal amount but equal opportunity. . . Do not make the mistake of identifying equality in liberty with the forced equality of the convict camp. True anarchist equality implies freedom, not quantity. It does not mean that every one must eat, drink, or wear the same things, do the same work, or live in the same manner. Far from it: the very reverse, in fact. Individual needs and tastes differ, as appetites differ. It is equal opportunity to satisfy them that constitutes true equality. Far from levelling, such equality opens the door for the greatest possible variety of activity and development. For human character is diverse, and only the repression of this free diversity results in levelling, in uniformity and sameness. Free opportunity and acting out your individuality means development of natural dissimilarities and variations. . . . Life in freedom, in anarchy will do more than liberate man merely from his present political and economic bondage. That will be only the first step, the preliminary to a truly human existence."
Indeed, horizontal collectivists argue that the idea of individuals sacrificing themselves for the "group" or "greater good" is nonsensical, arguing that groups are made up of individuals (including oneself) and are not a cohesive, monolithic entity separate from the self. But most social anarchists do not see themselves as collectivists or individualists, viewing both as illusory ideologies based on fiction .
Horizontal collectivists tend to favour democratic decision-making, while vertical collectivists believe in a strict chain of command. Horizontal collectivism stresses common goals, interdependence and sociability. Vertical collectivism stresses the integrity of the in-group (e.g. the family or the nation), expects individuals to sacrifice themselves for the in-group if necessary, and promotes competition between different in-groups. Harry Triandis and Michele Gelfand argue that horizontal collectivist societies are those based on communal living, such as Israeli kibbutzim, while vertical collectivist societies are for example Stalinist and fascistcountries or traditional communities with strong patriarchal leaders; vertical collectivism also correlates with Right-wing Authoritarianism.
On the one hand, there are the socialist governments, which have often nationalized most economic sectors, agriculture in particular, with the exception of Cuba. If these states practice agricultural collectivism, they are often called Communist states. On the other hand, there are Israeli kibbutzim (voluntary communes where people live and farm together without private ownership), and communities such as the Freetown Christiania in Denmark (a small anarchist political experiment centered around an abandoned military installation in Copenhagen; Christiania has laws abolishing private property).
Many political movements such as fascism, all form of totalitarianism and certain forms of nationalism and patriotism can be considered collectivist as well, as they emphasize the role of the nation or the state over individuals.
Native American societies are considered to be collectivist too.
Hofstede has produced a list of countries with individualism rankings.
There are two main objections to collectivism, which come from the ideas of liberal individualism. One is that collectivism stifles individuality and diversity by insisting upon a common social identity, such as nationalism, racialism, feminism, or some other group focus. The other is that collectivism is linked to statism and the diminution of freedom when political authority is used to advance collectivist goals.
Criticism of collectivism comes from individualists, such as classical liberals, libertarians, individualist anarchists, and Objectivists. Perhaps the most notable modern criticism of collectivism is the one put forward by Friedrich Hayek in his book The Road to Serfdom, published in 1944 and translated into approximately 20 languages.
Ayn Rand, founder of Objectivism, was a particularly vocal opponent who believed the philosophy of collectivism led to totalitarianism. She argued that "collectivism means the subjugation of the individual to a group," and that "throughout history, no tyrant ever rose to power except on the claim of representing the common good." She further claimed that "horrors which no man would dare consider for his own selfish sake are perpetrated with a clear conscience by altruists who justify themselves by the common good. (The "altruists" Rand refers to are not those who practice simple benevolence or charity, but rather those who believe in August Comte's ethical doctrine of altruism which holds that there is "a moral and political obligation of the individual to sacrifice his own interests for the sake of a greater social good.").
Anti-collectivists often argue that all authoritarian and totalitarian societies are collectivist in nature. George Orwell, an advocate of democratic socialism, believed that collectivism resulted in the empowerment of a minority of individuals and oppression:
"It cannot be said too often - at any rate, it is not being said nearly often enough - that collectivism is not inherently democratic, but, on the contrary, gives to a tyrannical minority such powers as the Spanish Inquisitors never dreamt of.
Marxists criticize this use of the term "collectivism," on the grounds that all societies are based on class interests and therefore all societies could be considered "collectivist." Even the liberal ideal of the free individual is seen from a Marxist perspective as a smokescreen for the collective interests of the capitalist class. Social anarchists argue that "individualism" is a front for the interests of the upper class. As anarchist Emma Goldman wrote:
"'rugged individualism'. . . is only a masked attempt to repress and defeat the individual and his individuality. So-called Individualism is the social and economic laissez-faire: the exploitation of the masses by the [ruling] classes by means of legal trickery, spiritual debasement and systematic indoctrination of the servile spirit . . . That corrupt and perverse 'individualism' is the straitjacket of individuality ....[It] has inevitably resulted in the greatest modern slavery, the crassest class distinctions driving millions to the breadline. 'Rugged individualism' has meant all the 'individualism' for the masters, while the people are regimented into a slave caste to serve a handful of self-seeking 'supermen.'...Their 'rugged individualism' is simply one of the many pretenses the ruling class makes to mask unbridled business and political extortion."
Ludwig von Mises wrote:
On the other hand the application of the basic ideas of collectivism cannot result in anything but social disintegration and the perpetuation of armed conflict. It is true that every variety of collectivism promises eternal peace starting with the day of its own decisive victory and the final overthrow and extermination of all other ideologies and their supporters. ... As soon as a faction has succeeded in winning the support of the majority of citizens and thereby attained control of the government machine, it is free to deny to the minority all those democratic rights by means of which it itself has previously carried on its own struggle for supremacy.