On 'Civil Society.' (Fundamental Idea Shared by Popular Movements from the East and West) (Editorial)

By Morley, Jefferson | The Nation, May 7, 1988 | Go to article overview

On 'Civil Society.' (Fundamental Idea Shared by Popular Movements from the East and West) (Editorial)


Morley, Jefferson, The Nation


As I strolled through a retrospective of contemporary Eastern European art showing at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., I got to thinking about Jesse Jackson. The Unbearable Lightness of Being was doing brisk business in Dupont Circle, and I had just read in Newsweek that "Eastern Europe's re-energized dissident movement speaks out for a 'civil society,' " Since I had just voted for Jackson, I wondered if this Prague Spring twenty-years-later stuff tells us anything about America's own re-energized dissident movement-i.e., the Jackson campaign, the nuclear freeze movement, leftist labor unions, environmental groups and others. What does civil society in Eastern Europe tell us about civil society in America?

On the face of it, little. The popular movements of the East and West arose out of different historical circumstances and face different foes. One movement challenges late industrial Communism, as directed by Leonid Brezhnev and Mikhail Gorbachev; the other challenges the post-industrial capitalism of Paul Volcker and Ronald Reagan. Social movements, though, are defined less by what they oppose than what they propose. And, increasingly, the diverse grass-roots oppositionists in the East and West are proposing the same things.

The most fundamental idea shared by popular movements East and West is the principle of "civil society." This idea, which goes back in one form or another to the nineteenth century, is not really an articulated political philosophy or detailed political platform. In its current usage the term conjures up visions of a union of organic and pluralistic communities ranging from churches to labor unions to young rock-and-roll fans. (In Czechoslovakia, they call themselves "Lennonists.") Society is united not by the authority of the party or vagaries of the market but by respect for human rights, cultural diversity, socially responsible commerce, religious tolerance and environmental prudence.

Sound vague? It is. Civil society doesn't offer political solutions so much as it offers an arena for reviving the old-fashioned idea of citizenship. In the West, what Robert Kuttner calls "citizenship values" are overwhelmed by the marketplace values of Reaganism and neoliberalism. In the East, civil society is suffocated by the statist values of the party. Vaclav Havel, a Czech playwright and leader of the human rights group Charter 77,"a radical renewal of citizenship" is the prerequisite for humanizing "centralized regimes."

On the direst threats to civil society-the arms race and human rights abuses-the popular movements, East and West, are inching closer together. The ideology of the cold war has always assumed that opponents of U.S. nuclear modernization have nothing in common with those who criticize Soviet human rights abuses, and vice versa-"The enemy of my enemy is my friend." This seductive logic long prevented human rights activists in the East from finding common ground with the peace activists of the West. But starting in 1981, Charter 77 sought to establish solidarity with the antinuclear protesters of Western Europe. When the peace movement, led by British professor E.P. Thompson, responded favorably, a respectful and productive dialogue began to flourish.

This citizens' dialogue is finally reaching the grass roots of the U.S. peace movement. More and more activists in the United States we taking up the coda of Charter 77: "Peace and human rights are indivisible." Randall Forsberg, who invented the nuclear freeze campaign, and Jonathan Schell, who made it compelling for the American public in The Fate of the Earth, now emphasize that true nuclear peace depends on respect for human rights in Eastern Europe. …

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