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Conceptions of ‘Civil Society’

Conceptions of
‘Civil Society’

Axe! Honneth
When the intellectuals of Eastern Europe began to consider
the difficulties and possibilities of a democratically organised
political opposition they soon turned to a classical concept
in the history of political ideas. They thought that the
concept of civil society always used in English to indicate
its connection to Anglo-American traditions, would be
most suited to define the aims of their political aspirations.

They used this concept in order to refer to all the civil
institutions and organisations which are prior to the state, as
being the precondition for any resistance on the part of the
citizen against the dictatorship of the party bureaucracy.

The immediate pressure of the political struggle, by and
large, exempted these intellectuals from the necessity of
coming to terms with the theoretical difficulties of a concept
whose historical development has labyrinthine dimensions.

The use of the notion civil society should have inevitably led
them into this labyrinth, since this category, in the course of
over two hundred years of the history of political theory, has
acquired so many strands and strata of meaning that today
it appears to lack any definite contours. As far as the Eastern
European resistance was concerned, this problem did not
play a prominent role, mainly because this concept merely
served to tie together all the spheres of social action not
belonging to state institutions, insofar as these spheres
could serve as a basis for the construction of a democratic
opposition. In fact, it was precisely the vagueness of this
concept which gave it a distinct strategical advantage. Its
indefiniteness gave different dissident groups, faced with
different national and local problems, the possibility of
including their varying social institutions, such as the
economic institutions of the market, the free association of
debating citizens, or the soviet-like organisation of ’round
tables’, within the all-encompassing concept of the civil
society.2
However, the Eastern European use of the concept of
civil society began to resonate in the political discussions
held in the capitalist countries of the West. In the Western
democracies the concept was not directed against the state
apparatus but was rather used to found a new conception of
a radicalized democracy. In this case, though, the Eastern
European innocence of the historical density implied in the
concept of civil society was lost. When, at the end of the
eighties, Western intellectuals began to deploy the concept
in order to draw up a programme for radical democratiza-

Radical Philosophy 64, Summer 1993

L

tion, in stripping it of its oppositional relation to the party
bureaucracy they also deprived it of its practical framework,
which had so far sheltered it from any demand for the
clarification of its boundaries. Thus, before this concept,
reimported from Eastern Europe, can assume the function
of a guideline for political thought, it is in need of a precise
theoretical delineation of its terms. Yet, nothing in this
direction has been accomplished so far. This can clearly be
seen by the fact that, despite the wide usage of the idea of
civil society by the left of the Federal Republic, the concept
has not attained any more distinctive theoretical outline.

The extent of this conceptual obscurity can be best shown
by, first, restating what is actually demanded from the
theory of democracy and, secondly, evaluating whether the
model of civil society can meet these demands.

Today, when one talks about the task of a further
democratization within the context of the highly developed
countries of the West, then one is referring to the question
as to how democratic participation in the process of formation
of a political consciousness can be widened and enhanced
within the framework of the established political institutions of a parliamentary democracy. The time is long since
gone in which the optimism of the Left, sustained by a
philosophy of history, allowed them to see decisive solutions to this problem simply in a democratization of the
economic sector. The same can be said for those years in
which increased participation and parliamentary control of
the political process on the part of the general public was
limited to initiatives and movements which lay outside the
parliamentary sphere. 3 Nonetheless, it is still possible today
to identify those levels on which a politico-philosophical
theory needs to operate if its aim is to contribute indirectly
towards extending democracy in contemporary circumstances.

Firstly, such an objective requires a normative foundation or explication of the democratic process in which
political consciousness is formed. This idea has to be
concrete enough to allow for a critique of insufficient
democratization. This, in turn, should open a perspective
for appropriately institutionalized correctives within the
democratic structure. The theoretical means with which
such an undertaking is attempted are generally derived from
the tradition of social contract theory, or, increasingly, from
discourse ethics. In any case, the fundamental concepts of

19

this theoretical framework have to be able to supply criteria,
according to which the status quo of a democracy is shown
to be in need of improvement.

The second requirement which such a theory has to meet
can be understood as the ‘materialist’ counterpart to the
idealizing elements in the first moment of its foundation.

Conceived of as a sociology of domination or analysis of
power, it has to inform us, from the persp.ective .of its
normative principles, about the structural barrIers WhICh, at
any given time, prohibit the extension of democratic participation. It is in this context that a decision can then be
made· as to whether it is the economic, or political, or
cultural distribution of power which is at fault, and should
thus be seen as the primary obstacle to further democratization.

Finally, such a theory must provide answe~s t~ the
question as to where the socio-cultural or mO~Iva~IOnal
resources, which can make further democratIzatIOn a
worthwhile objective for the majority of the population,
should come from. The last point touches on problems of a
theory of culture which are tackled by empirically oriented
social diagnoses. These can investigate the degree of
democratic involvement in a given society.

If we attempt to articulate these three different levels in
a condensed manner, then it can be said that a contemporary
theory of democracy has to live up to the r~spective the~­
retical tasks of: providing a nonnative foundatIon; an analysIs
of power; and a diagnosis of culture. If ~ pos~t~on which
covers all three of these levels is not even ImplICItly taken,
then it appears that a politico-philosophical concept which
aims at an amplification of democracy in contemporary
circumstances is rendered unfeasible.

If the idea of civil society is now examined with regard
to the solutions it offers to all three of these problems, then
one is faced with the difficulty of the categorial indeterminacy of this notion itself. In the first instance.’ the alter~a.­
tives opened up by the translation of the EnglIsh term CIVt/
society into German, points towards the obvious pro~lems
in its usage: ‘Zivilgesellschaft’ recalls the democratIc republicanism of Tocqueville; whilst ‘biirgerlich,e
Gesellschaft’ directly refers to the legal structure of He gel s
‘system of needs’. In the recent history of political thought
the concept of civil society has taken on so many strata of
meaning that it now embraces the capitalist market as well
as the medium of the public sphere. It is thus to Charles
Taylor’s credit that, in a recent essay, he set out to distinguish fundamentally between two main branches of the
tradition enclosed by the diffuse horizon of this concept. 4
Charles Taylor holds that it is John Locke who supp~ied
the basis for the first of these two branches of the tradItIon,
which are nowadays fused together in our conception of
civil society. Opposed to an absolutist monarchy, Locke’s
idea of the contract leads to a conception of society as an
association of free citizens defined by their economic interests. This association exists prior to every political order.

After Locke it was necessary only to add to this conception
the elements through which public opinion is formed, in
order to transform it into that specifically modern concept
of the ‘biirgerliche Gesellschaft’, as we know it from
Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Here, a social sphere is

20

described, in which the relation between citizens is not
simply confined to the economic processes of exchange a~d
labour, but also includes the institutions of public debate m
such a way that they form a sociological unity prior to all

..

political integration.

However, at the same time, there IS an addItIOnal mstItutional element to be found in Hegel’ s concept, in that it
includes professional corporations. This element is envisaged by Tay lor as an important constituent o.f the sec~nd
branch of the tradition. As in the first branch, thIS alternatIve
originated from a critical reaction to the de~potis~ ~f
absolutist rule. In this case, however, the way m WhICh It
attempts to legally limit its powers is quite different from
Locke’s theory of the social contract. In the work of
Montesquieu, Taylor finds the origin of a notion of t~e civil
society in which the legally legitimized corporatIOns of
public self-government are responsible for the consta~t
mediation between the social sphere and the state. The mam
difference from Locke’s model is that civil society is here
conceptualized as a realm which is directly connecte.d to the
domain of the state by a network of self-governmg administrative authorities and other corporate bodies. The
sphere of the civil society is thus ~ot p~ior to the political
sphere but is itself eminently politIcal, msofar as It undertakes tasks directly relating to the governing of the state. It
is easy to recognize in Tocqueville’ s doctrine of the f~ee
association of citizens, which along with Montesqmeu
became a fundamental element of this second branch of the
tradition, the continuation of the Greek ideal of the Polis,
which thus remains as a background to the concept of civil
society.

However, between these two branches of the tradition
another concept of civil society has developed in the
twentieth century. Although this concept has its own
delineable contours, Taylor has altogether neglected to
mention it in his essay. This alternative is represented by
Gramsci’s understanding of Societa Ciyile, similar to
Habermas’s ‘public sphere’ (biirgerliche Offentlichkeit), a
social realm in which all cultural institutions within which
public opinion is formed are inclu~ed. O~e prominent t~a~t
of this third version of the concept IS that It SItuates the CIVIl
core of a society at an equal distance from the economic and
the political sphere of society. Neither e~onomic p~oc~sses
nor political management objectives are mcluded wlthm the
framework of the public cultural sphere. But on both these
levels it exerts a significant influence by means of the social
formation of values and opinions. Gramsci’ s model of civil
society has not, however, been widely taken up in the d~bate
of the Federal Republic. Where there have been exceptIOns,
the notion has only been taken up in an introductory or

Radical Philosophy 64, Summer 1993

I

l

interpretative fashion. 5 In the main, when the construction this normative theory is, to say the least, very doubtful, can
of a new theory of democracy is attempted here, beginning be seen by the recent growth of poverty typical of many
from the imported Eastern European concept of civil soci- Western countries. In so far as this work remains uncommitety, it is the Lockean and Montesquieuean models, as ted to either of these alternative ways of founding a concept
described by Taylor, which are dominant in the debate.

of civil society, it is difficult to judge its critical potential.

Another thesis of Taylor’s essay is that, within the
The same must be said when the claims of the book are
context of the present political debate, there has arisen a evaluated against the second set of demands which a theory
problematic confusion between these two separate branches of democracy is required to meet. The answers provided by
of the tradition. This thesis can be demonstrated, independ- the work at this level once again diverge along two different
ently of Taylor’s analysis, by reference to a book which paths. The authors are obviously aware of the fact that the
appeared two years ago under the programmatic title: The sphere of civil society, as the locus of the democratic
Democratic Question. 6
formation of political consciousness, can in principle be
Amongst all the contributions to this debate, this book is subjected to structural violence from an unequal distribuexemplary not merely in its breadth of scope, which extends tion of economic, political, or cultural resources of power.

to issues oflegal theory, or the rigour and persuasiveness of They would thus not dispute the need for a sociology of
its argumentation, but primarily for the derivation of the domination or an analysis of power to complement the more
basis of its social theory from Claude Le fort , s concept of a normative part of the theory. Hence the ambivalences of
symbolic mechanism. In the context of German research their argumentation are firstly to be found on a level which
this book has thus opened new frontiers in the theoretical has to be designated as the methodological level, because it
landscape. 7 The book proposes, in arich, multifaceted style, is here that we deal with the mode of a theoretical access to
the central thesis that a further democratization under the such phenomena of structural violence.

On the one hand, the work appears to give preference to
conditions imposed by modern society can only take place
in a step by step process of the widening of the sphere of a methodological tenet which is hermeneutic in the sense
civil society. How successfully this principle can function that it can only deal with repression or power to the extent
as a guideline for a theory of democracy can best be that the affected subjects give expression to their experiences
evaluated by testing its ability to fulfil the three requirements of oppression. The advantage of such an approach is obset out above. It should be possible to arrive at an assessment viously that the perspective of the analysis is always the
of the critical potential of this conception of civil society by same as that of the affected subjects, who, in this role, render
investigating the solutions which are systematically provided certain forms of social domination available for public
to all three problems by this piece of research.

debate. Its disadvantage is, however, that it has to forsake
The first requirement raised the question of whether a any analysis of phenomena of structural violence, as these
theory of democracy can offer normative criteria which are generally remain publicly unarticulated by the affected
able to show that the status quo of democratic institutions is groups. On the other hand, as if to correct this difficulty, the
in need of improvement. In accordance with our aim, the
question can then be reformulated in order to ask whether,
from a theoretical point of view, the existing liberal democracies of the West already represent operative forms of
civil society. The implied answer given by the book to this
question shows an ambivalence which is characteristic of
Rodel, Frankenberg, and Dubiel’s study in general. Their
historically outlined thesis proposes that we can speak of a
sphere of civil society if, and only if, there has been the
establishment of a secular domain through a surmounting of
transcendental legitimations of relations of domination. ‘I
Within this sphere a public competition for the determination
of political objectives must take place. Such a proposal is
normative only in a very weak sense, because, whilst all ”
forms of the exertion of power supported on totalitarian or ~
quasi-religious grounds can be criticised, all institutional
systems of liberal democracy have to be regarded as being
equally good.

This stands in contradiction to another tendency exhibited
by the book, which is normative in that it derives the sphere
of civil society from the fictitious act of agreeing to a social
contract, in which all citizens mutually recognize each other
as free and equal beings. But, as a consequence, it would
have to be said that in terms of our societies we can only talk
approximately about a civil society, that is, only to the
extent that all citizens have the actual possibility of freely
and equally engaging in public debate. That the validity of

Radical Philosophy 64, Summer 1993

21

authors employ a sociology of domination, which carries all
the classical traits of an explanatory analysis. They discuss
economic disadvantages and talk about the growth in power
of the media, as if such phenomena were objectively available independently of the judgements of the subjects of an
empirical investigation. Again the fault does not arise from
either of these theoretical alternatives, but rather from the
fact that the authors have been apparently unable to decide
between the two.

Finally, on the third level of requirement, an analysis of
culture, an evaluation of the solution offered by The
Democratic Question can be arrived at by thematizing its
conception of civil society as such. Here a decision must be
made as to whether the concept utilized by the authors tends
towards Locke or towards Montesquieu and Tocqueville,
because the accomplishment of the relevant theoretical
tasks depends upon the degree of democratic engagement
judged necessary for a civil society to be viable.

It is not surprising that the solution offered again oscillates
between the two possible alternatives. On the one hand, it
attempts to construe civil society as a network of private
individuals bound together by their legal relations. This
refers back to Locke’s theory of the social contract. On the
other hand, the sphere of civil society is conceived of as a
community of shared values based on the multiple associations of citizens. With this tendency they continue in the
tradition of a liberal republicanism which can be traced
from Tocqueville right up to Hannah Arendt. The first
definition is to be found in those parts of the book in which
the integration of the democratic public sphere is thought of
as a process which is confined to the constant reference to
prior contractual relations. The second definition is discussed in those contexts where it is the ‘solidarity’ of the
citizens which is construed as the motivation for voluntary
assistance and attention, and as the means by which the
economically disadvantaged are able to participate in the
democratic formation of political consciousness. The diagnosis and evaluation of contemporary tendencies towards
an accelerated individualization is dependent upon the
decision between these two alternatives. If civil society
means only the legal relations in a social realm, then the
researcher need not be disturbed by such tendencies, but, if
civil society is considered as encompassing a community of
citizens for whom public freedom is a communal value,
then they give cause for concern.

This open question which every contemporary theory of
democracy has to answer thus brings this short overview to
a close. It still remains to be seen whether a conception of
civil society will be able to answer convincingly the problems, present and future, of our democratic societies. At the
moment, however, the basic concept appears to be riddled
with so many ambivalences that good reasons to hope for
this are few.

Notes
The English term civil society is most often used in this article.

Sometimes Honneth uses Zivilgesellschaft in order to refer more
explicitly to the German debate of the last decade. We will
always render it as civil society, except where he distinguishes
between two possible translations, which areZivilgesellschaft or
Biirgerliche Gesellschaft. [Translators]
2

Cf. the discussion around Andrew Arato’s essay ‘Revolution,
Civil Society and Democracy’ in the journal Transit (No. 1, 1990).

3

This idea of political initiatives which strictly separate themselves
from all parliamentary processes, such as the early formation of
the Green movement, was especially prominent in West Germany.

It originated in the political ideas of the ’68 movement, which in
Germany was programmatically called the APO, the AusserParlamentarische Opposition. [Translators]

4

Charles Taylor, ‘Die Beschworung del’ Civil Society’, in:

Krzysztof Michalski (ed.), Europa und die Civil Society, Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1991.

5

Cf. Sabine Kebir, Antonio Gramscis Zivilgesellschaft, Hamburg: YSA, 1991; Alex Demirovic, ‘Zivilgesellschaft,
O!fentlichkeit, Demokratie’, in: Das Argument, No. 185, 1991.

6

Ulrich Rodel, Giinther Frankenberg and Helmut Dubiel, Die
demokl·atische Frage, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1989.

7

Cf. Ulrich Rodel (ed.), Autonome Gesellschaft und libertiire
Demokratie, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1990.

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Translated/rom the German by Vlrich Haase and Andrew
Rossiter/rom Merkur, Vol. 46, no.1 (January 1992).

22

Radical Philosophy 64, Summer 1993

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