THE DECLINE OF CIVIL SOCIETY AFTER POSTCOMMUNISM
by David Ost
to be included in Ulrike Liebert & Hans-Jörg Trenz, eds.,
The New Politics of European Civil Society
International discourse about the centrality of civil society to democracy owes much to the revival of the concept in Poland in the 1970s and 1980s. It was here that a newly emerging opposition deployed the concept, with its emphasis on everyday resistance to authoritarianism, as a way of rebuilding support after the post-Stalinist regime‟s devastating 1968-1970 attacks on
political protests. The international renown bestowed upon the Solidarity movement in Poland, particularly in its initial 1980-81 heyday, sparked enormous interest in the theoretical concepts that inspired its democratic practice. Western political theory and international labor activism,
1such as in South Africa, found a great deal in Solidarity not just to admire but to emulate. Here
was a participatory, non-violent, democratic movement for social change in a society where formal political opposition was against the law. Moreover, the movement‟s focus on self-
organized civic movements was able to survive the imposition of martial law, eventually putting Solidarity in the position to negotiate the end of communist party rule by the end of the decade. Democratic theory studied eastern Europe‟s vision of civil society for a long time. Even the
booming interest in “social capital” theories of the 1990s likely owes much to the east European
All this came to a sudden end in 1989. Just when the dreams of the old civil society opposition appeared to be realized, its main east European theorists, now government leaders, abandoned their old participatory ethos. The trade union movement that had emerged in Poland as the bastion of democratic civil society went into deep decline, and it did so, paradoxically, in accord with the wishes of many of those very trade unionists. International interest in the democratic self-organization of society gradually moved away from a concern with eastern Europe. And with good reason. After 1989, the region‟s new leaders put the building of a market
economy to the forefront of concerns, and came to see independent civic activity as dangerous insofar as it might raise questions and voice protests about how that process was being carried out. Also, market-building entailed a focus on creating the classes of a market economy: a propertied class endowed with capital and managerial prerogatives, a consumerist middle class,
and a working class which, unlike that in the communist past, would no longer believe it had the clout and resources to have its interests met, much less a veto power to block moves it opposed. Democracy-building, meanwhile, focused on developing the parties that would compete for power and the institutional rules for state governance – by no means insignificant tasks, but tasks,
nonetheless, that did not call for engagement on the part of citizens. If the 1980s were a time when eastern Europe seemed to symbolize a mobilizing civil society, the 1990s could be seen as a revenge of the elite, although again, paradoxically, the elite doing the revenging was made up in large part of those who had formerly propelled themselves forward as the representatives of civil society.
And what now? Where is civil society today? This article will argue that the new century has seen important signs of a return of an engaged civil society in eastern Europe, particularly in the trade union sphere, but that profound obstacles to its reemergence stem precisely from its abandonment in the early postcommunist years. In other words, I will argue that the obstacles to the reemergence of civil society today are due not to the legacies of communism, as some have
2 but to postcommunism. It is in the postcommunist era that civil society was made weak: argued,
first, by the former oppositionists who had promoted the concept and practice during the communist era, only to seek to marginalize it when they came to power; second, by the activities of trade unions, which cut back on their own activities just when the old regime fell and a capitalist economy emerged; and third, by the discursive decline of the concept of civil society in the postcommunist era (itself a product of the first two factors).
The essays begins with a discussion of the origins of the concept of civil society and an account of how the original civil society theorists turned away from the idea. It then turns to an exploration of the situation of the trade unions, which had been key to the burgeoning civil society and which fell into serious decline afterwards. Finally, I discuss the discursive decline of “civil society” in recent years, leading to the reemergence of a concept in many ways antithetical to it, namely that of “nation.”
The Rise and Fall of “Civil Society”
“Civil society” was arguably the greatest theoretical contribution of the 1968-1989 east
European revolutions. Until 1968, political opposition to communist rule mostly meant the fight
for a new government. Early postwar anti-communists had hoped for a new war to topple the Soviet-backed regimes; later “revisionist” opponents sought to usher into power a “true” socialist government against the “Stalinist deformations” of the present one. That method of opposition peaked, and crashed, in 1968, when a revisionist government came to power in Czechoslovakia, only to be crushed by Soviet invasion. In Poland, at the same time, the post-Stalinist Gomulka regime found itself challenged not by revisionists but by pro-communist nationalists, who then purged the revisionists through a well-orchestrated anti-intellectual and anti-Semitic campaign. Hope for state transformation no longer seemed possible. By the early 1970s, a cloud of hopelessness set over the political scene.
A series of seminal articles by Polish oppositionists, and activism based on these ideas, introduced a notion of “anti-political” politics based on the idea of an activated civil society that
would, in effect, challenge political power by ignoring it. This idea had its roots both in Polish traditions of self-governance during the era of partitions, most notably from the work of Edward Abramowski at the turn of the last century, and in the new social movements that emerged in the
3 The latter had rejected Leninist vanguardist politics, and with their west in the 1960s and 1970s.
Frankfurt School and Freudian New Leftism had argued that it wasn‟t political power but only a
changed society that could bring emancipation. “Changed people change the world,” went the
new slogan. This idea spoke even more deeply to east European political rebels than to their western counterparts, since the former could not enter the formal political world even if they wanted to. That, after all, was the lesson of 1968. Leszek Kolakowski anticipated the theory of civil society when he wrote, in 1971, that no matter how hopeless things appeared, there was always some room for some civic resistance, and that since it is always impossible to tell in
4advance what the limits of a social system really are, all these opportunities should be pursued.
Just as Herbert Marcuse had argued, at the end of One-Dimensional Man, that even in the face of
a “totally administered society” in which people could barely even imagine an alternative future,
5something must be done anyway – “the Great Refusal,” Marcuse called it – so Kolakowski
insisted that no matter how hopeless the prospects for political reform, people must become active as if they believed that change was possible. That, after all, was the only condition to actually bring it about.
Jacek Kuron and Adam Michnik pursued these ideas relentlessly in the mid-1970s as they sought to reestablish a formidable democratic opposition in Poland. In an important 1974 article
“Political Opposition in Poland,” Kuron argued that the effort to preserve an independent culture
apart from the state was not a prelude to real opposition but itself constituted a political
6opposition. Here, for the first time, we have the idea that activity taking place within civil society alone, by people drawn together by a desire to freely engage in activities of their own choosing, could be the basis for a larger transformation of the polity. With Kuron, democratization becomes a goal that can be realized within society, not the state. Adam Michnik built on this insight to put forth a strategy we might call “anticipatory democracy,” or behaving in the present the way one would like to be able to do so in the future, acting today as if the desired tomorrow were already a reality. The idea was that political life becomes more democratic when people act as if it were democratic.
In this view, any independent activity is thus a form of opposition. As Michnik put it in a seminal 1976 essay, “Every issue of public concern can be the basis for the rise of a social
7movement.” And these interlocking social movements, based solely on independent civic activity, would “change the world” in a democratic direction by getting people to act
democratically in their daily lives now. Michnik and Kuron soon became the leading forces in the civic movement known as KOR, or the Workers Defense Committee, which was formed in late 1976 to defend workers persecuted for their role in protesting price hikes, and which quickly transformed itself into a loose-knit center coordinating and gathering and distributing information on independent civic activity. It was in cooperation with KOR that activists on the Baltic coast started organizing a “free trade unions” initiative, in which Lech Walesa soon
became involved. Activists from this group called and led the August 1980 strikes that resulted in the formation of Solidarity.
Solidarity was not created by Michnik and Kuron – in fact, they opposed the
shipworkers‟ insistence on independent trade unions because they believed it was unattainable –
but Solidarity, from its foundation in 1980 until the government‟s declaration of martial law in December 1981, acted in accord with their civil society precepts. The union served as the sponsor of a vast array of civic activities, not just trade unions but cultural associations, environmental clubs, independent schools, student clubs, farmers‟ organizations, factory
newsletters. The 1980-81 period really seemed to be a time of “active participation on the part of citizens in egalitarian institutions and civil associations,” which Cohen and Arato see as key features of the civil society approach; indeed, the Solidarity experience was a key foundation
8 Even after the union was officially disbanded during martial upon which they built their theory.
law, its leaders arrested and its resources confiscated, civic activity continued in Poland into the 1980s, laying the basis for the Round Table accords of 1989 that negotiated an end to the communist system.
It might be thought that a society so engaged civically would be able not only to sustain but to broaden the independent public sphere once there were no more restrictions on it; once, in other words, a democratic political system construed the right to free public association as a given. In fact, however, this vision of civil society, as a struggle waged by vast civic participation against both state and market on behalf of a new vision of democracy, did not survive 1989. As a result of a number of factors – the failure of the first Solidarity, the global
embrace of neoliberalism in the 1980s, the actual fall of the communist systems and their reincorporation into the capitalist world system – all the major “civil society” theorists
abandoned their earlier understanding of the concept as a project of complete democratic openness, and gave it an entirely new meaning entailing little more than the building of a market economy. The emancipatory vision of civil society that was central to the pre-1989 opposition gave way to an ethos that privileged elite knowledge and economic transformation over civic participation. “Civil society” thus seemed to go moribund, slip into desuetude, soon after the communist era ended.
In part, this resulted from an explicit turnaround on the part of Solidarity‟s political
leaders, including both Michnik and Kuron, who, over the course of the 1980s, changed their
9view on the question of what exactly the foundation of democracy really is. According to their
earlier approach, manifested in the day-to-day practice of the initial Solidarity, democracy was premised on an engaged citizenry. People engaged in the daily effort of actively transforming their world were the only ones who could transform the world, and resist the pressures of state and market against active participation. According to the new approach, democracy hinged above all on property: only a sphere of social engagement with resources independent from the state, a sphere that the state was obliged to respect, could ensure the social space for civic activity that democracy required. Whereas the earlier approach argued that there could be no economic reform without political reform, the new approach argued that no political reform was possible without economic reform. Property-rights theory was the rage of opposition circles in the early 1980s after the declaration of martial law. Scarce underground publishing resources
went into producing samizdat versions of the writings of Hayek. In 1985, Michnik himself
published a harsh critique of the non-elite civic participation present in the first Solidarity movement, signaling his support for an elite pact without much non-elite input. Solidarity‟s
political leaders of the late 1980s explicitly embraced radical market reform, jettisoning the idea of “self-government” many of them had supported in 1981. After coming to power in 1989, they moved quickly to introduce marketization policies, barely even giving the new democratic parliament time to read through all the new bills.
Because they believed that most people would oppose their policies – mistakenly, in fact,
since all polls showed high support for market reform – these former movement leaders-turned-
elite decision-makers now wanted even less non-elite participation than before. The new Solidarity government adopted a tough shock therapy economic reform program, and considered opposition to it not only as wrong but as irrational. A new discourse of “reason” served to limit opposition to the new program – and to send the unmistakable signal that civic participation was tantamount to the propagation of irrationality. The new liberal elite came to believe that there was one correct way of institutionalizing the market, and so scientific expertise needed to be valued over anything non-elites wished to contribute. As for Michnik and Kuron, both used their new positions – Michnik as chief editor of the main daily Gazeta Wyborcza, Kuron as Minister
of Labor – to assure Solidarity members and other citizens that their interests would be served best by remaining quiescent and letting their new political leaders do what needed to be done –
take the measures to facilitate a swift transition to a capitalist economy. The old ideas, according to which democracy came about due to the everyday engagement of citizens in governing, were gone.
All this constituted a monumental shift. By conflating civil society with bourgeois
10 they were backtracking on their profound theoretical innovation separating the two. society,
Indeed, it was just this separation that was at the heart of the East European contribution to democratic theory. Rejecting the classic Marxist conflation of the two, the east Europeans
11claimed civil society as a terrain marked by openness, communication, and rational discourse.
By defining civil society in this way and positing it as the heart of democracy, they were able to defend democracy both against orthodox Marxist charges that it was merely “bourgeois democracy,” and against free market apologists who considered private ownership a sufficient
12guarantor of democracy. This was something quite new in the context of the Cold War
dichotomies of the time, which is why both the theory and, as carried out by the first Solidarity
13 Now, however, movement, the practice were so important to western theorists of civil society.
after 1989, when those same theorists spoke of building “civil society” they meant above all the building of a capitalist society, with primitive capital accumulation and class differentiation the most important goals of all.
The consequence of intellectuals‟ new wariness of workers was to drive a wedge between
middle-class reformers and non-elites. When former leaders of workers‟ movements proclaimed
that their erstwhile comrades were not to be trusted, this gave license to others to distrust them. When Gazeta Wyborcza argued that workers were not rational participants in civil dialogue to resolve pressing social issues, it sent a signal that political debate ought to be carried out solely among elites. Instead of the open democracy they advocated when in opposition, a radically restricted debate is what they advocated now. Instead of an expansive public sphere and a flourishing civil society, this approach led to truncated debate in which only intellectual elites were supposed to participate. At least, this is what liberals hoped. In fact, as we know, it led to the rise of a populist political right instead, which was able easily to attack liberals as “hostile to the people.” Although this right is much more opposed to civil society than the liberals ever were, it gained in strength precisely to the extent that liberals sought to exclude workers from the ranks of acceptable civil society. As we will see, the victory of this tendency only shifted the discursive frame away from “civil society” and onto the trope of the “nation.”