Civil society - always a good thing?

Author: Rafal Pankowski

Rafal Pankowski calls for bravery in stepping away from a formalistic approach to civil society and a new focus on civic activism and initiatives that genuinely promote good values (Part of a speech made to CEE Trust grantees and board members in Warsaw, April 2009)


We are all committed to the idea of civil society. We look to civil society to provide a model of social organization which would satisfy our individual and collective goals. We heard it many times. Together with democratization, Europeanization and human rights, civil society is a notion which arouses respect and sympathy across Europe. Indeed, civil society in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe has a special role to play in the ongoing reconstruction of the system. We should assist it and help it become stronger and more effective: in this way we help the societies who had suffered from political oppression and social underdevelopment. That is the standard discourse we are all too familiar with.

A question can be asked, however, is civil society always a good thing? In other words, is it necessarily a force for the good? Can there be instances where civil society itself can be seen as a part of the problem rather than of the solution?

Let me add, I do not mean the marginal cases of corruption or political manipulation which happen in civil society networks. That is, in a way, normal and goes down to imperfect human nature. Civil society is composed of humans and it would be highly surprising if it were free of certain sins which are typical features of any society and any social enterprise.

What I have in mind, is not the individual shortcomings of isolated organizations or individuals involved, but a more general point about civil society being part of the problem.

Andrzej Waśkiewicz writes: ‘The weakness of civil society in post-communist countries is widely attributed to the burden of their past. However, not all social and political apathy can be explained by that, nor do the hardships of everyday life provide a better or more complete explanation’. I would add that many of civil society’s problems have deep roots in its very heart.

My main field of expertise as a social scientist but also as a civil society activist is the subject-matter of racism, xenophobia and nationalism. The relationship between the idea of civil society and nationalism in Eastern Europe is rather complex and I don’t want to discuss its long history here. 

If civil society is understood broadly as a mode of social self-organization, a platform for collective action based on shared goals and ideas outside of state institutions, then many of the largest civil society phenomena in Central and Eastern Europe are hardly compatible with the democratic ideal at all. The social movement around Radio Maryja in Poland has a plethora of institutionalized expressions. Besides its media operation, it consists of foundations, educational institutions, associations and fund-raising initiatives, all the standard elements of civil society activism. It involves and mobilizes several hundred thousand people. At the same time, it is openly hostile to pluralist democracy, minority rights, and tolerance. It is radically nationalistic and outspokenly antisemitic.

The All-Polish Youth (Młodzież Wszechpolska) is a nationalist youth organization. Its tradition goes back to the 1920s and 1930s, today it is largely composed of skinheads. It is responsible for violent attacks against its opponents and against minorities. It has served as a support pool for the extreme-right political party, the League of Polish Families, which until not long ago was a part of the Polish government and which still controls Polish state TV. At the same time, the All-Polish Youth declares itself to be no more no less a non-profit educational non-governmental organization, caring for the patriotic education of its members, looking after national heritage, and conducting other noble activities. It has duly applied for the official public benefit status under Polish NGO law. Roman Giertych, its founder and long-time leader, referred to the All-Polish Youth as a wonderful example of civil society flourishing in Poland. Can we really accept the extreme-nationalist skinheads as yet another expression of civil society? Wouldn’t the ideal of ‘civil society’ lose much of its moral high ground if we are satisfied with such a purely technical procedural approach?

Nationalist movements such as the All-Polish Youth or Radio Maryja preach hostility to democracy – therefore we can fairly easily distinguish them from the more genuine expressions of civil society attached to democracy and human rights.

Things become more problematic, however, when the radical right-wing groups learn the language of democracy and human rights and employ it routinely to gain international legitimacy and to advance their nationalist agenda. The further East we go, the more often we encounter such linguistic confusion, to the point where we can doubt the usefulness of the civil society concept as such.

Across Eastern Europe the notion of democracy is commonly interpreted in national rather than universal terms. The nation-state remains the main frame of reference and the highest form of human organization, as opposed to Soviet federalism.

The notion of citizenship, too, can be employed in ways which are not really compatible with human rights ideals. The focus on shared citizenship in a democratic polity is fine, when access to citizenship is not denied. Look at Latvia, a European Union member state, to witness a very different reality.

The ideological notion of Europe, so central to contemporary civil society discourse in our region, has had some disturbing connotations in history, associated with colonialism and so-called Euro-centrism. Today it may be used to legitimize exclusion of those without Schengen passports. It also serves as a justification of quasi-racist attitudes towards those cultures which are symbolically placed outside of the construct of European civilization, not least the Russian culture.

Are we not easily manipulated by the rhetoric of civil society and Europeanization or Westernization? In Moldova it often means little more than Romanization, a unification with the neighbouring Romania on the basis of ethnic ties. It also means a symbolic ethnic cleansing and a depreciation of minority traditions in one of the most multi-cultural countries of Eastern Europe. But a very large part of civil society in Moldova, sponsored by Western donors, subscribe to the idea of Westernization as Romanization.

The Ukrainian Orange Revolution was seen as a perfect expression of civil society in the making and it was received enthusiastically by Polish and Western public opinion. Today we see, things have been rather more complicated and we understand that the discourse of a democratic civil society is often employed by interest groups that have little time for authentic grass-roots democracy or for minority rights.

In today’s Russia, civil society activists and human rights defenders frequently find themselves in an exotic alliance with National-Bolsheviks waving a flag combining the symbols of the hammer and sickle with the swastika. It is another sad example of civil society becoming a rather ambiguous concept or, paradoxically, becoming a rhetorical tool of essentially anti-democratic, even pro-totalitarian, social forces.

As we see, East European civil society comes in different shapes and colours, not all of them necessarily likable. As we know, Antonio Gramsci famously analyzed civil society as a field of struggle for hegemony, whose outcome can never be taken for granted. Would it not make sense to dispose of the notion of civil society as an unequivocally positive (progressive) phenomenon? Perhaps we can do without such a focus on civil society as a solution to social problems. Would it not be wiser to be more cautious and more brave at the same time: to go beyond the formalistic approach to civil society as such, with its ritualized rhetoric framework, and to look at specific expressions of civic activism, to identify those initiatives which genuinely promote the good values such as human dignity, equality, tolerance and anti-racism or, dare I say, healthy cosmopolitanism? Whether or not we would define them as ‘civil society’, is in my view secondary.


Rafal Pankowski is the author of Neo-Fascism in Western Europe (Polish Academy of Sciences: 1998) and Racism and Popular Culture (Trio, Warsaw: 2006). He has written widely on racism and nationalism for publications including The Economist, Index on Censorship and Searchlight. A resident of Warsaw, he is the Deputy Editor of Nigdy Wiecej ("Never Again") magazine and a research program coordinator at the Collegium Civitas in Warsaw.

This paper is published as a contribution to the discussion of the Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE Trust) Civil Society Forum. The opinions expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the CEE Trust or its funders. Copyright © 2008 CEE Trust. All rights reserved.




Comments by readers


Terms of UsePrivacy Policy
Copyright © 2008, CEE Trust. All rights reserved!
Django development by A115 Ltd.