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Collectivism is a term used to describe various social, political, and economic relations that stress the primacy of the collective, which may be a group of individuals, a society, a state, a nation, race, or social class, over that of the individual. Collectivists subscribe to the belief that the group’s societal or communal “will” takes precedence over that of the individual, who must then sacrifice self-interest for the good of the whole. Thus the group is the fundamental unit of social, political, and economic concern.
From a social perspective, collectivism maintains that humans are interdependent and closely linked to one or more groups. This doctrine views group harmony and solidarity as more important than personal desires and goals. In this case, the group might take the form of a family, race, social class, or religious denomination. Thus, respectfulness, cooperation, and conformity to group norms are expected. Competition and conflict are devalued within the group but viewed as acceptable intergroup behaviors.
Politically, collectivism might be viewed as a doctrine that maintains that the “will” of the people supersedes that of the individual, who must subordinate personal interests to those of the majority. Thus society as a whole is the standard of moral value. An early example of this kind of collectivism has been associated with Jean-Jacques Rosseau’s social contract. In this work, Rousseau posits that human society is organized along the lines of an implicit contract between members of society, with the terms of the contract, such governmental powers, citizens’ rights and responsibilities, defined by the “general will.” This notion of collectivism is often equated with democracy.
As an economic doctrine, collectivism holds that material resources should be owned by the group and used for the benefit of all rather than being owned by individuals. Although this view of collectivism advocates public over private ownership of property, the state is not necessarily the manager or overseer of collective property, as has been the case with most modern day manifestations of communism. It should also be noted that the principle of collective ownership of property might refer to the means of production or to all commodities that are valued.
While there are many examples of societies characterized as collectivist, few, if any, are entirely collectivist. Moreover, one can find characteristics of collectivism in most societies. Perhaps the best-known practical applications of collectivism are those associated with the agriculture sector of societies. Many of these attempts, however, have resulted in some well-documented failures. For example, the Soviet state’s experiment with agricultural collectivization in the 1920s and 1930s was abandoned owing to negative economic consequences. Similarly, Operation Dodoma, which refers to Julius Nyerere’s 1974 program of forced collectivization of farming in Tanzania, was largely unsuccessful as a means of increasing benefits perceived to accrue from collective farming. China’s 1958 attempt at collectivization of agricultural production, though somewhat more successful than that of the Soviet Union and Tanzania, also failed to yield perceived economic benefits.
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