Individualism is a key tenant of classical liberalism and libertarianism. But there is a fine line between true individualism, what some call personalism, and false individualism. As Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn noted in several of his works, the word ‘person’ is derived from the Etruscan phersú, the mask actors wore which represented their nontransferable roles on stage. Thus, the person is unique and is not replaceable. Interestingly enough, individu is a term of abuse in French.
Personalism includes all aspects of the individual – his philosophy, faith, culture, relationships. What makes up Man is more than simple isolation from all external factors. Comradeship, friendship, love, brotherhood, family – these are all external, immaterial values that nonetheless define the very inner nature of all of us.
False individualism, on the other hand, was the philosophy first propagated by some classical liberals that stated that the Individual was “everywhere in chains.” Man must be uprooted from all institutions and associations. Man must be viewed in the abstract. This view had devastating consequences. It lead utilitarian liberals such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, at first defenders of free markets and liberty, to gradually accept ever larger aggrandizement of the State. This false view of individualism leads to libertinism, hedonism, and nihilism. For if the path to liberty is the uprooting of all culture and civilization, what will be left is nothing but the individual’s unfettered passions and desires (Fais ce que tu veux).
Ironically enough, this false view of individualism also leads to collectivism. The sociologist Robert Nisbet has written extensively on the effects that atomistic individualism has had upon Man in the last three centuries. Being that this drive to individualism has stripped all roots of community out of our society, leftist socialist movements have rushed in to fill the void. The psychological choice for many in the 20th Century has been to either stand naked and isolated before the State, or to join the herd for some sense of collective security and comfort – the herd being most prominently Communism, Fascism, National Socialism, or Social Democracy.
What is needed to correct this trend is a proper understanding of personalism-individualism. The radical utilitarians and egoist anarchists were wrong to view Man as isolated actors, and in their regard that the only value in life was an individual’s self pleasure. It is true that the individual is antecedent to all intermediary associations, but it is likewise true that man without intermediary associations is little more than a beast. We need both Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke; both Ayn Rand and Alexis de Tocqueville.