Historical and Cultural Conditions Affecting Formation of Civil Society

Darina D. Goncharova, School of Governance and Politics, MGIMO University


No social institution was invented and implemented by one person, any social construct implies a long process of formation, evolution and modification. The institution of civil society is no exception. The way that a person of the 21st century understands this term does not correspond much to the meaning that was given to it in the 16th century. It will be very interesting to observe how the civil society of the contemporary form emerged, tracing how dozens of philosophers and eras have left their mark on this concept. Hence, of course, interest in the historical conditions of the formation of this social institution appears. Culture, by widespread conviction, is a kind of mirror of all socio-political and economic processes, therefore an integral part of the study will be the analysis of culture of the corresponding period in order to reveal how exactly social processes took place in the minds of people.

Key words: civil society, political institution, liberalism, culture, philosophy.

Main body:

This research is devoted to one of the basic and at the same time ancient phenomena – civil society. This term appeared long ago, but it has metamorphosed a lot. It`s extremely interesting to find out  under what circumstances this happened and what influenced the process of evolution of this concept.  Thus, the subject of this study will be the historical and cultural conditions of the formation of a civil society, where the goal will be to analyse the relationship between the environment and this institutional concept. The research question is how exactly the course of history with all its upheavals and mutations influenced the perception of civil society and its role and functions in the modern world. Already here one can see the relevance of studying this problem, because now civil society is one of the main actors influencing the political situation both inside the state and at the international level. It is impossible to imagine any civilized democratic country without a developed institution of this type. In order to trace the evolution of the concept of civil society in the totality of the historical and cultural relations surrounding it, we refer to the traditional text analysis method, which will allow us to process not only scientific papers on this topic, but also to work with historical and philosophical texts that directly affect the characteristics of this institute in a given time period. In other words, at each stage the task will be to plunge into the era and understand what aspect of the understanding of the term “civil society” it has introduced. The degree of elaboration of this topic is quite high, which makes it possible to use a large number of articles and publications on this topic, but we would like to emphasize the fact that within the framework of the increment of scientific knowledge the emphasis will be placed not on the way how a particular scientist defined civil society, although this will undoubtedly be mentioned, but on the environment in which he formulated his definition and why he came to such conclusions. Historically, the positions of some ancient Greek philosophers, particularly Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, as well as necessarily Enlightenment figures, English ones - J. Locke, T. Hobbs, French - S. Montesquieu and J.-J. Rousseau, American - T. Payne, and the largest representatives of German classical philosophy - I. Kant, G. Hegel. As an antagonistic point of view, it will be interesting to analyse the reflections of the 19th century German philosopher K. Marx. Among the secondary sources, it is worth highlighting such publications as “The concept of civil society in the traditions of Western scientific thought (political and philosophical analysis)” (Dzakhova, Byazrova, 2017) and “On the concept of the formation of a civil society: the origins of the formation of an idea” (Puzikov, Kiselev, 2016).

Directly to the point, we would like to note that different researchers calculate the evolution of the term “civil society” differently, in particular, many oppose actively the inclusion of ancient understanding in the analysis of this institution. Of course, the modern understanding of this concept is far from ancient Greek, but it is curious to identify the causes of such a metamorphosis and trace the entire path of development and formation of the concept.


The concept of “citizenship” played an extremely important role in ancient Greek polis, state of a special kind, characterized not only by a specific structure of power, but also by a special type of culture, so-called oroacoustic, the distinctive features of which is the use of oratorical speech as the main management tool. It was the period of antiquity when the dialectic was born - the ability to ask questions and search for answers to them, because that time the philosophers thought about the origin of society and the state. Why do people come together, how are institutions built, why is man a political being? Answers to all these questions are closely related to the general idea of ​​the era that  to be a person is completely the same thing as to be a citizen, which causes a high level of political culture and politicization of all spheres of an individual’s life. Civil society, in their view, is identical to society as a whole. Socrates said that the basis of any state is a high degree of human sensation of his mission as a servant of the polis, one who will increase the public good, support justice, which, Socrates believes, is universal. A person, being a part of a civil society, should be law-abiding and virtuous not by coercion, but by his acceptance, which makes him a citizen (Plato, 1968). Plato is close to Socrates in his views. He also says that a person should follow his purpose, and not, for example, his social status by origin, in order to do their job and work for the benefit of society (Plato, 1999). Aristotle approaches the matter more materialistically. In his opinion, civil society is a set of free and equal people where interchange of the results of each activity is performed to meet the needs (Aristotle, 1983). The main task of a citizen is to preserve and protect the community.

All in all, one can get the general idea that the ancient interpretation of civil society coincides with the understanding of the state as a whole, which is almost the opposite of the modern definition of this institution. Where does this paradox come from? The fact is that for all the centuries that have passed since that epoch, the state showed itself rather as an organ of control of greater or lesser power, which caused the need to form such an institution that would give free expression of the will of people outside the state’s influence, but with the possibility of these people to influence the political process. Modern states are not like polises, power is often perceived as a system with a huge amount of resources, while each person needs channels of realization of his will and manifestation of his independence. Nowadays people will be characterized more as a social beings than a political ones, because the pervasiveness of state power, typical of ancient Greece, is perceived as undesirable. Moreover, it is worth remembering how many people did not participate in governing in any way, having the status of not a citizen, but a slave, which, of course, is unacceptable in the modern world.

The Age of Enlightenment

Before talking about the specific representatives of the era, it is worth referring to the historical context. The XVI, XVII and XVIII centuries are the time of bourgeois revolutions, religious diversification and the formulation of ideologies. However, it is worthwhile to arrange the right causal relationship. At the beginning we will put an attempt to hold a religious reform and theological rethinking of the role of the church by Martin Luther. As a result of his theses a new Christian denomination was formed - Protestantism, in fact, a clearly calculated economic concept, eliminating the institution of the church and the priest as mediators between God and man. At the same time, indulgence which worked as redemption and chance to curry God`s favour is abolished and a new system of opportunities to get "the way to heaven" - the material security of each individual - appears. This alters greatly the social stratification, as now those striving for enrichment achieve their goals, forming a new bourgeois class (along the way and a new social system - capitalism). The new class enters into a confrontation with the aristocracy, identifying the concepts of wealth and nobility, often attracting state power to their side. This causes mass discontent with the bourgeois class in the socio-economic sphere, and in the spiritual sphere - with Protestants (Huguenots or Calvinists, depending on the country). There is a series of bloody clashes, repression and coups. In moral terms, along with the development of Protestantism and the formation of Protestant ethics in society, individualism and personal self-sufficiency is progressing. Thus, the need for the bourgeoisie to consolidate its rights and position in society along with some atomization in society leads to the formulation of the ideology of liberalism, the main provisions of which are: priority of individual freedom based on the principles of natural law, separation of the state from the civil society and separation of powers. “All people are equal in republican states, they are equal in despotic states. In the first case, they are equal, because they are everything, in the second, because they are nothing. Freedom is the right to do everything that is permitted by law. If a citizen could do what is prohibited by these laws, then he would not have freedom, since others could have done the same thing; the main thing is the safety of a citizen” (Montesquieu, 1955).

The overall picture is illuminated, let us turn, for example, to England. In the middle of the 17th century, a multi-stage protracted bourgeois revolution raged there, accompanied by the secularization, overthrow and restoration of the monarchy. Against the background of such historical events, the scientist J. Locke in his “Experience of the Human Mind” justifying the socio-political concept relies on the natural law and the theory of social contract. He was the first to say that “the main and major goal of people uniting into a state and subordinating themselves to the power of government is to preserve their property” (Locke, 1988). He argues that the basis of civil society is private property, which is sacred and inviolable. The emergence of property was the cause of the emergence of the state as an institution of political power. There are roots of Protestantism and capitalism entering its heyday. This is how he substantiates his theory of social contract, and also formulates the distinctive features of civil society in his understanding. This institution is based on the principle of freedom and equality of people disposing their personalities and property.

Before mentioning the next scientist, we would like to turn to culture, because at that time in England it anticipated very clearly his appearance. Romanticism and sentimentalism have been replaced by everyday realism. That means that the comedy is no longer fabulously folkloristic, but satirical and moralistic. The time for the so-called “comedy of manners” has come where the key techniques were sarcasm, irony, ridiculing human vices, the perception of man as a whole not as God's creation, but rather as an eternal sinner. Social criticism became widespread. Even in the lyrical genre scepticism, craving for paradoxes and witty intellectual techniques were manifested. As is usually the case, a puritanical, ultra-good-faith culture flared up reactionary. And here, at the junction of the old and new cultural traditions, T. Hobbes and his main works “Leviathan” and “About the Man” became widely known. For the first time, he began to consider man not as a social or spiritual being, but as a mechanism, which on a general scale is a cog in the system. Hobbes considers that people in the name of getting out of their natural state of continuous hostility as well as for the sake of order and security united into a state, delegating some of their rights to those who became power. This was the birth of civil society and the rule of law. According to Hobbes, "civil societies are not just some associations of people, but associations based on a contract, for the creation of which mutual loyalty and agreement are necessary” (Hobbes, 1989). That means that the state creates a civil society, and society in turn forms the state, transferring to it some of its rights and controlling its activities, while the government also limits itself by introducing a system of checks and balances that would not allow any branch of power to exceed its authority. However, the situation described in the theory as usual is idealistic. In fact, the state is often “alienated” from the people, grows uncontrollably and multiply its authorities, absorbing the identity, which is allegorically described in “Leviathan” (Hobbes, 1936).

In France a similar mechanism works - from religion to ideology and revolution. The French enlightener S. Montesquieu defined civil society as a set of independent associations of citizens that make up the human-state interaction channel, ready if necessary to protect the individual from the encroachments of power (Montesquieu, 1955). In the different definitions of the civil society of all these contemporaries, one can spot the specifics of the national mentalities that emerged against the background of the historical process: the theory of a strong and powerful centre that engages everyone and everything is popular in England, while in France with high level of protest potential the definition emphasizes on opportunities of the created institution to carry out the will of everyone in the government process and to protect society from despotism of the authorities.

Speaking about the difference of mentalities and social traditions, it is worth referring to the New World. In the XVIII century, the United States actively fight for its independence, therefore it is quite natural that the studies on equality of human rights, freedom and inviolability of the person and private property are spread there. The country initially consisted of a large number of Protestants, so there was no problem in choosing the social system - the mechanism is slightly shorter than in European countries. Moreover, the United States were originally formed by quite independent units - the states themselves. Knowing this, the characteristic of the civil society by T. Payne, an American Enlightener, seems relatively natural. According to him, “civil society is a good, and the state is a inevitable evil. The more perfect civil society, the less it needs to be regulated by the state. The origin and existence of power is based only on the consent of the governed” (Payne, 1959). Any power in a state must proceed from the inalienability of human rights. Human freedom is his property, part of which he delegates in order to protect the rest. Thus, in the American tradition, civil society as a group of free and equal independent individuals is the cornerstone of the creation of the state.

German tradition

The most comprehensive in this matter were the concepts of the German philosophers I. Kant and G. Hegel. Germany was the country that gave birth to the Reformation, the source of all changes, resulting the fundamental nature of the philosophical studies of its natives. It should be emphasized that according to Kant the civil liberty of the individual, legally provided with law, is a prior and necessary condition for self-improvement, a guarantee of preserving and developing human dignity (Kant, 1994). Speaking about perfection, Kant notes that human dignity develops in collision of people's interests, when there is a need to protect these interests. And another crucial condition for self-development is civil liberty, secured by legal norms. Hegel, on the other hand, defined civil society as the sphere of the realization of particular private goals and interests of an individual. In his opinion, there is no real freedom in civil society, as there is always a contradiction between private interests and power. This institute serves as a channel of communication of people through the system of needs (it implies that each person has his own goals, the fullness of which he cannot achieve without the help of others), the division of labour and justice (Hegel, 1990).

Partly following the German tradition, scientists of the XIX century K. Marx and F. Engels attributed the emergence of civil society with the emergence of private property. From their position, the duality of this institution lies, on the one hand, in its obvious bourgeois orientation, and on the other, in bringing together various social organizations reflecting the interests of different groups of people. Marx said that “the practical application of the human right to freedom is the human right to private property. The human right to private property is the freedom to dispose of property at its own discretion. This individual freedom, like this disposal, forms the basis of civil society” (Marx, 1934).

But actually to come to the modern understanding of the civil society concept we should remember Americans` contribution during the Age of Enlightenment.

Modern understanding of civil society

The interpretation of civil society as a special non-state sphere of the social organism has become widespread thanks to A. de Tocqueville and his study of democracy in America (Tocqueville, 1992). Nowadays the existence of a civil society is a mechanism for the people participating in management, while maintaining their independence, the inalienable right of every nation and an integral feature of every civilized state of law. This institute allows one to “sober up” politicization, to preserve the sphere of ratio-critical attitude to social reality, pluralism of opinions, ideas and faith. Now civil society plays the role of a link between the private and public spheres, private and common interests. The structure of this social institution in modern times is a combination of non-governmental organizations and associations whose purpose is to protect and promote public interests. As an example, there are such non-governmental organizations of different directions: for the protection of human rights - Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, for the protection of the environment - Greenpeace, and also professional organizations - the International Commission of Jurists or Reporters sans frontièrs.

Today the civil society is aimed at consistency and balance in relations between the state and people. Humanization and democratization are priority trends and historical realities. Private companies are consciously ready to take responsibility for some vital social issues, for instance, to solve infrastructure problems. In general, it should be noted that the boundaries of civil society are blurred, because everything is involved in ensuring the social life of a person. This happens against the background of globalization, transnationalization, merge and simultaneous erosion of cultures. Many civil society organizations are international, which means that they operate at a supranational level. The same thing happens in culture - the creative achievement of one country must necessarily become the wealth of the world, and the speed with which this can happen tends to the speed of light. This only confirms the thesis that culture incorporates socio-historical reflection, influencing social institutions.


Summing up, it is worth saying that the historical and cultural evolution implies the modification of the whole set of social institutions, where civil society will not be an exception. This study showed how the concept of civil society was interpreted in different eras, where the initial definition turned out to be the exact opposite of the final one. The development of this process was inextricably linked with its accompanying environment.


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