The communitarian perspective developed and became central and became central to political theory during the 1980s with the publication of Michael Sandel’s Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1982). In this book, Sandel develops one of the most forceful critiques of Rawlsian liberalism, the statement of which is found in John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1971). Other political thinkers who have contributed to the development of communitarianism, although in different ways are Alisdair Maclntyre, Michael Walzer, Charles Taylor and Will Kymlicka.
It is worthy of mention that communitarian political thinkers are deeply inspired by the ideas of Aristotle, Hegel and Rousseau. With the development of communitarianism, the theory of liberal individualism has found it’s most distinctive and rigorous challenge and critique. In fact, this critique has allowed for the development of what is now known as the ‘liberal-communitarian debate’ -a debate which has continued in one way or the other to inform a great deal of the study of political theory.
The debate between individualism and communitarianism centers around the question: is political reality shaped by the decisions and action of individuals, defined as persons standing at a distance (or separate) from community bonds or is it shaped by social beings whose identity and behavior is defined by the social groups / communities to which they belong? Should the just state be constructed from the standpoint of how to foster the well being of individuals or should it be constructed from the standpoint of how to realize an ideal community? In other word, is the basic unit of political analysis the individual or community?
In responding to this question, liberals and communitarians hold different and apparently conflicting position. While the liberal individualists, as mentioned in the brief introduction given above, sees political reality to be shaped by the decisions and actions of free and rights-bearing individuals, communitarians emphasize the relationship between the person and the community and see this relationship to be the bedrock of political theory and practice. The liberal-communitarian debate is, therefore, essentially a debate between those who favor individual rights and autonomy and those who emphasize the bonds of community in political life.
Communitarians are first and foremost concerned with community. Two or more people may be understood to constitute a community when they share a common conception of the good and see this good as partly constitutive of their identity or selves. Such a “constitutive community” may be a close friendship, family relationship, neighborhood or even a comprehensive political community. Communitarians insist that each of us as individuals develop our identity, talents and pursuits in life mainly in and through the context of a community. We are by nature social and cultural beings. Since the community determines and shapes individual nature, political life must start with a concern for the community, and not the individual. In other words, the locus of philosophical reflection on the ideal and just state ought to be the community and not the individual.
Communitarians criticize liberal political theory mainly for being mistakenly and irreparably individualistic. The liberal conceptions of the self and the relationship between the individual and the state are, they argue, inherently flawed, unduly limited as well as misrepresentative of the true nature of society. In the communitarian view, it is enough to think in terms of a two-level relationship with the individual at one level and the state at the other. Groups and communities occupy an important intermediate position between the individual and the state and should be included among the kinds of rights and duty bearing units whose interrelationships are explored.
By prioritizing the rights and freedom of individuals and by neglecting the importance and contribution of community membership to social and political life, liberal individualism ignores the extent to which it is the community/culture in which people live that shape that they are and the values they have.