Sometime "Red Tory", "Front Porch Republican" Russell Arben Fox asks, “What happened to communitarianism?” A good question. I’m nowhere near being a scholar of these things, but in the 1990s I got interested in what was called “the liberalism/communitarianism debate” and did some reading about it.
In the 1990s, thinkers as diverse as Amitai Etzioni, Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, Michael Walzer, and Michael Sandel were identified with the “communitarian” side of the debate—the most well-known public face of which was probably the left-leaning magazine Tikkun, published by Michael Lerner, a rabbi who came to prominence through Hillary Clinton’s championing of his ideas. (For whatever reason, Lerner also came to be ridiculed, for instance by the Border’s clerk who rang up my purchase of the magazine one day.) By 1998, though, when Sandel published a second edition of his Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, with a detailed bibliography on the controversy, he disclaimed the label. In 1992, it seems (I drew most of this information, including the references to other books in this list that I’ve read—except for Etzioni, whose books my town library had around that time—from Charles Larmore’s 1996 essay collection, The Morals of Modernity), Jürgen Habermas published a critique of communitarianism, in German. In 1988, Will Kymlicka, similarly, had published a book in defense of liberalism. Amy Gutmann had critiqued the movement in 1985. So, sometime between about 1982, when the first edition of Sandel’s book was published, and 1998, broader interest in communitarianism seems to have dissipated. This is only a few years after Fox’s annus mirabilis, 1995, so that’s interesting.
At any rate, the more I looked into it, the more communitarianism seemed like a mask for traditionalist religious conservatism: not something usable from the left (except for the rarified niche consisting of left members of traditionalist religions), not a potentially reformist critique of liberal modernity, and not really even compatible with civic republicanism. The only theorists left, it seemed, were Catholics. MacIntyre and Taylor were more convincing on cultural (epistemological, metaphysical, at least theoretical) matters than political ones. (MacIntyre, though once a Marxist, was now decidedly on the right. Taylor seems basically a liberal, politically, addressing questions such as Quebecois and indigenous rights; and while his writing is about secularism, as far as I can tell it assumes a universal secular culture that I don’t recognize in its particulars.) The charge that communitarianism is just either majoritarianism or adherence to a traditionalist culture ended up seeming a fair one.
If the debate succeeded at anything, however, quite possibly it succeeded in sucking the air out of any attempt to suggest any non-Marxist, non-religious (and non-anarchist) critique of liberalism from (more or less) the outside.