On the Origins of “Individualism”

Objectivists get used to hearing something like this every once in a while, so it didn’t surprise me when I read the following in an article by a conservative colleague:

The number of true individualists is still relatively small…. If you buy or sell things, consume popular culture, or have anyone in your life you say “I love you” to, you’re not a true individualist.

Answering this is Objectivism 101 and by now you presumably have the proper retort already forming in the back of your mind. Individualism is not the same thing as being a hermit. Living for yourself doesn’t mean living by yourself. Heck, this might even be a variant of the No True Scotsman fallacy.

But in thinking about this, it struck me that the answer goes even deeper. A hermit or someone stranded on a desert island, someone with no connection to other people, would not need the concept of individualism. There would be nothing to contrast it to. He would do things by himself and for himself because there are no other options. The concept of individualism is necessary and meaningful only for someone living in a society, someone who is buying and selling, someone with romantic and family relationships, someone who is engaged with the culture around him (though frankly, “consuming popular culture” is pretty optional).

It is only someone living in a society who faces the temptation or the pressure (depending on his psychology) to subordinate his own judgment to the standards of others, or to sacrifice his own interests for others. Or to put the issue in more positive terms, it is only when people live together that they have to find a way to pursue their interests in harmony, recognizing the freedom of the individual to come to his own conclusions and choose his own goals.

So in thinking about this, I wondered where the terms “individualist” and “individualism” came from. I had the sense that they are modern terms. You don’t find them in Classical philosophy, or even in the great thinkers of the Renaissance and Enlightenment. America’s Founding Fathers were among history’s greatest advocates of individual rights, yet they never described themselves as “individualists.” So my guess was that “individualism” as a term arose only in response to that other modern invention, “collectivism.” Collectivist ideas have a long history—see Plato’s Republic—but collectivism did not exist as a named, explicit philosophy until relatively recently.

A quick look at the etymology of “individualism” confirms this. Like “capitalism,” it is a term coined by its enemies—the very same enemies, as a matter of fact. Individualism was first used by early socialists, specifically the “Owenites,” followers of a utopian socialist by the name of Robert Owen, who made a fortune in the textile industry in Britain, then blew it funding a utopian community in New Harmony, Indiana. We tend to think of the 20th century as the world’s great experiment with socialism, but throughout the 19th Century, Britain and the United States were dotted with voluntary experiments in socialism, usually based on a grand plan devised by some charismatic theorist. What they mostly have in common is that they collapse within a few years, usually when their wealthy patron—who made his money in the burgeoning industrial economy of capitalism—either burns through his fortune or dies. That’s the tragedy of 20th-century socialism: it was a totally unnecessary experiment, since the basic concept had already failed for more than a century in repeated small-scale trials.

At any rate, it was at the time of these early 19th-century experiment, in the late 1820s and 1830s (different sources give different dates) that the word “socialism” first comes into common use. (The variant “communism” comes a little later, in the 1840s.) At that same time, “individualism” is first used, most sources say in 1827, as a pejorative term to describe what the socialists were against. The Wikipedia entry notes that one of the disillusioned Owenites (his name is now quite obscure) would go on to embrace private property and begin using “individualism” in a positive sense, setting the trend for how the term would come to be used by many, more famous champions later on.

So there, in the very origins of the word, is a refutation of the crude misconception about individualism. The very concept of individualism could not have been formed outside of society. It arose, not from a desire to avoid relationships with other people, but from the need to describe those relationship in a way that recognizes the value of the individual and his need for freedom, as opposed to a new and growing philosophy that sought to subordinate the individual to society and the state.

The fact that the term for such a valuable concept was coined by its enemies, as was also true of “capitalism,” is ironic. But that’s another lesson we can draw from this history: a reminder of how we will find the important concepts we need to defend freedom and civilization—even if we have to wrest those concepts away from the very people who originated them.

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