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  • Civil Society After CommunismFrom Opposition to Atomization
  • Aleksander Smolar (bio)

The peaceful revolutions of 1989 in Central and Eastern Europe were carried out in the name of “civil” society, and the related word “citizen” was one of the most frequently used terms in the public discourse of that time. Citizens’ committees, citizens’ movements, citizens’ assemblies, citizens’ initiatives, citizens’ parliamentary clubs, and citizens’ parties all sprang into being. Today, just a few years later, talk of “civil society” is no longer much heard in the streets, and the idea seems to have gone back whence it came, to discussions held among intellectuals on the changing shape of postcommunist countries. The remarkable rise and fall of the concept of civil society is itself worth examining.

As used in Central and Eastern Europe, the notion of civil society never had much to do with the grand theoretical debates that one may trace across two centuries in the works of Locke, Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, Hegel, Tocqueville, Marx, and Gramsci, among others. To speak of civil society was instead to express a twofold opposition. The first dimension was opposition to authority. Civil society was “us”; the authorities were “them.” The second dimension was one in which civil society was held up in contradistinction to “the nation,” understood in hereditary, ethnic terms. The potency of ethnic nationalism in Central and Eastern Europe is well known: ethnicity had long furnished the most salient way of dividing “us” from “them,” and Marxist class analysis could not rival it for popularity or profundity of influence. [End Page 24]

Although the national-patriotic, even nativist, strain of opposition to communism would in time produce its own champions and manifest its own influence, the tone of dissidence during the 1970s and most of the 1980s was set by intellectuals with left-liberal, Western-oriented views. In speaking the language of civil society, they were implicitly challenging the traditionally dominant ethnic conception of the nation with a nonethnic, political concept. By promoting civil society rather than ethnic community, they were not only proposing a wholly different way of defining “us” and “them,” but also suggesting a different way of looking at both the past and the future.

The reflections on civil society and the strategy for its self- organization produced by figures such as Czechoslovakia’s Václav Havel, Poland’s Jacek Kuro_ and Adam Michnik, and Hungary’s János Kis (to name some of the most prominent) grew out of the oppositionists’ reassessment of past failures to overthrow or reform “really existing socialism” in Central and Eastern Europe. 1

The Hungarian Uprising of 1956 and the Prague Spring of 1968—the former an armed rebellion and the latter a peaceful revolution sparked by the top-down innovations of reform-minded elites—had roused hopes that the communist system imposed on the region by the USSR could be overthrown by force or transformed by nonviolent political change. In both cases, hope was crushed by the tanks of the Red Army. Clearly, any direct challenge to the Soviet empire was doomed.

From 1956 on, there had been numerous efforts to introduce liberalization and democratization by means of gradual reforms. These efforts fell into three categories, each distinguished by its guiding strategy. The first approach, which I call “politics first,” was premised on the idea that the reform of party and state institutions was key because, under real socialism, the party-state commanded the economy and society. The reforms begun in Poland in 1956 typified this strategy.

The dominant approach in the 1960s was the “economics-first” strategy. This focused on the economy as the most promising place to start, because economic reform did not seem threateningly political and because officials could more easily be enlisted to support changes designed to increase output and raise living standards. Some proponents of what came to be called “market socialism” hoped that economic change would open the door to social and eventually political change as well.

The third strategy, associated with the era of détente in the 1970s, stressed the influence that economic linkages with the West might come to exert over developments within the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The more the...