Following Charles Taylor, I distinguish between two main traditions of understanding civil society in the West (Taylor, 1990). What he calls the L-stream is a theoretical tradition, with John Locke as a paradigmatic figure, which envisions civil society as a pre-political ethical community delegating certain limited powers to the minimal state. By contrast, the M-stream, taking its name from Montesquieu, sees civil society as a set of associations, or the association, that mediates relations between an individual and the strong state, defending the former from the encroachments of the latter. Let us first sum up and sharpen this distinction proposed by Taylor so that it can serve as an analytical tool for further exposition. According to Taylor, the L-stream comprises many other thinkers of the Anglo-American liberal tradition. The central component of reflection on civil society in this tradition comes from Locke’s conception of the state of nature rather than from his exposition of ‘civil society’ as such, since he frequently used this term interchangeably with ‘political society’ or ‘the state’, following the usage of his epoch. For L-stream thinkers, it is important that the state of nature in Locke already possesses many features that would be ascribed to ‘civil society’ by his followers when they redefined the term in the eighteenth century, in books such as Adam Ferguson’s Essay on the History of Civil Society, Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments or Tom Paine’s On the Rights of Man. In contrast to pessimistic conceptions of the state of nature, presented for example by Thomas Hobbes, Locke’s theory stresses the peaceful and rich character of human existence in a pre-political condition. People can develop industry, trade, culture and the arts already in the state of nature, and they choose to unite into a political state largely because of some trifling inconveniences. As a consequence, the state has a fiduciary character: it is entrusted with carrying out the minimal function of eliminating those few inconveniences of human coexistence. If the state expands its powers beyond those functions that were entrusted to it and unjustifiably penetrates the pre-political spheres of life, then this trust is revoked and the state is ‘dissolved’, in Locke’s famous term. Introducing the term ‘civil society’ in its modern understanding, Ferguson and Smith also based themselves on this Lockean vision of a peaceful and multifaceted pre-political life in the community. First, they opposed ‘civil society’ to
a ‘military society’, seeing it as a non-belligerent community that prefers to use civil rather than military means to attain its aims and one that clearly values peaceful trade over armed conquest. Second, in their conception, civil society is opposed to a barbaric society, one that does not know fine manners and is ignorant of the industrial and cultural achievements of contemporary civilisation. In short, civil society partakes of the fruits of civilisation. Civilised manners, civil rather than military methods of solving the few disputes, and a common pride in the achievements of civilisation tie people into a community that exists according to the laws of civil life outside the political sphere. The minimal political state emerges only when this civil society calls it into life. By contrast with this vision of the L-stream, the implicit starting point of the M-stream is the pre-existence of a strong centralised state. Montesquieu, Benjamin Constant and Alexis de Tocqueville centred their concerns on the problem of defending individual liberties against the despotic leanings of the modern state. Accordingly, suggests Taylor, the core concept of the M-stream is the corps intermediaires mediating the relations between the individual and the state. For example, Montesquieu envisioned the traditional privileges of the aristocracy and the clergy, and the recognised liberties of cities, guilds and corporations, as the ‘mediating bodies’ that act to curtail the despotism of European monarchies. Indeed, the functioning of justice, collection of taxes, even the formation of armies were frequently delegated to the powerful aristocratic families, provincial assemblies and parliaments, city corporations and municipalities. Thus the crown was divested of some of these powers by these bodies, the members of which the king frequently could not nominate. Therefore, the relative independence and ancient privileges of these mediating bodies served as a bulwark against the despotism of centralised power. Tocqueville, who lived after the elimination of many of these intermediary corporate institutions by the French Revolution, acutely perceived the threat to individual liberties coming from the centralised state. He proposed that the defence of individual liberties, that is, the role played by the old corps intermediaires, could be assigned to new associations of free citizens. Apart from defending the individual from the encroachments of the state, these associations were also to become a kind of school of freedom where citizens would learn the civic virtues necessary for the preservation of liberties in an age threatened by what Tocqueville termed the threat of democratic despotism (Weintraub, 1992: 57-61). Hegel finally supplied the first formulation of the opposition of civil society and the state as such, when he synthesised the L-and M-streams in his political philosophy. In his understanding, civil society is just a stage in the unfolding of the ethical Idea, a lamentable condition where private interests prevail, the contradictions of which are finally resolved only with the appearance of the universal state that pursues the general interest. Still, the ‘corporations’ that form part of Hegel’s vision of civil society are pictured positively, and may remind the reader of corps intermediaires. It is very important to stress this ambivalence in Hegel’s theory because Antonio Gramsci, whom one might include among
renowned thinkers of the M-stream also, revived an interest in Hegel’s corporations in the twentieth century. Curiously, he did so within the Marxist tradition which aspires to the annihilation of difference between civil society and the state. Marx himself, of course, considered the presence of association-like corporations in Hegelian theory a residue of the feudal past, and he reduced civil society to economic life as the main sphere of realisation of private interest (Cohen and Arato, 1992: 115). The vision of civil life among the M-stream thinkers, who represent civil society as a set of independent associations that mediate relations between the individual and the state, came to dominate contemporary Russian debates on civil society. Historically, this may be explained by the fact that the most popular version of the civil society thesis came to Russia through East European interpretations in the 1980s, particularly by way of interesting attempts to interpret the experience of the Polish Solidarity movement through the lens of Gramscian analysis (Pelczynski, 1988). The clash between the authoritarian state of the Soviet type and the semi-or quasi-independent associations of what was called ‘civil society’ in Eastern Europe at that time seemed to be the fundamental political dynamic of the epoch. Accordingly, creating and maintaining similar free associations still seems to be the decisive guarantee for the consolidation of a democratic regime in contemporary Russia. However, careful consideration of the religious roots of different conceptions of civil society suggests that this is not the only, and, perhaps, not the main avenue for the consolidation and development of democracy in Russia.