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East European Perspectives: December 27, 2001

27 December 2001, Volume 3, Number 23

By Rudolf M. Rizman

The Intellectual Invention of Civil Society

One of the most precious results of this search was, no doubt, the discovery and utilization of the concept of a civil society. It is significant that rebellious activists did not embrace any of the ideological "isms" that were available at the time, but rather chose a concept that, by its very nature, avoided dividing people on the basis of this or that bit of sectarian ideological language. We should, however, note that later -- with the demise of civil society and the growth of the newly established political parties-- political differentiation among the former political opposition and the new, post-1989 political generation grew, and was accompanied by a sharp, ideologically laden sectarianism. This would completely alter the political scene and would, of course, be quite frustrating for the former nonconformist intellectuals, who had acted politically as a highly integrated and motivated group under the former regime.

Unlike the mobilizing potential of the concept of a civil society, competing ideologies then on offer had lost their appeal, their unpopularity and "exhaustion" (of which Daniel Bell, 1988, has reminded us a long time ago) being quite evident. Of course, the notions of human rights and political pluralism, which the political opposition to the Communist regimes passionately identified with and defended, were historically anchored in the liberal Weltanschauung, but it is correct to say that the succeeding development of these notions had by then acquired a universalistic character that superseded any specific ideological sectarianism.

Along with other key words, "civil society" had become the "democratic password" since the mid-1970s, which gradually led the ideologically multifaceted opposition along the way towards establishing a still-undeveloped, but nonetheless democratic, political system. The concept of a civil society may indeed be said to have to some extent replaced the former captivity of intellectuals in the nest of "revolution," which presupposed a centrally organized and immediate seizure of political power. In its place, civil society offered a self-organized, rather spontaneous and diffused, shredding of the omnipotent political hegemony. This, we were reminded by S. Eisenstadt (1992, p. 27) explains the absence in the 1989 revolutions of the strong, Jacobinian eschatological visions that had been so central in previous, "classical" revolutions. If one can detect any ideological ingredients in a civil society, then they can be found in the evolutionary nature of change. It is obvious that the credit for the non-violent transition to democracy in Central Europe should go to the option for civil society, and its inherent drive to reach democratic political objectives through gradual change. This slow process probably took 10 years or so in the case of Slovenia. Any discussion concerning the question of whether "1989" represented a revolution or something qualitatively new, must focus on the centrality of the role of civil society movements in these processes.

The special interest of the former regime in the humanistic intelligentsias stemmed from its very suspicion of their loyalty and is well illustrated by comparative data: the Slovenian regime expected intellectuals to join the Communist Party (and 60 percent of them did), but "technical intelligentsia" or those working in the natural sciences sector, were less suspicious in the regime's eyes and could easier escape the demand; indeed, less than 25 percent of them were Communist Party members. The dividing line between the humanistic and the technical intelligentsia, roughly speaking, ran between "moral" and "material" frustrations, and this cleavage often prevented the two groups from working on a common political agenda. Moreover, the regime was willing to satisfy the "material" frustrations of the technical intelligentsia, and was at the same time driving a wedge between the two groups. At this point we should also add that the category of "independent" intellectual was almost invisible in public political life, although a few intellectuals of such stature did exist in Slovenia even during the barbarous 1950s, and the slightly less brutal 1960s and 1970s. But such persons were, of course, subjected to permanent surveillance and for the same reasons were suppressed and effectively banned from holding any public functions.

This inner-intellectual cleavage, of course, created latent and manifest conflicts between intellectuals from various branches, as well as within them, which represented yet another opportunity for the regime to exploit it for its own benefit. Although in its official rhetoric the regime still treated the manual workers in the most favorable terms, it was nevertheless aware of the urgency of facilitating the development of the "knowledge complex," and in practice it therefore favored at times the (mostly technical) intelligentsia. In the literature on intellectuals and intelligentsia in the socialist countries (see, for example, Konrad and Szelenyi, 1979), it has been convincingly demonstrated that the intelligentsia in more advanced and liberally inclined "socialist" states in due time strengthened not only its social position but, to some extent, even its political position. Initially, intellectuals in a "liberalized" regime did not consider the regime to be a priori hostile to intellectuals and "friendly" towards manual workers alone. But when on one hand, the intellectuals perceived new opportunities, and the vulnerable rulers, on the other, started rolling back reforms, many intellectuals had to redefine the new situation and its carriers as hostile both to their own interests and to those of society in general.

Disenchantment Of Intellectuals With Politics

In the formal sense, there is not that much of a discrepancy between the roles of intellectuals under Communist and democratic rule. In the former, due to the "highly intellectual character of Communism" (Schopflin, 1993, p. 260), they were expected to provide convincing and consistent evidence concerning the highest possible legitimacy and ultimate superiority of the existing regime. The intellectuals were, in other words, the "substitute" for democracy (Bozoki, 1999, p. 12) and, as such, took up the roles of those who identified themselves with the oppressive regime; notwithstanding the fact that some intellectuals rebelled and were persecuted, this has not been easily forgotten after the collapse of Communism, and, especially on the right of the political spectrum, many distrusted and still distrust any intellectual activism. Whether some intellectuals were advising former Communist despots or Communist reformers who were looking for rational "escape routes" out of Communism, often does not matter at all. Thus, due to the co-opting experiences of intellectuals in Eastern and Central Europe, a number of post-Communist politicians showed distrust towards intellectuals as such and preferred to arrive at political decisions without consulting qualified experts. Not to listen to experts is, of course, the mirror image of the previous rulers' attitudes toward intellectuals: they did indeed at times ask them for advice, but it was known in advance what sort of advice they wanted to hear.

Another source of distrust in intellectuals (particularly among the radical right or right-of-center politicians), is a rather paradoxical anti-intellectualism manifest in these countries. Intellectuals, no doubt, can be credited for having prompted the establishing of a democratic order based on popular sovereignty, which now undermines their formerly distinguished, and in some sense privileged, role in society. Standing before the ballot box, the electorate quickly forgot the services rendered by prominent and courageous intellectuals during repressive times. Instead, it followed the voices of new leaders, who knew how to formulate promises in concrete, comprehensible words and who had quickly learned how to use the language of the common people. In Slovenia, a number of such intellectuals, whose party, or themselves, lost the elections, either withdrew from politics altogether or joined more successful parties. But even when not voted out, they voluntarily left party politics, after discovering that they were unable to reconcile two obviously conflicting roles. Namely, while acting as intellectuals they had been able to speak for the "whole"; but now, the party of their choice was asking them to speak for the "part." In addition, some intellectuals found it difficult to cope with the routine of everyday politics (organizational skills, mastering the art of public relations, working out compromises, etc.), which did not require fresh ideas as much as it did loyalty to the chosen party, and, moreover, to the party leader. Most of them found it difficult, if not impossible, to listen to Bauman (1992, p. 128), who bluntly offered the following advice: "Authors who once learned how to dupe the censors must yet learn how to deal with market-wise managers."

Some of the intellectual "veterans" from the previous Communist era also found it quite repulsive to work with intellectual "latecomers," mostly of the younger generation, some of whom had "waked up" only when the Communist "dragon" had already been definitely slain. It was particularly difficult to find a common political or civil society agenda between intellectual "veterans" and the younger generation of intellectuals, for whom Communism was already history. The paternalism of the former could only remind younger intellectuals of the hierarchical relations that may have existed between intellectuals and omnipotent rulers during the Communist era. In addition, after the introduction of political pluralism and the achievement of a national state, many intellectuals experienced a "hangover" over the fact that there were no more great historical themes around and no visible enemy to struggle with. This was the first "collective" experience of post-Communist intellectuals with politics within a democratic framework, and the lessons they learned in this regard were not so different, if at all, from those experienced by Western intellectuals. Among the first bitter findings was the "discovery" that politics has more in common with persuasion and less with telling the truth; and further, that it is often impossible to link intellectual introspect with political action, and that ideas and interests are not necessarily correlated at all (Goldfarb, 1998, p. 15).

One influential segment of intellectuals in Slovenia, who call themselves razumniki ("intellectualists"), discovered a new social role in promoting "symbolic politics" (this distinction has been introduced into the debates on intellectuals by Zielonka, 1998, p. 474) as against those intellectuals practicing "realpolitik." While intellectuals who side with "realpolitik" adore power, interests, and efficiency, "symbolic politics" takes spirit, tradition, discourse, and feeling seriously. There cannot, accordingly, be any reconciliation between power and culture, or interest and morality, respectively, as they belong to two completely different worlds. This kind of politics is easily recognized in the rise of romantic and nationalist thinking, fears against the "evils" of globalization, and caution, if not outright hostility to, against the integration processes in Europe, and in particular against the European Union (Rizman, 2000). Quite a few of the intellectuals who share such views are grouped around the Cultural Forum (Kulturni forum), which was initiated by the right- and populist-oriented Social Democratic Party. Besides being "instrumental" to this party, its main aim is to shape the cultural subsystem according to the "needs of Slovene national identity and national substance." The "intellectualists" often complain that not much has changed with the inauguration of a democratic system. As they are pointing in this regard to the unchanged "social structure," they are, in fact, longing for a revolution that did not occur. Among the concrete actions undertaken by them was a challenge to the alleged "Americanization of Slovene culture."

The members of the Cultural Forum had been part of the former democratic opposition, which defended its moral superiority against the Marxist blueprint. After the breakdown of the authoritarian regime and the establishment of a democratic order, this group of intellectuals disintegrated: one faction remained true to a notion of moral superiority in search of absolute justice and with it, an intertwined belief in a mission to be fulfilled (providentialism), while the other took a more pragmatic course. The former gravitated toward antidemocratic and antimodern stands for various reasons; a few had been either pushed away or repressed under the previous regime, while some of them were simply vengeful because of real or imagined injustices done to them.

What may be even more relevant is that in Slovenian politics, especially in the last decade of Communist rule, the cultural sphere enjoyed a relatively privileged status. One explanation for this is that in the absence of multiparty competition, the Communist Party allowed cultural elites to assume some autonomy and quasi-oppositional roles within the republic, and in particular to wage a political struggle with the center (Belgrade) for the sake of a more decentralized and eventually independent status of the republic, in which Slovenia's leading political elite could not, for obvious reasons, be directly involved. With the introduction of democracy and the independence of Slovenia, this cultural subsystem and its "representatives" in particular lost such privileged status. Many of them therefore feel, with some reason, that their adapting to such democratic prerequisites as compromise and tolerance toward political opponents would threaten their individual and collective "vested interests," and moreover, undermine the messianic posture of Slovenian culture -- the supposed "vanguard" of the Slovene Nation.

On the other hand, grave personal disappointment with politics, or as it was commonly termed, "political disenchantment," not rarely led many Slovenian intellectuals either to (as already mentioned) withdraw completely from politics (including from the sphere of civil society), or to resort to antidemocratic discourses (for example, accusations against Western materialistic and market-oriented societies, which presumably do not care about ideas) in the hope that this might return to them their privileged status. In this sense, the uncertainties brought about by the "time of transition" are largely responsible for one being able to hear only very weak voices among the intellectual ranks about the need to normalize the situation; intellectuals will sooner or later have to subject themselves to the professionalization of their status, just as it has happened to other formerly privileged social groups. The "rational" decision to leave politics came mostly from those who had strong scholarly positions and reputations in their respective scientific disciplines. They would usually argue that their temporary entry into politics had been motivated by the will to support the development of a parliamentary democracy, national independence, and genuine professionalization of politics. After these aims had allegedly been fully achieved, it is only natural, as the argument has it, for them to return to their professions and "let politics be politics."

Marginalization Of Intellectuals Under Post-Communism

It has often been overlooked, however, that intellectuals have not only been the prominent agents of transformation, but have themselves been equally affected by the processes they triggered in alliance with other social players. Many consider this as yet another paradox: the marginalized intellectuals eventually succeeded in toppling the previous regime, which seemed to have a long life ahead of it, but were unable to secure for themselves the "leading role" in the democratic system they had initiated. When attacking the old system, their expectations might have been considerably lower than after the collapse of the regime, which had led to the multiplication of their hopes. It should be remembered that most intellectuals -- as is the case for Slovenia, as well as for a number of other Eastern and Central European (post)Communist states -- did not initially or for quite some time take part in political contests with the regime in order to replace the extant political power, but merely to soften and eventually to fully democratize the old power structures. Moreover, as Mastnak (1992) reminds us, nonconformist intellectuals did not perceive their activities in the usual political sense, but rather termed them as "antipolitics."

Not all former intellectual protagonists can be considered a priori as either losers or winners. Clearly, it is necessary to speak more prudently in this regard. To generalize so far as to include among the "losers" the entire educated stratum makes no sense. Quite the contrary: the inauguration of a democratic political system, no doubt, removed very important hindrances which had blocked the full realization of their potentials both in academia and in the political arena. In addition, there were also improvements in their economic status in some countries, including Slovenia. If during the former regime their economic fortunes entirely depended on the distribution of social and economic resources by a narrow political elite without any responsibility towards the populace, the new democratic regime established more transparent and democratically verifiable instruments for ultimate decisions in this respect. Of course, there is no ideal distribution at hand, particularly not in societies which suffer from scarce resources in comparison with wealthier ones. In this sense, one can agree that the processes of democratization, social differentiation, and marketization (of both economy and society) will variously affect different segments of the educated stratum. Here, the humanistic intelligentsia usually experiences, due to the specific nature of its disciplines, more hardships than is the case, for example, with economists and lawyers, to mention some of those who find it easiest to comply with the imperatives of market forces.

I would therefore only partially agree (and for some rather limited analytical purposes) with Garton Ash's statement (as quoted in Bernik, 1997, p. 67) to the effect that "the independent intellectuals have fallen from abnormal importance, which they had before 1989, into abnormal unimportance" under post-Communism. In both depicted historical sequences, the intellectuals had before them various choices, depending on their specific professional attachments, and, last but not least, on their placement in this or that social institution. Daniel Bell (1980, pp. 157-159) suggested a very useful distinction between intellectuals working within what he terms "professional estates" (scientific and scholarly, technological, administrative, and cultural) and those vertically organized around "interest-bound activities" (economic enterprises and business firms, government, social complexes, and the military). If Garton Ash's assertion implies that intellectuals in a post-Communist society again found themselves in a situation of political marginality, then one has to be aware that in a democratic system this fact does not have the same significance as it had under the previous, authoritarian framework. However, this optimistic tone certainly does not imply that after the establishment of a pluralistic and democratic order, intellectuals had realized all their aspirations.

As we have seen, many continue to struggle with their identity in a completely new framework: those intellectuals who became professional politicians, for example, wrestle with the dilemma of whether they still belong to their previous professional role or have ceased to be intellectuals as such. Bozoki (1993, p. 102) succeeded, in my view, convincingly enough, to widen the sociological angle of looking at these quandaries, by suggesting a more differentiated picture of potential choices or typical "behavioral strategies" in the post-Communist world: some intellectuals can play the roles of "professionals;" others -- those with a "sense of mission" -- can remain faithful to "brooding;" and yet others can be "people of rapid retreat," (i. e. those who employ "guerrilla-like" tactics, verbally attacking the weakest points of the establishment, and then retreating and waiting for yet another "opportunity" to attack). The modalities, that is, the salience of this or that type of intellectual posture differ within different societies, and all of them can be found in all (post)Communist contexts. What this otherwise convincing and useful typology misses (as is the case and limitation of any ideal-type construct) is that during their active career, quite a significant number of intellectuals move from one choice to the other and perhaps also back. One could argue that this is also one of the legitimate and distinguishing properties of the intellectual profession or (as some would have it, of "intellectual calling") that does not apply to the same extent to other social groups.

Finally, one should raise the question of whether accomplished past historical achievements and the present frustrations of intellectuals in post-Communist societies in general and in Slovenia in particular offer any clue as to their future commitments and choices. It will, of course , take time for the intellectuals to be able to distance themselves from the past heroic times and emotions, and to define anew their relevant political roles in the post-Communist aftermath. In so doing, however, they can no longer expect to be as united and coherent as they were in the past, when the common enemy was known and visible. Even in times of normalcy, there are many worthwhile goals to struggle for: to be the agent and voice of civility; to maintain political equilibrium in fluid and unstable times in societies undergoing deep economic, political, and cultural transitions; to build autonomous institutions within the framework of a civil society; to cultivate the role of democratic intellectuals, etc. One should not be too pessimistic. Already nowadays, some intellectuals are in fact deeply embedded in these roles. However, it is also true that there exists a critical mass of those who are either searching for new objects of hatred, or calling for a complete retreat behind "ivory towers." But as we have already been consoled, such historical detours belong to the ritual fulfillment of a scenario "du �t�rnel retour" (Jedlicki, 1995, p. 40). The question is thus still open, and will remain so for some time: is democracy in this part of the world already able to take care of itself, and simply forget the roles of critical intellectuals and intellectuals with public responsibility, respectively?

The author is professor of sociology at the University of Ljubljana.


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