Communalism is the name for sets of social movements and theories (religious, social, and political). People usually live in communities, the exceptions being a few hermits, more slaves, and many more city dwellers (in the Roman Empire and in modern advanced societies). The city dwellers who live in society but not in community require the distinction between community and society. In parallel to this, Georg F. W. Hegel (1770–1831) and more explicitly Ferdinand Tönnies (1855–1936) offered the distinction between culture and civilization, observing that (the older) community lives by local custom and (the newer) society obeys the law of the land that Hegel sneered at, calling the equality that it supports “merely formal.” Hegel and Tönnies tacitly advocated the return to communal life, alleging that strife and alienation are lesser there and culture is more integrated; the basis of culture is religion, whereas the basis of civilization is (scientific) technology.
The original communalist movement was Talmudic Judaism. It underwent deep reform after the abortive Bar Kokhba revolt (132–135 CE). Unable to endorse or reject the Roman cruel peace (Pax Romana ), the Talmudic sages decided to sit it out and act, meanwhile, as the bearers of morals and enlightenment. To that end they geared Jewish law to utterly decentralized communal living rooted in education and family life, with each community politically, morally, and religiously autonomous; each rabbi is a supreme doctrinal authority functioning as a teacher of the community. This traditional description misses the major specific characteristic of Jewish communal theory and practice, which is that the diverse autonomous communities were linked in a powerful informal grassroots cultural network (called “Knesset Israel,” in allusion to its role as a surrogate parliament).
Hardly noticed, this decentralized network was emulated in great variations in medieval Europe, with communities controlled by the church and fused under secular rulers, and in traditional Islam of the caliphate (with the caliph as both religious and lay ruler) run as a network. For centuries it was the social institution nearest to democracy, making the traditional West distinctive and amenable to its later, spectacular changes. The lesser authority of the Protestant minister—as compared to that of the Catholic priest—strengthened communal networks; these have survived and in the early twenty-first century are misnamed “family values” and promoted by some neoconservatives and by religious communalist philosophers, including Alastair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor, both Catholics. Most contemporary communalists, however, deem them obsolete.
Modernity began with the individualism of the Enlightenment movement that found its expression chiefly in the advocacy of individual reasoning and thus of science as superior to faith, as well as in the view that the free choice of citizens is the only possible legitimate source for the right of governments to rule. (This is the doctrine of the social contract.) The Enlightenment movement ignored the community as unproblematic and outmoded. The Romantic reaction to it preferred the community over the polity, and custom over law. In efforts to compromise between the two movements, utopian communities were repeatedly founded. Their standards were intolerably high and so they failed, although always while raising the standards of their societies, thereby making significant contributions to the modern lifestyle. They gave way to the new welfare state and the newer communalist efforts to bring society and community together. Only neoconservatives advocate the return of welfare services to the community, and even they admit implicitly that this return cannot be total.
Philosophically, as the Enlightenment movement anchored everything social in the individual, its problem was: How does society emerge out of a cluster of individuals? This question is unanswerable, said the Romantic philosophers, because the pre-social individual is fictional. They, on the contrary, considered society an organism and the individual a limb with no independent existence. This is empirically more tenable but not enough, and it is morally useless. A search began for an alternative, a via media and a modus vivendi. Georg Simmel (1858–1918) and Karl Popper (1902–1994) assumed the existence of both individual and society. Gustav Landauer (1870-1919) and Martin Buber (1878–1965) deviated less from traditional philosophy. Buber declared that both individual and society owe their existence to the individual’s essential disposition for interpersonal relations; this disposition is (theoretically) prior to both.
This centrality of the disposition for interpersonal relations led to communalism as a new view of society that is more visionary than explanatory. Buber viewed the community as a network of individuals tied in a more-or-less face-to-face relation and the nation (more specifically, the culture) as a network of such communities. He played down the difference between society and community as he envisioned (in his 1946 book, Paths in Utopia ) an urban society comprising a conglomerate of cooperative communes. He did not view all communities as communes or all communes as living in kibbutz style, but unlike the older utopians he did not elaborate. He considered the alienation of the modern urban individual a serious challenge, and communalism as its answer. The question is, where does politics enter the picture? Buber suggested that this question is less important than another question: How can politics be tamed so as to prevent it from destroying communal life. He found this question more practical than theoretical (unlike Popper who developed democratic theory around it). So he invested in communalist political activity.
The new communalists, with Amitai Etzioni (b. 1929) as their leader, aim at filling this theoretical gap. Etzioni founded the George Washington University Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies (and continues to serve as its director) as well as the Communitarian Network (1990). His communitarian principle is meant to be applicable to national and even international politics. To a large extent it is simply the applications of (updated) agreeable liberal attitudes to diverse political problems with an accent on individual responsibility. To the extent that there is a new principle here, it is this: Both society and community are essential for a quality life, and so political concerns should include attention to communal concerns and vice versa. This is not a proposal to unite community and polity but to increase their cooperation. The recent development of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and their contributions to both community and polity alike is a remarkable example.
The expected development of former colonies into liberal nation-states was halted because colonialists had encouraged community life as a poor substitute for national independence. As after independence different communities within one country struggle to maintain their relative independence there, the overall result is inter-communal strife and thus damage to national liberty. The proper move should be towards western-style pluralist nations with a heightened sense of community. This is easier said than done.
SEE ALSO African Americans; Civilization; Communitarianism; Culture; Ethnic Fractionalization; Ethnicity; Family; Groups; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Identity; Individualism; Jews; Marx, Karl; Marxism, Black; Nationalism and Nationality; Politics, Identity; Popper, Karl; Race
Buber, Martin.  1986. Paths in Utopia. New York: Colliers.
Gellner, Ernest. 1998. Language and Solitude: Wittgenstein, Malinowski and the Habsburg Dilemma, ed. David Gellner. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press
MacIver, Robert Morrison.  1971. Community, A Sociological Study; Being an Attempt to Set out the Nature and Fundamental Laws of Social Life. New York: B. Blom.
Mair, L. 1984. Anthropology and Development. London: Macmillan.
Popper, Karl R.  1966. The Open Society and Its Enemies. London: Routledge.
See also 376. SOCIETY .
- the process of forming collectives or collective communities where property and resources are owned by the community and not individuals.
- the process of communalizing, or forming communes, where property and resources belong to the community and not the individual.
- a communal system based on cooperative groups that practice some of the principles of communism. —communitarian , n., adj.
- a utopian social reform, planned by the French social scientist F.M. Charles Fourier, that organized groups into cooperative units called phalansteries, as Brook Farm. Also called phalansterianism . —Fourierist, Fourierite , n.
- in the U.S. and Canada, descendants of Swiss Protestants exiled from their homeland in 1528 for communal living, paciflsm, and Anabaptist views, still persecuted for their economie self-sufficiency and their refusal to allow their communities to be assimilated. Also called Hutterian Brethren .
- a communal farm in Israël, cooperatively owned, with members who receive no pay but who gain housing, clothing, medical care, and education from the cooperative. Also called kvutzah . —kibbutzim , n. pl.
- Oneida Perfectionists
- a native American communal society active in the middle 19th century in Putney, Vermont, and Oneida, New York, practicing a pooling of all property and communal marriage for eugenie reasons.
- the social and political theories of Robert Owen, an early 19th-century British reformer whose emphasis upon cooperative education and living led to the founding of communal experiments, including the ill-fated community of New Harmony, Indiana, purchased from the Rappites. — Owenite , n.
- Rappist, Rappite
- a follower of George Rapp, an early 19th-century German Pietistic preacher, whose experiments in a religion-based cooperative system involved the founding of Economy, Pennsylvania, and Harmonie, Indiana. Also called Harmonist, Harmonite .
- communal life, such as that of ants, in which colonies of different species live together but do not share the raising of the young.
- a believer in the doctrines of John Alexander Dowie who founded Zion City, Illinois, in 1901, as an industrial community for his followers.
com·mu·nal·ism / kəˈmyoōnlˌizəm/ • n. 1. a principle of political organization based on federated communes. ∎ the principle or practice of living together and sharing possessions and responsibilities. 2. allegiance to one's own ethnic group rather than to the wider society. DERIVATIVES: com·mu·nal·ist adj. & n. com·mu·nal·is·tic / kəˌmyoōnlˈistik/ adj.