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  • Problems of PostcommunismCivil Society Then and Now
  • Bronislaw Geremek (bio)

It is an old epistemological truth that an entomologist can write about ants without having been one. In presuming to speak on the topic of civil society, I face a completely different problem, for I wonder whether my own experience of having been an "ant," as it were, hinders reflection upon the lives of ants and thus bars me from properly executing the "entomologist's" role. Not being sure of an answer to that question, I can only declare at the outset that the following reflections come from an observer who is anything but indifferent.

The concept of civil society appeared fairly late in the annals of Central and East European resistance to communism. Its advent resulted from the realization that the state had fallen completely into the hands of the communist oligarchy, and from the conviction that society nonetheless retained the power to organize itself independently as long as it eschewed anything overtly "political" and stuck to "nonpolitical politics." The main form of resistance was the phenomenon of dissidence, which usually was of an isolated, marginal, and even self-consciously hopeless character. Yet however quixotic "dissidentism" may have seemed, it did constitute a form of public involvement that defied the communist system. Dissidents engaged in their own peculiar type of mental resistance, which typically began with a refusal to participate in falsehood, grew into a desire to bear loud witness to one's own views [End Page 3] and conscience, and then finally drove one to political action. The scope for such action long remained extremely narrow, for communism's all-pervasive power was carefully calculated to leave as little room as possible for any kind of independent civic action.

The concept of civil society, understood as a program of resistance to communism, first appeared in Poland during the late 1970s and early 1980s, primarily in conjunction with the Solidarity movement. At long last there had appeared in the communist world an independent mass movement to contradict the ruling system. Organized as a labor union, Solidarity could boast not only ten million urban members both workers and intellectuals-but also the support of the peasants, who made up in anticommunist intensity what they lacked in organization. Even Poland's three-million-member Communist Party could not be said to be fully outside of this movement, for one-third of its members also belonged to Solidarity-and by no means simply as fomenters of internal division. When Solidarity spoke, therefore, it could do so in the name of "We, the People."

Confronting this enormous popular movement was the power apparatus of the regime: the military, the police, and the political administration (including the Communist Party bureaucracy and the nomenklatura). Yet these had no legitimacy; they remained outside of societal control, but they also lacked any societal support. We in Solidarity hoped to surround this unwanted creature with something like a cocoon, gradually isolating and then marginalizing the party-state apparatus.

The naivete of this conviction was obvious, but its power could not be ignored. The simple old ethical injunction "Do not lie" had, after all, enormous political significance in widening resistance to the communist system. Moreover, the cost of such nonviolent resistance was low, while its consequences were far-reaching indeed. Even the crudest totalitarian system requires a certain amount of societal acquiescence. Such systems thrive on political passivity, but they also need a certain amount of participation, even in fictional forms such as voting in fake elections designed to foster the appearance of democratic legitimacy. Moral resistance, though seemingly hopeless against systems that are based on political and military force, functions like a grain of sand in the cogwheels of a vast but vulnerable machine. The idea of a civil society-even one that avoids overtly political activities in favor of education, the exchange of information and opinion, or the protection of the basic interests of particular groups-has enormous antitotalitarian potential.

The History of an Idea

The concept of civil society in opposition to the state has its roots in the eighteenth century. An important place in the thought of the [End Page 4] Enlightenment was occupied...