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.

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