Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 21
15 February 1999

B E T W E E N   T H E   L I N E S:
Civil Society: An Idea
Whose Time Has Gone?

Sean Hanley

The Czech Republic is currently in the middle of a month-long campaign to promote and publicise the country's "civic sector." This series of educational and promotional events is just the latest in a much longer-term effort to build "civil society" in the post-Communist states of Central and Eastern Europe. Yet almost a decade after the collapse of Communist regimes throughout the region, the re-building of civil society has so far yielded meagre results. In the 1980s and 1990s, Western Europe, too, has seen the development of increasingly fragmented and "uncivic" societies. Is it not perhaps time to reassess the whole concept of "civil society" in a more sceptical and realistic light?

No discussion of politics in the former Communist bloc is complete without obligatory references to the absence or weakness of "civil society." The term refers to networks of autonomous, intermediary organisations standing between the state on one hand and the market and personal life on the other. Organisations as diverse as trade unions, professional associations, churches, pressure groups, the media, charities, sports clubs or folk dancing troupes can all be seen as part of civil society.

The idea of civil society has a long and venerable history. In English the term can traced beck to the 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes. In the modern sense the idea is seen in the late 18th to early 19th century works of thinkers such as Adam Ferguson or Alexis De Tocqueville. After sinking into long-forgotten obscurity, it reappeared in the thinking of East European "dissidents" in the 1970s. Many "dissidents" conceived their activities not as political opposition, but as active citizenship. Some saw the creation of an embryonic civil society as a strategy for undermining the decaying Communist one-party state. The broad opposition movements that emerged in 1989-90, such as Civic Forum in the Czech lands, were also initially seen as expressions of civil society, before the realities of political power started to kick in.

Since the fall of Communism, "civil society" has become an international buzzword. For many non-aligned intellectuals in Central and Eastern Europe in particular, civil society, or rather the lack of it, seems to be routinely cited as the cause of many, if not all, social ills in their societies. Even those with reservations about the concept usually feel obliged to pay lip service to it in some form. Such is the political correctness of the Central European intelligentsia. However, "civil society" is more then a slogan. Some very important arguments concerning the future of post-Communist societies are attached to the term.

Firstly, as De Tocqueville observed of the United States over a century and a half ago, active citizens involved in public affairs and a developed civil society can sustain and improve democracy, cutting down upon abuses by officials and political professionals and giving citizens a direct influence on government. Or, as another French thinker Montesquieu, famously put it: democracy thrives on virtue, despotism on vice - a democracy without real democrats has no real future.

Secondly, it is argued, the "civic sector" can get things done better, quicker and cheaper than the lumbering, incompetent post-Communist state. As the co-ordinator of the current Czech campaign for the civic sector, Jana Ryslinkova, puts it: "The state tends to satisfy mass, general, standard needs, but civic organisation can meet the needs of small groups of citizens more flexibly."

Finally, and most ambitiously, civil society can be seen as a political program for a future post-Communist democracy. Since 1991, Czech President, Václav Havel, for example, has developed an arresting vision of the Czech Republic as "a genuinely civic state." Not only, Havel argues, must a strong civil society emerge as a "third sector" of institutions between state and market, but, at the same time, the balance between state, market and civil society must be decisively tilted in favour of the latter. In the President's view, this means decentralising the state, weakening political parties and gradually transferring public services such as health, welfare and education to the emerging third, civic sector.

The vision of a self-governing community of citizens slowly emerging, while the state partly withers away is a deeply inspiring one. It is one that sustains many involved in the "third sector." It is only when we consider its application in real life societies in Eastern and Western Europe that problems insistently start to present themselves - problems which, in the long term, may undermine the modest, but real achievements of the "third sector."

Realities always lag behind hopes and expectations. But, viewed soberly, what is striking is the lack of progress in re-establishing the type of civil society envisaged. Independent trade unions, interest groups and associations do, of course, exist in Central and Eastern Europe in ways unthinkable before 1989. Some play an important social and political role. However, many of the most significant actors in civil societies in the region, such as the Polish Catholic church or the Czech trade unions, have not emerged since 1989, but either survived the Communist regime or led a previous life as official structures.

More perplexingly, civil society and the "civic sector" in the region are often not only weak and underdeveloped, but are "civic" mainly in aspiration and intent, involving a small minority of activists, rather than the community at large. Moreover, post-Communist "civil society" is also not really the product of society. More than 70% of funding for the "civic sector" in the Czech Republic, for example, comes from the Czech state, international organisations and foreign sources. Only tiny amounts are forthcoming from "society" itself, whether in the guise of individual citizens or corporate donors. As a study by the Czech Academy of Sciences bluntly concluded in 1996 "Civil society as a set of groups, associations and organisations independent of the state developing various civic activities and associating and representing various interests.... does not so far exist in this country."

Will it ever? Are these the small beginnings of great things to come, or are we perhaps all barking up the wrong tree? Should we perhaps start think critically about this hitherto sacred cow?

"Civil society" does of course have its critics. Some on the liberal right such as the philosopher Vaclav Belohradsky or the former Czech Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus see the promotion of "civil society" as a disguised attack on liberal institutions. Advocates of a strong "civil society," they fear, really want to replace elected political parties and politicians with behind-the-scenes bargaining between interest groups. They worry nervously, that strongly institutionalised trade unions and professional associations will stifle competition, individual initiative and the proper operation of the free market. Civil society, they argue, should mean a "society of free individuals," freely associating for mutual benefit and coming about of its own accord.

There is also a further set of critical "statist" arguments less often heard in countries such as the Czech Republic, although some are implicit in, for example, the policies of the current Czech Social Democratic government. This view is based on the frank, if unwelcome, admission, that like it or not, the state is the single most important institution and the most important social and political actor in any modern democratic society. Advocates of a "civic state" have been thrown intellectually off balance by the experience of Communism and have confused the "civic" with the "public" and forgotten some other important lessons of European history. For, one of the reasons for the growth of public (that is, state-run) services in post-war Western Europe was the inability of pre-war "civil society," however well-developed, to provide coherent or properly funded systems of healthcare, education or welfare services.

A public sector based on a "civic sector" can have a severe implications for social justice and social cohesion. The growth of "civil society" can, as often as not, mean the rich and powerful insulating themselves from their fellow citizens - a trend highlighted in the US, for example, by the late Christopher Lasch in his book The Revolt of the Elites. In this view, post-Communist societies need not so much effective civil societies, as effective civil services; properly trained social workers and teachers, more than committed volunteers; well-paid public sector professionals, more than active citizens; powerful Hong Kong style anti-corruption agencies, more than exhortations to civic virtue.

Do either of these two sets of arguments hold water? Unfortunately, the answer is, at least partly, yes. Right-wing fears of civil society in Central and Eastern Europe as a Trojan horse for corporatism are exaggerated. Many small countries with weak vulnerable economies have resorted to corporatist solutions without suffering unduly either politically or economically. But the political theory of liberalism with its conceptions of individual freedom and choice does raises some serious questions over both the realism and the desirability of re-constituting civil societies in Eastern Europe.

There is an unspoken assumption that, because totalitarian regimes destroyed well-developed civil societies in pre-war Eastern Europe and totalitarian regimes are a Bad Thing, civil society and the "civic" are always and everywhere a Good Thing. There is a further assumption that because Communism, especially in its later "post-totalitarian" phase in the 1970s and 1980s, created a privatistic society, where people chose to ignore public affairs and retreat into a world of family, friends and personal concerns, that such preferences are also always and everywhere a Bad Thing.

However, as the Canadian writer Michael Ignatieff has pointed out, privacy is also a Good Thing. If modern life is more private and less civic then this, in part, simply reflects people's real preferences. If citizens prefer to spend their Sunday afternoons gardening, watching TV soap operas or looking around IKEA, rather than participating in the life of their community or improving the environment, who are we to tell them to do differently?

This does not, of course mean, that certain minimum levels of public involvement are not necessary. Most democracies assume that that their citizens will at least turn out to vote every few years and watch the TV news occasionally. But most people do do this. Lack of participation in public life does not necessarily mean lack of interest. It does not mean that any and all popular attitudes should be pragmatically accommodated. Deep-seated racism in society is, for example, not something that any modern liberal democracy can wash its hands of. But it does mean that in many modern societies civicness has its limits - limits narrower than many intellectuals might like.

"Statist" arguments also deserve to be taken seriously. The ideas of many advocates of "civil society" make concerning decentralisation are, of course, perfectly valid. But they are arguments more for a decentralised state and locally accountable public services, rather than a separate "third sector." Many bodies in the "third sector" are already in effect close to being what the British call "quangos" - quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations, tied to the state by a lifeline of public finance. The equation of the state with centralisation, and civil society with decentralisation is overly simplistic. Despite growing up "from below," many organisations in historical civil societies were - or quickly became - mass national organisations, with mass national goals. One need only think of the politically-laden mass Sokol gymnastic displays in pre-war Czechoslovakia.

It is certainly true that many civic initiatives both in the Czech Republic and elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe have pioneered worthwhile and innovative approaches to issues ignored or neglected by existing state-run institutions. Mental health, parenting skills, the care of elderly of people the education of disabled people are all areas where the "civic sector" has clearly acted as a channel for innovation and new ideas. However, in many ways this merely underlines the need to reform and rethink state services and public policy, rather to replace or supplement them ad hoc from below.

Few people would deny the need for a third voluntary sector in some form. But innovative solutions, currently the preserve of the "civic sector" in Central and Eastern Europe, have, after all, often been standard practice for years among social workers and teachers in West European countries. Transforming the ramshackle, low quality state apparatuses of the former Communist world into an efficient public sector is of course a difficult, long-term and costly proposition. Public attitudes to "the state" are deeply hostile, but as in Western Europe, most people still expect it to deliver a range of services. However difficult as a political goal, re-constructing the state seems vastly more realistic, than ineffective and sometimes quixotic attempts to build "civil society" where most citizens are, for perfectly valid reasons, disinclined to contribute their time or money.

Building "civil society" in Central and Eastern Europe is, of course, often equated with the completion of democracy and the maturation of post-Communist societies into something resembling Western Europe. This thinking is misplaced. It is true that "civicness" and "civil society" have caught the imagination of politicians across the political spectrum in many Western states. Neo-conservatives have seen it as "natural" way of shoring up and promoting traditional values without resort to the state. For the Western Left "civil society" has been seen as a vehicle for mobilising support without relying on sectional class interests and a means of stemming the inequalities of the market without to resort to etatistic solutions. Leaders in the "radical centre," such as British Prime Minister Tony Blair, have combined the two approaches. For them "civil society" is a way of modernising public services and the welfare state firstly by encouraging (and indeed forcing) people to become active, public-spirited, self-reliant and responsible citizens; and secondly, by substituting the collaboration of public and private bodies for more traditional forms of state intervention.

But such approaches, too, are largely based on wishful thinking. Western societies avoided the experience of Communism, but for them too, the post-war period saw growth of more privatistic, individualised, and less "civic" societies. Developments such as the welfare state, consumerism, mass migration, pop culture, the sexual revolution and the deregulation and freeing up of markets have all contributed to a pluralisation of values and a fragmentation of identities resulting in unparalleled cultural diversity and personal freedom. But they have led to the erosion of civil society as traditionally conceived.

Since 1989, the same powerful forces of economic and social liberalisation that have shaped post-war Western Europe have been asserting themselves in Central and Eastern Europe. They are not creating a particularly hospitable climate for the growth of organised civil society. Cable TV, Tesco superstores, the Internet and package holidays are certainly creating freer and more interesting societies in the region, but they are not exactly creating a social climate that fosters civic association.

Put bluntly, where historically-evolved civil societies have declined, whether uprooted or simply eroded away, they are unlikely to take root again. One might regret the loss (as many do Czechs looking back at pre-war Czechoslovakia). One might celebrate it (as do many post-modern thinkers in the West). One might simply take it with a shrug. But one cannot unmake the past, nor, even in the long term, re-make public attitudes to order. Civil society and the creation of a civic sector are attractive ideals. But if their limited potential is to be realised, we should bear in mind not Montequieu's comments about civic virtue, but another of his dictums. That the best form of government is one which best fits people's inclinations - not their ideals.

Sean Hanley, 15 February 1999


Back to the
Sean Hanley
main page

Back to Central Europe Review


Articles galore
in the

Find out more about our Virtual Internship Programme


Book Shop


Music Shop

with your comments
and suggestions.


Copyright (c) 1999 - Central Europe Review and Internet servis, a.s.
All Rights Reserved