IMAGE: French revolutionary map
of the world, by I.B. Elwe (1792)

Excerpted from a draft for my long-delayed essay (almost a small book now) on the relationship of revolutionary Marxism to revolutionary liberalism.

It is difficult to even mention the concept of civilization without conjuring up images of Occidental hauteur. One is immediately reminded of the so-called “civilizing mission” undertaken by the great colonial powers of Europe. The word’s origins, however, prove far more benign. Nevertheless, the timing of its emergence in history cannot be thought a mere coincidence. “Civilization” is an invention of the bourgeois epoch. According to the French semiotician Émile Benveniste, the term first appeared in print in a 1757 book by the Marquis de Mirabeau.[1] Though it derives more generally from the Latin civilis, denoting a higher degree of urbanity and legality, “civilization” in its modern sense dates only from the Enlightenment. In its post-1765 French usage, Benveniste observed that here “civilisationmeant the original, collective process that made humanity emerge from barbarity, and this use was even then leading to the definition of civilisationas the state of civilized society.”[2] From there, the concept was then imported to Great Britain by Scottish Enlightenment figures like Ferguson, Millar, and Smith. This most likely came through their interactions with the French physiocrats Quesnay, Necker, and Turgot.[3] Freud’s suggestion in Civilization and Its Discontents — that the civilizing process of society in history resembles the maturation of the individual[4] — was already largely anticipated by Ferguson in the introductory paragraph to his Essay on the History of Civil Society. There he asserted: “Not only the individual advances from infancy to manhood, but the species itself from rudeness to civilization.”[5] For Millar, as it was for Smith, civilization was marked by the development of a complex division of labor, what he called “the distinctions of professions and of ranks.” With the further articulation of this system of distinctions, “the human mind is cultivated and expanded; and man rises to the highest pitch of civilization and refinement.”[6] Smith reaffirmed Millar’s identification of civilized society as being one in which there was a highly-developed system of ranks. At one point, Smith clarified that whenever he used the term “civilized society,” what he really meant was just a “society where the distinction of ranks has once been completely established.”[7]

Besides Benveniste, the German-Jewish sociologist Norbert Elias and his Austrian exegete Helmut Kuzmics also picked up on this civilizational theme of Mirabeau’s. One of Elias’ most interesting arguments centers on the transmission of certain conventions from pre-bourgeois European court life — an attention to good manners, etiquette, dress codes, and behavioral norms — to bourgeois civil society rising out of the collapse of the feudal order. Although later philosophers of moral sentiment like Hume and Smith did much to displace aristocratic “virtue” through their valorization of bourgeois self-love,[8] these vestiges of courtly politesse in civic politeness[9] account for the high premium that was placed on “courtesy” (courtoisie, cortesia) and “civility” (civilité, civiltà, Zivilität) in early bourgeois circles.[10] Kuzmics is correct to add, however, that the carryover from courteous modes of conduct would have been more direct among members of the grande bourgeoisie.[11] But this historical lineage passed down from medieval court society was only one part of what Elias and Kuzmics called “the civilizing process.” More broadly, what this process entailed was a transition from external restraints imposed from without to internal restraints imposed from within; one of the defining features of civilization for Elias was precisely this regime of self-restraint.[12] Some have noted a similarity between Elias’ notion of “restraint” through the civilizing process and Foucault’s later concept of “discipline” through correct training,[13] but this similarity is only apparent. Self-restraint for Elias has far more in common with Freud’s psychoanalytic category of repression.[14] Apart from these aristocratic frills and ruffles adorning bourgeois civilization, there were several forms of self-restraint peculiar to the modern world. As Elias and Kuzmics each acknowledge, these usually had to do with vocational norms and expectations associated with the workplace (rather than the banquet hall, the baronial court, or the curia regis).[15]  The primary locus of modern civilization would thus seem to reside in labor. Continue reading

Civil society

Lecture by Voltaire at Madame Geoffrin’s famous salon, where the young Mozart performed, and where Diderot was a regular guest

Excerpted from a draft for my long-delayed essay (almost a small book now) on the relationship of revolutionary Marxism to revolutionary liberalism.

Liberalism prior to 1848 fought for the autonomy and self-government of the civil sphere, free from the arbitration and caprice of the absolutist state.  Faced with the irreconcilable contradiction between labor and capital, liberal elites now found themselves having to appeal to the arm of the state in order to suppress the class divisions of modern society.  To set this dynamic that Marx analyzed into sharper relief, two terms must be clarified: 1.) the modern (as opposed to the traditional) state, and 2.) civil society.  Since the latter forms the condition for the existence of the former, civil society takes precedence.

Civil society — or the Third Estate of “commoners” living under a commonwealth — until 1848 appeared as the self-regulating, harmonious sphere of mutual exchange.  This was the denaturalized space of private property, according to Rousseau, the domain of the individual — i.e., the private citizen or civilian.  It promised to reconcile the part with the whole, the interest of the individual with the greater interest of society.[1]  Outside the narrow filial confines of the family (i.e., “natural” society), civil society in Hegel’s view exists as “an association of members as self-sufficient individuals [Einzelner], in what is therefore a formal universality, occasioned by their needs and by the legal constitution as a means of security for persons and property, and by an external order [the State] for their particular and common interests.”[2]  Hegel was clear that the traditional State, like the family, preexisted civil society by several millennia.  “[T]he creation of civil society,” he maintained, “belongs to the modern world.”[3]  In their jointly written polemic on The German Ideology, Marx and Engels confirmed Hegel’s suspicion, drawing attention to its specifically modern, “bourgeois” character:

Civil society embraces the whole material intercourse of individuals within a definite stage of the development of productive forces.  It embraces the whole commercial and industrial life of a given stage and, insofar, transcends the state and the nation, though, on the other hand again, it must assert itself in its external relations as nationality and internally must organize itself as state.  The term “civil society” emerged in the eighteenth century, when property relations had already extricated themselves from the ancient and medieval communityCivil society as such only develops with the bourgeoisie; the social organization evolving directly out of production and intercourse, which…forms the basis of the state and of the rest of the idealistic superstructure, has, however, always been designated by the same name.[4]

With this in mind, the larger concept of “civil society” can be further subdivided into a concatenation of four smaller concepts that comprise it.  The first two should be obvious: 1.) civilization and 2.) Society.  The second two move at a more microscopic level: 3.) bourgeois right and 4.) the individual.  Once “civil society” is adequately explained, the distinction between the traditional and the modern state can be detailed.


[1] And more explicitly in Ferguson (1767): “If [it follows] from the relation of a part to its whole, and if the public good be the principal object with individuals, it is likewise true, that the happiness of individuals is the great end of civil society…The interests of society…and of its members, are easily reconciled.  If the individual owe every degree of consideration to the public, he receives, in paying that very consideration, the greatest happiness of which his nature is capable.”  Ferguson, Adam.  An Essay on the History of Civil Society.  (Cambridge University Press.  New York, NY: 2001).  Pg. 59.

[2] Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right.  Pg. 198, §157.

[3] “Civil society is the [stage of] difference [Differenz] which intervenes between the family and the state, even if its full development [Ausbildung] occurs later than that of the state; for as difference, it presupposes the state, which it must have before it as a self-sufficient entity in order to subsist [bestehen] itself…In civil society, each individual is his own end, and all else means nothing to him.”  Ibid., pg. 220, §182.

[4] Marx, Karl.  The German Ideology, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Feuerbach, Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlooks.  Translated by William Lough.  Collected Works, Volume 5: 1845-1847.  (International Publishers.  New York, NY: 1976).  Pg. 89.  My emphases.