Tao of Individualism and Socialism
The Sins of Socialism and Individualism
Years ago I chanced to glance through a dictionary of Catholicism published in the 1920s. It defined the sin of individualism as excessive emphasis upon and concern with individual rights, needs, desires, and goals, to the extreme of neglecting responsibilities to contribute to the common good. The Catholic dictionary defined the sin of socialism as excessive emphasis on responsibilities to contribute to the common good to the extreme of neglecting, hindering, or repressing individual rights. (I am paraphrasing in my own words from memory. The current Catechism of the Catholic Church says substantially the same, except that instead of the label "sin" it uses the phrases "the church has rejected" and "refused to accept".) I have been pondering the definitions of individualism and socialism as sins ever since I read them.
This is not to imply that whatever is an official stance of the Catholic Church must be true. I am not making an argument from authority. In this case, I think that the Catholic Church's position is endorsed by practical experience and reason.
Mixed and in Flux
The word socialism is commonly used within a family of meanings. A socialist country is one in which the government--local, regional, or national--is the primary and predominant owner and manager of banks and industries and regulates individually owned and managed enterprises, all for the theoretical purpose of ensuring that individuals put their responsibilities to contribute to the common good foremost. I conceptualize this as emphasizing the first part and de-emphasizing the second part of the motto of the Three Musketeers, "One for all and all for one."
The opposite is a country in which individuals, separately or in mutually agreeable relationships, predominantly own and manage most enterprises, large and small, major and minor, and government ownership or regulation of enterprises is minimal. This is a country with a free market economy, meaning that businesses are privately owned and relatively free of government regulation. The second part of the Three Musketeers' motto is emphasized and the first part is de-emphasized.
All modern national economies are mixed economies, with free market, socialist, and gift (look up 'gift economy') aspects, each nation putting a different degree of emphasis on each aspect, with those degrees of emphasis being in continual flux as classes and factions ally or conflict in response to changing conditions.
Varieties of Socialism
There are numerous varieties of socialism. Marx and Engels in THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO describe several varieties, such as feudal socialism, bourgeois socialism, petite bourgeois socialism, proletariat socialism, and Utopian socialism. Other philosophers have written of democratic socialism, Christian socialism, totalitarian socialism, anarcho socialism, and more.
The 1920s Catholic dictionary's use of the word 'socialism' seems to encompass all of those meanings and more. Perhaps 'groupism' would express it better. The principles seem to apply to any situations in which a set of individuals have interests in common that might conflict with the interests of an individual. (I think of the scene in the play DIARY OF ANNE FRANK in which the hungry man eats the bread that was supposed to be shared with the others in hiding, including children.) Such sets fit within each other like matryoshka dolls--household within neighborhood within town within county within state (province) within nation, for instance.
The following discussion uses 'socialism' in this broad 'groupism' sense.
Dilemma of Socialism and Individualism
If the sin of individualism is to neglect or dodge responsibilities to contribute to the common good, then socialism must be good. If to hinder or repress the rights of individuals by an excessive emphasis on the common good is the sin of socialism, then individualism must be good. So individualism is good or a sin and socialism is good or a sin, depending upon their dynamic interrelationship.
So the question should I be an individualist opposing socialism or a socialist opposing individualism is moot. It's not a question of either or; it's a question of balance and proportion, of not going to extremes for one and against the other. It's, all for one AND one for all.
Call It What You Will
To my way of thinking, sin is acting contrary to God's wise and loving advice, communicated through inspired thoughts, saying, and writings, on how to achieve a joyful, meaningful, fulfilling life and death.
Another way to say it is that either individualism or socialism, if taken to the extreme of neglecting, hindering, or harming what the other cherishes and protects, is a flaw or error contrary to the wisdom of the ages, to sound reasoning, to one's responsibilities, and to loving kindness.
It logically follows that neither individualism nor socialism is a sin, error, or flaw and that both are good if and when not taken to that extreme and kept in balance. When walking a tightrope, is it better to lean to the left or the right?
Inseparable as in the Taoist Symbol
The relationship of individualism and socialism to each other is, I think, best seen in the Taoism yin and yang symbol. The conflict between individualism and socialism is solved or resolved not by the victory of one over the other but rather by recognition of their inseparability.
Is the relationship between individualism and socialism or groupism ever static, with no decision or action by you or me needed or appropriate to avoid sinful extremes? No. What decisions and actions by you or me regarding this balance would be appropriate at this time? Let your (and my) good sense and conscience be your (and my) guides. The specifics are arguable.
I myself would like to see in the USA more stringent and better enforced regulations of banks and corporations in favor of worker rights, public safety, consumer rights, and minimizing the greenhouse effect; public ownership of water and waterworks, and a lot more alternatives to capitalist enterprises (more producer and consumer cooperatives, more benefit corporations, more nonprofits, more publicly owned enterprises at all levels of government, and a government-run single-payer health insurance system, for starters).
The Third Aspect of an Economy: Freely Giving
Consider a parent who changes a baby's diaper, a Good Samaritan who helps a neighbor in need, a Boy Scout who does a good turn anonymously, a family who volunteer one afternoon per month at a community food bank, a friends of the public library book sale volunteer, and parents showing their children how to tend a garden. These are all examples of useful work done freely for the joy of giving from the heart with love rather than for pay or profit or as an obligation. Such gift work is an integral part of everyday life and of a balanced mixed economy.