Collectivist, Individualist and Communist Selves Part II

From George Herbert Mead to Lev Vygotsky

Summary of Part I

In Part I of my article, we began by distinguishing the social self from two forms of identity that are often confused with it: temperament and personality. The focus of part one is to show how very social (or even socialist) was the work of social psychologist George Herbert Mead. We discussed in detail the thirteen building blocks necessary for creating the social self. This self must construct both an objective and subjective identity. From here even by the age of eight the child must learn to navigate routine, mild-problematic and crisis situations. They do that by learning how to role-take and role-make. Furthermore,learning to play in improvised and designed ways are rehearsals for role-making and role-taking. Lastly, all selves must always face a tension between weighing individual and social self-interest in making decisions. Creating internal I-Me dialogues is the manner in which these selves decide what their course of action should be.

However, we must include a larger, cross-cultural and historical perspective. Mead was writing about a social self as it existed in a capitalist society during his time. In Part II we explore what kind of self an individual has in a collectivist society. An even bigger challenge is that both capitalist and individualist selves emerge in relatively stable conditions. What happens to the self in unstable times when social movements are afoot? As we shall see, the requirements of building a self in the heat of social movements are also necessary conditions for developing a world-historical, communist self of the future.

Collectivist or Individualist Selves

Horizontal and vertical collectivists: vertical individualists

Just as different social formations have very different technologies, economies, political and sacred systems, these different kinds of societies also have very different concepts of the self. We shall see that broadly speaking, individuals in egalitarian hunter-gather and horticultural societies had “horizontal collectivist selves” while people in Bronze Age agricultural states had “vertical collectivist selves”. (Rank societies such as simple chiefdoms are a transition between the two).  It is only in the late Iron Age (600 BCE) that we see the first signs of a “vertical individualist self”.

With the rise of capitalism in Europe roughly 500 years ago, the vertical individualist self takes on a life of its own. Calling selves “horizontal” refers to the communal anti-hierarchical nature of the way the self interacts with others. Calling the self “vertical” refers to the stratified way in which a self relates to other selves. While a collectivist can be either horizontal or vertical, an individualist can only be vertical. There has never been a self that is a horizontal individualist. Please see my article Three Strikes You’re Out for Western Psychotherapy: The Dark History and its Shortcomings With Collectivists for more details about the differences between collectivists and individualists.

The division of social selves into individualists and collectivists has a long history in the West and has recently been researched by a number of psychologists (Triandis (1995, Segall, Dasen, Berry and Poortinga, 1990, Smith and Bond-Harris, 1994). While individualism and collectivism exist to some degree in all societies, for purposes of our work we are interested in how this difference is connected to the building blocks of the self together with the forces of socialization. We are also interested in how these cross-cultural psychological studies apply to the concept of the self of developed by Mead.

Defining collectivist and individualist selves

What exactly do we mean by “collectivism” and “individualism?” We will begin with how each identity orients itself in relation to society and nature. Individualism is a set of beliefs and practices which assumes that: a) the individual is separate from kin-groups and the biophysical environment and identifies more easily with strangers; b) the inner world is more a source of identity than objective actions; and c) the individual is more important than the group.  Collectivism is a set of beliefs or practices which assume the reverse: a) the individual is interdependent with kin groups and nature; b) the outer world of objective actions matters more than does inner experience; and c) the kin group is more important than individual.

 The technological, political and economic structure of society creates forces for socializing the individual to work and reproduce in these societies. These forces of socialization will teach individuals the building blocks of the self in either a collectivist or individualist way that will create and sustain the dominant social relations.

Forces of Socialization Under Collectivism and Individualism

Collectivists are conservative. The forces of socialization, the extended family, the clan or the neighbors are more or less giving the same congruent message. “Things have always been this way. Do what you are told and make your ancestors proud”.

In an industrial capitalist society, it is likely that the messages of family and mass media will conflict; the messages of friends may conform to neither while the state and the churches could be at odds based on the separation of church and state. Identity crisis questions like “who am I?” and “what is my place in society” are unique to societies that promote individualism. All individuals in all societies do not ask this question because it would not even be raised unless a variety of answers were possible. For a variety of answers to be possible there would need to be in place socialization forces that give different answers to these questions

In industrial capitalist societies there is a vast division of labor. In part this means there will be a variety of possibilities of what the individual imagines they can be. Further, even if all of the socializing forces are individualist, they are competing over the individualist’s choices of identity – soldier, rock musician or family person – they still may be causing confusion because they are all suggesting that any one of these identities is possible. As Berger (1967) points out, it is because a person sees a conflicting number of choices that they come to see: a) relativity of all social institution; b) the individual is prior to the group; and c) the constraints on an individual are not as great as the possibilities.

Collectivists and the thirteen building blocks

The first four of Meads building blocks are more or less the same for all societies. However, developing a conscience is somewhat different. If we look at Freud’s system, because collectivists have stronger group ties, the conscience of collectivist will be weighted more on the side of the superego. Egoic, and id structures would be more repressed than in industrial capitalist societies. As we shall see shortly, collectivists will be better at learning routine situations, be more at home with role taking, prefer designed play and be more at home with the Me side of the I-me dialogue. What is a significant difference between collectivist and individualist that I will comment on here is learning to think abstractly. For Mead the importance of thinking abstractly has to do with the power that comes from being able to think about the past and the future. Both individualists and collectivists can do this.

However, the uniqueness of a merchant society in Greece taught the middle and upper middle classes in the West to use what Piaget called early formal operational thinking. This can be seen in the work of Plato, Aristotle, Democritus and others. Later, thanks to the revolution in scientific methodology in the 17th century, scientists, merchants and other professionals learned to think in a formal operational manner. Collectivists were content with what Piaget called concrete operational or even a sophisticated form of pre-operational thinking. See the work of CR Hallpike, Foundations of Primitive Thought.

Collectivists and the objective and subjective selves

Collectivists will be especially socialized to cultivate an objective self over a subjective self. Collectivists are concerned with what is expected in their extended families, clans or village neighbors. If they live in agricultural civilizations, they will be preoccupied with what the castes above them will expect. Collectivists will not support interest in their unique biography or their personal aspirations. Such preoccupations are considered selfish and inconsequential.

Collectivists in routine, mild-problematic and crisis situations

As most of us know, the individualist self in industrial capitalist society is expected to manage mild-problematic and crisis situations as a way of life. But historically in collectivist societies the pace of life is slower and the amount of change a collective self is expected to deal with is small. Collectivists do not like change and want to keep things as much the same as they’ve perceived they have always been. Collectivist selves are usually not prepared to deal with mild-problematic or crisis situations.

Collectivists in role-taking and role-making

Anyone in a routine situation will get used to the position of role-taking. In other words, the role is already intact, has existed for years and the individual simply steps into it. Role-making is what people are forced to do when they face a mild-problematic or crisis situation. They have to make up a role on the spot to stabilize the mild-problematic or crisis situation. Collectivists have less experience with this.

Collectivist identification of status groups

At least in agricultural civilizations, there are class and even caste relations. It is very important for collectivists to know what is expected of them and what to expect from others.  People often live and die in the same status group. Staying within your caste has high moral value. You can’t afford to make mistakes. Among individualist selves in industrial capitalist societies, especially in Yankeedom, people imagine they can shift social classes. They do not pay as much attention to what is expected of them in a status group. In fact, in Yankeedom, upward mobility is a virtue and imagining you can mix the values of different social classes is thought of as normal or even virtuous.

How collectivists play: designed and improvised play

As Mead points out, how humans play is not some frivolous cultural pastime. It is dead serious. First you learn “let’s pretend” games and then you graduate to what Mead calls “the game”. As I’ve said before, designed play is practice for learning routine situations. Improvised play comes in handy as rehearsals for mild-problematic and crisis situations. For collectivists, let’s pretend games will not be taken as seriously as organized games because organized games are preparation for role taking in routine situations. Let’s pretend games will seem less important because the number of times collectivists are in non-routine situations which might require improvisation is infrequent.

Collectivists in I-Me dialogues

As might be expected by now, the internal battle of weighing individual against social self-interest is lopsided on the side of social self-interest. Collectivists will constantly be asking themselves what others expect of me in situation after situation. Individual self-interest, or what Mead calls the “I part” is weakly developed because the group is more important than the individual. For individualist selves, the internal battle is more robust because it is expected that individuals are entitled to sometimes put their self-interest before the group.

Towards a Communist Self

The Self and Social Movements

When we discussed the individual self in social evolution we talked about the individual essentially reactingto changes in social structures by developing collectivist or individualist selves and all that follows from it.But this presents social change as essentially involuntary. However, groups of people occasionally do try to collectively change social evolution in a particular direction. The seeds of collective action, specifically socialist are rooted in many of the skills the self is expected to build when participating in a social movement.

Social institutions produce both order and conflict and this tension is expressed in the types of skills people are socialized to learn as selves. As we saw earlier in Part I, when children are socialized to play games they are taught to follow rules and roles and to exercise their creativity within social constraints. These skills translate into non-play circumstances in everyday life. Learning how to master routine situations means sizing up a circumstance, identifying its spatial and temporal setting and the power bases and norms for conforming or obeying. At the same time these individuals have to be able to negotiate mild problematic and crisis situations which happen frequently in social movements. They must  be capable of re-organizing spatial and temporal setting and restructuring power bases.

My point is that the skills required to participate in social movements are rooted in the skills learned in play and non-play circumstances in everyday life. Without this understanding the study of social movements, how people come to be involved and how they sustain their involvement, will be mystified. We will have social movements without concrete individuals.

The self in social movements as rooted in world history

The self in social movements would gradually learn to see themselves as world-historical individuals acting within a larger system that is composed of multiple societies and cultures.  What exactly does this mean?  Earlier we said that part of developing a generalized other was to learn to understand that the world is bigger than the individual in time – beyond their individual biography – and in space – beyond their domestic household. To become a world-historical individual means to push these boundaries beyond where most people normally go. Individuals would develop world-historical selves if they came to comprehend the fact that their own identity and cognition is as rooted in civilizational and global institutions and the arena of action occurs on the stage of world historical evolution. The internet and the electronic revolution is intensifying both human problems and human capacity to solve them because of the global scale in which they occur. It involves knowledge about the roles and occupations that are historically specific to the 21st century. It involves a sense that in world history and long-term social change some roles and occupations emerge and others wither away.

A world-historical self understands that its location in the core, periphery or semi-periphery of the global capitalist world-system both constrains and invites ways of living that may not be possible in other parts of the system. A world-historical individual does not privatize their individual biography as their own and dissociate him or herself from world history. Rather the biographical self, ones’ goals and plans and actions are part of world history in-the-making. Using the comparative world-systems perspective, a world-historical individual would comprehend contemporary social movements both in space – around the world – and in time – in the historical evolution of the world-system in which they are a part.

Ways in Which the Communist Self is Different From the Collectivist Self

It is not far-fetched to imagine that the communist self would be a lot like the collectivist self because both prioritize the group over individuals. There are some superficial similarities between the horizontal selves of hunter-gatherers and what would be the horizonal selves in communist society. However, the vertical collectivist selves of the great agricultural civilizations were caste or class stratified. This meant that the relationship between the vertical collectivist peasants and the upper classes would be deferential and obedient. This would not be the case with the communist self.

Furthermore, despite what might seem as diametrically opposed interests between communists and capitalists, communists also came out of the Enlightenment. This means that communists are for creating abundance based on a championing of science against religion and creating a high standard of living for everyone through technological innovation. These are not projects the vertical collectivists share. Finally, communists value change over stability. We see change taking the shape of a dialectical spiral. Vertical collectivists understand change has been happening in cycles with the past being more valued than the future. There are more differences, but I think you get my point.

Where Might a Communist Self Arise and Over How Long a Time Period?

It is perfectly reasonable to expect that my picture of a communist self would be grounded in particular nation-states within a particular window of history. It would make sense to name places like China, Cuba or Venezuela as the most likely places where a communist self would begin to take hold. However, I am not knowledgeable enough of those countries to make intelligent speculation about what a communist self, using the work George Herbert Mead, would look like. Unfortunately, the country I know best, Yankeedom, is one of the last places we can imagine a socialist country flourishing, at least in this century. Nevertheless, I will try making some reasonable guesses of what a communist self might look in Yankeedom in 100 years, or three generations.

Communist Self: Agents of Socialization

As a reminder, the forces of socialization include the family, religion, sports, the state (nationalism), education, peer group, mass media and the internet. As far as the family goes, they would be under much less pressure because under communism day-care centers would help to raise children and parents would come to understand that day-care workers know more than parents about how to raise children because they deal with many kinds of children. The same is true in the field of education. Children would be taught using Vygotsky’s method of cooperative learning. In school the subjects in school would resume teaching the arts, music and philosophy. A liberal arts education would be valued because it produces the most well-rounded citizens.

In a communist society, religious fundamentalism would wither because the desperation, self-deprecation and longing for an afterlife would no longer be in evidence. Yet the number of atheists would continue to grow because the scientific world view would have more prevalence. However, people’s ideas of the spirit-world would be more earthly and less transcendental because life on earth will come closer to heaven. I further predict the continued rise and flourishing of Neopaganism, especially among women since people’s appreciation of the natural and cosmic order will be heightened. Professional sports will still be of interest mostly among men for Darwinian reasons. There would not be a hysterical mania coming from people who are desperate for a large scale community because they have no local community. Nationalism will go the way of religious fundamentalism. The blind loyalty of nationalism will be replaced by a patriotism that will defend its land but will not be imperialist as so many western countries are today.

Peer groups will be grounded in local community groups and teenagers and in vocational training groups working with adults rather than separated from adult life as they are now. Mass media will still be a draw, but the violence, sex and horror will be integrated with the story line rather a non-stop bombardment. I have not studied the internet enough to say anything about trends that might support a communist self.

Communist Self: Thirteen Building Blocks

Having a conscience would not involve appeals to abstract morality or religious duty. The conscience would be a secular appeal to tap into for how to best apply oneself to the world-historical situation of one’s country. Knowledge of status entitlements would be based on achieved skills rather than fossilized entitlements based on social class. In reasoning powers, communist individuals would achieve a new level of abstraction beyond Piaget’s formal operation, called dialectical operations (Riegel and Basseches). As for the I-Me dialogues members of a communist society would develop a new voice, a “we dialogue” (see below). 

Communist Objective and Subjective Selves

Mead made much of developing an objective self, what he called a generalized other. However, his generalized other was insensitive to the constraints of what social class, race and gender loyalties might have in limiting the range of their identity. Secondly, his generalized other lacked a historical identity. Under a communist society, for the first time, Mead’s generalized other might become real since class, race and gender identities would be far less in operation. As for the subjective self, it would become less private, as the individual biographies would have a life-mission which would be identified by psychologists and vocational counselors as being far more powerful. Unlike bourgeois psychologists, now communist psychologists would link world-historical identity to life-mission.

Communist Navigating Routine, Mild Problematic and Crisis Situations

The communist self would certainly be more capable than the collectivist self in dealing with mild-problematic and crisis situations than the collectivist self. However, crisis situations would be far less of an issue because society would be less riddled by class, race and gender conflicts. In addition, routine situations would be malleable and less subject to reification and alienation because communist selves have confidence that they can change situations as necessary.

Communist Role-taking and Role-making

It follows that in communist societies role-making would be far less of an ordeal than for collectivist selves because in communist societies people are relatively free to shape roles as necessary. At the same time, role-taking would not be a mindless duty since it is most often treated among collectivist selves This is because the communist self is part of the process of taking roles in the first place. On the other hand, role-taking would be met with joy rather than with animosity and resentment as they often are among individualists in capitalist society. For communist selves, playing a role is not a mask, as a necessary evil that represses the “real self” as in the humanist psychology of capitalist society. It is a role that is gladly taken on because it could be taken on and challenged when necessary.

Communist Identification of Status Groups

As mentioned earlier, in a society with minimum class differentiation, knowing the status of others would be based on status-achievement (mostly from work skills) rather than ascribed status. The communist self would be more sensitive to what the individual has to offer or based on a reputation rather than any kind of deference.

Communist Improvised and Designed Play

Typically among individualists in capitalist society, improvised play is supported at an early age more so that among collectivists. However, by adulthood, at least in working class households, pretend play is discouraged or thought to be frivolous or unimportant. In Yankeedom, this can be seen throughout grammar school, high school and college.  Art and music classes, the place where improvised play is part of the creative process, is cut. Capitalists ask us, “ what does this have to do with your work, once out of school?”. Something similar happens with designed play.

Games are fine through childhood and even adolescence (Dungeons and Dragons) are supported. But by adulthood, in capitalist society, participatory designed play in minimum. The best they have to offer is the spectacle of designed play in professional sports, where spectators live in a vicarious world where they can criticize the players in how they play their roles. For the communist self, both improvised and designed play are both integrated into the work life of individuals.

Communist I-Me Dialogues

In Mead’s I-Me dialogues, the Me is the internalized expectations of what significant others want from us. Mead says that with maturity the internalized me stretches beyond significant others to communities. From the view of the communist self this generalized other, lacks body, depth and breadth of participating in a communist society. At its best, communist self would replace the I-Me dialogue “I-We” dialogue in which the building of communist society is both the product and coproducer of the world historical individual.


In Part I of my article, I introduced the work of process social psychologist George Herbert Mead. I introduced the importance of learning the difference between how to take and make roles in order to deal with three kinds of situations, routine, mild-problematic and crisis. In order learn these skills the child must practice, using pretend play and organized games. But before this, over the course of the first eight years of life the child must cultivate an objective and a subjective self. It is imperative that the child make the objective and subjective selves create an internal dialogue (I vs Me) in order to navigate the unending tension between individual and social self-interest. Behind all situations, roles, play, internal dialogues are the cultivation of thirteen building blocks.

Mead’s construction of the self was set in the industrial capitalist society of the early 20th century. Since then, cross-cultural psychologist have discovered that roughly 70-80 percent of the world are collectivist. No one to my knowledge has applied Mead’s work to the collectivist self. In part II I attempt to do this. Lastly, over the past hundred years Russia, China, Cuba and Venezuela among other countries have developed communist selves. After I distinguish the difference between collectivist and communist selves I again apply Mead’s work to the emergence of a communist self. I am aware of no other books or articles that have attempted to do this, so I have attempted my own synthesis.

About Bruce Lerro

Bruce Lerro has taught for 25 years as an adjunct college professor of psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to his five books: "From Earth-Spirits to Sky-Gods: the Socio-ecological Origins of Monotheism, Individualism and Hyper-Abstract Reasoning", "Power in Eden: The Emergence of Gender Hierarchies in the Ancient World" (co-authored with Christopher Chase-Dunn), "Social Change: Globalization from the Stone Age to the Present", "Lucifer's Labyrinth: Individualism, Hyper-Abstract Thinking and the Process of Becoming Civilized", and "The Magickal Enchantment of Materialism: Why Marxists Need Neopaganism". He is also a representational artist specializing in pen-and-ink drawings. Bruce is a libertarian communist and lives in Olympia, WA.

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