Courtesy Reuters

On Civil Society: Why Eastern Europe's Revolutions Could Succeed

In This Review

Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and Its Rivals

By Ernest Gellner
Penguin, 1994
225 pp. $27.95

When the dissident East European intellectuals of the 1970s and 1980s were trying to imagine what kind of community they wanted in place of communism, they turned back to the concept of civil society, an archaic term rooted so far back in the Enlightenment that most West European intellectuals had forgotten its meaning. Instinctively, however, East Europeans knew what it meant: the kind of place where you do not change the street signs every time you change the regime.

The teachers, writers, and journalists of the Czech underground, the shipyard workers and intellectuals of Poland's Solidarity, and the pastors and laymen who met in East German church crypts did more than dream of civil society. They sought to implant one in the very womb of communist society. The philosophical study groups in basements and boiler rooms, the prayer meetings in church crypts, and the unofficial trade union meetings in bars and backrooms were seen as a civil society in embryo. Within those covert institutions came the education in liberty and the liberating energies that led to 1989. In the revolutions of that year -- in Hungary, Poland, Romania, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and the Baltics -- civil society triumphed over the state.

In the communist utopia, true community would transcend all human divisions. In civil society, however, division and diversity, checks and balances, are of the essence. Political power is fenced off from cultural power and economic advantage, officeholders do not enrich themselves from office, power does not confer cultural authority, and social position does not entail cultural or political influence. A free society, acting through the press and its elected representatives, restrains the state, and the law restrains both. Needless to say, no civil society has ever lived up to this goal, and the tension between the formal promise of bourgeois society and its often sordid practice has served civil society's totalitarian enemies well. Yet the formal promise is more than hypocrisy: it remains the standard against which civil society judges itself

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