Community Is A Process Mary Parker Follett

Community is a Process by M.P. Follett Reproduced from Philosophical Review, Vol. XXVIII, 1919, pp. 576-88

“COMMUNITY is a process.”

The importance of this as the fundamental principle of sociology is impossible to overestimate. Physical science based on the study of function is today a study of process. The Freudian psychology, based on the study of the ‘wish,’ is preeminently a study of process and points towards new definitions of personality, purpose, will, freedom. If we study community as a process, we reach these new definitions.

For community is a creative process. It is creative because it is a process of integrating. The Freudian psychology, as interpreted and expanded by Holt(1) gives us a clear exposition of the process of integrating in the individual. It shows us that personality is produced through the integrating of ‘wishes,’ that is, courses of action which the organism sets itself to carry out. The essence of the Freudian psychology is that two courses of action are not mutually exclusive, that one does not ‘suppress’ the other. It shows plainly that to integrate is not to absorb, melt, fuse, or to reconcile in the so-called Hegelian sense. The creative power of the individual appears not when one ‘wish dominates others, but when all ‘wishes’ unite in a working whole.

We see this same process in studying the group. It is the essential life process. The most familiar example of integrating as the social process is when two or three people meet to decide on some course of action, and separate with a purpose, a will, which was not possessed by anyone when he came to the meeting but is the result of the interweaving of all. In this true social process there takes place neither absorption nor compromise. Many of the political pluralists believe that we cannot have unity without absorption. Naturally averse to absorption, they therefore abandon the idea of unity and hit upon compromise and balance as the law of association. But whoever thinks compromise and balance the secret of cooperation fails, insofar, to understand the social process, as he has failed to gather the fruits of recent psychological research. Our study of both individual and group psychology shows us the evolving individual. But when you advocate compromise, it means that you still see the individual as a ding-an-sich. If the self with its purpose and its will is even for the moment a finished product, then of course the only way to get a common will is through compromise. But the truth is that the self is always in flux weaving itself out of its relations.

Moreover, the Freudian psychology shows us that compromise is a form of suppression. And as the Freudians show us that a ‘suppressed’ impulse will be our undoing later, so we see again and again that what has been ‘suppressed’ in the compromises of politics or of labor disputes crops up anew to bring more disastrous results. I should like to apply the Freudian definition of the sane man to social groups. After having shown us that dissociation of the neural complex means dissociation of personality, it defines the sane man as one in whom personality is not split, as one who has no thwarted wishes, ‘suppressions,’ incorporated in him. Likewise the sane industrial group would be one in which there was no ‘suppression,’ in which neither workman nor employer had compromised. The sane nation would be one not based on log-rolling. The sane League of Nations would be one in which no nation had made ‘sacrifice’ of sovereignty, but where each gains by the fullest joining of sovereignty. Suppression, the evil of the Freudian psychology, is the evil of our present constitution of society – politically, industrially and internationally.

What then is the law of community? From biology, from psychology, from our observation of social groups, we see that community is that intermingling which evokes creative power. What is created? Personality, purpose, will, loyalty. In order to understand this we must study actual groups. For instance, it is often discussed whether community may be a person. A recent book on ethics gives the arguments for and against. There is only one way to find out. My idea of ethics is to lock three people into a room and listen at the keyhole. If that group can evolve a common will, then that group is a ‘real’ person. Let us stop talking about personality in ethics and sovereignty in political science and begin to study the group. Wherever you have a genuine common will, you have a ‘real’ person; and wherever you have a common will and ‘real’ personality, you have power, authority, sovereignty.

As the process of community creates personality and will, freedom appears. According to Holt the individual is free as far as he integrates impulses, ‘wishes.’ His activity will be constantly frustrated by that part of him which is ‘dissociated.’ An individual misses of freedom by exactly as much as he misses of unity.

The same process must take place with a group of two, say of two people who live together. They have to stand before the world with joint decisions. The process of making these decisions by the interpenetrating of thought, desire, etc., transfers the centre of consciousness from the single I to the group I. The resulting decision is that of the two-self. It is the same with a three-self, a several-self, perhaps a village-self. Our conception of liberty depends upon where we put the centre of consciousness.

Freedom, however, is supposed by many to be the last stronghold in the individual which has not yielded to contacts, that impregnable stronghold which will not yield to contacts. There people are in grave danger of some day entering their Holy of Holies and finding it empty. I must each moment find my freedom anew by making a whole whose dictates, because they are integratings to which I am contributing, represent my individuality at that moment. The law of modern psychology is, in a word, achieving. We are achieving our soul, our freedom.

When we see community as process, at that moment we recognize that freedom and law must appear together. I integrate opposing tendencies in my own nature and the result is freedom, power, law. To express the personality I am creating, to live the authority I am creating, is to be free. From biology, social psychology, all along the line, we learn one lesson: that man is rising into consciousness of self as freedom in the forms of law. Law is the entelechy of freedom. The forms of government, of industry, must express this psychological truth.

I have said that community creates, that it creates personality, power, freedom. It also creates purpose, continuously creates purpose. No more fatally disastrous conception has ever dominated us than the conception of static ends.

The Freudian psychology shows us purpose as part of the process. Through the integrating of motor reflexes and objective stimuli we get specific response or behavior, which is purpose. The object of reference in the environment is not the end of behavior, but a constituent of behavior. In the same way we see that when in the social group we have the integrating of thought and overt action, purpose is a constituent of the process. As in the Freudian psychology the purpose about to be carried out is already embodied in the motor attitude of the neuromuscular apparatus, so in the social process the purpose is a part of the integrating activity; it is not something outside, a prefigured object of contemplation toward which we are moving Nothing will so transform economics and politics, law and ethics, as this conception of purpose, for it carries with it a complete revaluation of the notion of means and ends. Many who are making reconstruction plans are thinking of static ends. But you can never catch a purpose. Put salt on the tail of the European purpose today in 1919 – if you can! Ends and means truly and literally make each other. A system built around a purpose is dead before it is born.(2)

The conception of community as process affects materially our idea of loyalty and choice. When we are told to choose our loyalties, as the idealist would have us choose the universal community and the political realist(3) the ‘nearest’ group, the same error is being made: the individual is put outside the process. According to many of the pluralists there is an individual who stands outside and looks at his groups and there is something peculiarly sacred about this individual.(4) This individual is a myth. The fallacy of pluralism is not its pluralism, but that it is based on a non-existent individual. But Royce, who was not a pluralist (!) would have had us ‘choose’ a cause to be loyal to. Life is knit more closely than that. It is the complexity of life which both monists and pluralists seem not to reckon with just here. For a man to decide between his tradeunion and the state is an impossibility, because by the time the decision comes to him it is already too late: I am part of the trade-union purpose; also the I that decides is a trade-union-I, in part. When the pluralist says that the individual is to choose between his group and his state, he has reduced the social process to a mechanical simplicity nowhere to be found in actual life. I am quite sure, for instance, that I should be capable in some instances of voting with my trade-union today in a trade-union meeting and with the state tomorrow in an election, even when the two votes might be opposed. Now what is the reason for this, if you are willing to assume that it is not moral depravity on my part? Are our groups wrong, is the relation of group to state wrong, is the relation of individual to group and of individual to state not yet synthesized, and if so what forms of government or what forms of association would tend to synthesize them? These questions cannot be answered without further study of the group.

To conclude this point of choice. Our loyalty is neither to imaginary wholes nor to chosen wholes, but is an integral part of that activity which is at the same time creating me. Moreover, choice implies that one course is ‘right’ and one ‘wrong.’ Freud has taken us beyond that simple rule of morals, that unproductive ethics, by teaching us integration.

We see the same mistake of putting the individual outside the process when it is said, by a pluralist: “The greatest contribution that a citizen can make to the state is certainly this, that he should allow his mind freely to exercise itself on its problems.” But it seems to me that the greatest contribution a citizen can make to the state is to learn creative thinking, that is, to learn how to join his thought with that of others so that the issue shall be productive. If each of us exhausts his responsibility by bringing his own little piece of pretty colored glass, that would make a mere kaleidoscope of community.

The individualist says, Be true to thyself. The profounder philosophers have always said, Know thyself, which carries the whole process a step further back: what is the self, what integrations have I made? I am willing to say that the individual is the final judge, but who is the individual? My individuality is where my centre of consciousness is. From that centre of consciousness, wherever it may be, our judgments will always issue, but the wider its circumference the truer will our judgments be. This is as important for ethics as for political science. When modern instinct Psychology tells us of the need of self-expression, the group psychologist at once asks, “What is the self I am to express?”

A man expands as his will expands. A man’s individuality stops where his power of collective willing stops. If he cannot will beyond his trade-union then we must write upon his tombstone, “This was a trade union man.” If he cannot will beyond his church, then he is a church man. The soul of the process is always the individual, but the individual forever escapes the form. The individual always escapes, but it is no wayward self who goes from this group to that and slips from all bonds to sit apart and judge us. But also he is no methodical magistrate bent on ‘order,’ ‘organization,’ ‘method,’ ‘hierarchy,’ who rises from a lower group to a higher and then to a higher and finally to a ‘highest.’ Life is not a pyramid. The individual always escapes. Yes, but because his sustenance is relation and he seeks forever new relations in the ceaseless interplay of the One and the Many by which both are constantly making each other.

The study of community as process does away with hierarchy, for it makes us dwell in the qualitative rather than in the quantitative. Much of the pluralist objection to the state is because of the words often applied to it by the monists: it is ‘superior,’ it is ‘supreme,’ it is ‘over and above.’ What we need is to discard this quantitative way of thinking and speaking.

Unifying activity is changing its quality every moment. La durée does not abandon itself, but rolls itself into the new durée endlessly, the qualities interpenetrating so that at every moment the whole is new. Thus unifying activity is changing its quality all the time by bringing other qualities into itself. We must develop the language which will express continuous qualitative change. Those who speak of hierarchy deal with the quantitative rather than the qualitative: they jump from the making to the thing that is made; they measure quantitatively the results of the unifying principle. But what on the other hand are the groups of the pluralists? They are the mere creatures of the unifying and they are helpless. When we understand the principle of unifying taught by the latest psychology and the oldest philosophy, we shall no longer fear the state or deify the state. The state, as state, is not “the supreme object of my allegiance.” The supreme object of my allegiance is never a thing, a ‘made.’ It is the very Process itself to which I give my loyalty and every activity of my life.

We see this error of hierarchy in ethics as well as in political philosophy. We hear there also much of conflicting loyalties, and while the pluralist is satisfied to let them fight or balance, others tell us, surely an equally repugnant idea, that we are to abandon the narrower for the wider loyalty, that we are to sacrifice the lesser for the larger duty. But the man who left his family to go to the Great War did not ‘abandon’ his allegiance to his family; he gathered himself and his family into the fullness of the answer he made to the new demand. The most ardent supporters of the League of Nations do not intend to abandon their nation when a difference arises between it and the League; they hope to find the true integration.

It is partly, I realize, a matter of emphasis. A noble passage in a recent book shows us Martin Luther standing on the Scala Santa facing away from the Roman church. I am sufficiently Bergsonian to see Martin Luther with all the richness and strength of the Roman Catholic church so incorporated into his being that he is capable of faith in Self-salvation. It was impossible for that durée to be lost, it rolled up and rolled up and created. The absolute impossibility of Martin Luther turning away from the Roman Catholic church is to me one of the splendid truths of life.

To sum up this point of hierarchy. There is no above and below. We cannot schematize men as space objects. The study of community as process will bring us, I believe, not to the over-individual mind, but to the inter-individual mind, an entirely different conception.

If the study of community as process might perhaps lead the monists to abandon the notion of hierarchy, it might give the pluralists another conception of unity. The pluralists are always speaking of the ‘reduction to unity.’ With many of the pluralists unity is synonymous with uniformity, identity, stagnation. This would be true of a static unity but never of the dynamic unity I am trying to indicate. The urge to unity is not a reduction, a simplification, it is the urge to embrace more and more, it is a reaching out, a seeking, it is the furthest possible conception of pluralism, it is pluralism spiritually not materially conceived. Not the ‘reduction’ to unity but the expansion towards unity is the social process. That is, the expanding process and the unifying process are the same. The same events have created a Czecho-Slav state and the League of Nations: they are not cause and effect, they are not mere concomitants, they are activities absolutely bound together as one process in the movement of world history. This is enormously significant. Our alternative is not between Royce’s finished Absolute and James’s strungalongness. We create the beyond and beyond and so to be sure produce strung-alongness which, however, exists only as part of the unifying process.

The pluralist loves the apple best when it rots. Then he sees the seeds all scattering and he says, “This is Life, this is Truth.” But many men see beyond the rotting apple, the scattering seeds, the fresh upspringings, the cross-fertilizations, to the new whole being created. If, on the other hand, some of the monists have tried to petrify the ‘finished’ fruit (as in the conception of the absolute state), life has never allowed them to do so.

To put the conception of unifying in the place of unity might help to bring monists and pluralists nearer together. Spontaneous unifying is the reality for humanity. But is not spontaneous unifying what the pluralists are already urging in their advocacy of groups? And is not spontaneous unifying the heart of a true monism? The activity of the pluralists’ entities, the activity which is their only being, should be harmonious adjustment to one another – which is monism a-making.

The practical importance of an understanding of the nature of community can only be indicated, but its influence on our attitude towards present political and industrial problems is very great. We come to see that the vital matter is not methods of representation, as the menders and patchers fondly hope, nor even the division of power, as many of the pluralists tend to think, but modes of association. When the political pluralists propose a more decentralizcd form of government, I am entirely in sympathy with them; but what they propose will surely fail unless we are considering at the same time the modes of association through which we are to act within these different pluralities. The political pluralists are very much concerned with the question whether we need one authority or many. I think our hardest job is not to change the seat of power but to get hold of some actual power. And when we are told that the trade-union should be directly represented in the state, we must remember that we have at present little reason to think that a man will be more able to contribute his will to the trade-union will than he has been able to contribute it to the national or civic will. Whoever has watched for the last few years the struggle of the younger men to break the Gompers machine will not think that party politics vary greatly in labor organizations and political organizations. It is only through an understanding of the nature of community that we shall see clearly the fallacies involved in the ‘consent of the governed’: a preexisting purpose (very insidious today in both industry and politics), a collective will as the will of the like-minded, and the denial of participation. One is sometimes a little struck by the Rip van Winklism of the pluralists: consent and balance, believed in a hundred or two years ago, we have now outgrown.

That labor problems should be studied in the light of our conception of community as process is of the utmost importance. We hear much at present of the application of instinct psychology to industry, but this I am sure is full of pitfalls unless we join to it a study of group psychology. Again, if the industrial manager is to get the fruits of scientific management he must understand the intricate workings of a group. If he is to have good reasons for his opinion as to whether a shop-committee should be composed of workmen alone or of workmen and management, he must study group psychology. It is impossible to work out sound schemes of compulsory compensation or compulsory insurance without understanding the group relations and group responsibility upon which these are based. And so on and so on. Tie study of community as process is absolutely necessary for the sound development of industry. And if we should have industrial democracy – but democracy is just this, productive interrelatings.

It seems to me that jurisprudence has gone ahead of ethics or political science or economics in an understanding of community, as for instance in the notion of reciprocal relation. It is significant that the fact that the master has a relation to servant as well as servant to master has now general recognition. Moreover, the philosophical jurists see that it is the same process which produces the corporate personality and the social individual who is fast becoming the unit of law. Our progressive judges seek always the law of the situation, which means in the language of this paper the discovery and formulation of modes of unifying. Upon this point turns all progress for jurisprudence.(5) Less bound by the crowd illusion than the rest of us, and therefore better understanding community as process, jurists are showing us law as endlessly selfcreating. I hope they will soon show us explicitly some of the errors involved in a teleological jurisprudence. It would be interesting to examine the decisions of judges to see how often in the case before them they accept a fossil purpose developed in bygone times, and how often, on the other hand, they see the purpose a-growing within the very situation.(6)

A criticism of pragmatism involved in the conception of community as process may be barely mentioned. The essence of pragmatism, as commonly understood, is testing. But whenever you ‘test’ you assume a static idea. With a living idea, however, truth may be created. If, for example, you try the pragmatic test and take ‘coincident interest,’ as between employer and employed, out to find its cash value, you will find it has very little. But coincident interest can be created through the process of interrelating: as, for instance, the employer often finds, after his patience has been exhausted in the joint committee, that the further education of the worker is as much to his own interest as to that of the worker. And so on. We are told by a realist that according to pragmatism truth is “a harmony between thought and things.” Is it not more ‘realistic’ to say that thought and things interpenetrate and that this is the creating activity? Rationalists ‘verify’ within the realm of reason. Pragmatists ‘test’ in the concrete world. The step beyond is to learn to create in both.(7)

To conclude: I wish to urge in this paper actual group association – the practice of community. I am thus in close sympathy with the pluralists, because I too believe in the ‘nearest’ group; but while most of the pluralists believe in the ‘nearest’ group because they think the personal element gets thinner and thinner the further away you get from it, I believe in it just because I do not think this, because I think it is the path to a fuller and richer personality. This idea of the pluralists is I believe infinitely prejudicial to our national life. For the practical harm such a conception can accomplish, witness many of the lectures last winter on the League of Nations. I know of a talk based on this idea given to an audience of working men with the consequence that that particular audience was left with very little interest in the League of Nations. The

lecturer with this mistaken sociology and mistaken ethics was trying to urge his audience to rise above personal interests to impersonal considerations. We shouldn’t, we don’t, we can’t. The larger interest must be made personal before it can be made real. That audience ought to have been told, and shown, how a League of Nations would change their own lives in every particular.

We build the real state, the vital and the moral state, by reinforcing actual power with actual power. No state can, forever, assume power. The present state has tried to do so and the pluralists have been the irrepressible child to cry out, “The King has on no clothes.” But if the pluralists have seen the King, as in the fairy story, clad by the weavers who worked at empty looms, shivering in nakedness while all acclaimed the beauty of the robes of state, many of us do not intend to accept this situation, but believe in the possibility of ourselves weaving, from out our own daily experience, the garments of a genuine state.

Idealism and realism meet in the actual. Some of us care only for the workshop of life, the place where things are made. James says that critical philosophy is sterile in practical results. As far as this is true it is because critical philosophy remains in the concepts it evolves, instead of grasping the activity which produced them and setting it at concrete tasks. We must grip life and control its processes. Conscious achieving is leaping into view as the possibility of all. We are capable of creating a collective will, and at the same time developing an individual spontaneity and freedom hardly conceived of yet, lost as we have been in the herd dream, the imitation lie, and that most fatal of fallacies – the fallacy of ends.

This is reality for man: the unifying of differings. But the pluralists balk at the unifying. They refuse to sweat and suffer to make a whole. They refuse the supreme effort of life – and the supreme reward. Yet the pluralists lead our thought today because they begin with the nearest group, with the actual. If they will add to this insight the understanding that the job of their actual groups is to carry on that activity by which alone these groups themselves have come into existence – they will have recognized community as process.


1,2,3,4 I am indebted to Professor Holt’s very valuable book, The Freudian Wish, for the references in this paper to the Freudian psychology. The correspondence between Holt’s Freudianism and the activity of social groups we see daily. Holt synthesizes idealism and realism by showing us one and only one evolving process which at different stages we call matter or mind. By showing us scientifically that the integrating whole is always more than the sum of all the parts, he clearly indicates that the appearing of the new is a moment in evolution. This corresponds perfectly to what we find in our study of groups. The genuine social will, or community, is always a moment in the process of integrating. The recognition that the joint action of reflex arcs is not mere reflex action, the recognition of the law of organized response, and that behavior is not a function of the immediate stimulus, is as important for sociology as for biology. What Holt names “receding stimuli’’ is a term particularly felicitous for group psychology. Holt calls himself a pluralist – is this pluralism? Holt calls himself a realist – he expresses the truth of idealism in dynamic concepts and scientific language. I say the political realist meaning the realist in his applications to politics, because the realists in their interpretation of recent biological research do not make this mistake: they show that the reaction is the picking out of a part of that which sets up the reaction. This makes the process of selection decidedly more complex than the political realists seem to realize. They forget that the self which they say chooses the stimuli is being made by reaction to these stimuli.

4 This is the same as the outside God of the Old Testament.

5,6,7 The importance of this for the development of “group-law” as advocated by the upholders of administrative syndicalism, I have not space to go into, but there are problems here to be worked at jointly by jurists and political scientists. Many revaluations are involved in the conception of community as process. The functional theory of causation must be applied to every department of thought. Natural rights take on a new meaning. And the distinction between subjective and objective loses its significance, as it has with the realists through their interpretations of the results of recent biological research where they see the objective, as an integral part of the process of integration, becoming thereby the subjective, and the subjective becoming objective. The importance of this for jurisprudence and political science must be developed at some later time. I am speaking of course in a general way, not forgetting those pragmatists who do not hold the somewhat crude idea of testing.


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