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7 Civil Society and Communism The roots of the contemporary interest in civil society lie in the 1980s contention of some Eastern European intellectuals that the accelerat­ ing crisis of communism was “the revolt of civil society against the state.” Deeply hostile to the claims of self-described vanguard parties and to their bureaucratized version of politics, a dissident literature slowly took shape that identified “actual existing socialism” with a grasping and intrusive state apparatus, obsolete central planning of heavy industrial production, and pervasive repression of social initiatives originating outside the control of the party-state. Drawing from liberal constitutionalism, Tocqueville, and the Western literature on “totalitarianism,” early analysts developed a sus­ tained critique of what they said was Marxism’s lack of limits, tendency to politicize everything, betrayal of democracy, and drive to direct or absorb any spontaneous activity arising from civil society. Rooted in broad popular desires for political democracy, the critique pointedly ignored economic matters and initially presented itself as a renovation of socialist thought. Its judgments certainly were not new, but they received considerable support from a deepening economic crisis and from the Right’s political triumph in England and the United States. By the end of the decade, a pervasive dis­ trust of politics and the state had turned these analysts toward private prop­ erty and the market, and they soon became part of a broad consensus about why Soviet-style communism had collapsed. But the impact of their cri­ tique was considerably broader; its antistatist core resonated in the West and has become an important part of the sustained attack on living stan­ dards and the welfare state that dominates contemporary public life. Since “actual existing socialism” developed as a state-led strategy of eco­ nomic growth and social organization, the dissident critique gravitated toward liberal theories of civil society that centered on constraining state power. Constitutionalist arguments for political rights, civil liberties, and the rule of law sought to define a sphere of public life free of arbitrary 173 174 | Civil Society and Communism bureaucratic intervention. Autonomous voluntary organizations came to be seen as democratic sites of self-organization and important obstacles to the relentless expansion of the party-state. Liberal constitutionalism could provide an important measure of protection from the state, but that turned out to be the only part of the solution to which the new theories of civil society were able to address themselves. Modern socialism, the Enlightenment twin of liberalism, has always rested on the extension of democracy into the economy; indeed, this is why Marx called himself a “social democrat” in the first place. The understand­ ing of civil society as self-organization pure and simple tended to view the state as the chief obstacle to democracy and to leave the economy out of consideration. But if civil society was theorized as a chaotic sphere of pro­ duction, interest, and inequality, then the internal dynamics of the econ­ omy could be subject to scrutiny. This orientation has rested at the heart of all socialist theories of civil society. From the mild redistributive policies ad­ vocated by some to the full-blown abolition of the market preferred by oth­ ers, equality and democracy seemed to require the use of state power to in­ terfere with private property and the logic of commodification. Born in devastating war and economic catastrophe, this commitment to abolish the market, overcome the commodity form, and reunite civil society and the state accounts for much of communism’s theoretical and practical appeal. It has also accounted for some of its deepest difficulties. Lenin’s hope that the deep contradictions of the transition to socialism could be managed by the use of political power became a general principle for twentieth-century communism. But questions of democracy have forced themselves to the center of socialist political thought. Liberalism developed a theory of civil society because it wanted to democratize the state. Marxism developed a theory of the state because it wanted to democratize civil society. The twists and turns of contemporary history would bring them face to face in Eastern Europe. Totalitarianism Karl Marx’s great project was his critical analysis of bourgeois civil society. He spent relatively little time describing how he thought communism would be organized. But he did present a fairly coherent outline of the tran­ sition to socialism, and we have seen that it was driven by his expectation that the central structures of capitalism would continue to exist for some Civil Society...


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