The Individual and the left



Tom Griffiths


Some introductory ideas/context

The medieval soul is superficial, impoverished, miserable – that’s why the role of religion had to be imposed to fill in gaps or provide a veneer.

The modern soul is deep, complex (and therefore prone to neuroses) developing further layers of complexity. Increasingly the link is to individuality within an increasingly complex and multilayered society.


I want to start this essay with a quote from The German Ideology, a work by Marx that predates the Communist Manifesto by not very much, and pose a rhetorical question to the reader: what stands out to you? What is Marx actually getting at?

“…private property can be abolished only on condition of an all round development of individuals, because the existing character of intercourse and productive forces is an all round one, and only individuals that are developing in an all round fashion can appropriate them, i.e. can turn them into free manifestations of their lives.” Selected Writings ed McLellan p 191

In case we missed it – and the left has a long history in peering through Nelson’s telescope on its position relating to the individual – Marx was pointing out that the development of communism couldn’t occur without the all round development of individuals.Abolition of private property from above, via some form of executive fiat, is no substitute for the broad cultural changes that “the all round development of individuals” assumes and that the abolition of private property must be a reflection of.

A Procrustean bed has no place here. As with spirituality, we have left the field of individuality and authenticity to the right – which is why we find some of their libertarian ideas attractive (presumably this must also apply to the Spiked crew).This 55+ year old quote from Barry Goldwater is a case in point: “Every man, both for his own individual good and for the good of society, is responsible for his own development.

The choices that govern his life are choices he must make: They cannot be made by any other human being, or by a collectivity of human beings.” (The Conscience of a Conservative, 1960). It’s like Nietzsche with a southern twang. And before readers start hyperventilating over the very obvious holes in old Barry’s argument – “he would say that wouldn’t he, he’s let the property question slip through” – we need to be aware that the radical left has been complicit in effectively allowing individual agency and responsibility – cornerstones of freedom – to become the ‘property’ of bourgeois property.

Late American Marxist, Marshal Berman, (The Politics of Authenticity , All That is Solid Melts into Air  made a spirited attempt to rescue the individual and reclaim territory once charted by progressive forces, including the revolutionary left, and he deserves our thanks. I’ll be dipping into his material, amongst others, below. There are a lot of reasons why what have formerly been mass revolutionary movements can now hold conventions in broom cupboards and assuming the ostrich position concerning the individual is one of them.

But before proceeding further some off road detours or context, hopefully relevant, are called for.

Why bother?

My first detour is: why am I bothering? My motivation is twofold. The first, and oldest, springs from an ongoing interest and dissatisfaction with how communist, and broadly revolutionary leftist thinking, has dealt with the individual. The second comes from my not quite as old work as a family therapist, group worker and supervisor (men’s family violence groups) and refugee support worker. I have come to appreciate that there is a considerable degree of overlap between these areas.

Human Nature

My second detour takes a very brief look at human nature. An uncontentious materialist view of human nature sees it as neither purely biological nor as an atomised abstraction along the lines of Adam Smith’s ‘natural man’. Our biology may be fixed within evolutionary frameworks but our individual and psychological makeup occur within social and historical ones. These latter therefore unfold and develop as we interact with both the natural world and the world we create and struggle to overcome their constraints; as we make our history, so we make ourselves.

Late German sociologist Norbert Elias expressed this rather well when he said “What is fixed by heredity, the range or pitch of voice, for example, merely provides the framework for an infinite variety of possible articulation.” (p36 The Society of Individuals)

Since the scientific revolution that accompanied modernity, numerous figures have expressed this fundamental truth. The 19thC thinker J.S.Mill, for example, wrote that: “Human nature is not a machine to be built like a model, and set to exactly the work proscribed to it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of inward forces that make it a living thing.” (On Liberty)

A more robust view  was expressed by Ivan Michurin, a Russian/Soviet scientist (he straddled epochs): “We cannot wait for favours from Nature, our task is to wrest them from her”, while English Marxist historian Christopher Hill, in God’s Englishman (p218) quoted Hugh Peter saying in 1648, “The work of God will go on [but] I am not in the mind we should put our hands in our pockets and wait what will come.”

Hugh Peter was expressing the idea of giving “history a push”, of loosening the reins on human subjectivity. During periods of revolutionary turmoil the “task to wrest them from her”, was not so much directed at Nature as at moribund ruling classes content with the idea that it was their natural and divinely ordained right to be in charge.

This idea captures a dilemma faced by proletarian parties which led successful revolutions in backward societies. These revolutions were obviously on the side of historical development but the ‘push’ was not solely directed at proletarian revolution. There was first the not so small problem of the bourgeois revolution to complete or even get started. We are familiar with the expression ‘push/pull’ and the push in Russia and China was in both bourgeois and proletarian directions with the latter being eventually defeated by a pull that was able to pass itself off as progressive. Deng Hsiao Ping’s “black cat, white cat: who cares so long as it catches mice” summed this up. As necessary and correct as the united front with the peasantry was, it was also a compromise and one of the components of this compromise – the one I’m interested in here – is the cultural space given to individuals and the cultural beliefs and practises that corralled that space.

Clearly siding with Michurin’s stand, Berman proposes that “It is inherent in our nature to make all things new – including ourselves.” (The Politics of Authenticity p165). In today’s world of deadened discourse we would insist that this view must accord with ‘evidence based practise’. What can I say, other than: it does and in bucket loads.

The Individual in Context

Picking up the point that we make ourselves, it seems reasonable to ask: how and from what?  Elias makes the obvious, but easily overlooked observation that individuation, the process of becoming individual, presumes some sort of social context because one must have a society, clan or group to individuate from.  While this may seem obvious its implications are easily missed, even by so-called Marxists, who should frankly know better.

In dialectical jargon the individual and society are in relationship as thesis and antithesis, each being antithesis or opposite to the other. In more colloquial vein they occupy different sides of the same coin. Speaking of the relationship between society and the individual across history, Elias  speaks of the ‘frozen antithesis’, a forced and inevitable one sidedness that cements one side of a contradiction, the ‘society’ side, to the exclusion of its opposite, the ‘individual’ side. When this happens the mutual interpenetration of opposites cannot be seen, let alone analysed, blind-siding us in the process.

Plekhanov’s favourite Hegelian aphorism that a contradiction leads forward covers similar ground. And this is what we have seen in traditional (pre modern) societies where the relationship between society (or group) and individual, the we/I balance, as Elias puts it, is fixed. And from the point of view of those involved, eternally so. Dynamism or fluidity in the relationship is absent and the individual is severely constrained and barely recognised.

There were very compelling reasons for this and they revolved around the issue of survival. For tens of thousands of years human survival was marginal and hard won. Individual survival depended upon the survival and viability of the group the individual belonged to. Initially these were small, family based units before developing into larger clan or tribal based societies and beyond. To use a maritime metaphor, the seas were too rough and the water too close to the gunnels for the individual to be able to stand up and rock the communal boat. Hence for most of our history the individual has had to serve the interests of the group and by so doing enhance his/her own chance of survival. The first struggle for freedom then was freedom from imminent danger, the freedom to survive. The struggle to wrest ourselves free from domination by nature is the basis upon which individual freedom emerges.

But this took many thousands of years and the development of mystical beliefs and practises – cultural, religious and loosely, ideological, were the secondary, and at this stage of our development, the most useful vehicles deployed to pass survival manuals from one generation to the next. As Daniel Dennett points out, harsh realities meant that we simply didn’t have the time or opportunity to turn the wealth of empirical knowledge our ancestors gained into higher level, scientific knowledge.

Romantic beliefs that surface from time to time, like those espoused by many greens, that our forebears lived in a harmonious relationship with nature, leapfrog conservatism and head straight for reaction. The fallacy of this belief rests upon an assumption that the relationship was essentially benign, if not between equals then at least between mutually respectful partners where a fair, de facto accommodation could occur. Nothing could have been further from the truth. For many tens of thousands of years nature held the whip hand. Our ancestors did as nature dictated.

The Individual in Pre-Modern Society

Alienation, here the separation of individuals from their potential to develop, was systematically imposed, unavoidable, unconscious and experienced as normal in static societies that were governed by fixed norms and traditions. Here, people must be satisfied with the roles given, experiencing themselves, Berman says, as pegs, aspiring “only to fit the holes that fit them best.” (The Politics of Authenticity p xxvii-xxviii) A static equilibrium is Berman’s description of Elias’ frozen antithesis.

This static equilibrium was dominant in the west until the demise of medievalism between the 16th and 20th centuries – (Russia across the 19th and 20thC, although if we include the Vatican in our reckoning we will need to push out the time frames a century or few). It is difficult to find a better, more dispassionate and dystopian description of traditional power and order than that given by prominent 19thC French reactionary Joseph de Maistre  who saw humanity as sinful, weak and proud with savage natures that must be kept in check by an uncompromising and unquestioned authority. “…all greatness, all power, all social order depends upon the executioner.” What can one say but “yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir.”

A static equilibrium describes social arrangements that warm the hearts of conservatives and reactionaries across the broad sweep of history, from Plato to Edmund Burke, Burke’s contemporary de Maistre and beyond in both directions.

Marxists have no difficulty in identifying Burke as a stick in the mud given his immediate hostility (1790) to the French revolution and his valorization of tradition, albeit within the context that accepted the gains of the English Revolution. Plato is more interesting because he was identified by the Second International’s leading theoretician, Karl Kautsky, as a prototype socialist come communist. Late American Marxist Hal Draper, was no fan. “Plato’s state model is government by an aristocratic elite, and his argument stresses that democracy inevitably means the deterioration and ruin of society. Plato’s political aim, in fact, was the rehabilitation and purification of the ruling aristocracy in order to fight the tide of democracy. To call him a socialist ancestor is to imply a conception of socialism which makes any kind of democratic control irrelevant.”

Like so many aristocrats after him Plato’s ideal of individual perfection was one’s acceptance of the role a person was born into, performing one’s ‘proper’ function, a perfect balance Plato called justice. It was a pity that Kautsky was unable to ask simply: justice for whom?

While Plato was an aristocrat and a static equilibriumist (it’s not a neologism, I’ve checked) there is little point getting carried away with his reactionary politics two and a half thousand years down the track. But the same allowance cannot be extended Kautsky or other revolutionary figures drawn to Plato as some kind of Ancient Greek avatar of revolutionary socialism.  While violent class struggles may occur within Plato’s schema “they concern only the allocation of particular holes to particular pegs. The board itself, the closely knit but rigidly stratified system of the Greek polis, which defines men precisely by their functions, remains unquestioned and intact.” (Berman The Politics of Authenticity p xxviii) What Berman is drawing attention to is, in systems jargon, first order or quantitative change. What is required is second order or transformative change. The board itself needs to go. That the leading figure of the Second International saw Plato as a prototype socialist indicates the depth of the problem for the left around the individual and the demos generally.

Under traditional circumstances people’s personal identity was derived from the roles they were born into or assigned. This promoted social stability of course (what’s not to like comrades?) while inhibiting innovation and creativity. It also shielded the undeveloped self from expectations and disappointments beyond one’s station. While systems are not sentient the advantages they confer pass on to those that are and these advantages were most warmly accepted by those who, coincidentally, sat at the top of what Hill describes as “the cosy hierarchical world picture [that] must not be disturbed lest the social hierarchy be challenged.” (The Origins of the English Revolution p345)

Berman’s take is similar pointing out that “Individual thought or feeling, insight or initiative, could only be destructive to these traditions and routines. Hence it was essential for traditional society to keep individuality from developing, at the bottom as well as at the top.” (The Politics of Authenticity p100)

The dead hand of the past, a point not missed by Marx, weighed down on the aristocracy and the peasants alike, but “it was easy to see why the upper classes were willing to make the sacrifice of self which their social roles demanded.” But no matter what station one was born into everyone “was reduced to a function of the rank which he acquired at birth – or, perhaps more accurately, to paraphrase Marx, the rank which acquired him.” (Ibid p101)

The respective autobiographies of Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Infidel, Nomad), Souad Burned Alive and Phoolan Devi (The Bandit Queen of India) describe both these aspects with an intense, intimate clarity. The life stories of these women are required reading by those serious about understanding, on a personal level, how tradition works and the risks that must be confronted in the struggle to form an authentic self.


What I have been attempting to describe is the dividing line between the pre-modern and the modern world. The transformation of the former to the latter saw the relationship between the individual and society transform from suffocating stasis to dynamism. The place of the individual has grown enormously, with modernity facilitating this growth and there can be no doubt that this development has enriched those societies subject to its influence. There can also be no doubt that the transition was, or is for those societies still in transition, anything but smooth or complete.

While contradictions and conflicts of interest between society and the individual continue to exist and may often be very sharp, modern societies have created a social and political space (a cultural space if you like) where individuals can fight for and extend their own piece of the action. While we often think of these developments in terms of ‘rights’, it is worth remembering that along with creating ourselves we create the need for new rights and we win them through struggles against both nature and socially imposed impediments.

Gramsci described as a cultural revolution the period ushered in by the Renaissance and the Reformation. I’d not previously thought of these events, or movements, as cultural revolutions before, but he was right. They sounded the death knell of medievalism and it is worth remembering that the transition was protracted, violent and characterised by what we have come to realise as historical transformations with their obligatory twists and turns. This latter point should serve to reassure, by the way – looking back we can see that frozen antitheses were melting all over the place, a fact that should encourage us to look for the current melting points.

These transformations ushered in the modern era and with it the modern individual. Most bourgeois opinion, that is, most ‘opinion’, prefer to either be overtly negative about revolutions or to ignore them. This also applies to attitudes of any oppositional movement that comes from below – cultural or otherwise – where the default perspective offered is, as suggested, to not only turn a blind eye or to focus on the negative aspects but to demean and treat with contempt the ignorant or stupid masses. Where are Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters pumping out Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive when you need them I ask rhetorically.

The threat and fear of ‘chaos’ is an oft repeated mantra by both conservatives and reactionaries, especially as revolutions threaten or are in their midst. Communist parties, especially those in power, have shown themselves to be prone to catching this bug and the challenges it throws up in spite of their need to launch cultural upheavals or revolutions. This latter is surely part of the job description, a recognition that it’s ok to consciously and deliberately give history a push. But the modernist cultural revolution, if I can call it that, was not prescribed or consciously directed and the participants were most unlikely to have had a clear idea about how things would unfold or where they would end up. Developments were more akin to an unpredictably moving but unstoppable tsunami, moving forward here, being held back or pushed in other directions there, leaving untouched some remnants and swallowing up others. One way of reading Hill’s histories is with this in mind. So too with Shakespeare who wrote his plays as the tide began to surge.

The ‘left’, of whatever stripe, speaks of and seeks to work with ‘social units’ – the working class, unions or worker or community organisations, parties etc. But unless this contributes and leads to an ongoing transformation of the social unit or group (getting rid of the board), and thereby to the opening up of opportunity for individual growth and transformation, the ‘left’ would be pissing into the wind and indicating that, on this matter at least, it has failed to understand or embrace the modernity that Marx and Engels, amongst many others, were so enraptured by.

Group maintenance without transformation is a dead end. Group transformation without individual transformation, is politically fraudulent and reactionary, seeking to maintain the existing or traditional power relations within the group, community or society. As repeated once already, the board itself has to go.


Hill makes the point that the transition from tribal to village society involved a shift from kinship (blood bond) to neighbourhood; that is, from tribalism to feudalism; and that the transition from parish to sect was a shift from local community to voluntary organisation. Voluntary organisation cannot occur without the existence of self-motivated individuals. Today this is the norm, indeed so normal as to barely raise comment. In the social sphere alone we see a plethora of activities, clubs, associations and the like which people engage in freely. It covers all classes, ages and tastes and could not occur without freely choosing individuals, all taking responsibility for fulfilling certain of their needs.

But the communist movement has struggled with the free aspect of the individual uncritically buying (I use the term advisedly) the bourgeois assertion that central to this freedom is freedom of property ownership and hence of capital. The individual that emerged from the medieval straightjacket was associated with the development of capitalism, capitalists and aspiring capitalists, what Hill termed ‘the industrious sort’. One sidedness in an analysis is always a problem and an embarrassing one when the analysis is promoted as dialectical. Here the matter of the individual is left dangling, a frozen antithesis, stained with its association with the ‘industrious sort’ so central in the development of capitalism (Tawney’s depiction makes this connection a defining characteristic). Individuality, individualism, bourgeois individualism and its junior, aspiring cousin petty bourgeois individualism, are generally carelessly treated as synonyms. While some common ground between them is real, contradictions and points of divergence emerged early on. Failing to see this, or downplaying their importance and lumping them all together, is more than careless, it is lazy and betrays an ambivalence about the place of the individual absent from Marx and Engel’s thinking.

As mentioned Berman has attempted to correct this by focusing on the emergence of the individual, as has Hill. One of Hill’s great contributions has been his determination to track and expose the development of both sides or aspects of the individual’s development in England from the 16th to the 18th centuries. That is, the individual’s connection to bourgeois economic and social development, the aspect that has ‘form’, and the flourishing of the individual among the ‘lower sort’, the members of the ‘many headed monster’. (Change and Continuity in 17th Century England)

Failure to distinguish between capitalism and modernity

Associated with this has been a failure by the left to distinguish between capitalism and modernity. Each has developed together and each has, within itself, contained the possibility of the other. This is best seen and summed up in the “all that is solid melts into air’” aspect, the dynamism, that has been common to both. By the early 19th C it was becoming possible to clearly distinguish between the two and to see that the development of one was frustrating, distorting and impeding the development of the other. Marx’s writings were very much concerned with this distinction (we can see it too in Goethe’s Faust, albeit in a less politically conscious way); indeed he and Engels were key figures in making it. In effect they were saying: I like this part, the dynamism, the restlessness, the urge to develop, the newfangledness, which in turn enables the individual to develop; but not this part, the tying of labour, in perpetuity, to market relations and the exploitation and alienation that goes with this.

Marx and Engels spent most of their lives demonstrating that capitalist economic and social development will materially create the conditions where it can be superseded. Where, in other words, modernity can be fully transformed and shed itself of its capitalist constraints.

The identification that left wing radicalism has made between the capitalist economy and the liberal state with ‘individualism’ has also seen it linking radicalism with, as Berman puts it, “a collectivism that negated individuality.” This is succinct and accurate. A collectivism so understood, one that attempts to negate the ‘newfangledness’ so admired by Marx, will take us nowhere other than a dead end. More disturbingly it aligns a radical, anti-capitalist sensibility regarding the individual with the premodern. Indeed, that is what it is a hangover from. It is backward looking and as communists or assorted radicals we need to remind ourselves that that is not the direction we should be heading.

The Marxist Archive reflects this problem and makes its own contributions (see the entries for ‘Individual’, ‘Individualism and Collectivism’ and ‘Autonomy’ for examples). While not wishing to make such a detour as to get lost let me make the following points. Its entry for ‘Individual’ goes no further than formal logic or the medieval Latin word ‘individuum’ in describing particular, indivisible things. This includes individual humans, of course, but also individual rocks, horses or flies crawling up a wall. Unique persons, with their multiplicity of individual characteristics fail to make the team. ‘Individualism and Collectivism’ is more nuanced, but remains problematic (or should I say symptomatic?). It speaks of collectivism transcending or sublating individualism; that is a collectivism which does not suppress the individualism of bourgeois society, but supersedes it. This gets closer, but supersedes to what? Primacy is given to collectivism with the transcendent, dialectical leap, only relating to it. Individualism, which remains ‘bourgeois’, or consistent with the individuality that emerged under capitalism, remains unsuppressed but also untransformed. It is as though dialectics has had a seniors’ moment and forgotten that individuality too, must transcend its bourgeois limits.

Individuum (and its siblings individualis and individuus) was, in relation to the now emerged individual (bourgeois or otherwise) a word at a low level of synthesis, a direct reflection of Elias’ frozen antithesis and Berman’s static equilibrium, characteristic of undeveloped or backward societies. A collectivism that negates, or awkwardly slides over individuality within a modernist context, that strips the particularities of individual persons and highlights only those features common to all is backward looking and reactionary.

The bods at the Archive, seem to understand that the individual is important but their ambivalence gets in the way of them seeing the matter as dynamic. The antithesis remains frozen.

But if dialectics has meaning this must also indicate that we also have a problem with the universal, although this is not an issue for here.

Although we are social creatures who define ourselves in relation to the other, modern societies enable identities to be achieved and transcended. The synthesis has developed to a much higher level. Roles and limits are transcended regularly and to such a degree we barely notice. Your average citizen at work transcends him/herself out of work or even at work – is he/she a junior sports coach, team manager, assistant this or that, the secretary of a club, an amateur whatever, a blogger … How about a revolutionary? Now, that’s a novel idea!

Berman points out that “To be authentic, authentically “oneself”, is to see critically through the forces that twist and constrict our being and to strive to overcome them” (The Politics of Authenticity p xiv). In a repressive society people cannot be themselves within the system but must strive to become themselves in spite of the system. This can take private, even mystical forms, as with the Stoics, or openly rebellious forms where people can only be themselves, or strive to become so, against the system. Revolt, Berman reminds us, is the only mode of authenticity a repressive society allows. It is not only right that we rebel against reactionaries, but in doing so we act authentically.

If the theory of revolution grows out of and develops alongside the idea of authenticity, we need to be able to evaluate how well proletarian parties like the Bolsheviks and CCP fulfilled or sought to fulfill this within the boundaries of what was historically and socially achievable. Within the west I think we’ve been under performers and more aligned with the historically regressive. Revolutions in undeveloped countries present a more complex picture. With 80/90% of the population in China, for example, being peasant and where feudalist culture predominated, the communists had to work with the raw materials at hand and an emphasis on a collectivism that downplayed individuality was probably unavoidable. That was certainly what they inherited. This did not mean that individuality did not develop. It is difficult to read Lu Hsun or any of William Hinton’s accounts without seeing new and vibrant individuals emerging. But there is also an ambivalence borne of the circumstance (the constraints) of these revolutions. In his very sympathetic Reconstructing Lenin, Hungarian historian Tamas Krausz remarks that “the autonomy of the individual and of personality as the communal societies’ main context of unfolding was missing not only from Lenin’s legacy, but from the legacy of the entire period, which insisted on other areas of development.” (p369)

What I find disappointing is the lack, or apparent lack, of theoretical material from either the CCP or the Bolsheviks that laid the realities on the table in such a way that indicated that they knew the growth of the individual was an important goal and that it was occurring, but that circumstances did not allow them to focus on this. This distinction, and its rationale, does not strike me as beyond the wit of the players to articulate. While my own ignorance may be the driver here, the lack of much written material indicates that it was not seen as a problem. This reinforces my hunch that there has been a deep ambivalence about the individual in revolutionary movements generally and that this has been dealt with through avoidance and a one sided focus on notions of collectivism.

One of the problems I have with this (there are a few) is that this ambivalence leaves the door open to the development of anti-capitalist feelings that spring from a backward looking romanticism, a yearning for a pastoral, harmonious, pre industrial past, based on scarcity and frugality.

This reactionary yearning looks to an idealised, non-existent past and posits it as the future. Its most modern form can be seen amongst extremist greens and Islamic fascist groups like ISIS. It certainly had a presence in the English Revolution and re-emerged as a current of the Romantic period that arose partly in response to the Industrial Revolution. However, as Berman states, we envision equality within an urban, dynamic economy based on growth and abundance. (p36) And Amen to that!

During the 18thC and 19thC that reactionary yearning for harmony and stability was expressed strongly in reactions to the Enlightenment and to the French Revolution. Prior to the revolution reactionaries on both sides of the English channel were busy drawing the cultural authoritarian wagons into a circle, drawing upon Neo-Classicism from the arts and Newtonian physics, in order to promote social stability by encouraging people to submit to fixed, eternal rules, externally imposed and closed to scrutiny. This de facto united front between a decaying French feudalism and an ascendant British capitalism occurred because both ruling classes required social stability. The British were more successful having had a revolution, albeit limited in its extent and aims; the French were not because they hadn’t. But on both sides of the Channel ruling class anxiety was a clear sign that the horse had well and truly bolted. Whilst it is obvious that there were a great many other issues that drove the revolution, the progressive unfettering of the individual, his/her emergence as subjects on the social and political arena, was prominent among them. Following similar developments that had been occurring in Britain, the third estate mob was becoming less and less mob like.

By 1790, for example, before the direction of the revolution had become clear, Edmund Burke was quick to fire a shot across the bows, dismissing the philosophes and the revolution that Burke would have seen as their mongrel child, as “sophisters, economists and calculators. Never, never more shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom.” Proud submission? Servitude an exalted freedom? Warming to his theme and moving seamlessly into hyperbolic overdrive he predicted that “All the pleasing illusions which made power gentle and obedience liberal, which harmonised the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics all the sentiments that beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by the new conquering empire of light and reason. All decent drapery of life is to be torn off …” (Reflections… paras 127-8)

While Burke’s prose is simultaneously impressive and nausea inducing he employs a sophistry unmatched by any of his erstwhile French targets. We should keep in mind that de Maistre’s reflections, made after the revolution, dispensed with Burke’s draperies and cut to the chase. Berman points out that what Burke was effectively admitting to was that the “whole social system of Europe was essentially a system of lies” which is where de Maistre’s executioner comes in as reinforcer. Shelley exposed these lies in his poem Anarchy, written in response to the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. It is good to have Burke in mind while reading it.

French reactionary responses were also predictably hostile. What had been lost was the clarity and predictability of medieval Catholicism, especially the stability and obedience to medieval hierarchy. Individuals, they argued, had been severed from their traditional (and subservient) ties. The atomised, uncontrolled individual, the individual who no longer respected the sanctity of the place of his/her superiors, was a threat to social cohesion and aroused consternation among those superiors for whom de Maistre was an influential spokesperson. Individualist liberalism was destructive to the social order and de Maistre’s uncompromising worldview has cast a long shadow.

Had figures like de Maistre simply faded into the background and, along with their ideas, exited stage right, we could happily channel the Mandy Rice-Davies line of “well he would [say that] wouldn’t he” and move on. What is of ongoing interest about de Maistre, aside from his ‘casual’ attitude on maintaining social order, is his influence on Saint-Simon, one of the Utopian Socialists’ heavy lifters, a man who had a significant influence on the development of numerous socialist currents that developed in the mid to late 19thC. Both men were contemporaries and it was de Maistre’s thinking about social cohesion and political authority that garnered influence. Auguste Comte, Saint-Simone’s secretary and father of sociology, frequently and approvingly cited him.

Culture that draws its authority from a closed and oppressive past cannot prepare or aid its members to negotiate the permanently turbulent waters that modernity throws up. For such cultures, the future has already happened and all it does is prepare people for more of the same.

Historical events demonstrate more powerfully than words that this has a shelf life. Taking sides in the individual/social divide, however, presented real challenges, cultural and political, that have seen ostensibly radical and revolutionary ideologies promote ideas that bore disturbing similarities to feudalist or semi feudalist ideas of community with limited space for individual development, let alone transformation.

The development of society to  higher levels (higher levels of syntheses as Elias would put it) enables higher levels of individuation and individual development, opening the way to increased fulfilment (and increased dissatisfaction); increased chances of happiness (and increased chances of unhappiness and disappointment), all of which are society specific. So which road, the high road or the low road? Old maritime charts used to have “this way there be dragons” to describe unknown waters and discourage exploration. Dragons might be scary, but “this way there be development”.

This of course is not a one way street as the development of the individual in modern societies is necessarily accompanied by the development of society, of a multiplicity of choices in how we can be ‘we’ as well as ‘I’ and ‘we’ relationships are no longer necessarily permanent and inescapable, no longer a constraint to the development of free will and personal responsibility.

The working class itself has made it clear through its actions and choices that it values individual growth and development and the economic development which facilitates this.

The question for communists and assorted ratbags is: do we?


12 thoughts on “The Individual and the left

  1. Pingback: The Individual and the left — C21st Left | mousemouseblog

  2. VERY interesting! Hope you keep writing!

    I am confused about relation with earlier posts which have “continuing” and “concluding”. Would like to start from beginning but have not found it. Please list all links to previous in sequence so people can study carefully. The tagging here is not sufficient.

    I will have to study your article more closely later, hopefully together with above links to earlier. Meanwhile just wanted to pass on a couple of points you might want to follow up:

    1) Check out Andy Blunden’t stuff:

    2) Also Vanessa Wills especially “Marx and Morality”

    Click to access VWills_ETD_2011.pdf

    (earlier mentioned here by Bill Kerr: )

    3) I think some of Mao’s unpublished stuff may shed light on failure to publicly address it “Mao Unrehearsed”:

    I vaguely recall an article about Cultural Revolution noticing that it was actually following from May 4 movement in introducing “Western” individualism to “Confucian” China – directly contrary to the general impression. Could not find a reference.

    They did have to develop more modern forces of production in order to develop the “newfangled” people that go with them.

    “We know that to work well the newfangled forces of society, they only want to be mastered by newfangled men — and such are the working men. They are as much the invention of modern time as machinery itself.”

    4) Likewise some of Lenin’s fight with prolecult etc may be relevant.

    5) Thesis/antithesis suggests external opposition. Emergent Individual vs Universal is more like “concrete universal”.

    I will try to explain re “concrete universal” when writing about Maksakovsky in relation to his and Marx’s method as discussed in introduction and chapter 1 of “The Capitalist Cycle”.

    Unfortunately will have to postpone following up on this stuff myself until I have got somewhere with that. Meanwhile hope you keep going and also hope you read Maksakovsky.


  3. just some thoughts

    Australia has millions of volunteers

    Most large organisations have been trying to develop teams with leaders rather than managers. Individuals have to work in a team whilst trying to advance their own career.

    people buy electric cars at a higher price an individual choice for the greater good.

    councils have advisory community groups to provide feedback.

    etc etc
    perhaps we should be a catalyst to the positive developments.


  4. Thank you for your piece Tom G. I’m not responding directly to the content, for that it seems best to start with Burke’s critique of the ‘Rights of Man’ which I haven’t read. I don’t have a dispute with Bergman’s propositions on the inevitability of change but I do have problems with the notion of the individual that is central to your paper. My research on the experience of women as mothers led me to read Martha Fineman’s ‘Autonomy Myth’ which challenges the notion of the independent man which is central to much of our philosophical heritage. Her later work places ‘vulnerability’ at the center of her analysis in that to be human is to be vulnerable and she critiques our social systems that have privatized and gendered care within the family. More recently there is a mixed economy of CARE with both child and aged care, and the service industries that are largely feminized and undervalued, which is, I believe, the single most significant part of the economy today. The retreat by the state from the welfare sector over recent decades is contributing to poor outcomes for women with what is referred to as the ‘motherhood wage penalty’, high rates of anxiety and depression for women as mothers, marital dissatisfaction, domestic violence, and significant issues to do with identity for women when they become mothers. There is the ‘double shift’ and increasing rates of poverty for sole parents and older women who make up a significant proportion of the new homeless. I have looked through the thesis that Arthur linked, Marx and Morality by Vanessa Wills. A key word search by family shows up a recognition by Marx of the importance of familial relations in terms of linking the individual to the social. He critiques the bourgeois family and associated morality but Mills highlights this recognition that a communist society would promote and develop these key connections.

    My research led me to think of the mother-child connection as foundational and the father and wider family connections significant. This is backed up by research that highlights the centrality of human connections and relationships for the development of the baby brain. In terms of your work on identifying connections between the individual and the social, I find the notion of intersubjectivity to be useful for talking about this interpersonal connection. Jessica Benjamin has written on this and I’ve uploaded an overview powerpoint on youtube called ‘Intersubjectivity mothers and infants’.

    This isn’t to say that individuals who have a bad maternal and/or family experience aren’t able to recover lost ground, as it seems the brain has proven to be incredibly resilient and adaptive.

    I went back to the pamphlet ‘Rescuing the Message of the Communist Manifesto’ looking for any recognition of these points and found this wanting. It refers to the means to overcome causes of learning difficulties but then under ‘The Capitalist Social Revolution’ quote ‘ … The position in the labor market also frees them from subordination to the extended family, tribe or local community’.

    I understand that there are certainly families that people would need to be freed from – but this misses the point of the important work that is taking place within families that contributes to this critical link between the individual the the social.

    Martha Fineman and Eva Kittay developed ‘Dependency Theory’ which explains the derivative dependency of the primary caregiver within families.

    It is possible to find lectures by Fineman on youtube where she further develops her thinking on vulnerability, one of these was given only last year.

    Would be interested in your thoughts in this regard, cheers, Joan


    • Thanks for your thoughts Joan. They demand more, perhaps, than I can give at the mo but this can do for starters at least.

      The risk we run here, be that me who goes into bat for the evolving autonomous individual, or those who see significant problems with this development is getting sucked into abstractions and basically staying there. That being said, here goes.

      It’s now 500 years since Luther asserted that the relationship one has with God is personal, not requiring the mediation of a higher church authority. Whatever one’s take on this, Luther was able to propose this because the individual cat was already out of the bag, influenced by medieval norms and beliefs to be sure, but out of the bag nonetheless. Since then the real, actual individual has not been idle and abstract depictions and theorisings were not far behind. Locke and Smith (among others) grappled with what ‘natural man’ was and we can hardly be surprised when they came up with property owning individuals free from any state or state like interference. No such figure has ever existed of course, no matter how much figures like Locke and Smith believed he – they were talking ‘he’ – had. This was an idealized depiction of bourgeois man projected back to the dawn of human existence, a neat development of theory designed to address contemporary need. Had he existed Mrs Natural would have been scurrying around behind the scenes doing all the shit work and looking after the kids.

      Of course this idealization found a real home in America, as it was first and then the US after the Revolution. The Puritan aspect of the English revolution may have suffered defeat at home but more fertile soil was found across the Atlantic. The impact of the myth of the autonomous, atomized individual, by which I mean its continued servicing of the needs of the initially youthful and now aged and declining bourgeoisie, has been very strong, necessarily distorting individualism and autonomy along the way and promoting that distortion as natural characterization of human nature.

      While not from the same political/philosophical orientation, “Fineman’s “vulnerable subject” sets out to make corrections and corrections certainly are needed. What concerns me though is that “vulnerability” can be reduced to a frozen antithesis just as easily as its much better known opposite. That humans – individuals, collectives and the whole box ‘n dice can be vulnerable to things is not in dispute. Infant/child attachment, for example, as any parent would know, is predicated on it and along with this a range of normal neurological developments leading to what we would regard as healthy growth. And one would need to have one’s head in the sand – or stuck up a dark and smelly orifice – to not be aware of the active dangers many peoples and communities face right now from both natural and human made.

      But our/their vulnerability is not fixed. It is something we push against, seek to overcome and have a history of overcoming. The subject in the ”vulnerable subject” yearns for growth and where this is frustrated or denied, in particular by human agents, resistance and rebellion are not far away. As the song recommends “Don’t be so polite girls, don’t be so polite; show a little fight girls, show a little fight…” Of course make demands of government and subject governance of all types of criticism (and as heated as necessary). But we have reached a stage in our social and individual development when the lead in this – more than just providing the ‘grunt’ – must be taken by the “vulnerable subjects” themselves. I may be doing Fineman an injustice – her criticism of the myth and its impact and her pointing to actual vulnerabilities is justified and she makes this aspect of her argument well – but I cannot escape the feeling that her “vulnerable subject” is transformed into an object (albeit a deserving one) that should be done to, done for, on behalf of…by a government freed of the myth.

      What I’m looking for is some sign of a bolshie attitude in her “vulnerable subject”, a bit of Cpl Jones’ (Dad’s Army) “They don’t like it up ’em sir, they don’t like it up ’em.” The vulnerable subject is then transformed into an active agent who engages in the overcoming of vulnerabilities, be these external to the subject or internal to him or her.


  5. Hi, I’m thinking you’ve misunderstand who I am talking about when I refer to vulnerability – it’s not women – it’s infants and children, the infirm aged, the disabled (who needs help), those confined to bed through illness. At least over the course of the last centuries women have been relegated responsibility for care of those who are most definitely vulnerable. The most bolshie baby or toddler can’t possibly be spoken about in terms of independence or autonomy.


    • Thanks Joan and sorry for my tardiness, I’m O/S and wifi is infrequent. This reply will also be inadequate as the airport beckons.
      My comments about vulnerability where not meant as being confined to women although it is correct to say that in the vulnerability stakes women generally have drawn shorter straws than men and your comments concerning the care industry confirm this.
      You are correct in saying that I missed your main thrust as referring to the vulnerabilities that accompany early childhood and the infirm, be they related to disability or the final stages of life. I’m in two minds about this because whether one’s independence and autonomy are not yet formed or on the wane they are goals worth striving for or maintaining as much as circumstances allow.
      I’d like to pick a bone with you about our bolshie baby (what a great alliteration) or toddler however. This is the problem with abstractions because quite plainly babes and toddlers are not independent and autonomous – we’re both parents of 20 somethings and we know this. In both babies and toddlers we actively encourage the development and emergence of a self and we would normally expect to see the still loosely formed and emergent self by about the age of three. It is upon this foundation that the capacity to be independent and autonomous grows – usually with active parental/familial support. It is also upon this foundation that our teaching of empathy and the connection of a seperate self to other will bear fruit. Empathy too is developmental and we would normally expect it to kick in from about the age of four. But these are things we begin to teach/encourage pretty much from the word go although during infancy – for very good developmental and emotional reasons – the focus is on attachment. Hegel wrote somewhere that that which is coming into being is not yet (or words to that effect) so our bolshie baby and our bolshie toddlers are seeds and seedlings that we nurture – to be bolshie, to develop the ability to be strong and to think for themselves. I guess what I’m saying is that the relationship between independence and vulnerability is dynamic.
      I think the same principle applies to the infirm (this could be us Joan in 20 or so years) where we can predict that our level of independence and autonomy will be compromised and our need for family or relational or community support increased. But I think our yearning for maintaining as much autonomy as possible at this stage of life or during periods of unavoidable dependency needs to be recognised and respected.
      This isn’t finished, but I have to go. I’ll try to top up in a few days but the coming month is going to be random.


  6. Sorry TomG, I only just got back for a second read.

    Even more impressed this time and will certainly have to read again repeatedly

    At present I can only offer cheers rather than the real encouragement of actual engagement, but I do very much look forward to you keeping going!

    Meanwhile I just wanted to pass on this link to works by Ellen Dissanayake as possibly relevant to your work:

    (Of general interest re much earlier than “pre-modern” society)

    BTW 1. the full quote from “St Max” included with the glossary item on “Individualism” may shed some light on the difference between posing the issue as thesis/antithesis (terms foised on Marx) and his actual dialectics of abstract universality, particularity and concrete universality (which includes concrete individuality).

    2. I am still hoping for clarification of what order earlier articles here should be read in.

    This tag link does not make it clear to me where to start:

    3. Re Dissanyake. The period she is discussing refers to the beginnings of symbolic behaviour (art, ornamentation, music), which must be closely related to development of language with social labour enabling the emergence of both collectivism and more individualized and more “human” consciousness.

    This wikipedia article indicates these behaviours emerged together relatively suddenly 40 to 50,000 years ago. (A “sudden” ten millenia compared with more than 3 million years from the earliest hominid tool use, 1.5 million years since fire, 200 millenia of anatomically modern humans including cooking and clothes. Not so sudden compared with the last 5 millenia of cultural development subsequent to primitive communist hunter gatherer society since slavery, civilization, writing and “history” let alone the few centuries since “pre-modern” medievalism.)

    I gather there is still no consensus on whether this sudden development was biological or cultural (r)evolution. Although Dissanyake speaks in terms of biology I would have thought that any biological evolution would itself be based on group selection of hominid and later human hunter gatherer bands with a dramatic acceleration of group selection by the advantages for survival that bands with more elements of behavioural modernity would have in competition (and combat) for resources in the same environmental niche, with bands that had acquired less such behaviour. The gene pools would live or die as a bands with much greater selection pressure than individual lineages. Biological changes in brain organization (which did not require corresponding changes in skull anatomy and therefore not be visible to current anthropology) would not necessarily precede the cultural selection. It would be hard for backward bands to survive if they did not take up the more advanced cultural behaviours of other bands with which they were competing, capturing, being captured by and exogenously interbreeding.with.


  7. PS Engels on “The Mark” may also have some relevance:

    See also:

    It should remind us in rejecting the reactionary whines against modernity from the pseudoleft to also reject:

    “…enlightened prejudice that since the dark Middle Ages a steady progress to better things must surely have taken place–this prevents him from seeing not only the antagonistic character of real progress, but also the individual retrogressions.”

    PPS the direct link to glossary on “Indivualism and Collectivism” with quote from St Max that does NOT pose them as thesis and antithesis is:


  8. Thanks for the above Arthur. I’m pretty rushed at the mo – I’m borrowing one of your lines here – and will be unable to chase the stuff up and then respond until later in the month.


  9. “in consciousness, the word is what – in Feuerbach’s words – is absolutely impossible for one person but possible for two”
    – Vygotsky. Thinking in Speech, quoted by Roth, p. 105

    I think sometimes / often we make distinctions between Self and Other that arise from an unconscious mind/body/environment separation that we need to rethink. If we are a non dualist thinking body who select our selves from existing social relations then many of the dichotomies referred to in the article and discussion become meaningless. We float in a social environment, like a fish floats in water. Perhaps we notice the water more than the fish does but are still sometimes deluded about our autonomy. Our individuality, eg. rebellious protest words, arise from the necessities created by that extended whole: individuals embedded and inseparable from that whole. Over time society changes and drags along the individual participants with it. The social relations are always primary and define what it is to be human.

    These ideas arise not from me, the individual, but from my reading of “The Mathematics of Mathematics: Thinking with the Late, Spinozist Vygotsky” by Wolff-Michael Roth. Ch1 is a free read.

    – Bill Kerr


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s