2 The Concept of Civil Society


The concept of civil society requires clarification. As will be clear in the following, definitions of civil society usually do not provide clear characteristics or indicators. Instead they define civil society negatively and say what it is not or normatively and highlight its beneficial influences on society and state. Civil society always was and still is a normative concept. Its aim is less to describe an actual state, but to point to a utopian ideal or the way reality should be. In consequence, the concept has rightly been criticized for escaping any analytical and empirical verification (Hann 2000, Beyme 2000). Any study on civil society, however, needs to close the gap between reality and ideal. The analysis thus faces the dilemma of observing and describing what actually is without diluting the normative concept of civil society.

The following chapter aims to solve this dilemma and investigates the concept of civil society. It explores the role of civil society in sustaining and stabilizing democracy and democratization and aims to identify indicators for research. The roots of civil society in post-communist societies will additionally be highlighted. The chapter proceeds in three steps. It starts with a brief summary of contemporary understandings of civil society. A review of various approaches to civil society helps to comprehend what civil society is and what it does. Second, the chapter proposes a working definition of civil society and tackles the tricky question how the normative concept of civil society can be studied empirically. In doing so, the chapter differentiates between a ‘structural’ and a ‘cultural’ dimension of civil society. This distinction makes clear that civil society consists on the one hand of formally established non-governmental organizations, associations and groups, but requires on the other hand a respective cultural basis, a civil ethos or “Sittlichkeit” without which the concept remains hollow and fails to live up to its normative ideal. The chapter argues that the differentiation into a structural and cultural dimension allows us to study the development of civil society in different cultural settings and to pinpoint indicators for research. Finally, the chapter explores the preconditions of civil society in post-communist settings.

2.1 Contemporary Understandings of Civil Society


The concept of civil society understood as a realm distinct of the state developed in the 18th and 19th century. Previously the terms civil and political society were used as synonyms in relation to the classical concept of Aristotele’s politiké koinonia or societas civilis in which the public realm of equal citizens was at the same time the realm of politics and the state. As a result, the term civil society was less determined by the distinction between society and the state than by the distinction between the public and the private. In the 18th century political thinkers such as Ferguson, Tocqueville, Paine, Locke or Hegel raised the question of the relationship between civil society and political authority anew and differentiated between civil society and the state.15 The concept of civil society was then grounded in concerns with problems inherent in complex societies based on modern economic production on the one hand and the dangers inherent in state despotism on the other.16 

Starting in the end of the 19th far into the 20th century, the concept of civil society was nearly forgotten. However, it celebrated a glorious renaissance in the last 20 years. “A strange coalition between Eastern-European ‘dissidents’ and left-wing oriented intellectuals of the West” (Hann 2000: 87) revitalized and renewed the concept. Eastern dissidents such as Adam Michnik, Vaclav Havel, György Konrad or Elemer Hankiss (re-) discovered the concept of civil society as a realm independent of the state, implying a dualism between the people and the repressive authoritarian state. One should note that the renewed concept of civil society in Central and Eastern Europe had – in the words of Alexander Smolnar – “never (…) much to do with the grand theoretical debates that one may trace across two centuries in the works of Locke, Adam Smith, Hegel, Tocqueville, Marx …” (Smolnar 1996: 24). Instead civil society was defined in opposition to the communist system, it was understood as one unitary agent determined by autonomy and solidarity. Civil society was regarded as ‘the reality as it should be’ connected with the strong conviction of a lost normality associated with the West.17 Civil society thus described a utopian state, namely the utopia of a society free of communist rule. Furthermore, the renewed concept lost the fears and risks attached to it in the 18th century by Hegel and later Marx.18 The new authors were less concerned with the dangers and risks of a commercialized, bourgeois society; social conflict, self-interest, corruption were no issues; they were instead concerned with the dangers of unlimited state power just like the naturalists and authors of the Scottish enlightenment. The negative connotations of the term ‘bürgerliche Gesellschaft’ described by Hegel and Marx vanished.19 

The West (re-)imported the concept of civil society from the East. While in the East the concept was re-vitalized in response to the totalitarian state, for the West the concept was highly welcomed as a response to a growing disillusionment with the state. Firstly, it was adopted by leftist intellectuals who saw the concept as a socio-democratic answer to the controversies of the Keynesian Welfare-State and as a “plausible surrogate for the illusionary visions of revolution of the new left” (Arato 1990: 110; translation by the author). Civil society – and a theory thereof - seemed to be a way to overcome theoretical debates between pluralists, liberals and communitarians, as Arato / Cohen (1992) stated in the introduction to their book. Soon the concept was used by scholars and politicians of different theoretical and political backgrounds. However, the concept did not develop as one theory encompassing different approaches (as Arato/Cohen presumed). The term civil society is instead associated with various meanings and based on divergent assumptions.


The following section outlines various contemporary understandings of the term. It will be evident that the visions of civil society described below are all based on different understandings of the “self”, the state, state-society relationships and democracy. Some approaches apply a broad definition of the term. Accordingly, civil society is regarded as a realm outside the state that incorporates a wide range of organized entities. By contrast, others define civil society narrowly and point to segments of society that act as carriers of civil society (Kocka 2000:22). What all concepts have in common, however, is that they describe a normative ideal, i.e. they portray, albeit not explicitly, how reality should be. Moreover, this reality as it should be is more often than not a democratic state. However, the mechanisms by which civil society is assumed to strengthen democracy are rather diverse.

2.1.1 Liberal Approaches - Civil Society as a Realm Outside the State

Traditionally civil society is a truly liberal concept aiming to guarantee the freedom of the individual. The major driving force behind the concept was the aim to fight despotism. The concept of civil society is hence established as the opposite of despotism, as “a space in which social groups could exist and move – something which exemplified and would ensure softer, more tolerable conditions of existence” (Hall 1995:1). As a bastion of free citizens against despotic rule, the concept is in this view inevitably rooted in individualism (ibid: 15). Without a “modular man”, an individual neither caged by kings nor kin-ship who “takes his own promises and commitments seriously”… and “can combine into specific-purpose, ad hoc limited association without binding himself by some blood ritual” (Gellner 1995: 41p), and without “civil qualities” “engendering a sense of obligation to (…) anonymous members of the same civil society” (Shils 1997: 71) a civil society is not feasible.

Such a perspective defines civil society broadly. It does not regard a small segment of society which acts as the main carrier of ethical life as most suitable in bringing about the merits of civil society. Civil society is instead seen as a realm independent of the state, including all the spheres of society juxtaposed to the state. Civil society thus encompasses the inseparable roles of the individual as a private family member, an economically active bourgeois and political citizen (Arato / Cohen 1992: 219).


From a classical rights-oriented liberal perspective in line with John Locke, civil society is seen as the sphere of individual citizens doing their business freely and independently of state interventions. Civil society is a sphere in which the rights of the individual to private life, freedom and property is protected from state arbitrariness. The free individuals transfer parts of their rights to the government in order to ensure the security of life, property and freedom. However, only those parts necessary to guarantee this security and to make peaceful co-existence possible are transferred. The role of government is consequently reduced to a guarantor of peace and stability, upholding the social order approved by majority.20 Civil society is consequently the sphere of all societal life apart from the state. It is neither in opposition to nor in control of the state, nor does it complement it. It simply stands outside a minimal state. In fact, neither control nor opposition to the state is necessary, as civil society determines the boundaries of governmental rule. In this sense

“Civil society is the governor which regulates both the economy and the government although both are, to some degree, autonomous” (Shils 1997: 74).


From this standpoint, civil society and the market economy cannot be divided. Individual rights to privacy, the public sphere (free speech and association), and equality before the law are to be protected, and governmental rule is restricted to limited spheres.

A slightly different view, albeit grounded in individualism and a broad definition of civil society, goes one step further. Civil society is more than a sphere outside the state that is protected from governmental rule. It also acts as a countervailing force, which balances and subsequently controls state power. In this perspective, a civil society counterbalancing and controlling the state is essential to complement democratic state institutions, ensure the functioning of democratic rules and regulations, and prevent the centralization of state powers.

The interpretation of civil society as a countervailing power is based on Tocqueville and Montesquieu, both liberal thinkers concerned with the dangers of despotism. Legitimate rule based on checks and balances as evident in Montesquieu’s division of powers was regarded as the effective mechanism to counter despotism. Tocqueville was also concerned with the dangers inherent in an egalitarian society and feared “democratic despotism”. In his view, the equality and the rule of the many was undermining the achievements of cultural life and endangering the freedom of the individual. His solution entails the reinforcement of liberal institutions as e.g. local self-government, free press, and independent associations in order to balance the power of the state. Subsequently, civil society is understood as the organization of strong and autonomous groups that balance the state.21 Such a view is evident in the following definition:


“Civil society is that set of diverse non-governmental institutions, which is strong enough to counterbalance the state, and, whilst not preventing the state from fulfilling its role of keeper of the peace and arbitrator between major interests can nevertheless prevent the state from dominating and atomizing the rest of society” (Gellner 1995: 32).

Civil society is consequently a strong force able to counterbalance and to control the state without preventing it from fulfilling its necessary tasks.

2.1.2 The Pluralist Approach - Civil Society and the Plurality of Organized Collective Interests


A different viewpoint stresses the importance of the plurality of civil society organizations and associations as the building block for modern democracy. Similarly to Hegel, who in his Philosophy of Rights assigned corporations the important task of mediating between civil society and the powers of the state, major importance is given to organizations and associations that act as an intermediary sphere between society and state and mediate the plurality of interests to the state (Streek 1987: 472). Such a viewpoint applies an all-embracing understanding of civil society including particular and economic interests.

The basic element that links society and state is not the individual citizen and his/her interests but large organizations and organized collective interests. These organizations mediate citizen’s interest to the state and thus ensure accountable government. One must note, however, that this holds only if certain assumptions apply: (1) individual citizens in their position as organizational members equally determine the politics of their organization, and (2) the various organizations enjoy equal opportunities to influence decision making processes, and that the various interests of society are equally represented and accounted for by political power holders.

Critics point out that neither assumption is supportable. Large organizations are seldom run by their individual (often inactive) members, rather by small and powerful committees. Moreover, the degree of organizational representation as well as the capacity for collective action varies strongly in different sectors. Depending on the size of the organization and the availability of resources, some find it easier to organize effectively than others.22 


Pluralist approaches additionally point to the capacity of an organized civil society to peacefully resolve conflicts by mediating various interests. Social group conflict that runs along the line of major cleavages has the potential of disintegrating society in a way that makes democracy an uncertain goal. This is especially the case if different cleavages mix and accumulate:

“Where a number of historic cleavages intermix and create the basis for ideological politics, democracy will be unstable and weak, for by definition such politics does not include the concept of tolerance” (Lipset 1981: 74).


However, a society that is organized in a way that crosscuts major historical cleavages stabilizes a democratic system, if individuals are members of different associations, and espoused to cross-pressures:

”The available evidence suggests that the chances for stable democracy are enhanced to the extent that groups and individuals have a number of crosscutting, politically relevant affiliations. To the degree that a significant proportion of the population is pulled among conflicting forces, its members have an interest in reducing the intensity of political conflict” (ibid: 77p.).


Multiple membership in various organizations thus results in a readiness for compromise and the integration of interests. A plurality of civil society organizations is therefore regarded as a guarantor of peaceful conflict-resolution.

2.1.3 Critical Democracy Theory - Civil Society and the Political Public Sphere

At the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s the concept of civil society was revitalized as ”the primary locus for the potential expansion of democracy under ’really existing‘ liberal-democratic regimes“ (Arato/Cohen 1992:viii). The “democratic question” was raised again and civil society as a means to self-organization and self-government was seen as the solution to problems inherent in contemporary democratic systems endangered by neo-corporatist arrangements cast by influential interest groups. Civil society was hence potentially a way of achieving “more democracy” (Rödel / Frankenberger / Dubiel 1989) and “deliberative democracy” (Habermas 1996). Based on the discourse ethics developed by Habermas and applying the theory of communicative action, in this view the critical potential of civil society is rooted in its capacity to create autonomous forms of discourse and to facilitate the institutionalization of discourses.

Civil society is thus the sphere in which citizens can debate freely and independently of the state and other authorities. In other words, it connects private citizens with a public sphere “dominated by mass media and large agencies, observed by market and opinion research, and inundated by the public relations work, propaganda, and advertising of political parties and groups” (Habermas 1996: 367). This ability is of utmost importance as the public sphere is regarded as the major element linking the private segments of society and state:


”In complex societies, the public sphere consists of an intermediary structure between the political system, on the one hand, and the private sectors of the lifeworld and functional systems, on the other” (ibid: 373).

Civil society enables citizens to contribute and shape the discourse taking place in the political public sphere and gain public influence on the political process. It therefore has the potential to legitimize democratic decision making, to enhance the acceptance of democratic procedures and to contribute to deliberate, i.e. publicly debated and legitimized decision-making. Moreover, actors of civil society are concerned with revitalizing and enlarging civil society and the public sphere.


Civil society therefore obtains a radical democratic and emancipatory potential. However, this is relatively limited. Only if the gained influence passes through the filters of the institutionalized procedures of democratic opinion and will formation and is channeled through parliamentary debates into legitimate lawmaking, public influence is transformed into what Habermas calls “communicative power” (ibid: 371). The public sphere and civil society consequently only have radical democratic potential within and with the constitutionally institutionalized decision-making process, in other words, within the democratic state.

The concept of civil society put forward by writers such as Arato/Cohen and Habermas differs greatly from the traditional Hegelian model of a bürgerliche Gesellschaft, pictured as a ‘system of needs’, or more specifically as a market system with social labor and commodity exchange. Civil society is understood as a third sphere distinct from political and economic society and independent of both: state and market. It is private in content and public in character and consists of the public spheres of societal communication and voluntary association. 23


”Civil society is composed of those more or less spontaneously emergent associations, organizations, and movements that, attuned to how societal problems resonate in the private life spheres, distill and transmit such reactions in amplified form to the public sphere. The core of civil society comprises a network of associations that institutionalises problem-solving discourses on questions of general interest inside the framework of organized public spheres” (Habermas 1996: 367).

Social movements and citizens initiatives are regarded as “the dynamic element in processes that might realize the positive potentials of modern civil societies” (Arato/Cohen 1992: 492), for the main reason that they “are capable of influencing policy and molding political culture without entry into the field of power politics and without necessarily endangering liberal or democratic institutions” (ibid: xviii). In contrast to formalized institutions of the state and large mass organizations, social movements and citizens’ initiatives by intellectuals, concerned citizens, radical professionals, and self-proclaimed “advocates” have the “advantage of greater sensitivity in detecting and identifying new problem situations” (Habermas 1996: 381). They have the capacity to mobilize the public by effectively and dramatically presenting new issues, while relying in part on sensational actions, mass protests, and persistent campaigning.

2.1.4 Civil Society and Social Capital 

The work of Alexis deTocqueville points to a further aspect of civil society: The capacity of civil society to act as a ‘school of democracy’. In this sense, a variety of voluntary and free associations form, habituate and enshrine in their members civil qualities such as tolerance, trust and the willingness to compromise, subsequently creating a political-participatory potential that immunizes society against illegitimate interventions. Civil society organizations thus stimulate the civil qualities necessary to prevent despotic rule. They consist of citizens capable and willing to stand up for their rights and to participate in democratic politics. As a result, voluntary organizations stabilize a democratic order and subsequently build the heart of a functioning democracy. Following this perspective, civil society socializes its members by developing civil qualities inevitable for democracy. 24


The most famous contemporary scholar, who falls back on and modifies this basic idea is Robert Putnam. He sees “social capital” as the key to making democracy work (Putnam 1993). Social capital is thereby defined as follows:

“Social capital (…) refers to features of social organization, such as trust, norms, and networks, that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions” (Putnam 1993: 167).


Social capital and its elements social trust, norms of generalized reciprocity and horizontal networks of civic activity contribute to economic as well as institutional success by facilitating coordinated actions and spontaneous cooperation for mutual benefit. Social capital is thus the basic clue that holds society together.

Social networks and networks of civic commitment are conceived as an essential element of social capital as they play a major role in creating both mutual trust and norms of generalized reciprocity. Networks of civic commitment have this powerful effect for various reasons:


“Networks of civic commitment increase the potential costs to a defector in any individual transaction (…), (…) foster robust norms of reciprocity (…), (…) facilitate communication and improve the flow of information about trustworthiness of individuals (…) (and) (…) embody past success at collaboration”…(ibid: 173p).

Social networks, voluntary associations and organizations are the important elements that bring about a stable democracy. However, not all associations are equally equipped in facilitating social cooperation. Only organizations that are horizontally structured are capable to achieve that goal. Horizontally ordered groups such as sport clubs, cooperatives, mutual aid society or cultural associations are best suited to positively contribute to good governance. In summary, civil society consists of small, non-hierarchical self-organized entities, which ensure personal contact. Only then can inter-personal trust and stable social norms and values develop. In the words of Putnam: “Good government in Italy is a by-product of singing groups and soccer clubs, not prayer” (ibid: 176).

Putnam’s analysis, however, provides a bitter bill for countries that lack deep traditions of civic life and cannot look back to a history marked by a flourishing community life, guilds, neighborhood associations, tower societies or other forms of civic commitment. The only advice left to them is “get a history” (Pridham 1994). Pointing to the persistency and astonishing constancy of traditions of civic involvement even in times of extensive social change (1993: 148pp), Putnam leaves countries with the “wrong” history little hope for a stable democratic order.

2.1.5 Communitarian Approaches - Civil Society and Small Communities


Communitarians stress a further function of civil society: the ability of civil society to create identity, solidarity and an encompassing interest.

Communitarianism evolved from the criticism of liberalism. As a result, communitarians can not be comprehended as a coherent school, rather as a group of diverse critics of liberalism. The main argument common to all states that a liberal society undermines the very conditions on which it relies and consequently cannot unfold its functions. The critic circles around the perception of individuals seen as “unencumbered selves” (Sandel 1984) or ‘atomized individuals’. Humans are instead social beings whose identity is formed in communities. Without an interest oriented at the common good and without a (republican) civic virtue, civic commitment, solidarity and an encompassing interest, the very basis on which individuals and individual rights rely will be undermined.25 

The communitarian literature on civil society is nurtured by the fear that associational life in the “advanced” capitalist and social democratic countries is at risk (see e.g. Sandel 1984; Walzer 1995). The steady attenuation of everyday cooperation and civic friendship as well as networks through which civility is produced and reproduced have been neglected. Only social networks and communities have the capacity to build a social character and a civic virtue inevitable for collective life and democracy by re-producing codex of behavior. Not universal values postulated in a Kantian tradition, rather traditions of protest and reform are decisive. Communitarians thus stress the importance of small communities and networks on identity and on social life.


Civil society is seen as the autonomous sphere on which communities and a collective identity can take shape. Walzer (1995) comprehends civil society as the re-vitalization of social networks and as a society with collective identity which is oriented at the public good and at an encompassing interest. Civil society incorporates on the one hand institutions and organizations of societal self-organization, on the other hand, a political culture based on civic virtue.

2.1.6 The Third Sector Approach - Civil Society and Effectiveness 

A further approach to civil society that is disconnected to classical accounts of civil society became prominent under the heading of the “Third Sector” and thus placed emphasis on the distinction of civil society organizations from the state and market. In contrast to critical democracy theory that stresses the participatory potential and political role of NGOs, the Third Sector approach originally underlines the efficiency of NGOs in providing services. Civil society and its organizations are in this sense more efficient than the state and the market in performing certain tasks. The research on the “third” or “nonprofit” sector thus originated from the “crisis of the state” and in particular the crisis of the welfare state (Anheier/Salamon 1999: 4) and points to the capacity of NGOs to compensate for state as well as market failure. Non-governmental organizations, so the argument goes, possess comparative advantages over the state and market. On the one hand, NGOs enjoy more public confidence and trust than the market. On the other hand, NGOs are seen as more flexible, innovative and cost-efficient than the state in providing services (see e.g. Brunnengräber/Walk 2000). Although the research on the Third Sector is grounded in concerns of the diminishing state capacity to fulfill social services, its scope widened in recent years due to the rise and growing importance of NGO activities in policy fields such as development, environment, minority issues and so forth. Attention shifts to the political and participatory role of NGOs and to the role of NGOs as carriers of civil society. This shift is evident in a new terminology that is increasingly applied: the term “non-governmental organization” is increasingly replaced by the term “civil society organizations” stressing the postulated civil society potential of NGOs. Third Sector organizations are thereby defined as follows: “formally structured, independent, voluntary, self-organized and non-profit oriented non-governmental organizations” (Piller 1999: 13, see also Anheier/Salamon 1999: 3/4).26 

Despite the shift of the Third Sector research from an exclusive focus on NGOs as savior of the Welfare state to the democratic potential of civil society organization one important feature of the literature prevails: efficiency. NGOs or CSOs are regarded as more efficient than state and market in providing services. It has been argued that the service function of civil society is responsible for its global attractiveness. Keane (1998:34p), for example, attributes the global spread and attractiveness of the concept to a disillusionment with state-centered concepts. Global markets, transnational relations penetrating state borders, and global problems shed doubt on the ability of the territorial nation-state to fulfill basic functions.


“The current ‘globalization’ of the language of civil society is overdetermined … by the dysfunctions resulting from “the overreach of the state” (Chandhoke), and by the spreading conviction that only civil societies can do certain things, or perform certain functions best” (ibid.).

As a result “the NGO” is perceived as a strange amalgamation of an efficient “service deliverer” and a politically active “advocacy group” that contributes to stable democracy by minimizing state activity on the one hand and by increasing citizen participation on the other.

2.1.7 Summary


It was made clear that the concept of civil society has traveled far through time and space thus acquired various connotations and different meanings. One similarity of various approaches can be identified however. The concept of civil society is and has always been normative and refers to a democratic ideal. The outlined visions of civil society all point to the importance of a vibrant civil society for a stable, legitimate and efficient democratic system.

The mechanisms that allow for the democratic contribution of civil society are, however, poles apart. Reduced to bare bones, the various virtues of civil society can be summarized under labels that refer to the major beneficial influence of civil society on democracy: In this way, seven major functions of civil society can be identified: (1) the protective function (the ability to create a space independent of and protected from the state); (2) the control function (the ability to build a countervailing power, inhibiting the centralization of state powers); (3) the coordination and mediation function (the ability to represent various interests of society, act as an intermediary between state and the individual and provide conflict resolution mechanisms); (4) the communicative function (the ability to communicate people’s concerns to the public sphere and reflexively stabilize and widen civil society and the public sphere); (5) the socialization function (the ability to “teach” democratic behavior and to mobilize society), (6) the solidarity function (the ability to build identity and solidarity), and (7) the service function (the ability to fulfill certain tasks more efficiently than the state and the market).

It is not the purpose of this study to examine, verify or falsify these democratic virtues of civil society.27 For this work the connection between civil society and democracy is only of importance in this regard as it is responsible for the prominence of the concept among scholars and practitioners alike. Without the widely believed positive effects of civil society on democracy , external actors would hardly aim to strengthen civil society from the outside. Civil society assistance would not exist and arouse our interest.


Before I embark upon the problem of defining and operationalizing the normative concept of civil society, one caveat is in order. One should restrain from aggregating the democratic virtues of civil society regardless of the theoretical contemplation on which each beneficial influence is based. Abstracting the democratic functions of civil society from the underlying understandings of civil society and thus neglecting that these interpretations are based on diverse assumptions of the self, society and the state, leaves the concept of civil society open to arbitrariness. One may doubt whether civil society can fulfill all functions simultaneously. Being involved as a representative of particular interests in the political decision making process impedes the ability to act as a ‘watch-dog’ of state decisions. A civil society organization is therefore unlikely to simultaneously play the role of a countervailing power and an intermediary. An uncritical accumulation of the different functions is thus not possible (Lauth/Merkel 1997: 29).

2.2 Studying Civil Society 

In the following I aim to solve the puzzle how the normative concept of civil society can be studied empirically. In this regard, three main problems are at stake: First, a definition of civil society is needed that is open to empirical research, on the one hand, and preserves the normative orientation of the concept on the other hand. As made clear above, the concept of civil society points to a utopian ideal how society should be. Most accounts stress the beneficial effects of civil society on democracy. However, they fail to identify clear indicators for research. Second, one may raise doubt whether the concept of civil society is at all applicable in transforming societies and newly established democracies. Critics point to the origins of civil society as a purely Western concept that does not travel easily in other cultural and historical contexts (see e.g. Hann 2000). Not only has the concept been developed in Western Europe, civil society in the West also grew over a long period of time, in a historic process that is inevitably connected to the establishment of a bourgeois middle class, and an economy based on commodity production in the 18th and 19th century. For all these reasons, one needs to pose the question whether civil society can be transferred into other contextes. Third, an empirical analysis of civil society requires observable indicators.

This section argues that these problems can be solved if we disconnect the organizations of civil society from the cultural basis of civil society and study both separately. To differentiate between what I call the ‘structural dimension’ and the ‘cultural dimension’ of civil society is promising in two aspects. First, a distinction between the structural and the cultural dimension of civil society allows us to pinpoint different stages of civil society development, and thus to focus on civil society in transforming societies. This method thus reconciles empirical and normative claims, and enables us to describe the actual in relation to the ideal. Second, concentrating on both dimensions separately facilitates the search for adequate indicators of research. Before I proceed to propose a dynamic model of civil society development and identify appropriate indicators of research, in the following I clarify how civil society will be understood in this analysis.

2.2.1 Defining Civil Society 


Every empirical research that focuses on civil society faces the problem of defining what civil society is and which entities and qualities characterize a vibrant civil society. As made clear above, this endeavor is problematic for two reasons. On the one hand, most accounts of civil society lack definitional clarity. On the other hand, civil society is taken as a means to achieve anything desirable. Due to the sharp contrast between the vague definition of the term and the idealistic image of civil society, the concept has been criticized for risking arbitrariness, and lacking empirical scrutiny. In the words of Keane (1998: 36):

“There are even signs that the meanings of the term “civil society” are multiplying to the point where, like a catchy advertising slogan, its risks imploding through overuse”.


In general, civil society refers to a sphere between the state and the individual and to formally organized forms of societal life. Most theorists agree that civil society consists of freely generated, voluntary (unforced), autonomous (independent), self-organized (self-constituted, self-mobilized), formally institutionalized (through laws and subjective rights) spheres of social life. A further main definitional characteristic of civil society on which all modern definitions of civil society agree is negative: civil society is not the state or independent of the state.28

There is disagreement whether civil society incorporates the private or intimate sphere (as e.g. assumed by Walzer (1995) or Arato/Cohen (1992)) and the market (as e.g. postulated by Diamond (1994), Shils (1997)).

This study only focuses on formally established organizations that act publicly. As outlined above, the term civil society traditionally refers to the distinction between the private and the public sphere. The factor that characterizes a civil society is that citizens interact and trust others they do not know. Civil society is thus the realm where citizens leave their close circles of family and friends and interact not on the basis of sympathy or clan loyalty but in order to achieve a common interest or to advocate a common idea. For these reasons, the understanding of civil society applied in this study excludes the private and intimate sphere of the family and relational networks.


Furthermore, civil society as understood in this work is distinct from what has been called “political society” and “economic society” (see Linz/Stepan (1996); Merkel et al (2000), Howard (2003)). Whereas the former encompasses societal actors that participate in politics (e.g. leadership of political parties), the latter refers to economically oriented societal organizations such as firms or financial institutions. Following the line of argument of Habermas (1996) and Arato/Cohen (1992), civil society is the sphere where people organize not primarily in order to make a profit, as is the rationale of economic actors, or to achieve power, the driving force behind actors of the political society (although power and profit may be a side-effect). Instead citizens group together in order to jointly and autonomously solve their daily problems and press through their common interests without relying on the state or the market. Howard (2003: 35) further separates economic and political society on the one hand and civil society on the other by the distinction between the elite and mass level.

“In civil society, individual members can effect or prevent change by acting through their organization. In both economic society and political society, however, individual elites still have the power to control policies, even when they are not acting within, or on behalf of, an organization” (ibid).


In other words, civil society is the realm that enables citizens to participate in politics and to pursue their interests despite their lack of power and financial resources.29 

So far I have defined civil society as a sphere between the state and market that consists of freely established, voluntary, autonomous, self-organized, formally established associations, groups and non-governmental organizations. Although this definition corresponds with how most people (as e.g. donors, see chapter 3.4) comprehend civil society, it still does not suffice to fully grasp the notion of civil society. A definition that merely focuses on non-state associations and organizations fails to enshrine the normative assumptions of the concept. Critics point out that the mere existence of independent and voluntary associations and organizations does not suffice to stabilize a democratic system (e.g. Berman 1997). Organizations that fit the above definition may threaten or undermine a democratic system – terrorist, nationalist or racist organizations such as the ETA or the Ku Klux Klan are unlikely to contribute to more democracy. Additionally, society may organize along ethical or racial lines. In such a case, civil society is not cross-cutting, but instead cements and even intensifies social conflict (Lauth/Merkel 1997: 28). Membership in various independent and cross-cutting organizations is therefore regarded as a major building block of civil society:


“Civil society must depend upon the ability to escape any particular cage; membership of autonomous groups needs to be both voluntary and overlapping if society is to become civil” (Hall 1995: 15).

If we define civil society by a mere focus on its organizations, neglecting the purpose of these organizations, their internal structure and membership, we have to take into account that civil society may reveal dark sides which undermine or hinder democratization.

In answering this criticism Gellner (1995: 32) points out that not every set of autonomous groups creates a civil society:


“Such (broad) definition would include under the notion of ‘civil society’ many forms of social order which in fact would not satisfy us, or those who have in recent years felt inspired by this slogan”.

Gellner’s answer points to a ‘modular man’, a free individual neither caged by kings nor by kinship groups. Others, such as Habermas, stress the importance of a liberal political cultural as a necessary basis of civil society:


”A robust civil society can develop only in the context of a liberal political culture and the corresponding patterns of socialization, and on the basis of an integral private sphere; it can blossom only in an already rationalized lifeworld. Otherwise, populist movements arise that blindly defend the frozen traditions of a lifeworld endangered by capitalist modernization” (Habermas 1996: 371)

Similarly, different writers point to an attached morality, a cultural, moral or ethical basis, an ethical life (Sittlichkeit) (Hegel), a “civic ethos” (Offe 2000a), a “civic culture” (Almond/Verba 1963), or “civilizational competence” (Sztompka 1993) as inevitable characteristics of civil society.30 Without the basis of appropriate moral qualities and patterns of behavior, civil society is not “civil” and fails to exert the beneficial influence on democracy outlined above. Civil society ensures coordinated action and peaceful conflict resolution under the condition of anonymity in complex societies. Complex societies are characterized by the fact that it is impossible for the citizens to know each other on a personal basis. This anonymity severely constrains collective action. How can I be sure that the other does not deceive me if I never have seen him before and cannot be sure of ever seeing him again? The answer points to the cultural basis of civil society that generates mutual trust and reciprocity. A civic ethos here does not consist of a common set of mutually shared values. Civil society is not a community of faith inspired by a common public good, a corporatist ideal, for which each individual is willing to sacrifice him or herself. Instead it is a culture of a society of “modular man” who trust their fellow citizens not because they follow the same vision of the future but because one can trust that they do not damage one’s own vision of the future. The cultural basis of civil society thus consists first and foremost of a mutually shared understanding on what is wrong and what is right and the strong confidence that legal regulations are legitimate and binding and that (unknown) others equally comply with the same set of rules that ensure a “civilized” co-existence (see e.g. Offe 2000a). In this way, civil society generates reciprocal trust, respect and tolerance of others, merits without which peaceful conflict resolution is hardly possible.31 Besides the trust in others, civil society also relies on the trust in oneself, i.e. in one’s ability to bring about change or to inhibit changes that are not in one’s interest.


The inevitable consequence this contemplation suggests is that civil society consists of more than structural features, i.e. voluntary and independent associations and organizations of social life. It additionally requires a certain culture consisting of moral qualities such as tolerance and trust as well as a declared conviction that conflict can be solved in a peaceful manner and that citizens have the right and the might to criticize the state and to participate in politics if they see a necessity to do so. Moreover, civil society is in need of rule and law and a legitimate political system. Without the conviction that legal rules are binding and that political leaders are accountable to the same rules and respond to societal needs, actors of civil society soon lose the confidence that their actions will make a difference. The relationship between state and civil society is thus not one of confrontation and threat, rather reciprocal and interactive (Howard 2003: 38). Hall (1995: 16) describes this relationship as follows:

“The image of the state that suits civil society is that of eighteenth-century Britain in which state and society interacted continuously, with state capacity being increased by the ability to work through notables who accepted this because they trusted an institution – their institution – that they could control. The expression that catches this notion best is that applied by Samuels (…) a ‘politics of reciprocal consent’”.


In summary, civil society as understood in this analysis is a sphere of organized social life between the state and market. It is composed of freely created, voluntary, autonomous, self-organized, formally established associations, groups and non-governmental organizations, and based on a certain culture, a civic ethos, i.e. moral qualities and patterns of behavior without which it fails to exert its beneficial influences on democracy. Finally, civil society needs a legitimate and legal order to flourish.

Civil society thus needs what is assumed to generate: a civic ethic and moral qualities such as tolerance and trust, on the one hand, and a democratic order and stable democratic institutions on the other. This reciprocity is the very reason why the concept of civil society is criticized for lacking empirical scrutiny. In the words of Hall (1995: 2), one can conclude:


“Civil society is complicated, most notably in being at one and the same time a social value and a set of social institutions.”

2.2.2 A Dynamic Model of Civil Society 

With the definition of civil society derived above in mind, we now may raise the question: how can the originally Western concept of civil society develop in different cultural settings? If a democratic order as well as an appropriate cultural basis is a prerequisite for a vibrant civil society, how can we expect civil society to develop in contexts that lack these conditions? Furthermore, the institutions and moral qualities of civil society have been developed in the West over a long period of time and not for instrumental reasons – i.e. means to stabilize a democratic and capitalist system - but for their own sake as a value in itself (Offe 2000a: 92). Lauth/Merkel (1997: 16) rightly point out that the protagonists of civil society who point to the democratic virtues of civil society as a means of stabilizing new democracies obliterate the fact that theoretical approaches to civil society concentrate on established democracies. In transforming societies, where democratic institutions as well as institutions of civil society are weak, civil society does not contribute to democracy per se, but the beneficial effects of civil society on democracy vary. For all these reasons, civil society is – according to its critics - unlikely to take root in other historical and cultural settings. Contradicting this view, Keane for example (1998) points to the prominence of the concept in other cultures and proclaims the adoptability of the concept. Schmitter (1997: 251) argues:


“While the historical origins are unequivocally rooted in Western Europe, the norms and practices of civil society are relevant to the consolidation of democracy in all cultural and geographic areas of the world…”.

The question arises, however, how civil society originates in contexts that are unfavorable to its development. How can the above citied norms and practices of civil society that are relevant to the consolidation of democracy develop, if neither citizens with an “appropriate spirit” nor binding democratic regulations are in place? How do we solve the puzzle that civil society needs what it is assumed to generate?

The solution of Croissant/Lauth/Merkel (2000) points to different types of civil society with a varying impact on democratization. They identify five criteria which determine the degree to which civil society impedes or enhances democratization.32 Depending on these five criteria civil society is either “ambivalent”, i.e. less beneficial to democracy, or “reflexive”, meaning that it contributes to the consolidation of democracy. Kocka (2000: 15) makes the point that in the 18th century civil society was seen as a process of continuing civilization. Civil society described the utopian vision of a future society (ibid: 16). Following both arguments, this study proposes a dynamic model of civil society, which conceives civil society as a process. On the one hand civil society is an (unattainable) utopian ideal. On the other hand it relates to the process of civil society development. In this regard civil society is not a fixed and unchangeable state of society, but may take various forms which are more or less ‘civil’. These forms are best described by the state of the two dimensions of civil society: the structural and cultural dimension of civil society. It is plausible that in transforming societies and new (and even old) democracies the two dimensions of civil society are not equally well developed. Four ideal types of civil society development are thus conceivable (see table 1).33 


Table 1: Ideal Types of Civil Society Development

The unlikely first case determines a lack of non-state associations and organizations as well as a lack of the moral qualities and civic spirit of civil society.

Secondly, civil society in a given country may consist of various associations and organizations, while its citizens lack the moral qualities and patterns of behavior that typify a vibrant civil society. In this case, an elaborated structural dimension of civil society contrasts with a poor cultural dimension of civil society. Croissant et al (2000: 37) speak in this regard of an ambivalent society, i.e. organizations of civil society are based on particular interests, clientelism or ethnic or national bonds. This type of ‘uncivil’ society cements national or ethical or other societal cleavages and is highly conflict-ridden. In the context of this study, a further case of a structural civil society is of importance. Organizations of civil society may be detached from society and local demands. In this case, non-state organizations and associations have no local constituencies and are not driven by indigenous concerns. They are not the result of the self-organization of society, but have been formed to satisfy the interests of other actors. On the one hand, these may be political or economic elites that use non-governmental organizations as a means to get power or to make profit – in this regard we speak of GONGOs (governmental oriented NGOs). On the other hand, external actors, namely foreign donor organizations, use NGOs in order to implement their programs (see in detail chapter 3). Such DONGOs, thus donor-oriented NGOs or GONGOs, are like a supplementary social stratum or façade of civil society and cannot develop the virtues of civil society described above.


In the third case, organizations of civil society reveal the above mentioned ”civic ethos”. Those are few in number though. In this case, which I label as elite civil society, only few citizens are organized and only a limited number of rather homogenous groups based on a set of shared values and norms exist. An elite civil society is based on solidarity and trust between its members. Social diversity is downplayed. Civil society is regarded as a unitary agent in order to achieve a high degree of solidarity and identity needed to preserve the (largely informal) organizations in spite of lacking (formal) rights. The circles of Central and Eastern European dissidents and illegal protest movements that opposed communist regimes before 1989 are a case in point (see Ogrodzinski 1995). The small number of (informal) groups and organizations here is the result of an authoritarian state which does not grant free citizen rights and suppresses the development of free spheres independent of the state. Nonetheless, throughout the communist period partly legal, partly illegal citizen initiatives existed that were outside the control of the communist state. These “small circles of freedom” acted as if the free organization of society were possible, and aimed to “be constantly and incessantly visible in public life” (Michnik 1985 cit. in Matynia 2001: 921). Their actions were based on a moral concept of society as the sphere of citizens living in “truth” and “dignity”. Values within society were contrasted with the ambiguities of the Communist regime thus praising the former and de-legitimizing the latter.34 

Finally, an elaborated structural and cultural dimension describes the last ideal type of civil society development, what has been called a “classical” (Ogrodzinski 1995) or “reflexive” (Croissant et al 2000) civil society. Here the connection with democratization is appropriate as civil society fully contributes to more democracy. However, this ideal is to be comprehended as a utopian stage which can hardly be observed in any country, neither in the East nor the West.

The proposed dynamic model of civil society which conceptualizes civil society as a process to a future ideal and not as a fixed state allows to us to study civil society empirically, without losing the normative orientation of the concept. Civil society always contributes to democracy. However, civil society is the concept that describes the ideal we aim to achieve while the state of associational life may be elite-oriented or structural.

2.2.3 Indicators for Research 


The following section tackles the question how to analyze the structural and the cultural dimension of civil society empirically. What observable indicators describe the two dimensions of civil society? While the observation of the structural features of civil society, i.e. voluntary and autonomous associations and organizations, does not seem very problematic, the empirical description of a “civic ethos” poses a challenge.

As understood in this analysis, the structural component of civil society encompasses any institutionalized form of societal life that is freely created, formally established, voluntary, autonomous, self-organized and is neither the state nor market. The structural dimension of civil society thus coincides with what has recently been labeled the “non-governmental sector”, the “Third Sector” or the “nonprofit sector”.The Third Sector, and thus the structural dimension of civil society, is commonly described by using the number of organizations and their distribution according to major fields of activity as indicators.35 Studies that concentrate on civil society in CEE often additionally include the registration date of NGOs in the analysis in order to demonstrate the development and the growth of non-governmental civil activity in these countries.36 Additionally, the regional distribution of NGOs is important in transition states. More often than not, NGOs firstly form in the capital and in large cities. An equal regional distribution of NGOs is thus a sign of a more advanced civil society. Howard (2003: 52pp) further points to the importance of organizational membership in describing civil society. He makes clear that the exclusive focus upon registered organizations neglects the fact that many of those organizations may simply exist on paper but in fact have ended their activities. Additionally, many organizations often have a small membership, a phenomenon that is especially striking in post-communist states. The number of members often barely exceeds the minimum number of members required for registration (usually three to seven members) (ibid). In sum, the more people are freely and voluntarily organized or participate in and contribute to institutionalized forms of social life and the more organizations exist and the more pluralistic they are, the more developed the structure of civil society will be. The indicators for the structural dimension of civil society are therefore size, inclusiveness and plurality, which are evident in the absolute number of organizations, in organizational membership, in the variety of fields of activity, and in the regional distribution of organizations.

An exclusive focus on non-governmental organizations and the structural dimension of civil society assumes, however, that any NGO is fruitful to democracy – regardless of its internal structure or mission. Critics question the claim that NGOs are “more democratic and better” (Schmidt / Take 1997) than other segments of society and point to the lacking empirical basis of this assumption (e.g. Beyme 2000, Hann 2000). No evidence exists that suggests that NGOs act per se as carriers of civil society.


As pointed out above, civil society consists of more than non-governmental organizations. It additionally requires a civic ethos in order for its virtues to manifest themselves . The cultural dimension of civil society, however, is not easily open to empirical design. This study restrains from using quantitative data on political attitudes and perceptions of the population, a method applied by scholars investigating in political culture.37 Instead I will focus on behavior not attitudes, as the cultural dimension of civil society is evident in moral qualities as well as patterns of behavior. Three main aspects are of relevance in this regard: (1) civic participation and volunteerism; (2) the type of horizontal relationships between NGOs; and (3) the type of relationship between self-organized forms of social life and political leaders and state authorities.

Civic participation and volunteerism go one step further than simple membership, as both describe the active involvement of citizens in associational life. The willingness of citizens to participate in and to contribute to non-governmental organizations is a valuable indicator to measure the degree to which people trust in the usefulness and efficiency of NGOs in bringing about desired changes. If I am not convinced that my actions can make a difference and that NGOs have the capacity to influence politics and to enforce my interests, I am hardly willing to dedicate my time and strength to non-governmental organizations. Civic participation, volunteerism and trust in NGOs thus explain the active citizenry on which civil society relies. Moreover, one should note that organizational membership can be a misleading indicator in CEE. People often prefer to contribute to NGOs without being formal members. This fact is grounded in the thoroughly discredited image of associations that goes back to communist times, when membership in certain organizations was compulsory (see section 2.3. below).

As we saw above, the cultural dimension of civil society ensures mutual trust and facilitates collective action and the mediation of conflicting interests in complex societies. In the words of Hall (1995: 6):


“Civil society is thus a complex balance of consensus and conflict, the valuation of as much difference as is compatible with the bare minimum of consensus necessary for settled existence.”

As a consequence, the type of relationships among the organizations of civil society serves as an indicator of a ‘civil’ society. The question is whether cooperative ties among NGOs exist, whether NGOs are capable of common action and whether the self-organization of society overcomes or cements societal cleavages. If the relationship between NGOs is characterized by growing tension, animosity, envy and distrust and if neither cross-cutting membership nor cooperative networks or umbrella organizations exist and if mechanisms that ensure peaceful conflict resolution and compromise are lacking, non-governmental organizations are hardly based on a civic ethos described above.


Finally, the relationship between actors of civil society and state actors expose the cultural dimension of civil society. As already indicated, mutual trust would not be possible without trust in rules and institutions. The relationship between society and the state is therefore an important aspect of the concept of civil society. Without the state as guarantor of certain liberties, free and voluntary self-organization of society is not possible. A vibrant civil society requires more than the mere existence of liberal rights, though. A responsive government and politicians who believe in the importance of civic participation and who value civil society for its own sake are additionally required. In the words of Claus Offe (2000a: 94):

“…what is needed (for democratic consolidation) is a kind of civic ethos … which … leads sufficiently large parts of the political community to take collective concerns into consideration and to develop some measure of ‘positive external preferences’”.


In the same vein, a vibrant civil society is evident in the strong conviction of leaders of non-governmental organizations that political decision-makers are not acting on their own behalf but in response to societal concerns and that they are accountable to democratic institutions.

“Democracy works best where civil society is in a constructive and mutually supportive relationship with the state, and where citizens take their civic responsibilities seriously” (Bryant/Mokrzycki 1995: 26).


Indicators for such a constructive and mutually supportive relationship are on the one hand the information, consultation or even inclusion of NGO actors in political decision-making. If NGOs are neither informed nor consulted in legislative processes that concern their field of activity, we can hardly assume that they are accepted by state bureaucracy as representatives of society. Moreover, the willingness on the side of state actors to provide a fruitful legal environment for NGOs and to fund public benefit activities of NGOs are indicators of the type of relationship between NGOs and state. On the other hand, NGO actors should trust in democratic institutions and accept state actors as legitimate actors that are accountable to societal interests. Table 2 summarizes the indicators of research.

Table 2: Civil Society: Indicators for Research 

Dimension of civil s o ciety


Indicators for Research

Structural Dimension


Number of civil society organizations


Regional distribution of NGOs

Distribution according to area of activity



Cultural Dimension

Civic participation


Trust in NGOs

Horizontal relationship among NGOs

Networks, cooperative ties, umbrella organizations

Common action, campaigns

Vertical relationship between NGO actors and state actors

Consultation / Information or Inclusion of NGO actors in decision making processes

Willingness on behalf of state actors to provide a fruitful legal environment for NGOs

Public funding opportunities for NGOs

NGO actors trust in democratic order and accept state actors as legitimate

2.2.4 Summary

The aim of this section was to clarify what civil society is and how it can be studied. The main problem in studying civil society lies in the sharp contrast between a vague definition of the term, which mainly points to the organizations of civil society, and the virtues civil society is widely assumed to represent. More often than not, civil society is described less by observable characteristics than by the beneficial influences on democracy which theorists attribute to civil society. It became clear that the concept of civil society describes the utopian ideal of a future state of society and is thus not easily open to empirical scrutiny.


This section argued that the puzzle to empirically analyze a normative concept can be solved by focusing separately on two dimensions of civil society: On the one hand, civil society understood as a sphere of organized social life between the state and market is composed of freely created, voluntary, autonomous, self-organized, formally established associations, groups and non-governmental organizations. This “structural dimension” of civil society thus corresponds with what has been called the “Third Sector” or the “NGO sector”. On the other hand, civil society is based on a certain culture, a civic ethos, i.e. moral qualities and patterns of behavior. Without this “cultural dimension”, civil society fails to exert its beneficial influences on democracy.

The differentiation of the structural and the cultural dimension of civil society has two main advantages. First, it allows us to describe in greater detail the various images of associational life in transforming societies, and relates them to the utopian ideal of civil society. Civil society is thus understood as a process rather than a fixed state of society. Depending on the development of the two dimensions, different states of organized social life can be identified with varying effects on democracy. A structural civil society characterized by a magnitude of non-governmental organizations and a lacking civic ethos may deepen societal conflict as membership may not be cross-cutting. A structural civil society may also be detached from society serving not interests of local constituencies but of external or political actors. An elite civil society characterized by a highly developed cultural but poorly developed structural dimension either points to a small circle of opponents in conflict with an (authoritarian) state or to neo-corporatists arrangements. Finally, a classical civil society describes the (unreachable) utopian ideal of a society that continuously contributes to more democracy (see table 1, page 39). Second, the distinction between the structural and the cultural dimension of civil society allows us to identify indicators of research more clearly. The number of NGOs, the thematic and regional distribution of NGOs and organizational membership determine the structural dimension of civil society. The cultural dimension of civil society is evident in (1) civic participation and volunteerism, in (2) the type of horizontal relations between civil society organizations observable in existing networks and umbrella organizations and the capacity for common action, and in (3) the vertical relationship between organizations of civil society and the state, observable in existing animosities on both sides, in the information, consultation or inclusion of NGO actors in political decision making processes, in the willingness on side of state actors to provide a fruitful legal environment for NGOs, and in public funding opportunities for NGOs (see table 2, page 44).

The dynamic model of civil society suggests that the outcome of civil society assistance depends on the cultural and structural preconditions of civil society in the recipient country. Depending on whether the starting point is no civil society, a structural, or an elite civil society, the outcome of civil society assistance will be different. In other words, the domestic context, and the historic and cultural preconditions of civil society in the respective country are decisive. The following will investigate the preconditions of civil society in the post-communist phase.

2.3 Civil Society in Post-Communism 


The beginning of the 1990s celebrated the glorious victory of civil society over the communist systems in Central and Eastern Europe. Mass protests and opposition movements in the East peacefully brought the end of 40 years of communism and they did this in the name of civil society (see e.g. Ekiert/Kubik 1999). Figures such as Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia, Jacek Kuron and Adam Michnik in Poland or János Kis in Hungary employed the concept of civil society to mark the sharp contrast between the people on the one hand and the hated government on the other. Civil society, so has been argued, was the realm of citizens “living in truth” (Havel), who finally overcame their authoritarian governments.

Several years later, this euphoria was followed by disillusionment. Aleksander Smolnar (1996: 33) points out:


“The ideology of the moral civil society placed its hopes in self-organization, self-help, and citizens’ activities. These hopes stemmed from the belief that “totalitarian” restraints had bound potent social forces which were yearning to operate freely…. however, levels of autonomous social activity have been disappointing.”

Howard (2003) finds out that a strong civil society measured in participation in voluntary organizations is observable in none of the post-communist states in Eastern Europe. Instead his study concludes that with the exception of labour unions, membership in non-governmental organizations in post-communist countries is significantly lower than in post-authoritarian countries and in older democracies (ibid: 63pp). The weakness of civil society in all of Central and Eastern Europe suggests that an existing democratic structure and the right to freely organize and join organizations do not suffice to create a vibrant civil society. What is needed is an active citizenry that is not only willing to organize but also convinced that organized forms of social life can bring about desired changes.

The weakness of civil society in CEE is largely attributed to the legacies of the previous regime. The cultural heritages of the communist past left their strain in political traditions, attitudes and behavioral patterns apparent in post-communist societies and are widely believed to inhibit the upspring of self-organized social activity.38 The experiences under communism and the on-going reinterpretation of those experiences (Howard 2003), the effectiveness of the communist regimes in destroying or greatly weakening traditions and moral norms of civil society (Smolnar 1996: 33p), direct indoctrination, totalitarian control and defensive patterns developed by the citizenry against indoctrination and control (Sztompka 1993: 89) have been named as factors behind the weakness of civil society in post-communism.


Piotr Sztompka (1993: 89) even argues that real socialism not only hinders the appearance of what he calls “civilizational competence”, that is, the cultural basis on which civil society relies, but also results in the reverse, in “civilizational incompetence”. Four main “socialist legacies” discussed below are seen as obstructive to civil society development: (1) the image of social homogeneity and a resulting lack of interest differentiation and representation, (2) a thoroughly discredited image of associations, (3) citizens’ passiveness tied with exceeding claims toward the state as protector and care-taker, and (4) a deep state-society divide.

Socialist societies are marked by social homogenization and the image thereof. The monocentric concept of the state and society engraved in the dictum “dictatorship of the proletariat” stresses the monopoly of political leadership on the one hand and social homogenization on the other. The socialist system seeks the control of society by the state, praises social homogenization, and blocks social differentiation. The official ideology and practice blurs group interests, the planned economy paralyzes entrepreneurship, and the repressive state apparatus preserves the image of a homogenized society39:


“The omnipotent centralized state was in a real fact the main source of all good and evil, thus all social groups... were in a similar position of submission vis a vis the communist state. This was widely known, and it brought about a tendency to perceive the society as homogeneous....” (Frentzel-Zagorska 1993: 167).

It has been argued that the inherited communist image of social homogeneity poses a threat to interest representation and to civil society development. Staniszkis (1991) point to the far-reaching consequences of constituting a polity and policies in the absence of clear interests, as has been the case in post-communist states after regime change. During transition no intermediary organizations exist, which legitimatize the reform steps taken via the mechanisms of conflict mediation, communication and government control. What evolves are “politics in a vacuum” (Staniszkis 1991: 184), politicians that theoretically define non-existing group interests without knowing their constituencies nor their voters.40 Moreover, there are the attitudinal legacies inherent to such a practice. Why should politicians who once used to define “the public good” invest in the development of interest groups that subsequently will interfere with policy formulation? The absence of certain social groups may thus hinder respective state policies that nurture the establishment of interest groups. Or, even worse, it may generate the feeling among politicians that they know best what is in the interest of the people, and that intermediary organizations are superfluous and unwanted competitors. What evolves is ”exclusionary corporatism“, and new authorities that are convinced that “society is not ripe for democracy” (Staniszkis 1991: 21). Ost (1993) points to a further legacy of social homogeneity. In post-communist countries people are largely unaware of what is in their interest and what is not. The lack of interest organization and the lacking awareness thereof leave little room for social mobilization. Protest movements, mostly directed toward the state, are more common practice than effective interest mediation between conflicting groups.41 Furthermore, in communist societies social homogeneity is perceived and valued as a desirable state of society. Equality is thus largely perceived in economic rather than in political terms. A kind of “negative egalitarianism” (Schöpfling 1993: 271) prevails among the population who tends to distrust the representation of the interests of some against the public good of the many. For all these reasons, social homogeneity of post-communist states and especially the image thereof are seen as obstructive to the development of civil society based on the articulation, representation and mediation of pluralist interests.

Another factor that hampers collective action is the thoroughly discredited image of associations apparent in post-communist societies. Under communism the ‘freedom of association’ is replaced by an ‘obligation of association’. Civic organizations and foundations are forbidden or nationalized, and the organizations that do exist function under the control of and for the state. These “social organizations” are neither voluntary nor self-organized but quasi - state organizations, functioning as transmission-belt organizations to ensure the identification and socialization of their members with the state and the official state ideology (Matynia 2001: 920). Social activity and “social actions” are compulsory. Their major aim is not the articulation of individual interests or opinions but to render a service to the collectivity, a collectivity that is regarded as superior to the individual (Schöpflin 1993: 282). After the compulsive duty to join trade unions or youth organizations has been lifted, people choose to use their new freedom negatively and not to associate at all. Citizen participation is thus widely regarded as an unnecessary and useless effort (Fagin 1988).


“Society is still convinced that new forms of civil activity are not any different from the previous pattern of “social actions” which were usually quite unnecessary and ineffective… and which were actually enforced and given their ideology by the state” (Kurczewska / Bojar 1995: 188).

The communist patronage stage is widely seen as a further source of cultural legacies destructive for civic activities. A patronage state has been defined as follows:


“In exchange for the promise of personal provision and security, the patronage state demands (the) surrender of the right to choose and to self-determine” (Baumann 1993: 139).42 

Under communism the people thus are free from solving the small daily problems associated with satisfying basic needs. It is the duty of the state to do so. More than that, the state sees itself as best suited to take care for its subjects. In this sense and quite in contrast to the relationship between citizens and state in liberal societies, it is the state that defines the needs of the citizens. The price for the guaranteed safety, need provision, and ‘freedom from choice’, is high: the subjects have to give up basic rights, most importantly, the right to self-determination, and the right to decide over one’s own fate.


The consequences of such an arrangement are twofold. First, the exchange of guaranteed state supplies for the abandonment of the right of self-determination results in passive subjects with extensive demands toward the state.

“The state was expected to play a near-impossible role. Both initiator and arbitrator, guardian of social welfare and guarantor of freedom” (Schöpflin 1993: 280).


Guaranteeing the satisfaction of basic needs, the patronage state creates citizens that confront the state with extensive demands, which the young democracies are unable to fulfill in face of tight economic budgets. Frustration with the state, who does not meet the high expectations of the people, is thus a consequence that the new governments also feel. Moreover, the resulting passivity and incapability on behalf of the citizens to take care of themselves contradicts the notions of self-organization and social activity and thus obstructs the re-emergence of civil society.

Second, the patron who fails to render the guaranteed services risks losing the legitimacy on which his rule is based. In the words of Zygmunt Bauman (1993: 139):


“...the patron cannot shake off his responsibility for the misfortune of his clients. Frustration is immediately re-forged into a grievance which ‘naturally’ hits back at the patron and his policy as obvious causes of suffering.”

For example by the 1970s in Poland as a result of the deep economic crisis, it became clear that the communist states largely failed to bear the responsibility of the patronage state. This was especially evident in comparison to the developments of the West (Di Palma 1991).43 The increasingly felt illegitimacy of the socialist system contradicted the demanded surrender of basic rights which left no space for free articulation in the public sphere. In consequence, people withdrew from official organizations and returned to the sphere of the family and private life (Matynia 2001: 920). Michnik described this process as a “life in hiding” or as an “inner migration” (cit in Frantz 2000: 163). The evolving gap between the public life that was felt as living an “official lie” and the private life on which the aspirations were focused has been best described by Stefan Nowak at the beginning of the 1970s as a “social vacuum” between the sphere of the family and the nation.44 The discrepancy between “us”, the collective of private and personal ties, and “us”, the nation, in contrast to “them”, the illegitimate political system and the politicians as its representatives, manifested itself in a deep distrust of the state that survived “real socialism”. In the words of Zygmunt Bauman:


“According to every ‘surface’ observation as well as ‘in-depth’ survey of political attitudes, the notorious ‘us’ and ‘them’ posture which many considered as the most pernicious socio-psychological product of the patronage state, survived virtually unscathed one of the most profound political shift in recent history “(1993: 149).45 

In summary, the cultural legacies of communism do not give much hope for the re-emergence of civil society in post-communist states. Communism - the monocentric concept of state and society, the image of social homogeneity, and the patronage state - seems to leave behind passive and alienated citizens who deeply distrust associations as much as state institutions, and who are incapable of identifying their interests and unwilling to articulate and represent them. One has to note, however, that “no absolutely perfect totalitarian system has ever existed” (Kolakowski cit. in Klein 2001: 40). Communist regimes in CEE revealed different shades of “totalitarity”, experienced liberalization periods and were faced with different dissident and oppositional movements. It is left to the case studies of Poland and Slovakia to portray these differences (see chapter 7.1. and 8.1.).

2.4 Conclusion and Implications for Research 

Civil society is a concept with various meanings and connotations. It may include the family and relational ties, the market and economic activity, or contain merely formal organizations that operate outside state and market. Some stress the importance of civil society as a realm free of state intervention, others underline the role of civil society as an intermediary between citizens and the state. Regardless of how civil society is understood, it always has a positive connotation. The opinion that civil society is beneficial to democracy is widely shared by scholars and practitioners alike. More often than not, the term does not describe the actual state of society, but points to a utopian ideal how society should be.


Civil society is understood in this analysis as a sphere of organized social life between the state and market. It is composed of freely generated, voluntary, autonomous, self-organized, formally established associations, groups and non-governmental organizations, and based on a certain culture, a civic ethos, that is, moral qualities and patterns of behavior without which it fails to generate its beneficial influences on democracy. Finally, civil society needs a legitimate and legal order to flourish. The concept of civil society thus contains a structural and a cultural dimension. While the structural dimension points to the organizations of civil society, one could also speak of the “NGO sector” or “Third Sector”, the cultural dimension stresses the importance of an appropriate culture, a “civic ethos” (Offe 2000a) or “civilizational competence” (Sztompka 1993) that ensures a peaceful coexistence among societal groups, tolerance and trust, and a reciprocal and interactive relationship with the state.

The theoretical distinction between the structural and the cultural dimension of civil society has methodological advantages. It allows us to study the connection between associational life and democracy more clearly. Studies of civil society often focus primarily on the organizations of civil society. Counting of organizations, however, reveals little about the stabilizing effect of civil society on democracy. Without an elaborated cultural dimension, a structural civil society may be conflict ridden or detached from societal interests. Similarly, organizations of civil society which are few in number and encompass only a few citizens may be based on moral qualities and civil patterns of behavior. The limitation to a small organized elite, however, does not conform to the idea of a democratic and representative civil society. Depending on the development of the structural and the cultural dimension of civil society, different types of associational life are thus conceivable with varying effects on democracy. In this way, civil society can be analyzed in transforming societies where the pre-conditions for civil society, i.e. its cultural basis and a democratic order, are not yet in place.

What implications do the considerations above have for the subsequent analysis?


The identified indicators of research enable us to analyze the effects of civil society assistance more clearly. Civil society assistance contributes to more civil society if it (1) increases the number and types of non-governmental organizations, (2) contributes to cooperative ties and networks of non-governmental organizations, and (3) facilitates the cooperation and communication between civil society and the state. Civil society assistance is thus successful if it is conducive to the development of the structural and/or the cultural dimension of civil society. The question arises, however, whether civil society assistance will be successful in promoting both dimensions of civil society simultaneously. One may expect that the effects are more likely to be on the structural than the cultural dimension. Building institutions of civil society and thus contributing to a greater number of NGOs appears to be an easy endeavor that can be achieved in a relative short period of time. The allocation of funds that support NGO activities is often sufficient to stir NGO development, especially in a society with a shortage of goods. We thus may expect civil society assistance to result in a strong Third Sector in recipient countries, a sector characterized by well equipped and professional organizations that may even be heard by political actors depending on the openness of the ruling elite. The alternation of moral qualities and patterns of behavior, however, is a more complicated endeavor. It was made clear above that the cultural preconditions for civil society in post-communist states are rather unfavorable. Analysts name passive and alienated citizens as a major legacy of communist rule that severely hampers the upspring of civil society. They are neither willing to nor capable of organizing and articulating their interests. They deeply distrust state authorities and exclusively rely on personal links. Nonetheless, they still accepte state decisions as something given, regardless whether good or bad. This “civilizational incompetence” of post-communist societies needs to be overcome by civil society assistance and replaced with moral qualities and patterns of behavior identified above as necessities for a vibrant civil society. Changing the ways people think and behave is, however, a tricky task. One can assume that it is only to be achieved in a long period of time if at all and may even require change in generations. One may thus expect civil society assistance to simply result into what has been labeled “structural civil society” above and in the development of a NGO sector that remains detached from local constituencies and is mainly concerned with its own interests. It is up to the case studies to reveal whether this expectation holds true and to what extent civil society assistance has been successful in contributing to the development of the cultural dimension of civil society.

Footnotes and Endnotes

15 See Keane (1988) for a detailed description of how this distinction developed.

16 For classical writers on civil society see: Arato / Cohen (1992); Keane (1988).

17 For a description of this “ethical model” of civil society see: Ogrodzinski (1995).

18 For Hegel civil society is not a natural condition of freedom but rather a historically produced sphere of ethical life (Sittlichkeit) positioned between household and state. However, civil society cannot remain civil unless it is ordered politically by a supreme public authority, by the law, the police and by corporations which remedy injustices inherent in a ‘system of needs’ and which synthesizes particular interests (see e.g. Keane 1988).

19 This fact becomes obvious in the German language due to the new usage of the term ‘Zivilgesellschaft’ instead of ‘Bürgerliche Gesellschaft’. While the former is associated with citoyen, a citizen that strives for the common good, the latter focuses on the bourgeois, who strives for his economic well-being.

20 For more on the works of John Locke, see: Braun/Heine/Opolka (1990: 136pp), Schmidt (2000: 66pp).

21 For more on the works of works of Montesquieu and Tocqueville, see: Hall (1995: 7pp), Naßmacher (1997: 297pp, 317pp), Braun/Heine/Opolka (1990: 154), Schmidt (2000).

22 See e.g. Olson (1968), Offe (1972).

23 See Habermas (1996: 366, Cohen/Arato (1992: 410p).

24 See Croissant / Lauth / Merkel (2000: 12), Gabriel et al (2002: 20pp).

25 See Reese-Schäfer (2001).

26 See the literature on the Third Sector: e.g. Klein (1997), Anheier et al (2000), Brunnengräber / Walk (2000), Anheier /Salamon (1999).

27 One should note that the positive correlation between civil society and democracy has been challenged recently (see e.g. Ekiert/Kubik 1999; Lauth/Merkel 1997, Hann 2000). Critics point to a potential “dark side” or “uncivil” sides of civil society (e.g. Lauth/Merkel 1997: 28p). We may, however, conclude with Howard (2003: 44), who points out: “But in the end, while they (the critics of a strong positive relationship between civil society and democracy) might dispute the relative emphasis placed on civil society when compared to other factors, few would actually deny its importance in establishing and sustaining a vibrant and healthy democratic system. And fewer still, if any, would suggest that a weaker civil society would actually be more beneficial for a democracy”.

28 For example, Diamond (1994: 5) defines civil society as: “the realm of organized social life that is voluntary, self-generating, (largely) self-supporting, autonomous from the state and bound by a legal order or set of shared rules.” According to Arato/Cohen (1992: ix) civil society is “… a sphere of social interaction between economy and state, composed above all of the intimate sphere (especially the family), the sphere of associations (especially voluntary associations), social movements, and forms of public communication. Modern Civil Society is created through forms of self-constitution and self-mobilization. It is institutionalized and generalized through laws, and especially subjective rights, that stabilize social differentiation…”. Walzer (1995: 7) sees civil society as …”the space of un-coerced human association and also the set of relational networks – formed for the sake of family, faith, interest, and ideology – that fill this space”. According to Howard (2003: 34) “civil society refers to the realm of organizations, groups, and associations that are formally established, legally protected, autonomously run, and voluntarily joined by ordinary citizens”.

29 One should note that political, economic and civil society may overlap. See Howard (2003: 35pp).

30 See for example: Lauth/Merkel (1997:22); Hildermeier et al (2000: 7p).

31 One should note that the cultural basis of civil society can be understood in two ways. Following a Kantian interpretation morality is seen as a universal obligation. Morality is determined by a state of nature and describes reality as it should be. As already pointed out, this perception is contrasted by the Hegelian concept of Sittlichkeit. Here morality is the achievement of a historical development. Morality and civil behavior do not exist in a state of nature; rather they are the result of education and the process of social interchange. The concept of civil society thereby points to the importance of associations in developing this ethical life. This analysis will apply the second understanding of the term. The cultural basis of civil society is understood as Sittlichkeit which is the result of the historical development a society has undergone. Rather than the universal claim of a Kantian ‘Sollen’, this second perspective allows for different development paths in various societies.

32 The five criteria read as follows: (1) civil society can or cannot be organized around societal cleavages and is hence more or less likely to deepen social conflict and to undermine democratic rule. (2) The relationship between actors of civil society is more or less determined by hierarchical power relationships. (3) Civil society is more or less affected by particular interests. (4) The internal structure of civil society organizations is more or less characterized by democratic procedures in contrast to clientelism. (5) Civil society is more or less representative of society as a whole.

33 One should note that in reality the applied distinction is not as clear cut as proposed here. The structural and cultural dimensions of civil society are connected. On the one hand, a fully inclusive and representative structure is not thinkable without an appropriate cultural basis of tolerance and trust and a belief in the necessity and feasibility of participation. On the other hand an appropriate civic spirit cannot develop outside organizations of civil society.

34 One should note that an elite civil society may not only exist in authoritarian states. If the relationship with the state is one of close cooperation rather than conflict, an under-structured civil society is equally possible. Here small and well organized segments of society maintain regular contact and numerous connections and neo-corporatist arrangements with the state. Intransparency, corruption, nepotism and a lack of representation are likely risks.

35 Several empirical studies on civil society or the ‘non-profit sector’ make use of quantitative data on the number, distribution or registration date of NGOs and associations. See e.g. Anheier/Salamon (1999), Jenkins (1999), Hankiss (1990), Ekiert/Kubik (1999) or the country studies in Civicus (1997).

36 See e.g. Ekiert/Kubik (1999), Miszlievetz/Jensen (1998), see also chapters 7.2.1. and 8.2.1. in this analysis.

37 See e.g. Almond /Verba (1965).

38 See for a discussion of the obscuring effects of socialist legacies on civil society development and democratization among others: Howard (2003), Schmolnar (1996), Sztompka (1993), Lauth / Merkel (1997), Crawford/Lijphart (1995), Schöpflin (1993: 256pp), Kurzewska/Bojar (1995: 187pp), Wesolowski (1995), Ost (1993), Fagin (1998), Frentzel-Zagórska (1993: 165pp).

39 For a description of the socialist state system see: Fehr (1996: 50pp), Wedel (1992).

40 In Poland this puzzle became evident in the words of the first candidate for the Minister of Industry, T. Syryjczyk during the hearings before the Sejm Commission in 1989: “I represent subjects that do not yet exist” (cit. in Staniszkis 1991: 184).

41 This phenomenon is for example studied by Ost for the case of workers protests in Poland after transition. Ost points out that the protests were exclusively directed toward the state and not toward management, despite the withdrawal of the state from firm management (1993: 460). Also a later study confirmed that more often than not, workers protested jointly with the management against the state revealing the malfunctioning of trade unions as workers representation (Ost/Weinstein 1999).

42 This exchange of protection for the abandonment of rights has also been called a “new social contract” (Liehm cit in Matynia 2001: 919), ignoring the fact that one party to the contract, the people, had no real choice whether to sign the contract or not.

43 According to Di Palma (1991) the increasing technological and economic superiority of the West demolished the communist myth of the cognitive superiority of “real socialism” and thus contributed to the loss of legitimacy of the communist patronage state.

44 In a survey Nowak discovered that the Polish people, alienated from the political system of “real socialism”, identified either with their private life and the primary groups of family and friends or with the nation as a whole. Other identities – be it class, regional or occupational identities were non-existent, a fact that resulted in a “social vacuum” between the sphere of the family and the nation (cit. in Frentzel-Zagórska 1993: 167).

45 See also Schöpflin (1993: 267): “… the relationship between the individual and the state was badly distorted in this way. Not surprisingly, the state came to be regarded as remote and abstract, beyond the will and control of the individual, and the institutions of the state as not much more than facades. The elimination of communist systems did not, in itself, change this”. According to Schöpflin this distrust resulted in week institutions due to a continuing belief of the people in persons and not in institutions (ibid: 268). Not the office a person holds, but the personal relationship counts.

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