Humans are a social species, and as such we try to fit into groups and join groups. At the same time, we are very individualistic. We are thus at our most human when we are simultaneously social and individualistic. When we are either radical in our individualism or collectivist, though, we are at our worst, most inhuman. In the first case, we are anti-social, even sociopathic; in the second case, the individual can be sacrificed for the "common good," which inevitably leads to any number of horrors.
Social groups are heterogeneous; collectivist groups are homogeneous. This is what distinguishes the two. This doesn't mean that there aren't common behaviors within a social group -- without common behaviors, there would be no cohesion, no cooperation, no coordination. But there can be common behaviors without full conformity. There may even be recognition of a need for changes in behavior in a social group. Collectives do not see a need for changes. Indeed, changes are a threat to the collective. So, too, is any sort of distinct behavior by any of the members of the group, for that indicates variance from the thinking of the group, which can lead to the worst sin for a collectivist: apostacy.
In religion, one becomes an apostate when one rejects the religion into which one was born and accepts another religion. We see this same attitude in other forms of collectivism. The traitor to one's class is a class apostate. The traitor to one's race is a race apostate. The traitor to one's gender is a gender apostate. The traitor to one's political party is a political apostate. The traitor to one's nation is a nation apostate. In the latter case, rejecting one's citizenship would be a kind of nation apostate, too. What connects these things is the group into which one is born is rejected for another group. From the perspective of collectivist morality, there is perhaps no greater sin.
Milan Kundera, in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, talks about collectives and apostacy in his metaphor of the ring. Rings and circularity are images of eternity – specifically, in this case, including oneself in a circle of people, and finding belonging there, and feeling that sense of eternal belonging. It is in the ring where one’s individuality can dissolve into others, but this can, as one can imagine, have tragic consequences, both in creating, and in being expelled from, the ring. The ring, or circularity, can be seen in the story of Oedipus, as he finds himself within a ring, or circle, that started and ended in his mother’s womb. Indeed, it is when Oedipus learns of the facts of his birth that he gets expelled from the ring he was trapped in. To be expelled from a ring (and thus the eternal) is tragic.
There is tragedy in rings precisely because people wish to be in rings: “Dancing in a ring is magic; a ring dance speaks to us from the ancient depths of our memories” (88-9). But how does one enter into a ring dance? Kundera gives a list of ways one of his characters, Madame Raphael, attempted to enter into one of many:
at first in the Methodist church . . . , then in the Communist Party, then in the Trotskyist Party, then in a Trotskyist splinter party, then in the movement against abortion (a child has a right to life!), then in the movement to legalize abortion (a woman has a right to her body!), then she looked for it in Marxists, in psychoanalysts, in structuralists, looked for it in Lenin, in Zen Buddhism, in Mao Tse-tung, among the followers of yoga, in the school of the nouveau roman. (89)Finally, she finds it in two of her students, Gabrielle and Michelle. The students are her favorites, and, after the two students have given a presentation on Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, where the students are wearing cardboard horns,
The three women danced and laughed, the cardboard noses jiggled, and the class looked at them in mute horror. But by now the three dancing women were unaware of the others, they were concentrating entirely on themselves and on their sensual pleasure. Suddenly Madame Raphael stamped her foot harder and rose a few centimeters above the floor and then, with the next step, was no longer touching the ground. She pulled her two companions after her, and in a moment all three were revolving above the floor and rising slowly in a spiral. When their hair touched the ceiling, it started little by little to open. They rose higher and higher through that opening, their cardboard noses were no longer visible, and now there were only three pairs of shoes passing through the gaping hole, but these too finally vanished, while from on high, the dumbfounded students heard the fading radiant laughter of three archangels. (104)Those outside the circle are horrified by what goes on within. The same would have been true of the audience’s reaction to watching the Oedipus plays on stage when they were first performed – as everyone at the time knew of the story separate from Sophocles’ particular presentation of it. And the circle itself, while being wonderful for those within, is also always exclusive. Those within the circle become unaware of those not in the circle – perhaps to the point of ignoring, or not even seeing, as too many Communist idealists did and do, the horrors around them.
Kundera himself admits “I too once danced in a ring” (91), as a Communist student. But “then one day I said something I should not have said, was expelled from the party, and had to leave the ring dance” (92). In other words, he became an apostate. And it is here, in his own personal story, where we learn of the tragedy of the ring dance:
That is when I understood the magical meaning of the circle. If you go away from a row, you can still come back into it. A row is an open formation. But a circle closes up, and if you go away from it, there is no way back. It is not by chance that the planets move in circles and that a rock coming loose from one of them goes inexorably away, carried off by centrifugal force. Like a meteorite broken off from a planet, I left the circle and have not yet stopped falling. Some people are granted their death as they are whirling around, and others are smashed at the end of their fall. And these others (I am one of them) always retain a kind of faint yearning for that lost ring dance, because we are all inhabitants of a universe where everything turns in circles. (92)Kundera feels this most strongly when he finds himself excluded by the French surrealist poet Éluard, who failed to try to save the Czech poet Kalandra, even after André Breton requested it of him, because he “was busy dancing in a gigantic ring between Paris, Moscow, Prague, Warsaw, Sophia, and Greece, between all the socialist countries and all the world’s Communist parties, and everywhere he recited his beautiful poems about joy and brotherhood” (93). But he would not try to save the life of another.
And why not? Because Kalandra was an apostate, no longer belonged in the ring, no longer deserved eternity, no longer was a member of the collective that made it all possible. The possibility and presence of apostates is the surest indication of the presence of collectivism. Be it race, gender, the party, the nation, one's class, the worst kind of person is an apostate. I suspect that members of one kind of collective are suspicious of those who have proven themselves to be apostates of other groups. Does the person who believes someone can be a class traitor believe someone married to another ethnic group or race can truly be trusted not to become a class traitor? I suspect that, even if there is open disagreement with racists, there is a deeper sympathy for their beliefs among other collectivists.
Thus the collectivist moral system in fact makes one act in ways that are immoral. Collectivist justice similarly leads to injustice. The radical individualist who disdains others is equally capable of being immoral and unjust. It is only those who are social individualists who are capable of the full range of moral and just behaviors. This is why it is paramount to understand which set of interhuman relationships one should support and understand humans as having for them to fully express themselves as moral, just human beings.