Individualism versus Organization

Individualism versus Organization.

As a result of the development of the individualistic ideal, it is not surprising to find a number of advanced people whose cardinal virtue is that they do not join anything; and the propagandist who is less a partizan than an idealist—a truthseeker, willing to revise his principles continually by the light of accumulated experience—is compelled to pause and weigh the advantages of organization and the cooperative methods he recommends. The disadvantages have been glaringly obvious to many minds, and the contemplation of them has given rise to the present reaction. The domination of the weak by the strong, or by those ambitious of power; the modification of individual differences in conformity with a stereotyped constitution; the tendency to mental inertia, the society becoming a prop instead of a stimulus to self-reliance; the possibility of prolonged, half-hearted adherence, from force of habit or difficulty of secession—these, and such as these, are serious obstacles to the growth of individuality. On the other hand, we are beset by the importunities of people possessed by club mania, with an exaggerated estimate of the strength of union regardless of compatibility, who feel that the efforts of two or three, gathered together, are necessarily a blessing to the world.

Hence, with a lively sense of the pros and cons, we press for an answer to the question, Why should one join anything? Why should not one concentrate one’s efforts on the enhancement of the brilliancy of one’s own individual light, in order to become a lantern of strength to men, separate and distinct, and irrespective of other orbs greater or less? The idea appeals to me. With Whitman, I shout, Yourself, yourself, yourself, for ever and ever—but he does not stop there; neither do I. When I come to consider how one may best enhance this brilliancy, I find that sympathy, cooperation, reciprocity, fellowship, solidarity, are most potent aids, that the individual self and the social self are one and indivisible, and that he who would be completely rounded must disown neither. In organized association the larger self may find satisfaction and contribute to the growth of the lesser self. It has been maintained that self-development and self-devotion are very nearly the same thing, since we can only develop ourselves by devoting ourselves to objective ends; while the only valuable kind of self-denial is that for the sake of objective interests, by devotion to which we are developed. Thus, it may be inferred that individualism and organization are not inherently antagonistic; by deeper analysis the reconciliation is established, and they take their places side by side, with no interposing versus as above.

In estimating the important results of association, its value emotionally and in the evolution of sympathy must not be ignored. The mere intellectual all-in-all gives little and receives little. Furthermore, the unrestricted interchange of thought is a powerful aid to the attainment of definiteness and a clearer conception of practical possibilities. The more extensive the stores of experience contributing to the elucidation of life’s problems the better. Definiteness is a valuable preliminary to strong, concerted action when the opportune moment arrives. Few persons deny the need of reform, but with endless diversity of method the process is painfully slow. Free discussion tends to unanimity in essentials.

The prejudice against any system of organized effort is chiefly due to confusion of thought in regard to the actual source of danger. It is not that organization is in [7] itself inimical to individual development; it is only so when it takes the compulsory form. The voluntary principle in organization is the safeguard of individual liberty.

Some people guard their freedom so jealously that they love only themselves. Their social development has not kept pace with their personal development. To walk free and own no superior is a brave ideal, but not to be misapplied into the repudiation of equals. The basic difficulty which has been lost sight of in recent periods of reaction (first, in the reaction, from the extreme of self-seeking and greed, and next, in the reaction from the extreme of majority control and State regulation) is the maintenance of a just balance between egoism and altruism, between the centripetal and centrifugal, between isolation and fusion, between identity and totality. We see things one at a time, and thus the two-sidedness of the laws of being eludes us.

Intense individualism, expressing itself in the passionate yearning for freedom, is not adventitious in origin. External freedom symbolizes the freedom of the soul. The soul of man defies coercion and brooks no artificial limits to the experience which its evolution demands. Of equally profound import is the social passion so powerfully manifesting itself today in the most varied forms. It is based on the essential oneness of all life, which makes brotherhood not a mere sentiment but an inherent fact, pointing to ultimate harmony.

Contributing both to individual and collective ends, social effort becomes, somewhat as love is, its own justification. It is an expressible delight to throb with currents of attempt, heedless of results. But let it not be forgotten that the importance to the evolution of the unit of noninterference in personal concerns is a primary lesson in sociology. The cause of freedom suffers if any individual is restrained against his will, on any pretext.

The remedy for organization in which the old coercive spirit still lingers is to be found in association so infused with the free spirit that opinions of assent and dissent are treated with equal respect, in which individual variation and unconventionality in word and act meet with frank, unreserved welcome.—From Whitman’s Ideal Democracy, by Helena Born.