Frida Kahlo and Vladimir Mayakovsky
Attacks on the left by the right will frequently use a scare tactic that poses an opposition between individualism and socialism. Individualism, it is said, is threatened by socialism. It is implied in this threat that without individualism there can be no individuality. The claim is that if collectivism is embraced, individuals will be subsumed into masses and be unable to pursue any individual ends. It is also claimed that collectivism dissolves individual identity in the process. Historical communism will provide examples wherein particular socialist programs ate their own and destroyed their luminaries.
Individualism is a doctrine that celebrates the survival and self propulsion of an individual without the interference or assistance of a larger group. The right celebrates the idea of the lone individual following pursuits that fulfill himself. In the view of the right, the process of slipping social bonds is an act that enables individuals to attain an individual identity and perhaps even fame. A liberal view will also warn against crushing individuals into uniformity and conformity and will harbor fear of collectivist values for similar reasons.
The problem is complex and requires teasing out.
First of all, the doctrine of individualism is not an independent concept in the ideology and practice of the right. The ideology of the right holds two dependent views of human beings. Individualism is not for everyone. Individualism is in the rear-view mirror of the oppressing individual. It is a rationalization and not an ideal. He may see himself as an individual, but he holds his own individuality in higher regard than the individuality of others, particularly not of others belonging to another social class-- a social class that in other times might have been openly referred to as "the masses." Individualism rationalizes the view of the other as an object and an instrument. This other is an object to exploit. Individualism is the glorification of the grammatical subject over the object. It takes this effect of language literally. Women, workers, soldiers, people of other colors or lands--these are the objects, obstacles, and instruments of the individualist's world.
Individualism is the inversion of the Kantian view of the moral imperative: that people should be treated as ends in themselves, not as means merely. Individualism is a view of the world and others as means exclusively-- to mine, extract, and bulldoze to aggrandize the self. That's the kind of individual that individualism builds. It is an illusion. The individual exploiter cannot develop a self this way. No amount of status objects will construct the longed-for self. Prestige, glamor and fear are effects that might accompany power, but the person has achieved nothing worthy of respect and admiration.
They say they have a fear of losing "freedom." But, what is feared is the loss of power, limitations on one's ability to dominate, dictate, and control.
Why does the ideology of individualism have such a powerful hold on working class Americans' psyche? For one, it's the repetition and propaganda in right wing media. Further, it's because it speaks to the material longing that the landless person feels for self-sufficiency. It seems to answer the need to de-proletarianize oneself, if you are forced to sell your labor in a buyer's market, there is an appealing side of this to the working class person. Some people may be able to save enough from work to buy a house, a small farm, or a small business and see this as an adequate path of boot-strapping, but for the majority, these are not options and exist as fantasies for what ought to be coupled with a blame-the-victim mentality. The ideology encourages people to blame themselves for these being out of reach even if they are kept out of reach by the mechanisms of institutions. Individualism-even this form, is not what builds individual identity.
The building of a self is what makes individual identity.
A self is self-created through a freely explored education. It requires the exercise and development of critical and creative capacities. A self has awareness of other selves--their worth, their capacities, their strivings, their future, their happiness. A self is interested in possibilities and communication. A self can engage in collective action without becoming annihilated into a sea of others of the "masses." For a self among selves, the notion of the "masses" is a counter-revolutionary one.
What is "collectivism" then? What is its relationship to revolution? Given the social structure in which there are "individuals" and "masses" wherein the "individuals" have the power and authority to act and their statements must be obeyed or else penalties apply, the only way the oppressed can resist, break apart, and replace this power is to act collectively. This happens through acts of discussion, agreements and the formation of powerful groups and communities. Only collective pressure can create the legitimacy for change by forming the majorities that are democratically persuasive and also only collective groups can apply the necessary pressure and operate systemic leverage to weaken the oppressive class and force their removal. Only collectives can form powerful decision-making bodies that can make informed decisions that affect the communities involved. This is one kind of revolutionary collectivism.
Another kind of collectivism is the creation of egalitarian organizations for purposes of creating the services, products, and institutions that an advancing culture needs. This is the embodiment of the post-hierarchical organization. The co-operative may have constituents with different skills and ideas. The Marxist image of the proletariat rising up to seize the factory can bring across the idea that the the factory will be run in the same way as before, only the proletarians will be able to pay themselves instead of the owner and bosses and also give over all the surplus to the state. This image leaves out the most attractive features of liberation which are to be able to change what the factory does, how it operates, who has which tasks, what it makes, etc. At the same time, if it is a profitable practice, then there should be enough for dues to the other newly created social institutions which are creating a better and more sustainable society. Collectivism sees the organization primarily as having a duty to others, to produce something useful, necessary, or even beautiful, thought-provoking etc... That others may pay for its fruits is a way of further generating benefits for everyone. An organization is not the extension of an individual who thought of it and makes all the decisions about it up to and including the boring jobs that can be divided up so that it functions as a human machine with moving parts driven by oppression.
So what happened? Didn't historical communism in so many ways force conformity and loss of individuality in the creation of a giant collective machine? Mayakovsky appears at the top of this page. He was an indubitable revolutionary with a self, crushed by the hammer of erroneous revolutionary ideals. He was upbraided for standing out, his very originality a condemnation of his proletariat credentials, as if self annihilation were the goal of liberation. The view of the people: the workers, the members of many cultures and languages as "the masses" is to adopt the illusion of the oppressor. The oppressor can only see his own kind close up and can only see the majority from afar. He is afraid of their gatherings in public squares and of their collective actions, of their general strikes, their votes, their literature. It is the oppressor who sees people as dehumanized and undifferentiated masses and who does his best to oppress them down into that description so that they cannot act of their own volition, but only as the agents of his will. The "masses" it should come as no surprise, do not view ourselves that way. No one is "the masses."
The illusion of individuals vs. masses is predicated on the necessity for a social structure made of commanders and actors. That was true of the bourgeois vs. proletariat and it was true again for the bolsheviks organizing military revolutionary action by the whole society. To continue with the Russian Revolution for our example, there are several phases to a successful revolution, maybe it's even unending, but in any case, a revolution against a regime that is monarchical, feudal, pre-modern, non-industrialized, and largely illiterate is formidable and it contained a phase of great violence and upheaval. The counter-revolution launched its attacks and not just from the inside, but also from the outside. The whole of the people was expected to function as an army in coordination in order to throw off the constant assaults. No one was "special" except the notable commanders. Attention was to be focused on them and their commands. Sacrifice was required in tremendously high numbers. Armies require a lot of food- more than could reasonably be grown especially if peasants left their lands to fight. Civilian populations and anyone too young, old, or unable to fight were left to die. Even those who grew the food were not allowed to keep enough to keep themselves alive--let alone to put by enough seed for the next year's crops. Was it any comfort during those years to believe that the turmoil, violence, and suffering was supposed to be for the ultimate benefit of the people?
In order to hold at bay the counter-revolutionary forces of the western imperialist countries, it was deemed necessary to scale up a massive military industrial complex. In order to keep the population more efficiently supplied with food and other items, a massive industrialization operation went into force. To keep raw materials and supplies going into these machines, it was deemed necessary to invade and subjugate Eastern Europe and Central Asia. It's beginning to look like capitalism and imperialism--but for the "people" right? Conditioning as commanders and masses continued to be a useful social structure for militarism, industrialization, and expansion. Defense and competition being mandatory, how was socialism to flourish? How much life energy went out of the people into these projects? Fortunately, other seeds were sown as well, such as broad literacy and women's rights.
Mayakovsky tried to embody the end of the revolution. He wanted to be the kind of individual revolution could produce once freedom, education, and creativity were within the reach of all. The revolution as military action rejected his kind of individual. A struggle for existence and liberation required a hardy, un-squeamish, unflinching, and unrefined kind of person (though Maykovsky's poems would hardly be considered "refined" or precious.) War, even class war, seems to require a descent into barbarism and in a further betrayal, the barbarism continues in the perpetuating the barbarism-capitalism, it was supposed to circumvent in addition to the overthrow of monarchy and feudalism.
The revolution we can imagine seems to die as soon as we have to fight for it. The act of fighting and violence changes individuals (true ones, selves) and societies. It is hoped that even if the revolution must be gained by force, that this force can be effected non-violently for the most part so that we don't have to sacrifice our humanity in order to gain it. If the oppressors can be weakened and moved off, the people can flourish as individuals-as selves in freedom and acts of analysis and creation in solitude and in collectivities. The revolution would be realized when everyone has a self as well as material security and well-being.