Viren Murthy. Rethinking Marxism. Volume 11, Issue 3. Fall 1999.
The collapse of the state socialist regimes has rekindled an interest in the concept of civil society. The German political scientist Helmut Dubiel contends that only leftists who have successfully mourned the loss of the ideal of a postcapitalist socialism will be ready to grasp the importance of civil society for political practice. I This essay is an attempt to begin the process of such a mourning while, at the same time, pointing out that in the process of such a mourning, we must not forget Marx’s contribution to political theory-namely, his insistence on the constraints placed on political forms by capitalism. I argue that although postcapitalist socialism may appear as a quixotic goal at the present historical juncture, it is nonetheless not discredited as an ideal: it speaks to the current crisis of welfare-state capitalism and may be more practical sometime in the future. I critically examine the role of civil society in Hegel’s and Marx’s respective political theories, and specifically comment on the way in which the ideal of socialism influences Marx’s concept of civil society. I then consider the arguments of David Held and Helmut Dubiel, who claim that the Hegelian-Marxist notion of civil society is primarily economic and denies political agency. After an examination of Marxist responses to this criticism by Paul Thomas and Moishe Postone, I conclude that Marxists must accept the view that civil society is a political realm and that they should incorporate this idea into their vision(s) of socialism.
Debates on Civil Society
In order to better understand the debate between Marxists and civil-society theorists on the nature of civil society, it is important to be clear about the differences between their respective positions and about what precisely is at stake. The fundamental issue is whether civil society should be considered primarily an economic realm or a sphere of political practice. The idea that civil society is primarily an economic realm has its origins in Hegel and was critically developed by Marx. Both use the term bfirgerliche gesellschaft to refer to an economic realm in which individuals and groups buy and sell commodities, conceiving of civil society primarily as the sphere of economic reproduction. They conclude that this economic society is fundamentally incapable of resolving the contradictions generated therein and, therefore, that it cannot be the site of community. Hegel places his hopes for ethical community in the state while Marx, who believes that the state will be unable to resolve these contradictions, argues that only a revolution that negates capitalism will be capable of resolving the contradictions of civil society and creating the conditions for human community.
The second view of civil society predates the first; its origin can be traced to the Scottish Enlightenment. However, I will be concerned here exclusively with the renaissance of this concept in recent decades. In this tradition, the concept of civil society does more work than it does in the Hegelian and Marxian systems; it represents both a description of modem civil society and a democratic ideal. In contrast with the Hegelian notion of civil society, the political conception stresses that people in civil society are more than just self-interested agents pursuing economic interests; they are also rights holders, union members, newspaper readers, voters and, in general, bearers of many other social and political characteristics. In short, members of civil society must be understood as multidimensionally social (Dubiel 1994, 74). Contemporary civil-society theorists criticize Marx and Hegel for overlooking or downplaying these sociopolitical aspects of civil society.
According to civil-society theorists, civil society also refers to an ideal of democratic practice where citizens, through political practice, influence the state’s decisions. As Dubiel notes, “it refers to the perfectibility [Perfektabilit & spannung] of liberal democracies. In this sense, only political systems that revive a political culture of civil society are really democratic” (69). These theorists are committed to the liberal democratic framework insofar as they advocate strengthening and supporting the institutional separation between civil society and the state, and ensuring certain basic civil liberties. At the same time, they see civil society as the site of democratic control; this implies that institutions in civil society must be intimately connected to the decisionmaking branches of the state. Civil society thus mediates between citizens and the state. Civil-society theorists fault Hegel and Marx for overlooking the possibility of democratic practice within capitalist civil society. It is precisely this neglect of political practice within civil society that leads them either to displace politics to the level of the state (Hegel) or to associate politics primarily with economic power (Marx).
In the early twentieth century, Marxists revised Marx’s original conception of civil society. They saw it as a more complex site, combining both elements of the political conception of civil society. As Dubiel notes:
More than fifty years ago, Marxists as different as Otto Bauer, Antonio Gramsci, and Franz Neuman proposed to conceptualize state-mediated capitalism not as a homogeneous, inimically occupied territory [flendlich besetztes Territorium], but as a dynamic field of compromises of various groups and classes that struggle for predominance within the norms of the civil constitutional state. Antonio Gramsci made this interpretation a basis of a socialist strategy that undermines the classical distinction between revolution and reform … Civil society was, for him, a key embodiment of an ensemble of moral, cultural, and institutional potential, which made it possible to resist the destructive dynamic of capital. Such a strategy does not anticipate the end of a selfidentical capitalism, but strengthens the democratic, socialist, and ecological counterforce within it. (1994, 27-8)
The present essay will trace further some of the implications of this turn for Marxists. The crucial issue in the debate about designating civil society as an economic or political realm concerns the goals and orientation of political practice. Marx’s characterization of civil society as synonymous with capitalism is intimately connected with the goal of attaining a postcapitalist socialism in which neither civil society nor the state would exist. In Marx’s view, civil society is primarily the site of the contradiction between labor and capital, which eventually should result in revolution. Designating civil society as economic, rather than political, also allows Marxists to emphasize the manner in which capitalism tends to encroach on public spaces, greatly influencing political decisionmaking processes. In short, calling civil society an economic realm puts the goal of transforming and transcending capitalism at the center of political practice, and deems capitalism the primary cause of political conflict.
Theorists who emphasize the importance of a strong civil society argue that the dynamic nature of capitalism, the absence of a homogenous working class, and the realities of actually existing socialism should make us rethink the relationship between socialism and civil society. They propose to conceive of socialism as compatible with both civil society and with certain forms of capitalism. However, since civilsociety theorists insist on bringing society under democratic control, their project involves either bringing capitalism under democratic control or finding a more democratic means of economic organization. The crucial point is that the civil-society theorists recognize that so long as there are human communities, there will be political issues to debate. In connection with this, it is essential that there exist both autonomous institutions on the local level (civil society) and a macro apparatus to facilitate them (the state).
Marxists who accept the analysis of the civil-society theorists must sever the direct link between economics and politics. Moreover, the ideal of democracy must take precedence over questions of economic organization. That is, questions about how a given economic structure is to be transformed must be seen as political questions, to be deliberated upon in civil society. Hegel and Marx must nonetheless be credited for alerting us to the manner in which economic structure undermines the formation of communities, and it is to their arguments that I turn.
Hegel’s Conception of Civil Society
In Hegel’s view, the existence of civil society, a realm where people are free to pursue their interests, separates the modern age from earlier stages in history. This realm is crucial for the full development of citizens, since it allows them to form a sense of themselves as individuals having desires independent of the state. The emergence of this type of individual is a special characteristic of modernity and capitalism. It is important to note that Hegel’s interpretation of the modern world is both descriptive and normative. Social structures such as civil society, the family, and the state are descriptive of modernity because they are the institutions that characterize modernity as such. They are normative in the sense that, in Hegel’s view, people must strive to reconcile (versdhnen) themselves to these institutions, since these structures are manifestations of Spirit (Geist) in its most perfected form.
According to Hegel, people in civil society are burgher as opposed to citoyen. Burgher refers to their lives as concrete individuals who pursue their interests, while citoyen refers to their abstract representation by the state. In civil society, citizens have primarily economic concerns and are not involved in any directly political practice. However, political structures and laws must form the parameters for action in civil society. Strictly speaking, civil society consists of three moments: the system of needs, the administration of justice, and provision against contingencies by means of the police and the corporations (1967, par. 188).
The system of needs is closely related to the market system. According to Hegel, “Individuals in their capacity as burghers … are private persons whose end is their own interest. This end is mediated through the universal which thus appears as a means to its realization. Consequently, individuals can attain their own ends only in so far as they themselves determine their knowing, willing, and acting in a universal way and make themselves links in this chain of social connections” (par. 187). Individuals, in pursuing their own interests, must submit themselves to the more universal laws of the market, which eventually will benefit the rest of society. However, Hegel does recognize that the market does not create optimal conditions for everyone; thus, civil society is in need of institutions that can serve to help those who are driven to poverty by market forces. The institutions that serve this need, along with other political functions, are called corporations.
The corporations are societies or associations recognized by the state as corporation bodies (par. 288). “In the broadest sense of the term, corporations include churches [par. 2701 and municipal governments [par. 288]” (Hardimon 1994, 197). From this we see that the term corporation, in Hegel’s view, does not have its contemporary signification of limited-liability business companies. Corporations, as they are described in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, can be compared to our present-day trade unions or to medieval guilds (1967, par. 252). The corporation is like a second family that serves to protect its members from the contingencies of the market.
The members of the corporation are to identify with it in the same way as they identify with their families. Here, it may help to recall Hegel’s definition of the family: “The family as the immediate substantiality of mind, is specifically characterized by love, which is the mind’s feeling of its own unity” (par. 158). A family member identifies with his or her family and strives for the benefit of all its members. Although the bond with other members of a corporation will not have the affective intensity of a family, it still retains some characteristics of the familial bond. A significant difference between the corporation and the family is that a corporation is voluntarily formed, while a family is not. But corporations resemble families in that their members “share a common outlook and a way of viewing themselves and the world, in a word a common Geist” (Hardimon 1994,198). This commonality serves as the basis on which members of a corporation pursue their collective interest.
The corporations play an essential political function, since they serve to give a coherent rational form to chaotic public opinion formed by atomized individuals. Hegel realized that public authorities could fulfill their responsibilities only with the help of mediating institutions. There needed to be some way for the authorities to know what the masses wanted, even though it would be impossible for them to satisfy all the people’s wants. Hegel does not advocate direct democracy, since he believes that the masses are incapable of making coherent political decisions: “the many single individuals-and this is the favorite interpretation of the ‘people’—do indeed live together, but only as a crowd, i.e. a formless mass whose movement can only be elemental, irrational, barbarous and terrifying” (par. 303).
Yet, Hegel does not believe that the “irrationality” of the “crowd” precludes the idea of citizen participation in general. In his analysis of England, he notes that the majority of the people are quite apathetic when it comes to voting. In most of the voters’ hearts there is “the sense that amongst the many thousands of votes cast at an election a single vote is actually insignificant” (1964, 309). He believes that people would be more enthusiastic about voting if they voted on the basis of their membership in the various corporations. These organizations would serve to mediate between the local and the state level: “it is extremely important that the masses should be organized, because only then do they constitute a power or force; otherwise they are merely an aggregate, a collection of scattered atoms. Legitimate power is found only when the particular spheres are organized” (1967, par. 290).
Although Hegel is against the individual vote, he supports the idea that people should be able to influence government by voting through corporations: “Each corporation elects its own deputy, whose task it is to represent the shared interests of the members of this corporation in the assembly of estates, the government’s representative body.” Thus, according to Hegel, “people can be represented in their social particularity which he maintains gives their individuality content” (Hardimon 1994, 201; cf. Hegel 1967, par. 308). Hegel believes that the corporations can form a link between individuals’ private lives in economic society and the political state-between the private individual and the public citizen.
Hegel’s discussion of corporations tends toward the political conception of civil society advocated by the civil-society theorists; however, his philosophical framework does not allow him to continue along this road. The main roadblock is Hegel’s lack of faith in the ability of members of civil society to develop legitimate institutions on their own, without direct surveillance by the state. In fact, corporations can serve as an effective means of encouraging citizen participation only if they are given sufficient autonomy from the state and allowed to function spontaneously. But Hegel sees the corporation as serving to prepare the citizenry for only a particular type of participation. As Jean Cohen notes: “Far from preparing the citizen for active political participation in democratic polity (far from affording the experience of vita activa) … the virtue acquired through the school of the corporation … served the task only of social integration, fostering identity with the group and the state (patriotism), of essentially privatized individuals” (1982, 27).
Thus, what Hegel gives to the political notion of civil society with one hand he takes back with the other. This is primarily because he thinks that political practice in civil society and public opinion more generally can be either constructive or destructive. If left to their own devices, they would lead to chaos and might subvert the state but, if cultivated with the help of the corporations and the state, public opinion and political practice would be essential elements of a rational society.
From a contemporary liberal perspective, Hegel exaggerates the extent to which unconstrained public participation would lead to chaos and danger. However, Hegel’s rejection of direct democracy shares much in common with both early liberals like Locke and with later liberals like Dahl (1956): “Another presupposition of the idea that all should participate in the business of the state is that everyone is at home in this business-a ridiculous notion, however commonly we may hear it sponsored. Still, in public opinion (see paragraph 316) a field is open to everyone where he can express his purely personal political opinions and make them count (308 Z).”
The spontaneous expression of public opinion can express nothing but the preference of an atomized individual, which would be too arbitrary to help in determining policy. In order to participate in government an individual must negate his or her particularity and identify with the state; that is, s/he must see things from the perspective of the state. The state, according to Hegel, serves to give a rational order to society and ensures that corporations will not ossify to become merely antagonistic factions. The state actually expresses the will of the citizens. As one commentator has concisely expressed Hegel’s thought, “The state’s laws themselves must be recognized as expressions of the rational will of the citizens and guaranteeing the citizens’ rights to property, to freedom of thought, to free economic activity and to form free associations” (Houlgate 1991, 122; cf. Hegel 1967, par. 260Z).
The state represents the will of the people since it is the condition for the possibility of the pursuit of their interests. Thus, although the people have not actually chosen the institutions that regulate society, the Rechstaat is a well-ordered system of government that a rational person would choose since it is necessary for the maintenance of order in civil society, which in turn is essential for the pursuit of private interest. It is perhaps this belief that colors Hegel’s views on political participation. Because the basic laws and institutions of the modem world have been derived from the nature of the self-interested individual, Hegel concludes that it would be selfcontradictory and thus wrong (unrecht) to oppose them. Moreover, since basic questions about the nature of the state and civil society have been answered-they have been rationally derived-there is not much need for political participation.
The basic structure of Hegel’s system is liberal in the sense that the rights of the individual to pursue his or her private interests are emphasized. In both the Hegelian and liberal versions of government, the majority of citizens do not participate directly in making political decisions; those decisions are made by the bureaucracy, which is supposed to secure the interests of the entire citizenry. Of course, the fact that Hegel believes that bureaucrats should be chosen on the basis of their performance on examinations, rather than by elections, separates his position from that of contemporary liberals. However, for our purposes, what makes the discussion of Hegel relevant to contemporary society is the extent to which people still spend most of their lives in civil society and, apart from an occasional vote, do not participate directly in government.
The relevance of Hegel to contemporary society makes Marx’s criticism of his ideas ever more pressing. I now turn to Marx’s criticisms of Hegel and to his own theory of civil society and democracy.
Marx’s Criticism of Hegel
Marx agrees with Hegel’s description of modernity, but vehemently criticizes his normative claim. According to Marx, Hegel’s description of modem civil society is correct insofar as it highlights the institutional separation of the society and the state. Unlike Hegel, however, Marx does not believe that this institutional separation really frees the state from the contradictions of civil society. Marx argues that the real impetus for political action comes from civil society, which he associates with the economic realm, and not from the state. Thus, it is only partially correct to say that Marx has an apolitical conception of society. It is true to the extent that he believes that the realms of civil society and the state are institutionally distinct, and that the reproduction of capitalist relations of production requires that the cleavage between them be maintained. Moreover, Marx’s conception of civil society is apolitical in the sense that he does not see it as the site of the kind of politics envisioned by the civil-society theorist. In other words, he does not see civil society as a realm where citizens and groups debate issues about public policy and participate in movements that encourage the wider community to accept, and to aid in enforcing, their political proposals. However, in another sense, his writings are a critique of a totally apolitical conception of civil society, since he argues that the economic realm exerts an enormous political pressure and determines important political decisions, thus undermining the autonomy of the state. For this reason, Marx does not endorse Hegel’s assertion that the goal of history has been achieved with the capitalist state.
In Marx’s view, the Hegelian state or, for that matter, any capitalist state will be unable to resolve the contradictions inherent in civil society. In fact, Marx argues that if one investigates the underlying relations between civil society and the state, it will become apparent that the capitalist state is not really geared toward resolving the contradictions in civil society, but toward ensuring that those contradictions are reproduced. Nonetheless, the state imposes itself as an abstract form of resolution to the tensions within civil society. It represents, in Benedict Anderson’s (1983) terms, an imagined political community to which all participants in civil society belong as members. In a sense, Marx’s project can be interpreted as an attempt to make this imagined community real by bringing it down to the level of civil society. This involves diffusing the decisionmaking power that is congealed at the level of the state into civil society, thus making it the center of politics. However, he concludes that if the state is demolished and its political power is diffused in civil society, then civil society, as we have defined it, will not exist. Hence he articulates the goal of political practice as the negation of civil society. If this ever is accomplished, then for the first time in history, human social forces will no longer be separated from people as a political power (Thomas 1994, 69).
According to Marx, this is a revolutionary perspective. Only a regime that has overcome the distinction between the state and civil society will be capable of allowing decisionmaking in “civil society” and uniting human beings with their social forces. He contends that the capitalist state, which is the legitimate seat of politics in bourgeois society, serves only as an “illusory” universal. As Paul Thomas notes:
Civil society, a network of resolutely private interests, operates systematically in such a way as to deny the possibility of any real community. The illusory, compensatory realm represented by the modem state is no more and can be no more than its surrogate or stand-in. The state’s supposedly public character is correlative with the contours of people’s real, private lives. As such, it is necessarily “abstract” in that it abstracts from people’s individual and private characteristics and bases itself on what all people share. What they share is at once bare-bones or residual and essentialist: some common human essence that is reflected and referred to by the modem state. (1994, 67)
This political configuration is historically specific, and it is important to examine the complex relations that gave rise to the radical distinction between the public and private spheres in the modem state. In feudalism, civil society was directly political. “Property, commerce, society, man (i.e. private man, the serf), were all political: the material content of the state was given by reason of its form; every private sphere had a political character or was a political sphere directly” (70). Marx notes that the bourgeois revolution transformed this feudal relation between form and content by making the political state embody form while economic civil society gives it content.
An important by-product of this transformation is what Hannah Arendt (1960) calls the colonization of the political by the social: “With the Greeks in particular, civil society was a slave to political society.” In modern, bourgeois society “the opposite priorities pertain” (Thomas 1994, 70). In the modern world, private property has been freed from its feudal constraints; this allows it to colonize the polis. “Once the degree and kind of property held is officially declared to be politically irrelevant, of no political account, it is private property that becomes freed, responsible to nothing outside itself. Its newly oppressive, because newly unrestrained, nature becomes clearly exposed and keenly experienced by those persons who in their everyday lives bear the brunt of its free play” (73).
The state tries as far as possible not to interfere with the functioning of capital, and this policy is ideologically promoted by designating civil society as the private and apolitical sphere. However, noninterference politically supports the interests of capital. This is the crux of Marx’s critique of an apolitical conception of civil society. In his essay “On the Jewish Question,” Marx criticizes the presuppositions of the modem idea of citizenship, which was supposed to resolve the alienation inherent in civil society: “The limits of political emancipation appear at once in the fact that a state can liberate itself from a constraint without man himself being really liberated … a state may be a free state without man himself being a free man” (Marx 1972a, 32). Marx argues that political emancipation eclipses and enables many forms of oppression:
The state abolishes after its fashion, the distinctions established by birth, social rank, education, occupation, when it decrees that birth, social rank, education, occupation are non-political distinctions, that every member of society is partner in popular sovereignty, and treats all the elements which compose the real life of the nation from the standpoint of the state. But the state, none the less, allows private property, education, and occupation, to act after their own fashion, namely as private property, education and occupation and to manifest their particular nature. Far from abolishing these effective differences, it only exists so far as they are presupposed; it is conscious of being a political state and it manifests its universality only in opposition to these elements. (33)
In Marx’s opinion, the state condones oppression in capitalist society while posing as an institution that benefits all its citizens. Marx’s idea of the relationship between the state and civil society is largely influenced by Hegel. According to Hegel, it is clear that people should trust (have faith in, Zutrauen haben) the state in spite of the inequalities that it supports and reproduces. Citizens should not see the inequalities and oppressive structures as being directly related to the state but only to civil society, which is not a political realm. As Marx says:
The political revolution regards civil society, the sphere of human needs, labour, private interests and civil law, as the basis of its own existence, as a self-subsistent precondition, and thus as its natural basis. Finally, man as a member of civil society is identified with authentic man, man as distinct from citizen, because he is in his sensuous, individual immediate existence whereas political man is only abstract man, man as an allegorical moral (stittliches) person. Thus man as he really is, is seen only in the form of egoistic man, and man in his true nature only in the form of the abstract citizen. (46)
The political task, according to Marx, is to reunite people with their alienated public selves but, as the above citation suggests, the alienation of political structures from the masses leaves egoism as their easiest option. Political and economic laws appear to the majority of individuals as natural laws over which they do not have any power. Real participation in politics is structurally excluded so that citizens can only hope to find satisfaction in their private lives.
True human emancipation requires that people transform these structures of alienation: “Human emancipation will only be complete when the real, individual man has absorbed into himself the abstract citizen; when as an individual man, in his everyday life, in his work, and in his relationships, he has become a species being; and when he has recognized and reorganized his own powers (forces propres) as social powers so that he no longer separates this social power from himself as political power” (46). Human emancipation is not complete with political emancipation, but requires a radical restructuring of society. In capitalist society, social structures are organized in a way that separates human beings from their social power, both materially and physically. With the modem state they are politically emancipated, thus set free to pursue their self-interest in civil society. But this freedom is limited to the private realm and becomes increasingly directed toward acquiring the necessities of life. The characteristically human part of existence-namely, social being-is reduced to a minimum. In Marx’s view, these problems are not resolvable by the state itself, since the bourgeois state is an expression of the alienation in capitalist society. The contradictions inherent in capitalist civil society could be resolved only by a revolution initiated by the working class. The working class had to be the agents of revolutionary change since they were structurally in an antagonistic relation to capital, hence had the power to transform production relations. Marx believed that as capitalist relations developed, the contradictions in civil society would become so intense that the state would not be able to contain them. He was quite optimistic about the success of the working class.
As to myself, no credit is due me for discovering either the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Long before me, bourgeois economists had described the historical development of this class struggle and the economic anatomy of classes. What I did that was new was to demonstrate: 1) that the existence of classes is merely linked to particular historical phases in the development of production, 2) that class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat, and 3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society. (1955, 64; quoted in Cohen 1982, 83)
The point at which the state can no longer contain the contradictions in civil society is the moment of socialist revolution, in which the working class would overthrow capitalism and democratically transform government. Democracy, Marx believed, was the truth of all constitutions and the final goal of political revolution:
Democracy is the solved riddle of all constitutions. Here, not merely implicitly and in essence but existing in reality, the constitution is constantly brought back to its actual basis, the actual people, and established as the people’s own work. The constitution appears as what it is, a free product of man. It could also be said that in a certain respect this applies also to constitutional monarchy; but the specific distinguishing feature of democracy is that here the constitution as such forms only one element in the life of the people-that it is not the political constitution by itself which forms the state. (1972b, 20)
This constitution is the true goal of history; no other form succeeds in uniting the universal with the particular: “Only democracy, therefore is the true unity of the general and the particular” (21). The reason for this is that in all other state forms, the citizens are still relatively alienated from the official seat of political power.
According to Marx, democracy can be realized only by transforming the capitalist state and civil society out of existence. The resulting society would be a democracy without politics. In The Poverty ofPhilosophy, Marx writes that political power is simply class oppression: “The working class, in the course of its own development, will substitute for the old civil society an association which will exclude classes and their antagonism, and there will be no more political power properly so called, since political power is precisely the official expression of antagonism in civil society” (1972c, 218-9).
Since politics is primarily the result of inherent contradictions in civil society, it naturally would not exist after these contradictions were resolved. Political practice had to be geared toward realizing the goal of history-namely, the advent of true democracy in a classless society, which would be without politics. In “Fictitious Splits in the International,” Marx and Engels contend that in a true democracy the “functions of government become simple administrative functions” (quoted in Keane 1988a, 63; see also Oilman 1977). Once classes were abolished, there would be no real basis for political conflict. Thus, democracy would run quite smoothly.
Criticisms of Marx’s Idea of Civil Society
The above view of civil society and the end of politics has recently come under criticism for insufficiently theorizing the complex nature of society. The one dimensional interpretation of politics in civil society, when placed in Marx’s larger eschatological framework, led to his utopian vision of the end of politics. David Held summarizes a central concern: “Although the Marxist critique of liberalism is of great significance-showing as it does that the organization of the economy cannot be regarded as non-political, and that relations of production are central to the nature of the distribution of power—its value is ultimately limited because of the direct connection drawn (even when the state is conceived as ‘relatively autonomous’) between political and economic life” (1987, 135).
Marx’s criticism of capitalist civil society is important in that it illuminates the tendency of the capitalist economy to undermine democracy, but his emphasis on the economic tends to downplay the role of political action, especially when that action concerns political issues not directly related to class. The linking of political events to economic causes inclines Marxists to overlook civil society’s positive role in the struggle for a political framework in which people have the ability to control the conditions that govern their lives. As Manfred Henningsen notes, such achievements have included “a written constitution, the catalogues of human and civil rights, democratic legitimation of representative government, separation of state and institutional religion, institutional checks and balances and equality before the law” (1989, 334). Nonetheless, it should be noted that in Marx’s more political writings, he notes that universal suffrage can actually help the working class come to power. However, the real problem is that these achievements are measured solely with respect to the success of the subject of history-namely, the proletariat. This reflects Marx’s lack of interest in the noneconomic dimensions of civil society, which go almost completely untheorized.
As I mentioned earlier, Marx’s exclusive emphasis on the economic dimension of civil society is intimately linked to his vision of socialism. One reason for Marx’s emphasis on the economy is that he believes that it is the most important obstacle to achieving a democratic polity in the modem world. Moreover, he would argue that all so-called noneconomic organizations that are part of civil society (such as hospitals, the communications media, schools and so on) are dependent on the economy for existence; thus, emphasis should be placed there. Marx would claim that democracy requires a socialist society that has negated capitalism, civil society, and the state.
This argument is persuasive (and Marxists would need only to make brief reference to the various budget crises that public hospitals, schools, universities, and other public institutions are facing in much of the Western world to reinforce his point). However, civil-society theorists question Marx’s goal not because they believe that capitalism has solved its problems, but because they do not have faith in the possibility of a democratic socialism without civil society and without politics. The only version of a socialism that has abolished civil society has been shown to be authoritarian and inferior to the capitalist societies on most, if not all counts (Dubiel 1994, 7).
Moreover, Dubiel argues, following Offe (1989), that even if Marxists contend that those regimes that collapsed in 1989 were not really socialist, and come up with a different vision of socialism, we do not know how to realize such an ideal, whatever its institutional configuration. According to Marx, our ticket outside the world of capitalist civil society is the working class. But the development of capitalism has seen immense changes in the composition of the working class, changes that have seriously undermined its unity. Offe cites growth of the service sector as a change in capitalism that has undermined the unity of the working class and its revolutionary potential. Moreover, a close look at workers’ struggles in the past years indicates that workers have shown more interest in striving to attain better living standards within capitalism than in creating socialism.
On the basis of the above discussion, we can identify four objections that the civilsociety theorists raise against Marx’s conception of civil society. First, although Marx says that civil society is an economic realm, it is really much more. Second, Marx’s conception of civil society as an economic realm overlooks the possibility of democratic practice within civil society. Third, the idea of an end of politics, which is related to his conception of civil society, is unrealistic. Fourth, the idea of a postcapitalist society, even if it rejects the end-of-politics thesis, is utopian, since the working class does not appear to be playing the role assigned to it and we still lack another theory of transition.
Marxists have come up with various responses to these questions in their attempt to rethink Marxism, and many of those responses incorporate aspects of civil-society theory. The two responses that I shall deal with below—those of Paul Thomas and Moishe Postone—do not attempt to answer all these objections. Rather, they seek to save the core of Marx’s thought-namely, the idea that capitalism must be transformed in order to achieve democracy. That is, they seek to save the goal of a postcapitalist socialism.
One Marxist who responds directly to the first two criticisms, defending Marx’s idea of civil society as economic, is Paul Thomas. He tries to develop a Marxism that simultaneously affirms the democratic potential within civil society and the goal of socialism as the negation of capitalist civil society. He quotes Giddens with approval:
[T]he emergence of the “public sphere” in the American and French Revolutions, predicated in principle upon universal rights and liberties of the whole societal community, is as fundamental a disjunction in history as the commodification of labor and property to which Marx showed it to be intimately related. However asymmetrical they may have been in regard of the emergent capitalist class system, citizenship rights opened up new vistas of freedom and equality that Marxism itself seeks to radicalize. (Giddens 1981, 213, quoted in Thomas 1994, 189)
Since these rights are often undermined by the hegemonic force of capital, their expansion implies the negation of capitalist civil society. Thomas argues that Marxists should support democratic movements within civil society, since they must confront the structures of capitalist civil society and transform it. But because he continues to endorse Marx’s conception of civil society as economic, he refers to political practice within civil society as alien politics.
Why alien politics? … Alienation in Marxist theory involves, first and foremost, loss, remoteness and enmity, and these need to be outlined in turn. Loss and remoteness refer us to the distancing of common political concerns, their removal from the pattern of our individual lives, our day-to-day intimate reality. Their register is thus that of the separation of “public” from “private” spheres of existence in modem society. But their separation is to be regarded as inimical to the quality of our lives and not as desideratum. (1994, x)
With the term “alien politics,” Thomas intends to have the best of both worlds. He hopes to capture both the hegemonic force exerted by capitalism and the possibility of political practice within civil society. Politics in civil society is alien because it is institutionally separate from the state which, given capitalist production relations, is the legitimate seat of political power. People are alienated from political power since they live most of their lives in civil society, which is designated as an apolitical realm. Moreover, they are alienated from economic power because they are systematically estranged from their labor. Given this framework, Thomas refers to Marx’s socialist goal as the creation of a society in which alien politics is overcome, and not the formation of a society without politics as such. That is, in socialist society, people will still have to make decisions and debate about various political matters, but they will be neither alienated from these decisionmaking structures nor alienated from their labor.
Thomas’s restatement of Marx’s theory has many similarities with the position that the civil-society theorists advocate. Both seek to radicalize the ideals of the Enlightenment, to support political practice within civil society, and to democratize society so as to allow people to govern the conditions of their lives. The fundamental differences are that Thomas refers to politics within civil society, which is conceived as economic, as alien politics and that he believes that the goal of political practice should be geared toward the overcoming of civil society.
But problems with Thomas’s framework arise from the fact that his concept of alien politics denotes a type of political practice that is at once necessary and something that must be abolished. In other words, given capitalist civil society, we need alien politics, but we hope to be done with it after capitalism is transformed. It is unclear whether this can or should be done. On one level, it may be true that if capitalism were transformed out of existence and production relations were made democratic, people no longer would be alienated from their labor. We could at least concede that democratization in the workplace would imply that people would not be alienated from decision making procedures related to production and distribution. But the idea of transforming the state out of existence, or negating the institutional separation between state and civil society, implies some version of the end of politics. That is, the state can be seen as superfluous only if there are no real conflicts in civil society and hence the realm is relatively harmonious. However, it is more than likely that civil society would still consist of various factions with differing views on political issues and thus would necessitate a state to enforce the necessary procedures for debate, discussion, and the implementation of policy. If one accepts this, as I think one should, then both civil society and the state must exist even in socialist society, which would mean that “alien politics,” in Thomas’s sense of the term, would exist as well. Of course, Thomas could respond by saying that civil society would, by definition, not exist once capitalism has been democratically transformed, because on his definition civil society and capitalism are synonymous. Moreover, since democratically transforming capitalism would imply a transformation of the capitalist state as well, he could argue that it would also cease to exist. This response, though analytically sound, is not helpful because it fails to register the importance of the institutional separation between the state and civil society for democratic politics. If we accept that politics is here to stay then we must conclude, pace Thomas, that the institutional separation between the state and civil society is a desideratum for democracy, irrespective of the manner in which production relations are organized.
This leaves the road open for rethinking the ideal of socialism as a refinement and development of the institutional separation between civil society and the state; I shall return to this issue at the end of this article. But first, I would like to consider Moishe Postone’s defense of Marxism, since his project points the way toward a synthesis of Marx and the civil-society theorists. The central project of Moishe Postone’s Time, Labor and Social Domination (1993) is a rethinking of the relationship between the working class, the overcoming of capitalism, and the creation of socialism. In the context of the above discussion, his book is primarily geared toward answering the fourth criticism: the problem of transition.
Postone argues that Marx himself, at least in works published after the Grundrisse, did not view the working class as the subject of history. According to Postone, Marx did not have a transhistorical conception of labor; he viewed the contradiction between labor and capital as a contradiction within capitalism rather than one that points outside it. That is, working-class struggles are fought within the logic of capital and are usually struggles for a more humane capitalism rather than an attempt to break free from capitalist society. Workers’ struggles are, for the most part, not about creating a new society but are about higher wages, more decent working conditions, or improving the general conditions of life, such as healthcare. Even at their most political, these movements are best understood as an attempt to bring capitalism under democratic control rather than to transcend it.
Postone, however, does believe that there is a possibility of creating a democratic postcapitalist society. This society is one that is characterized by the abolition of labor and not, as orthodox Marxists would contend, by the realization of labor. An understanding of the requirement for a postcapitalist democracy entails considering “the nature of constraints imposed upon political decisions by the forms of value and capital.” It “entails more than democratic political forms in the absence of private ownership of the means of production. It would require as well the abolition of the abstract social compulsion rooted in social forms grasped by the Marxian categories” (1993,41). And later he writes, “at the core of his vision of a postcapitalist society is the historically generated possibility that people may control what they create instead of being controlled by it” (373). Postone calls for the establishment of a society that is not mediated by abstract labor and abstract time. However, he does not provide much detail. Perhaps we could look to Diane Elson’s model for help. But the problem of how such a transformation is to come about is still left open. As noted above, Postone does not see the working class as the subject that would bring about the demise of capitalism. Instead, he looks to new social movements, such as the feminist movement, as possible sources for the impetus toward the type of transformation required to negate capitalism.
The notion of the different forms of socially constituted universality implied by Marx’s analysis of the development of the structuring forms of the social formation could serve as the basis for a sociohistorical investigation of some strains of new social movements—for example the feminist movement—that are attempting to formulate new forms of universality and particularity. This approach could also serve as the point of departure for rethinking the relation of the new social movements and identity based politics of recent decades to capitalism and its possible overcoming. (1993, 372)
Postone does not specify what the relation is between, for example, the feminist movement and the overcoming of capitalism, but his theoretical shift is important for our purposes. It implies that the practice required to overcome capitalism is similar to the kinds of political practice associated with the new social movements. Postone could argue that the feminist movement should be opposed to capitalism because of the way that, in capitalist society, the emphasis on wage-labor denigrates and fails to compensate much of the work that women do. For example, housework and the rearing of children, which both are done predominantly by women, are deprived of material and normative recognition. A society that was not fundamentally organized around wage-labor might not devalue these tasks. It might also allow us to move beyond the gender-structured division of labor. Actually existing socialist regimes continued to glorify labor and thus remained within the logic of capitalism. The rulers of these regimes could find support for their policies in the works of Marx that posited the working class as the subject of history. However, while it is evident that certain social movements, such as the feminist, may be opposed to capitalism, it is unclear how they would effect the change from capitalism to postcapitalist socialism. It is not clear that the proponents of these movements are all structurally opposed to capital. As Offe notes, many of the activists in new social movements belong either to the middle class or to non-working-class segments of society such as the sick or the elderly.
This discussion of the new social movements helps us to confront two issues: their relation to the end of capitalism, and their relation to the end of civil society and the state. The critique of Marx’s conception of civil society shows that these are two different questions and must be dealt with separately. I shall deal with them in order.
Feminist movements, ecology movements, and other new social movements must confront capital, but they do so politically, by raising issues within civil society rather than in a manner that seeks to negate civil society once and for all. Such movements actually work to strengthen civil society and do not point to the eventual abolition of either civil society or the state. John Keane argues for the continuing need for civil society and the state in a way that reminds one of Hegel: “the competing claims and conflicts of interests generated in civil society could be settled peacefully only by means of laws which are applied universally. Since universal laws cannot emerge spontaneously from civil society, their formulation, application and enforcement would require a legislature, a judiciary and a police force, which are vital components of the state apparatus” (1988a, 22).
Civil society requires some separate apparatus for democratically dealing with conflicts and for implementing policy on the macrolevel. The separation between civil society and the state is justified by the belief that political conflict, about economics and about other matters, is, at least for the foreseeable future, here to stay. The goal of abolishing civil society is thus connected to the hope for some form of society in which the apparatuses for democratically dealing with conflicts are considered irrelevant. It implies some form of the end-of-politics thesis.
Now if civil society signified only an economic realm that was radically separate from the state, Marx’s criticism of it would still hold. But civil society also signifies a public space where people deliberate about politics and practice control over their lives. And, in order for their decisions to be efficacious, the line between the state and civil society has to be thinner, and more flexible, than either Marx or Hegel imagined. We must recognize that although, in parts of Eastern Europe, civil society has come to indicate merely a sphere independent from the state, in the writings of Dubiel, Held, and Keane, civil society also signifies a sphere of collective political action, at times intimately interacting with the state, where people try to control the conditions that govern their lives. It is a sphere where the immanent critique of liberal institutions can take place.
Marx has contributed a great deal to this immanent critique by showing the manner in which capitalism tends to lead to a concentration of economic and political power in the hands of a few, a phenomenon that undermines the ability of citizens in civil society to have control over their lives. As long as civil society remains the site of capitalist production relations, various social movements will have to confront and control these relations in order to achieve their ends. At this point we can reinvoke a version of the socialist ideal. A postcapitalist socialist system of economic organization that is successful in distributing economic and political power in an egalitarian manner would, of course, be more conducive to a democratic civil society than capitalism is. But this new form of economic organization must not be interpreted as requiring the abolition of the distinction between the state and civil society; rather, it requires the democratization of both spheres.
Postcapitalist socialism must thus be construed as a democratic economic organization that would coexist with the separation of civil society from the state. Civil society would consist of, among other things, a socialized market and various institutions for democratic decisionmaking at the local level. The state would be the center of macroplanning. In order to facilitate democracy, the state would have to be separate from institutions of civil society but, at the same time, intimately connected to them. Effective implementation of policy requires that these macroinstitutions should be aware of political concerns at the local level.
This ideal of postcapitalist socialism is still open to Offe’s objection-namely, that it is irrelevant at the present moment, and for the foreseeable future, because it is unclear how such a system would be realized. However, it is not inconceivable that, given that the various movements in civil society are confronted by the imperatives of capitalist economic organization, they will increasingly act to transform it. Ideals must not be limited to what appears possible now and in the foreseeable future; they must also explore possibilities that speak to contemporary problems and may be appropriate at a later historical juncture.” The contemporary crisis of Keynesian planning makes theories of socialist economics all the more relevant as ideals, even if these models are not practical possibilities at the present moment.
Leftist mourning must not dwindle into a forgetting. The Left must mourn the loss of the socialist ideal as a present political possibility or as the necessary outcome of contradictions in civil society, but not as an ideal for the future that would enhance the political power of citizens in civil society. This mourning is necessary to the extent that leftists’ emphasis on the socialist ideal blinds them to other possibilities in civil society that are more appropriate now. The emphasis on civil society subordinates the socialist ideal to democratic acceptance and does not posit it as the only true political goal. At the present historical juncture, it may be more appropriate to deal with the crisis of the welfare state by finding new ways of bringing capitalism under democratic control. Of course, the more one brings capitalism under democratic control, especially in civil society, the less it will look like the capitalism that we are familiar with. Moreover, in the process of bringing capitalism under democratic control, there may be possibilities for experimenting with new forms of economic organization.
Marx’s works are important for reminding us of the significance of questions about economic organization for understanding civil society. In addition to political conditions for a democratic civil society, there are material conditions as well, and these material conditions often are undermined by the inequalities generated by capitalism. If civil society and the state are not able to find ways to secure the material conditions for democracy in civil society, then democracy will exist, at best, in form only. This is why if we forget Marx in the process of mourning the loss of contemporary relevance of the socialist ideal, we may as well forget about democracy and civil society.