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  • The Uses of “Civil Society”
  • Marc F. Plattner (bio)
Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and Its Rivals. By Ernest Gellner. Allen Lane (Penguin), 1994. 225 pp.

During the past decade, the term “civil society” has gained worldwide currency as a way of describing a critical feature of modern liberal [End Page 169] democracy. As Ernest Gellner remarks at the outset of this rich and fascinating book, what was not long ago a largely forgotten concept variously employed by eminent thinkers of the past has “all of a sudden . . . been taken out and thoroughly dusted, and has become a shining emblem” (p. 1). This term was first revived by the democratic opposition within the Soviet bloc; along with “human rights,” it came to embody the key qualities whose absence under “really existing socialism” led East Europeans to long for the “normal” societies of the West.

Yet Gellner is surely right in attributing the sudden popularity of the notion of civil society in both East and West not only to the brutality and squalor of communist practice, but also to the dead end reached by Marxist theory. As he points out, “one way of summarizing the central intuition of Marxism is to say: Civil Society is a fraud” (p. 1). Marx viewed the division between the state and civil society as both a mask worn by bourgeois domination and a sign of the unhealthy split in human life that class exploitation had created. This split was to be healed in the communist future by the withering away of the state and the emergence of a social order freed of all traces of coercion.

Despite the ingenious rescue attempts of the revisionists, however, Marxism could not forever withstand the evidence furnished by the regimes that governed in its name. The monolithic rule by a single party over all aspects of political, economic, social, and intellectual life had led only to tyranny, stagnation, and moral degradation. By the 1980s, no one—except perhaps Mikhail Gorbachev—could take seriously the idea of “Marxism with a human face.” The dissidents who brought down the edifice of Marxist totalitarianism in Europe had become thoroughgoing anticommunists, and it was in explicit opposition to the all-pervasive rule of the party-state that they raised the banner of civil society. One may suspect, though, that the old Marxist dream of social life free from all coercion may have had some influence on their new attraction to the ideal of civil society.

But what exactly does the term “civil society” represent? Gellner begins with a fairly standard definition: “that set of diverse non-governmental institutions which is strong enough to counterbalance the state and, while not preventing the state from fulfilling its role of keeper of the peace and arbitrator between major interests, can nevertheless prevent it from dominating and atomizing the rest of society” (p. 5). But he immediately argues for the insufficiency of this kind of definition, on the grounds that it does not adequately specify the link between civil society and the modern concept of freedom. For such a definition would also encompass premodern pluralism—“segmentary” societies dominated by clans and other subgroups that drastically limit the power of the political center but that also oppress the individual. Citing the great nineteenth-century French historian of the ancient city, Fustel de [End Page 170] Coulanges, Gellner insists on the importance of the distinction between ancient liberty and the modern liberty that finds its home in civil society.

The rest of this book carries forward the attempt to specify the defining features of civil society by distinguishing it from what it is not. Its focus is on civil society not in the narrow sense of an array of nongovernmental institutions but in the broad sense of a social order hospitable to the flourishing of such independent groupings in its midst. (A whole chapter is devoted to arguing that civil society is a better brief description of such a society than “democracy.”) Gellner successively contrasts this kind of social order with preindustrial segmentary societies, Soviet communism, Islam, and various other historical forms.

A former professor both of philosophy and of social anthropology, Gellner has written and edited books about...

Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3214
Print ISSN
1045-5736
Pages
pp. 169-173
Launched on MUSE
1995-10-01
Open Access
No
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