Communitarianism: Definitions, History, Features, Communitarians

What is Communitarianism?

Communitarianism is a socio-political belief that arose in the 20th century which goes on to elaborate that the needs of the community outweigh the needs of the individual. The belief system, norms, and rules of society has to take precedence over the individualistic needs. The concept of communitarianism is starkly in contrast with the notion of liberalism. For example- a communitarian individual who belongs to a community who has engaged in trade will not keep the profits of the trade to himself but instead, invest it for the betterment of the people of his community and pump it back into the society for the common welfare of the people rather than utilising it for their own selves or their family’s benefit.

Some of the definitions of communitarianism are as follows:

  • “…of or relating to social organization in small cooperative partially collectivist communities”- Merriam Webster
  • “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common”- Christian New Testament (Acts 4:32:)
  • “The condition for the free development of each is the free development of all.” – Karl Marx


The origins of this concept can be traced back to the 1980s in the work of Michael Sandal named, “Liberalism and the Limits of Justice” where it emerged as strong opposition to the philosophy of liberalism which gave precedence to individual rights over anything. The biggest defining factor which separates communitarianism from individualism is the creation of government policies. While the former encourages a more community-based beneficial approach while the other encourages individual autonomy in the decision-making process. However, if we are to trace the ancient roots of this philosophy many scholars have pointed out that its presence or at least essence can be found in the Bible’s Old and New Testament where the concept of ‘sharing’ everything was considered as the core philosophy of existence. Eventually Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in their book ‘The Communist Manifesto’ highlighted the importance of ‘development for all’ which is the core philosophy of this notion. Later on, similar tenants were introduced by Tony Blair in UK’s politics and George W Bush did something similar in the USA. Blair introduced a notion of ‘stakeholder society’ where he proposed that all the businesses within a nation should be sensitive and take into account the needs of the consumers and workers. On the other hand, Bush insisted that there needs to be the concept of ‘compassionate conservatism’ to enhance the well being of society.

Features of Communitarianism

1) The needs of society can override individual rights. It brings about a sense of altruism which highlights the need for the individual’s own sense of duty to look into the overall benefit of the society and owe a sense of responsibility to the community to which it belongs to. For example- how the Calvinists worked invariably for the betterment of the society for enhancement of their afterlife.

2)  There exists the belief that individuals are ‘embedded within the society so almost any action or desire which is need-based is influenced by the social community within which we reside and the subsequent social interactions we have. For example- if someone doesn’t adhere to the communitarian beliefs one may be shunned from society and their act for personal benefit might be interpreted as an act of deviance.

3) Many communitarians also believe that the concept of ‘individualism’ is often the product of manipulative advertising and a sense of deception amongst individuals. One of the main categories in which the essence of communitarianism can be carried forward is through the establishment of small-scale communitarian beliefs or large-scale communitarian beliefs. The former explains small-scale interpersonal interactions which make up the belief sets- such as issues of societally approved norms or traditions. On the other hand, Marx speaks of the large-scale communitarian belief in his state of ‘scientific communism’ which can be implemented over a large society.


The idea of communitarianism and its virtues also finds relevance in the ancient Greek societies. Plato and Aristotle in their works have mentioned a republican state with a communitarian set of values where ‘good precedes the right’. This argument substantiated when the society’s benefits clearly outline the individuals can orient themselves accordingly to enhance the same better. This was also talked about by Aristotle in his theory of ‘moral virtue’ where he believes that even the individualistic behaviour is shaped by the social, economic and political education and especially the educational institution which he believed shaped an individual and their perceptions.

It is especially interesting to see how India has embraced the values of communitarianism and individualism both while developing its constitutional framework. It ensures that individual choices along with community feelings are not hurt and this duality is what makes the Indian constitution specifically interesting. This embodiment is important as it attempts to outline individual rights but also doesn’t give it extreme power to exercise itself b ging beyond the fabric of the Indian community.


Communitarian beliefs or the philosophy as such never existed in a society in isolation but examples of its essence can be found in several organisations or tasks conducted which embodies its principles. For example- if a school or a club organises an environmental drive. The idea of community service is being embodied in the initiative undertaken by the organisation. Religion similarly follows the principles of communitarianism and tries to bring together the aspects of spirituality along with community interaction. For example- the concept of Langar or even prasad in temples to anyone who attends the space is to bring out the universal quality of food and develop a community feeling among people who can have it no matter which religion they belong to.

Famous Communitarians

The philosophy of communitarianism is discussed by the writers listed below:

  • Michael Sandel- He spoke extensively about this theory by highlighting the need for this philosophy. He urged that the shared understanding of a community is necessary as it surpasses individualistic needs and brings about a sense of universal justice. His first idea was to oppose John Rawl’s ‘Theory of Justice’ and instead spoke of the bonds individuals already possess from the moment they are born, like family, and ensure that they involve themselves in form of action keeping in mind the extended needs of the family.


  • Ferdinand Tonnies– He pioneered the concept in his essay titled, “Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft” where he drew comparisons that individuals leading individualistic and personal lives reside in a more oppressive environment rather than nurturing societies. He drew these two comparisons of how community-oriented and relations are important in binding together an entire community, be it a more primitive or a more evolved society- social ties remain integral to both.


  • Amitai Etzioni- He spoke about the concept of ‘responsive communitarian’ and was a major contributor to the 1990’s and started the Communitarian Network and stands for the philosophy where an individual should be able to strike a balance between their own needs and the society’s needs. The Communitarian Network aims to bring about a change in American society and restore a sense of social justice and implement effective family policies in place for the betterment of society.
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Srimoyee Biswas is a student of CHRIST(Deemed to be University) and currently pursuing her graduate degree in Journalism from Bangalore. She has a keen interest in socio political issues and plans to pursue her Masters in Sociology.