Rebellious Politics and Civil Society

On the tip of everyone’s tongue

The discourse of “civil society” had almost disappeared from our political vocabularies for much of the 20th century. But almost overnight, it seemed, civil society was on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Those of us in the West watched with amazement, tears of joy and surprise as the “power of the human spirit” confronted state power in country after country….Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, East Germany, the former Soviet Union and Tiananmen Square. Vaclav Havel’s assumption of the presidency of Czechoslovakia on 29 December, 1989, heralded the “velvet revolution.” In this miraculous year we watched rulers lose their nerve and people gain strength to organize and assert themselves against the state. Two years later in 1991, the Soviet Union monolith disintegrated. In Eric Hobsbawm’s dramatic turn of phrase, the twentieth century came to an end.

The Polish rebellion can be accurately characterized as “civil society against the state.” One of Solidarity’s leading intellectuals, Adam Michnik, argued that one could neither execute a revolution from below nor reform communism from above. The learning challenge the Poles confronted was precisely how one could foster the self-organization of social life in the face of totalitarian rule. For Michnik, the challenge was to create many different kinds of independent, self-governing associations alongside the institutional framework of the state apparatus. The Polish leaders assumed that their own people would be able to find the courage and stamina to press their aims, and that their rulers would not use terror to repress them. These assumptions, of course, beg the question of just what kind of enabling conditions must be in place for there to be breathing and learning spaces within the suffocating air of the authoritarian regime. The answers are no doubt complex, and in Poland have much to do with the strength of the Roman Catholic Church.

The strength of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland lay, in part, in its deep identification with the Polish nation. Although its relationship with power was ambiguous, it had maintained its hold on the working class. This kept alive the values of religious and cultural freedom, and provided critical support for Solidarity and other flourishing associations of civil society. Perhaps nothing symbolizes the grip of the Church on the Poles more than Pope John II (Karol Wojtyla, former Archbishop of Krakow)’s triumphal June, 1979 tour through Poland. “The future of Poland,” he declared from the pulpit of his old cathedral, “will depend on how many people are mature enough to be non-conformists.” After his tour, thousands of Poles acquired a new self-respect and renewed faith.

In Poland people had to build consciously and actively what Cohen and Arato in their huge book, Civil Society and Political Theory (1992) called a “self-organizing society aimed not a social revolution but at structural reform achieved as a result of organized pressure from below.” Whether or not civil society was reborn in Poland, it was certainly created in the 1970s—scores of intellectual groups organizing petitions, publishing samizdat leaflets, periodicals, books, holding seminars—all of this the stuff of radical democratic adult education. Jacek Kuron, another of Solidarity’s leading intellectuals, wrote of the “self-limiting revolution” whose goal was the “constitution from below of a highly articulated, organized, autonomous, and mobilizable civil society” (Cohen and Arato). This social learning process never occurs in a historical vacuum. Solidarity was trying to constitute civil society in a context of unreformed, but somewhat unvigilant party-state and a raging economic crisis. Industrial workers had demonstrated their capacity for self-organization in the serious strikes of 1971 and 1976. The Polish peasantry had escaped the complete collectivization of agriculture; this gave them some autonomy.

These days the Left is rather jaundiced about the velvet revolution and the buoyant air has been squeezed out of the Arab Spring hot balloon. But in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were many debates about the way forward in the Eastern European context. Pressure from below was to be organized as open and public; it was to be non-conspiratorial and non-avant-garde. In September 1979 the underground newspaper, Robotnik, published an entire issue on a “Charter of Workers’ Rights.” It was signed by sixty-five activists—workers, technicians, engineers, intellectuals. All gave their full addresses, and those who had phones, their numbers. They believed that pressure from below could force the existing system to adhere to its own legality as well as to de facto toleration of the plurality constituted by social movements.

They imagined, too, that they could bypass the state altogether by setting up parallel institutions (in particular, a critical public sphere). And legality, plurality and publicity were not viewed instrumentally, but as ends in themselves. But there is, no matter how precisely and carefully intellectuals analyze the forces operative in the conflictual field, always the question of risk. Between the “organization of enlightenment” and the “organization of action” lies a kind of Pascalian wager—a “leap of faith” into the never completely fathomable political waters. How does one really know where the loopholes of the regime are? How does one know whether they will come for you in the dark of the night? Will they open fire on us on our marches on the public square? Can one really avoid political party formation and engagement?

Carving public space out of totalitarian rock

It is no easy task to imagine how “public space” can be carved out of totalitarian rock. A public sphere of civil society is an “arena of deliberative exchange in which rational-critical arguments rather than mere inherited ideas or personal statuses could determine agreements and actions” (Craig Calhoun, “Civil society and the public sphere,” Public Culture, 5, 1993). A rational, dynamic public sphere requires relatively free and uncoerced structures that enable men and women to coordinate their actions self-consciously in dialogue with respected others. There must be structures of public discussion and political influence present within civil society.

In his startling text, “The power of the powerless,” Vaclav Havel writes of the “devastated sense of civic awareness” in the Soviet bloc
weltonjustcountries. There could be no better example of this devastated sense of civic awareness than in Romania. Like their dissident counterparts in Czechoslovakia, Poland, East Germany and Bulgaria, Romanian intellectuals comprising the Group for Social Dialogue entered into the critical discourse of civil society. In late December, 1989, crushed for too long, squeezed like bugs between the fingers, Romanians overthrew the dreaded Ceausescus to the chants of “liberty” and “democracy.” The editorial board of the critical weekly journal 22 exclaimed: “The revolution was not completed simply with the flight and execution of the ex-presedential couple. There remains in their wake an entire bureaucratic apparatus, a destroyed economy, and especially a diseased mentality: one used to self-suppression, to enslavement, to asking for another’s permission” (italics mine.).

Few spaces were safe for free speech in the old Romania. Parks became the safest places because it was not easy to eavesdrop. Public life under Ceausescu was highly ritualized. He determined the standards of the art and media. He puffed his “glorious achievements.” When he travelled by motorcade through the streets of Bucharest, people were not allowed to hang their laundry for fear of a hidden sniper. People used the city streets to simply get somewhere, and the bustling market streets of the old Bucharest were only fond memories. But after December 22, 1989, the streets were alive again and people began to speak more openly in the coffee houses. The recovery of public life planted seeds to develop civil society’s potential and create the beginnings of a democratic public sphere.

Euphoric moments release energy and we walk with a new spring in our step. I was a bit taken aback when I read the opening lines from Manuel Castells’ book, Networks of Outrage and Hope (on social movements in the network age [2012]): “No one expected it. In a world darkened by economic distress, political cynicism, cultural emptiness and personal hopelessness, it just happened. Suddenly dictatorships could be overthrown with the bare hands of the people, even if their hands had been bloodied by the sacrifice of the fallen.” Well, we are now drinking the bitter dregs of the disintegrated Arab Spring. History is full of surprising moments when revolutionary possibility breaks through cement roadways and radical new directions (or political imaginaries) are opened up. But Castells’ statement is an ecstatic utterance of the hopeful moment. Later on, we can find ourselves sitting at 3 a.m. in the bar, empty glasses and cigarette butts strewn about, wondering where the party went.

In times when the ice melts from history’s window, however, we do see something of what is possible when we stop being afraid. To reclaim a public voice, people must speak out. They cannot look down at their feet and shuffle them, standing mute before power’s impervious face. Romanians began to shout slogans, generally in the form of rhymed couplets, at their despised rulers. Gail Kligman (“Reclaiming the public sphere: a reflection on civil society in Romania,” Eastern European Politics and Societies, 4(3), 1990) says that a “veritable chorus of vocalized dissent shattered the silence of the years,” an angry counter-punch to the monological double-speak of the party-state. Romanians wanted a free press, rule by law, revitalized academic studies and freedom of religious expression. None of this came easy (now we know more clearly the names of the devils who wanted to betray this awakening of the people).

The politics of human freedom and dignity

I would like to look briefly at the model of politics of those who flew the banner of “civil society against the state.” In a remarkable book, Arendt, Camus, and the Modern Rebellion (1992), Jeffrey Isaac saw striking similarities between the politics of Arendt and Camus and thinkers like Vaclav Havel, Adam Michnik and George Konrad. Havel speaks of a “new model of behavior” and insists that people not get “involved in diffuse general ideological polemics with the center, to whom numerous concrete causes are always being sacrificed; fight “only” for those concrete causes, and be prepared to fight for them unswervingly, to the end.” Havel described this model of conduct as deeply moral. Rather than confronting the state directly, one seeks to create “an island of freedom in an ocean of something that thought of itself as immensely free but in fact was not” (Disturbing the Peace [1986]). Like Camus, Havel does not place his faith in history, progress or humanity-in-the-abstract. But he insists that “even a purely moral act that has no hope of any immediate and visible political effect can gradually and indirectly, over time gain in political significance.”

Isaac thinks that this existential commitment to the spiritual-moral power of the person is “insistently rebellious.” The powerless have more power than they ever imagine. Moral acts of the person may reach beyond the isolated self, resonating deeply with those who are oppressed. Oppressive conditions never totally exhaust us. We always possess the capacity to “resist indignity and reconstitute community that can never be written off nor saddled by a political ideology” (Isaac).

In his famous “Letter to Dr. Gustav Husak” (written in 1975), Havel counselled the Czech dictator: “Life may be subjected to a prolonged and thorough process of violation, enfeeblement and anesthesia. Yet, in the end, it cannot be permanently halted….If life cannot be destroyed for good, neither, then can history be brought entirely to a halt. A secret streamlet trickles on beneath the heavy lid of inertia and pseudoevents, slowly and inconspicuously undercutting it. It may be a long process, but one day it must happen: the lid will no longer hold and start to crack” (Living in Truth [1986]).

Camus thought that the acceptance of the status quo froze history into an “absolute utopia.” Nor does Havel imagine that we have arrived at history’s end, with nothing left to do but mop up and tinker with market capitalism. To the contrary, human freedom—like Habermas’s communicative reason—is history’s stubborn presence. It is capable of manifesting itself in surprizing ways and in the most intractable of circumstances. In “The power of the powerless,” Havel applauds a rebelliousness residing in a “hidden sphere…where the human predisposition to communication exists.” This capacity for rebelliousness is inherent in all human interaction where we seek not power over or the instrumental use of the other, but simply to understand and express. Rebelliousness, for Havel, appears to be an attribute of social being itself. This theme—the recalcitrance of human freedom—can also be found in George Konrad’s Anti-Politics (1984) who appeals to the “authority of the spirit” against the dead conformism of state obedience. And Adam Michnik states that “solidarity provides a shelter for spiritual homelessness; it is the declaration of war against human solitude in the face of the communist Leviathan” (Letters from Prison [1985]).

For Isaac, then, the politics of civil society in Eastern and Central Europe exemplified an appealing vision of rebellious politics. Animated by the ideals of human dignity, solidarity and self-determination—and rebelling against the demoralizing experience of totalitarianism—these democrats attempted to co-ordinate means and ends. They sought to create islands of freedom amid the calcified structures of authoritarian communism. They called themselves “Dialogue,” “Civic Forum,” “Solidarity,” and “Democratic Forum” and, in so doing, embodied the “solidarity of chains” of which Camus once spoke. Isaac thinks that they were pioneering navigators, sailing between the “jagged edges of the frozen geopolitics of the Cold War, creatively pursuing a third way between capitalism and communism.”

Thus: one deep and profound lesson from sober reflection on the euphoria of the velvet revolution is that there are always “unanticipated and unthought possibilities latent within the present” (Isaac)—new spaces of freedom that breach the logic of ritualized, conventional party politics and manipulated public opinion. Yet, now twenty-five years after Havel’s assumption of the Czech presidency, Wolfgang Streeck’s sobering thought that: “More than ever, economic power seems to have become political power, while citizens appear to be almost entirely stripped of their democratic defences and their capacity to impress upon the political economy contents and demands that are incommensurable with those of capital owners” (“The crises of democratic capitalism,” New Left Review, 71, Sept-October 2011) calls forth once again the spiritual-moral power of persons everywhere (perhaps as never before). In songster Leonard Cohen’s inimitable words, “Ring the bells that still can ring….There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.”

Dr. Michael Welton is a professor at Athabasca University. He is the author of Designing the Just Learning Society: a Critical Inquiry.


Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.