The Conceptual Relationship between the State and Civil Society from a Historic Perspective

Julia V. Kuznetsova, School of Governance and Politics, MGIMO University


Nowadays there are a lot of discussions about what limits of state power should be, where civil society in this structure fits in, what the dividing line is between these two areas. The relationship between the state and civil society often remains undercovered. However, it is highly important to understand the nature of the relationship and how it has changed through the times in order to conduct the scientific assessment of the state of civil society. The author elaborates on the ideas of philosophers of Antiquity, Modern time and ends with the analysis of the concept of civil society of the 21 century. Thus, readers can clearly see that the idea of relationship between civil society and the state has developed significantly. 

Key words: civil society, state, koinonia politike, societas civilis, CIVICUS, civil society index.

Main body

There is no commonly agreed concept of civil society and the state, its relationship, this vision constantly changed through the time. However, there is rising demand for the qualitative assessment of the political processes in each particular country and in the world where civil society and state are the main players. Discussing the issues concerning the role of civil society, what government should or should not do, it is necessary to rely on the scientific research. In this paper I will try to clarify civil society’s historical roots, the concept of its relationship with the state.

Ancient roots

The best way to analyze a meaning of any term is to understand an origin of this word. There are two main philosophers of Antiquity who contributed greatly to the idea of civil society - Aristotle and Cicero. They are the representatives of Greek and Latin political philosophy.

Aristotle is known to be the first who used the notion of civil society. Obviously at that time the term was different and even had quite a different meaning. The Greek phrase used by Aristotle, at the outset of his Politics, was koinonia politike (Barker, 1958). The adjective "politike" was derived from "polis". "Polis", in turn, at first meant only a Greek civic republic, then the city and at some moment also the inhabitants of the city and its close environs as a single organized political unit. Then that word was translated into Latin by the Roman jurist Cicero and became "civilis", adjective pertaining to a member of a city. Formally, the same meaning was saved here. The distortion of the meaning can be noticed  through the translation of Aristotle's word "koinonia" to Latin "societas" or "communitas".  With this transition, the word began to take on new shades of meaning, becoming somewhat closer to what we today mean by society or community because the definitions "societas" or "communitas" suggest that people can form some groups independently from government. So "koinonia politike" was translated to Latin as "societas civilis", and thus in English then became civil society. But Aristotle's phrase should be better translated as "political association" now because that image of civil society that we have today is very different to the one that was at those times. That very term "political association" was used by Ernest Barker who was the translator and the editor of the book "The politics of Aristotle".  

What are the reasons for such a possible translation? The point is that the idea of civil society was not separate from the state. That is why, we even cannot call it "civil society". The concept of "politics" encompassed all the most important spheres of society: economics, culture and etc. Political sphere permeated all life of  society. Society itself had a political character and was associated with the state. For example, in the Middle Ages such major social institutions as property, family acquired the status of state life. The fate of each person was inextricably linked with the organization or group to which he belonged and his existence was impossible outside of it. The state acted as an integrating political unit providing a certain

The question of whether Latin «societas civilis» could be also referred to «political association» still remains unclear. Cicero writes that the state — respublica is a derivative of civil society, «societas civilis». Thus, we can conclude that the concepts of «civil society» and the «state» were not already quite similar in his theory. However, they were very close.

Modern history

The development of the concept of "civil society" in the form we know today dates back to the period "Modern time". Chronologically these were the processes of 17-18 centuries. Traditional concepts of the single state-society were questioned. The rule of law, the importance of individual rights appeared on the agenda. I am going to elaborate on the ideas of the most important figures of political science whose contribution to the conception of civil society and its relationship with the state was the most significant.

The first modern philosopher to articulate detailed social contract theory is Thomas Hobbes. He begins the discussion about the importance of individual rights of a person. Nevertheless, T. Hobbes almost does not settle the boundaries of the activity of the state, which makes his model very different from the subsequent models of state power. The state, once established, according to T. Hobbes, is absolute (Hobbes, 1996). Individuals forever give part of their authority and self-government rights to the political body. Citizens pay a high price for their safety. All that helps the state in governance is justified.

John Locke is one of the first who talks about the extreme danger of unlimited state power. He expresses the idea that absolute power is contrary to the idea of personal freedoms. There are certainly similarities between the views of T. Hobbes and J. Locke. At least T. Hobbes and J. Locke highlight that the state is intended to alleviate conflicts between people (Orlova , 2006). At the same time, J. Locke’s views on the limitation of state power in the interests of civil society have a significant difference compared to the Hobbes theory. J. Locke denies the absolute nature of sovereignty and attaches the utmost importance to the rule of law (Locke, 1988).  In civil society, no individual can be free from obedience to the law.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau also contributed much to the conception of civil society. According to him, the most basic covenant, the social pact, is the agreement to come together and form a people, a collectivity, which by definition is more than and different from a mere aggregation of individual interests and wills. This act, where individual persons become a people is  "the real foundation of society" (Rousseau, 2014).  

After the authors of  social contract theory, who only touched upon the issues of civil society, but did not define it, it is necessary to make the analysis of the ideas of the actual creators of the conception. Undoubtedly, Hegel is the first philosopher who in fact designed the concept of civil society in its relationship with the state. Systematizing the entire heritage of French, Anglo-Saxon and German social and political thought Hegel concludes that civil society is a special stage in the dialectical movement from family to the state in the process of a long and complex historical transformation from the Middle Ages to the New Age (Hegel, 2001). He states that social life is radically different from the ethical world of the family and from the public life of the state. This is main difference of his theory. He was the first who made that clear division between the areas of civil society and the state.

Alexis Tocqueville continues to develop the concept of civil society. In his brilliantly-written book “Democracy in America”, he suggests that political institutions that seek to protect society in order to preserve its unity pose the main danger. Tocqueville is one of the first to show how the social system affects the political life of the country. He believes, that corruption is caused not by the government itself, but by the use of that power, which people consider illegal, and subordination to those rulers, who take this power illegally (Tocqueville, 2002). It is civil society, that is based on the principles of freedom and equality, respect for the law, that is to oppose tyranny.

Karl Marx had a special view on the problem of civil society. Civil society for Marx was the locus of degradation, not liberation. While Marx was concerned with the same questions as earlier political writers-the relationship between the economic, social and political orders, and the role of individuals within them-his solution was fundamentally different (DeWiel, 2008). With the rise of the proletariat would come the dissolution of civil society.

There are also other important philosophers who developed the idea of civil society even further, but as the list of them is endless, i decided to confine the consideration to the ideas of above-mentioned philosophers.

Contemporary period

Despite so many scientific articles that were devoted to this issue in past centuries nowadays there are still a lot of disputes towards the relationship between civil society and the state. According to CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society organizations and activists dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world, civil society  is a complex concept, so the task of defining the concept identifying civil society's essential features and designing a strategy to assess and improve its state is in itself a complex and potentially controversial process. As German sociologist Ulrich Beck puts it: “The most precise statement one can make about civil society is that it is an extraordinarily vague idea”. However, being so vague, it should be defined. CIVICUS created Civil society index or CSI that is the instrument of the assessment of the state of civil society.

The CSI defines the civil society as the arena, outside of the family, the state, and the market where people associate to advance common interests.

In conceptualizing civil society as arena , the CSI emphasizes the importance of civil society's role in providing a public space where diverse societal values and interests interact. The term 'arena' is used to describe the particular realm or space in a society where people come together to debate, discuss, associate, and seek to influence broader society. Theoretically this 'arena' is distinctly different from other arenas in society, such as market, state or family. But despite the  theoretical boundaries between civil society, state, market and family, the CSI acknowledges that in reality the boundaries between these spheres are fuzzy[1].

In the picture №1 overlaps between different spheres can be seen. This is exactly how life of the community is organized. Actors can move from one sphere to another or may be the players of both spheres at the same time.

Picture 1. CIVICUS Civil Society Index: Assessing and Strengthening Civil Society Worldwide (Volkhart Finn Heinrich)

For example, the CSI explains that some organizations can have at the same time profit-based and value-based goals, so they can occupy both the sectors of market and civil society. Family certainly has its private nature, but at certain points it can become a very important player of life of civil society.

The state is distinct from civil society in that it has a monopoly over the legitimate use of force. But where the state is failing or disintegrating, civil society may take on a partially coercive role (for example, some riots, revolutions or just active performance of mass media). These are the situations when the areas of civil society and the state might overlap. However, this does not deflect from this fundamental difference between civil society and the state.

Which forms of relationship might the area of civil society and the state have? Professors of Political Theory at the University of Toronto Simone Chambers and Jeffrey Kopstei have identified six types of relationship. They suggest that these relations are not mutually exclusive and they do not necessarily compete with each other (Chambers S. and Kopstein J, 2009).

1) Civil society apart from the State: Freedom of Association. There are three main features of this type:

  • The voluntary nature of participation. It means that associations cannot use coercive or violent means to retain their members.
  • Diversity. While the state is engaged in strategic objectives and social well-being, civil society is an area where people unite to achieve goals and group interests.
  • Rule of law. This principle provides civil society with security from the state's interference.

2) Civil society against the State: politizing the nonpolitical. “The Autumn of Nations” is an example that clearly illustrates this type of relationship. This phenomenon is a wave of revolutions that occured in the late 1989s - early 1990s in the entire region of Central and Eastern Europe. “Autumn of Nations” was a revolution of civil societies that entered into opposition with the state. So in this case civil society is predetermined not only by the separate life of the state; it can participate as an “agent" that is against the state.

3) Civil society in dialogue with the state: public sphere. An increasing number of theorists believe that civil society should be treated as a creative and critical dialogue with the state. This dialogue is characterized by accountability, which means that the state must constantly defend and report on its actions in response to demands of civil society.

4) Civil society in support of the state: schools of citizenship. In contrast to the idea of civil society separated from the state, civic society is considered not only as the area of multiple goals, but also as the area that forms common values. Taking part in different associations with other people leads to the creation of a common civic culture that creates community bonds. As a result of participating in associations, such virtues as tolerance, cooperation, respect and reciprocity are acquired. This is the strong fundament and support of the state.

5) Civil society in partnership with the state: more governance, less government. The idea that civic society is able to replace the government appeared in 19 century among the classics of emancipative sociology of the XIX - early XX century. Modern theorists offer more agile system of open governance instead of inefficient centralized state apparatus that we have now.

However, the increasing complexity of public administration creates new challenges for governance, democracy and autonomy:

  • the state without the help and mediation of associations of the non-state sector is not able to provide public goods and services;
  • legitimacy of power requires greater participation of citizens in political decision-making, which requires the transfer of authority to civil associations;
  • there is the risk that when civil society begins to perform state functions, it can begin to act and behave like the state. Self-regulation mechanisms are needed that create the basis for human independence and dignity.

6) Civil society beyond the State: Global Civil Society. Civil society is a global phenomenon. With globalization many associations and non-governmental organizations go beyond state boundaries. The two most prominent actors in global civil society are problem-oriented social movements and NGOs. Moreover, such issues as human rights, climate change, HIV / AIDS are equally important for all the states.

Nevertheless, although social movements and associations have played a great innovative role in shaping the modern global community, even supporters of global civil society point out that it is too premature to talk about its appearance now. The formation of a global civil society before the advent of a global state and global governance would in fact disrupt the logical order.

This theory is only one example of classification of different types of relationship between the state and civil society. We are aware that some forms can take place at different times and that in reality nobody is able to describe all the variety of these links. Nevertheless, the research is highly crucial as it makes possible to identify the main tendencies, helps politicians not to be lost and allow them to establish clear objectives and achieve them.


The concept of relationship between state and civil society has changed dramatically through the time. In Antiquity social life and state had the same meaning." Koinonia politike" of Aristotle and "societas civilis" of Cicero were not the image of civil society that we have today. They can be better translated as political association as all the spheres of life at that time were regarded as political ones.

In modern time the transition in understanding of the concepts of civil society begins to occur. Hegel was the first philosopher who in fact defined the concept of civil society and separated it from the concept of the state, which contributed much to the idea that people were responsible for the actions of government. Then the principles of accountability appeared. It was already evident that civil society and the state had different nature.

Nowadays we can see that the new tendencies towards the examination of two concepts and their relationship begin to develop. The theoretical analysis is conducted not only by individual experts, philosophers, political scientists but also by organizations, world alliances such as CIVICUS. Although all of them acknowledge the theoretical strict division between the concepts of civil society and state, they also admit the fuzziness of the boundaries that separate them in reality. This fact means that not only a theoretical structure of our society is studied now, but also the structure that functions in reality, which gives even more possibilities for the qualitative assessment of the real state of civil society in the future.


  1. Barker E. (1958) , trans., The Politics of Aristotle. London: Oxford U. Press
  2. Chambers S. and Kopstein J. (2009) Civil Society and the State//The Oxford Handbook of Political Theory
  3. DeWiel, B. (2008) A Conceptual History of Civil Society: From Greek Beginnings to the End of Marx. Past Imperfect, p. 30.
  4. Hegel G. (2001) Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Cambridge University Press
  5. Hobbes T. (1996) Leviathan , Cambridge University Press
  6. Locke J. (1988) Two Treatises of Government, Cambridge University Press
  7. Orlova I. (2006) The Theory of Civil Society: the Background // Philosophy and Society. № 2, P. 120-122
  8. Rousseau J. (2014) 'Social Contract: An Introduction, Cambridge University Press
  9. Tocqueville A. (2002) "Democracy in America", University of Chicago Press

[1] CIVICUS Civil Society Index: Assessing and Strengthening Civil Society Worldwide (Volkhart Finn Heinrich)