My friend Bob Clark, a retired Bonneville Power Administration economist, left an interesting comment under last week’s column. He said there are two elemental ideologies: individualism and collectivism. Then Bob made a very astute historical observation: “Individualism is said to be a more recent phenomenon than collectivism.”
When we describe political thought as being “collectivist,” most of us think of socialism, which emerged after the American Revolution’s instantiation of a classically liberal political order, what Bob calls individualism. Six years later a peasant revolt that stormed the French Bastille became laced with the collectivist ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, giving birth to modern-day socialism and its first bloodbath. Napolean restored order out of the French Revolution’s chaos and then spread its Jacobin ideology across the continent, planting seeds of collectivism that remain to this day.
Yet individualism is younger than collectivism. The classically conservative world that America’s founding fathers spurned was collectivist too. But the collectivism of the old world and the new radical revolutionaries of the left are qualitatively different.
Both Henry VIII and V.I. Lenin possessed absolute power that smothered individual rights under unlimited state power, but the purpose of that political power was different. England’s second Tudor monarch exercised his sovereignty to regulate culture, enforcing conformity to the Anglican faith and protecting the legacy social hierarchy of the Medieval world against Early Modern social mobility. In contrast, the Soviet Union’s first chairman of what became the Communist Party pursued something much different: the equality of condition.
Both were collectivist, but the use of state power to enforce a traditional social order and the use of state power to reengineer the social order with radical equality are fundamentally different directions to take a political culture. Thus they are two different ideologies.
There are three ideologies: classical conservatism, classical liberalism, and socialism. Every person’s political view is then a mixture of these three primary governing philosophies.
Eric Shierman lives in Salem and is also the author of We were winning when I was there.