A Conceptual History of Civil Society: From Greek Beginnings to the End of Marx

Boris DeWiel

Abstract


The idea of civil society has undergone a renaissance in recent years, but missing from this literature is an explanation for its historical transformation in meaning. Originally civil society was synonymous with political society, but the common modem meaning emphasizes autonomy from the state. This paper traces this historical transformation within the context of the history of ideas, and suggests that the critical event was an eighteenth-century reaction against the rationalistic universalism associated with the French Enlightenment. The continued significance of the question of universalism is suggested by the fact that universalistic Marxist Leninist theories provided the ideological underpinnings for the destruction of civil society in Eastern European nations. The paper concludes that three elements are essential to the modern understanding of civil society: its autonomy from the state, its interdependence with the state, and the pluralism of values, ideals and ways of life embodied in its institutions.

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