Conceptions of ‘Civil Society’

When the intellectuals of Eastern Europe began to consider the difficulties and possibilities of a democratically organised political opposition they soon turned to a classical concept in the history of political ideas. They thought that the concept of civil society always used in English to indicate its connection to Anglo-American traditions, would be most suited to define the aims of their political aspirations. They used this concept in order to refer to all the civil institutions and organisations which are prior to the state, as being the precondition for any resistance on the part of the citizen against the dictatorship of the party bureaucracy. The immediate pressure of the political struggle, by and large, exempted these intellectuals from the necessity of coming to terms with the theoretical difficulties of a concept whose historical development has labyrinthine dimensions. The use of the notion civil society should have inevitably led them into this labyrinth, since this category, in the course of over two hundred years of the history of political theory, has acquired so many strands and strata of meaning that today it appears to lack any definite contours. As far as the Eastern European resistance was concerned, this problem did not play a prominent role, mainly because this concept merely served to tie together all the spheres of social action not belonging to state institutions, insofar as these spheres could serve as a basis for the construction of a democratic opposition. In fact, it was precisely the vagueness of this concept which gave it a distinct strategical advantage. Its indefiniteness gave different dissident groups, faced with different national and local problems, the possibility of including their varying social institutions, such as the economic institutions of the market, the free association of debating citizens, or the soviet-like organisation of ’round tables’, within the all-encompassing concept of the civil society.2


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