Scholars have widely divergent views regarding the under-standing and evaluation of the Marxist theory of collectivism. Some theoreticians consider its heart to be that individuals and personal interests must be subordinated to the interests of the collectivity. Others confuse Marxist collectivism with centralized autocracy, a throttlehold upon the individual character, and even Fascism. Both fail to grasp the characteristics of the collectivism initiated by Marx. In order to clear up the misunderstandings and answer the objections, it is necessary to examine the characteristics of the Marxist theory of collectivism in connection with Marx’s evaluations of primary col-lectivism and individualism.


            According to Marx, in the process of human history the primary social values, socially adjustable systems, and moral norms are collectivist. In the first stage of human existence, facing the great power of nature, all individuals were weak and insignificant. They were determined by the real conditions of existence and the human instinct for survival. People had to adopt a way of life based on dependence one upon the other, and to gain collective power by forming groups and communities so as to defend themselves and obtain from nature the material means of livelihood. As a result, the consideration of the collectivity as the highest moral orientation and its collective interests as the highest early became the basic principle of human beings. "Community is an entity," says Marx in describing the relationship between individuals and collectivity in the conditions of that primary collectivism, "Individuals are no more than appendages or natural components of the entity."1 In this kind of collectivity, it was impossible for individuals to be independent; they had to be integrated into collectivities and to gain certain attributes from that entity so as to have means and rights to existence.

            Viewed from modern values, his kind of collectivity engulfs individuals and throttles individual characters. Marx, however, was not bogged down in unhistorical and abstract discussions. He considered as the placenta of human civilization the primary collectivity in which the powers of individuals had not developed and individual characters had not germinated. The primary collectivity made it possible for the human being to succeed as a species and for self-consciousness and the capabilities of individuals to develop and accumulate, so that the human being could evolve toward civilization.



            These historical reasons for its coming into being do not protect the primary and crude nature of that collectivity from criticism. It had, after all, the character of excluding individuality which is incompatible with the further development of human civilization. Marx, therefore, adopts a critical attitude toward it, and regarded the break up of the primary form of collectivity as a bridge leading to the full development of human society and individuals, and, finally, to freedom. Therefore, when the collectivity based on the immediate dependence of one upon others disintegrated due to the division of labor and the development of a commodity economy, people became independent individual monads; they were highly separated individuals. Marx considers this not only a matter of historical progress, but also a significant form in which human individuals matured. The resultant forms of highly separated human individuals based on the division of labor and commodity production brought about intense competition in the whole society and led society to a number of revolutionary changes.

            First, by means of competition among separated individuals, humans broke the "natural blood relationship" and the "local con-nections based on relationships of ruling and obeying"; society gained the vigor to cast off the yoke of tradition and to move towards modern-ization.

            Second, as the natural blood relationship and the immediate dependence of one upon others were broken, an objective situation arose in which "as separated individuals, people have to depend on themselves."2 That is to say, the competitive relationship replaced the dependent relationship, so that individuals had to depend on their own energy and capabilities in order to establish a defensible position in the competition. This situation was an important moment for stimulating the formation of the abilities of individuals, guiding the formation of their character and making them into rich and open individuals.

            Third, with the aid of intense competition among separated indi-viduals, human beings were able to develop for society increasingly perfect mechanisms for adjustment and a relatively modernized value system. Since society needed an effective control system to deal with competition, it had to remake its originally simple mechanism and create various systems and values for adjusting economic, political and ethical relations. This gave rise to freedom and human rights which protect the independence of individuals, the idea of equal rights which ensures that competition proceeds normally, the democratic system which adjusts relations among different interest groups, and other legal systems which insure the security, rights and property of people. Thus, society is enriched, matured and civilized both in its me-chanism and in its functioning.

            Finally, with the aid of intense competition among highly sepa-rated individuals, human beings achieve world level and historical existence. First, people separated themselves and intensified the competition by means of the division of a labor and commodity eco-nomy. As the development of the division of labor and commodity eco-nomy proceeded they not only continued to separate themselves, but also created wide-ranging and universal social relations. These brought about unprecedentedly strong combinations and dependencies among individuals. Especially when the division of labor and com-munication became world-wide, world historical meanings were attached to the existence of individuals and their life activities. That is to say, the separation between humans and the wide expansion of hu-man relations are two sides of the same process. With the aid of this process of universalization, people continuously eliminate their na-tional and regional limitations and become world-wide, historical exis-tences.

            Marx attaches high historical significance to the development of separation between human beings. This reflects his critical attitude to-ward autocratic collectivity and the primary collectivism adapted there-to, but Marx does not mean to take individualism as the final answer to the puzzle of history.

            As a socio-political philosophy individualism has a long history. According to some textual research, this term was created by Toc-que-ville, a French political scientist of the nineteenth century. Hobbes and Locke, however, manifested individualist thinking much earlier. This emphasizes the individuals’ freedom, self-domination and self-se-lection. It insists that the end is the individual per se, which has the highest value. Negatively, it opposes external restraints and various dominations imposed on individuals by authorities, especially by the state. In reality, its emergence reflects the demands of the develop-ment of capitalism, and mirrors even more the separated situation of human beings which results from the competition introduced by a com-modity economy. Thus, individualism is a theoretical expression of the individuals’ separated situation.

            Undoubtedly, this theory does not encourage people to seek personal interests regardless of common interests and of the concerns of others. If everyone were selfish and harmed others to benefit him-self, so-called "personal freedom" and "self-domination" would be-come impossible. Generally speaking, individualism encourages peo-ple to treat others equally and to respect others; it even advocates that individual interest should be subordinated to the interest of state when the two conflict. The interest of state is, as Hegel put it, the incarnation of the general interest, it is the highest good. Therefore, individual interests, family interests and the general interest, that is, the interest of civil society, must be subordinated to the interest of state when they conflict with the latter.3 But the ultimate aim of this approach remains to ensure the realization of the monadic individual; that is what individualism is.

            In the context of the process of history, individualism reflects the development of individual independence. But as history develops, it cannot extricate individuals from their worsening predicament, that is, the contradiction between the separation of individuals and the expan-sion of social relations.


            As described above, the separation of individuals and the ex-pansion of social relations are two sides of the same process; both are marks of social progress. But they are a pair of opposites, diametrically opposed to each other. Obviously a separated individual has no means to possess and control wide social relations, which are formed by cooperation between many people. Productive forces require com-binations of many people; the development of commerce, especially world commerce, makes the relations between supply and demand unpredictable and puts them beyond the reach of separated indivi-duals. Thus, for separated individuals, broad social relations present themselves in the form of things marked by contingency, or alienation.

            Here one faces not only the menace of failure in competition, but also the emotional solitude and void caused by one’s separated situa-tion. History shows that the only way to eliminate the situation of alie-nation is to recombine people in keeping with the demands of socia-lization. Marx points out:

The transformation, through the division of labor, of personal powers (relations) into material powers, cannot be dispelled by dismissing the general idea, but only by the individual . . . abolishing the division of labor. This is not possible without the community. Only within the com-munity has each individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all direc-tions; hence personal freedom becomes possible only within the com-munity.4

            The return to collectivity and the reconstruction of collectivism as the basic way of overcoming the contradiction between the sepa-ration of individuals and the expansion of social relations is Marx’s way of going beyond individualism. But what are the nature and charac-teristics of the collectivity which Marx wanted to reconstruct? This is the key to understanding Marxist theory of collectivism; it is the point which is unclear for those who misunderstand Marxist theory of col-lectivism.

Illusory Collectivity

            Generally speaking, as a form of social combination, collectivity is as old as are human beings. People cannot live in solitude even if the development of society has brought them to a situation of separation. On the contrary, the economic and political lives of people are much more social, and people’s connections with various economic, political and other social groups are now much more varied. However, the formation of such groups does not mean that the interests of people are integrated, for it serves only as a necessary means. Although the collectivity in a certain sense represents some common interests on the part of its members, particular and general interests can remain highly separated one from the other. Thus collectivity is a necessary form, but it is independent of individuals who must subordinate them-selves to it.

            Moreover, since the society is divided into classes, collectivity usually has the brand of class, and becomes a means for one class to fight another. In this case, the collectivity is not only an illusion, but also a new shackle for the oppressed class. Marx names this kind of collectivity ‘illusory’, ‘fictitious’ or ‘false’. The illusiveness of this col-lectivity lies in the fact that individuals do not dominate the collectivity, but instead are dominated thereby. This independence originates from the separation of individuals, including, of course, the division of their interests. Obviously, it is not the kind of collectivity Marx wants to re-construct.

Marx’s Notion of Real Collectivity

            What kind of collectivity then does Marx want to reconstruct? To distinguish it from illusory collectivity, Marx names it "real community". "The illusory community in which individuals have up till now combined always took on an independent existence in relation to them. . . . In real community the individuals obtain their freedom in and through their association."5

            Since this "real community is to be realized in the future, it is natural that one cannot describe its characteristics in too much detail." We should not look for an exhaustive blueprint, but Marx does des-cribe its nature and essential characteristics. In explaining that to which the term "real community" refers, Marx puts it as "the community of revolutionary proletarians who take their conditions of existence and those of all members of society under their control".6 In so doing, Marx excludes the bourgeois community from this category. "In this community," continues Marx, "individuals participate as individuals for it is the association of individuals (assuming the advanced stage of modern productive forces, of course) which puts the conditions of free development and movement under their control".7 The characteristics of Marx’s autocritical community can be summarized as follows:

            First, as it arises form the need to solve the contradiction bet-ween the expansion of social relations and the separation of indivi-duals, it must be reconstructed on the grounds of highly developed productive forces, the formation of wide social relations and a com-prehensive development of people’s personalities and systems of abilities.

            Second, it must eliminate the social conditions producing "illusory community" that is, the separation of people in the society. In order to achieve this objective it first must eliminate private ownership, for the separation of people has its root in the division of interests which originate from private ownership of the means of production Therefore, the sublation of private property, and thereby the integra-tion of the interests of the members of society, is another characteristic of the "real community".

            Third, the nature of this community is proletarian and revolu-tionary, but its most essential characteristic is the control of one’s own "conditions of existence and those of all the members of society", which means "putting the conditions of the free development and movement of individuals under their control." Thus, in this community the position of human beings is adequately highlighted; they mani-pulate things, but not the converse.

            Fourth, this community does not negate the individual; on the contrary, it is a community in which "individuals participate as indivi-duals", that is to say, it is above all as a member of the community that a human being must be "individual" above all. Here the word "indivi-dual" has two meanings: 1) The individual does not take part in the community "as a member of a class", but as a socialized human individual, and therefore can be free of various limitations caused by class interest and separation from one another. 2) He is not only a human being in the flesh, or a biological individual, but also one who has a developed system of abilities and a highly enlightened self-consciousness, that is, one who has an independent personality and thus can stand up for himself in social life. This determinant means that a "real community" can accommodate individuals and provide ade-quate social conditions for their self-realization, but that it cannot come into being in a society in which persons are not able to act as `indivi-duals’.

            Fifth, the goal of this community is neither "god" nor things. Its basic value is personal freedom, which in Marx’s vocabulary is es-sentially distinct from that of the bourgeoisie. Freedom in a bourgeois perspective, regardless of whether it concerns property, profession, speech, religion or whatever else, does not go beyond the individualist category of the so-called "independent personality" or "independence of human being". In Marx’s perspective, freedom surpasses this bour-geois comprehension, for he sees freedom as the manipulation and domination of the social situation and relations in which one lives. Any discussion of Marxist collectivism which strays from this basic value of "real community" deviates from Marx and blots out the characteristics of notion of collectivism.

            Our outline of the Marxist theory of collectivism may not be com-plete, but it is clear enough that Marx’s theory has nothing to do with primary or autocratic collectivism: individualism in some people’s favor is not to be compared with the positive significance included in Marxist collectivism. Thus any confusion of Marx’s collectivism with cen-tralized autocracy, a throttlehold on individual characters and even Fascism must be rejected. Bourgeois thinkers focus their attention on protecting the independence of individuals; proceeding from this they set boundaries between individuals and society, as well as between different individuals by any possible means, so as to designate some spheres for individuals where society and other people cannot inter-fere. This effort, obviously, has a progressive significance as com-pared with primary collectivism which negates the value of individuals. For Marx, however, while protecting the individual’s independence is no doubt historical progress, this independence is equal to the indi-viduals’ freedom.

            The liberation brought about by individuals’ independence is limited to extricating people from immediate dependence on others, but in doing so, it also brings about broad social relations, and pro-motes a transition from national history to world history. As these social relations are created by the joint activities of people they cannot be dominated by separated individuals, but instead dominate indivi-duals. Meanwhile, people endure the emotional solitude brought about by separation between them, thereby demonstrating that per-sonal independence results in the loss of personality. Marx focuses precisely on how to overcome this situation. That is to say, what Marx-ist collectivism tries to solve is the problem which bourgeois thinkers have no means of solving. This justifies the conclusion that only Marxist collectivism can save human personality and lead the way to personal liberation.

            Regarding the questions whether or not the principles that individuals are subordinate to the collectivity, and personal interests to those of collectivities, are the gist of the Marxist theory of collectivism, these principles regulate a society in which subjects act with different interests. This standard must be revered so as to prevent the society from disintegrating. But this situation of subjects with different in-terests is just what Marxist theory of collectivism intends to sublate.



            1. The Collected Works of Marx and Engels (Chinese edition), vol. 46, part 1, p. 474.

            2. Ibid., p. 497.

            3. Cf. The Collected Works f Marx and Engels, vol. 1.

            4. The Collected Works of Marx and Engels, vol. 3.

            5. Ibid.

            6. Ibid.

            7. Ibid.