As well as promoting debates about liberal democracy, the dramatic events of 1989 also bought forth a powerful revival in the interest of the notion of civil society.
This revival was reflected mainly in two broad tracts of literature. The first focused primarily on events surrounding the Solidarity movement in Poland and the tumultuous events of 1980-81. The second was concerned with the Velvet Revolutions more broadly.
Following the events of 1989, there appeared a number of works sharing the common central argument that civil society played a key role in the overthrow of these Communist regimes in 1989.
Killingsworth's book presents three broad arguments, all of which reject the way civil society has been applied in the analysis of opposition and dissent in totalitarian Czechoslovakia, the GDR and Poland.
First, it argues that the totalitarian nature of Soviet-type regimes means that it was not possible for a genuine civil society to exist. Second, the civil society paradigm, as it has been applied to opposition and dissent in Soviet-type regimes in Eastern Europe, lacks analytical rigour. Thirdly, the book argues that the dominant liberal interpretation of dissenting opposition in Soviet-type regimes is politically and morally flawed.
"Civil Society in Communist Eastern Europe offers an intriguing critique of the civil society paradigm in the research on former communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe and the revolutions that transformed them. Avoiding popular optimistic assumptions, Matt Killingsworth carefully reviews the theoretical tenets of civil society, drawing on authors as diverse as Hegel, Marx, Gramsci, Habermas, Ernest Gellner and Michael Bernhard. His analysis of the totalitarian condition provides a much needed framework in this field, which will be a reference point in any future discussion. A must-read for scholars who want to critically assess the capacities and limitations of the civil society concept outside the confines of liberal democracies. To them this book offers conceptual clarity and innovation as well as rigorous empirical analysis."
Helmut K Anheier, Hertie School of Governance
"Matt Killingsworth has produced a fine study of opposition under communism. Using the notion of the 'totalitarian public sphere', he shows the role played by opposition forces in Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic, and Poland, and in the process lays bare some of the mechanisms whereby these regimes worked. An insightful and stimulating analysis that should be read by all who are interested in communism and the way it worked."
Graeme Gill, University of Sydney
"In this feisty and original book, Matt Killingsworth argues strongly against the conventional view of civil society’s role in bringing down Communism in Europe, arguing that the concept of a ‘totalitarian public sphere’ better describes developments in the late-Communist era. This book will lead to renewed controversy on what civil society is and what its role – if any – was in late-Communist societies."
Leslie Holmes, University of Melbourne
"Matt Killingsworth’s exploration of dissent in communist Czechoslovakia, the GDR and Poland offers a fundamental reconceptualisation of the nature of these regimes. His concept of the 'totalitarian public sphere', as a reworking of Habermas’ 'bourgeois public sphere' opens up the debate by offering a more flexible, dynamic image of what totalitarian rule was. Grounded in a detailed study of how dissident groups functioned in this environment it raises important questions about the public/private sphere, public/popular opinion, notions of individual and group identity, and strategies of regime legitimation. This is a major theoretical contribution to the study of communist regimes which highlights inherent limits to state power and the way in which issues of power were contested."
EA Rees, Centre for Russian and East European Studies, University of Birmingham
Review by Mattia Zulianello in the journal Europe-Asia Studies, published online 13 January 2014
'The civil society paradigm is closely linked to its historical Enlightenment background, and
the use of such a concept to analyse non-democratic politics is the by-product of the zeitgeist which
assumes that the establishment of a liberal democracy is somewhat unavoidable in any country and in
any case. Matt Killingsworth’s book is a good example of how we should deal with cases that challenge
our analytical tools both spatially and temporally. As the author points out, the ‘dominant liberal
interpretation of dissenting opposition in Soviet-type regimes is both politically and morally flawed’;
the totalitarian nature of these regimes did not allow a ‘genuine civil society to exist’ (p. 3).
The book is organised in two parts: the introduction and Chapters One–Three and Seven deal with
the discussion of the theoretical framework. Chapters Four–Six analyse dissent and opposition
dynamics in Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic and Poland.
The main theoretical contribution of Killingsworth’s work is the elaboration of the concept of a
‘totalitarian public sphere’, a term able to describe the space in which the variety of dissenting
oppositions organised themselves, as well as to explain the activities of these groups vis-à-vis the
totalitarian party-state (p. 48). Obviously such a ‘public sphere’ differs greatly from Habermas’s idea
because, firstly, in Soviet-type regimes opposition groups were rarely granted basic freedoms; secondly, the party-state controlled public opinion and opposition activity was aimed to create a
‘second’ public opinion; thirdly, there was no check on the power of the state; and finally, the
dissenting publications were often closed down or subjected to state censorship. The use of the concept
‘totalitarian public sphere’ allows us to take into account the strength of Soviet-type regimes while
recognising that occurrences of dissent and opposition could emerge. However, the crucial point is that
the label ‘public sphere’ does not stand for a Western-type relationship between public and private, but
should be interpreted as a relationship between distinctive spheres of communication.
The author adopts an Arendtian understanding of totalitarianism in which terror, and especially the
fear of terror, played a decisive role. Killingsworth’s interpretation of Czechoslovakia, GDR and
Poland as totalitarian regimes is the result of a reconstruction of the concept as an ideal type, to which
all these countries, although at different levels, came close. In sum, the combination of the concepts of
‘public sphere’ and ‘totalitarianism’ refers to the activities undertaken by dissenting opposition against
the party-state with the aim of creating an alternative ‘public opinion’, in contexts where no ‘civil
The second part of the book is constituted by three case studies which shed light on the relationships
between totalitarian regimes and dissenting groups. Czechoslovakia, GDR and Poland are all good
examples of the great difficulty in explaining acts of dissenting opposition in a Soviet-style structure of
power by adopting the concept of civil society, defined ‘as an entity separate from the state’ with ‘a
certain degree of autonomy’ (p. 140).
From the analysis of the Czechoslovakian experience it emerges that ‘while new forms of social and
political association were tolerated, these were never independent from the structure of the Party-state’
(p. 74). Indeed, the Prague Spring turmoils, the activities of Charter 77 and the actions of the Catholic
Church were unable to erode the leading role of the Komunistická strana Československa. The actions
of these opposing groups can be understood as attempts to create an alternative flow of communication
and, significantly, it should be underlined that post-Spring movements framed their activities as ‘nonpolitical’.
Even the Civic Forum could not be considered as an expression of civil society, since it
presented a clear revolutionary essence aimed to overthrow the status quo.
The ruling party of the German Democratic Republic, the Sozialistische Einheitspartei
Deutschlands, is a paradigmatic example of the terror system that could be created in a Soviet-style
regime in a strict relationship with the USSR and through a repressive security apparatus, the Stasi.
Any dissident group was heavily infiltrated by the Stasi and even the Evangelical Church was not an
autonomous institution as it is commonly suggested. The concept of a totalitarian public sphere is able
to capture even the societal interactions that were not strictly limited to the party-state, such as the role
played in the GDR by organisations such as the Freier Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund and the Freie
Deutsche Jugend. The SED maintained, in any case, control of the space that existed ‘outside’ of the
state, and the Church–state relationship is a perfect example of its ability to enlarge or reduce such a
space according to its preferences.
Poland presents itself as the most fierce opponent of Communist rule in the three Soviet-style
countries analysed by Killingsworth. However, even in this particular case, the episodes of dissent
cannot be explained through the Western civil society paradigm. In fact, as the author underlines ‘while
it is true that Poland was less totalitarian than both the GDR and Czechoslovakia, it remained a
constitutionally Marxist–Leninist state up until 1989’ (pp. 136–37). The activities of the Komitet
Obrony Robotników and of the Komitet Samoobrony Spolecznej were, in both cases, aimed at creating
an alternative circuit of public opinion and they faced harsh repression by the Polish regime. The same
can be said for Solidarność, and although the movement was officially recognised by the party-state, it
had to recognise the leading role of the Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robitnicza.
The book constitutes an important and highly original innovation in the study of totalitarianism and
its relationship with the larger national environment.'
Review by Barbara J Falk in the journal Slavic Review
'The central thesis of this book is that using “civil society” as a term to describe the existence
of self-organized movements in east central Europe is misguided and wrong.
Matt Killingsworth argues that, because of the ongoing totalitarian nature of the regimes
in question, genuine civil society could not exist and further that “the dominant
liberal interpretation of dissenting opposition in Soviet-type regimes is both
politically and morally flawed” (3). Employing a “civil society” approach to analyze
dissent depends upon incorrect assumptions about probable outcomes; moreover,
suggesting that civil society is among the suite of explanatory variables at play in the
fall of communism does not adequately account for the true political nature of the
regimes right up until the bitter end. Killingsworth provides an alternative concept—
“the totalitarian public sphere”—to describe the political space occupied by dissenting
oppositions in Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic, and Poland.
These are controversial claims given how civil society has become the intellectual’s
cri de coeur since the 1990s. Eff ectively, the book involves testing his hypotheses
against the three cases, examining whether the idea of a totalitarian public sphere
better serves the purpose.
Killingsworth surveys the literature on civil society in the canon of political
theory and is right to point to its bourgeois and liberal origins, as well as its conceptual
fuzziness. Although describing the elastic web of associational life separate
from offi cial structures of governance (and whether commercial interests/economic
activity should be included) is much debated, and obviously deeply spatially and
temporally contingent, civil society theorists suggest that is precisely the point.
Conceptual stretching is a professional hazard when dealing with intrinsic levels of
diversity, yet this should not lead to narrow and static interpretations or to recipes
for or instant explanations of political change. Killingsworth’s critique misses the
mark in several key respects. First, civil society narratives regarding 1989, such as
those off ered by Grezgorz Ekiert and Jan Kubik, Vladimir Tismaneanu, Jacques Rupnik,
and myself, have never denied the role played by elite negotiation, economic
collapse, or particular leaders such as Mikhail Gorbachev. Rather, a key goal has been
to provide a much-needed corrective to “fall of communism” explanations that fell
into Cold War triumphalism, that overprivileged international factors over internal
events and local histories, or that tended too far toward Carlylian “great man of history”
conceptions. Second, not only Jeff rey Isaac but Andrew Arato and Jean Cohen
and others such as Paul Blokker and John Keane have recognized that dissenting
oppositions were not solely liberal but also republican, populist, and even illiberal.
Third, it does not follow that fi nding democratic or republican ideals within civil society
causally requires that postcommunist central and eastern European states easily
establish thriving civil societies: of course communist legacies die hard. Where
states had thriving movements of dissent, democratic consolidation has been less
problematic, and the narratives and principles of nonviolence, self-limitation, and
power dispersal cultivated in nascent civil societies were important in determining the scope and type of regime change. Alan Renwick demonstrates that these values
played a role in institutional choice at moments of transition as well. Finally, the
ideas of self-limitation and evolutionism advanced practically by Adam Michnik in
Poland or theoretically by Arato and Cohen, are not oxymoronic—certainly not any
more so than the idea of a “totalitarian public sphere.” Indeed, one of the central
ideas of civil society approaches was that greater space could be and was aff orded to
the “antipolitical” activities if care was taken not to challenge the leading role of the
party and the geopolitical reality of subservience to Moscow: these were the lessons
of 1956 and 1968. Nevertheless, Killingsworth’s point regarding the Aesopian nature
of “antipolitics” is well taken: the term was tactical and advantageous while precisely
undercutting the party-state at a vulnerable point, off ering authentic public life at the
longer term expense of the regime.
In place of civil society, Killingsworth constructs the notion of a “totalitarian
public sphere,” borrowing elements of Jürgen Habermas’s familiar construction
of the bourgeois public sphere to describe what emerged out of the fulcrum of the
eighteenth-century European “republic of letters” and the engines of urban and capitalist
industrialism. His borrowing refl ects an already well-cultivated tradition, and
if the author had been content with arguing that using “public sphere” over “civil
society” yielded better results, he might have then discussed its partial nature, especially
given the unique ideological circumstances of communism, and fostered an
important debate. But Killingsworth addresses the distinctiveness of communism by
appending the loaded adjective totalitarian, which unnecessarily distorts his subsequent
analysis. Cold War animosity and American foreign policy interests loom large
over the word totalitarian and, even defi ned in a broadly Arendtian manner, the term
remains heavily laden with imagery of complete state control recognizable only in the
grim reality of Stalinist oppression. The author carefully details examples of surveillance;
harassment; interrogation; and the widespread use of informants, arbitrary
searches, detention, and extended imprisonment. Yet these features were also true
of authoritarian regimes in Latin America (which were far more murderous than any
post-Stalinist state) and even typifi ed the crackdown against the Communist Party of
the United States in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, where the term totalitarian
is, correctly, never applied.
Moreover, Killingsworth undercuts his own argument: he wants us to understand
that the “totalitarian public sphere” is a Weberian ideal-type but refuses to
grant civil society the same potential status, thus serving the tidy purpose of the
straw man. Admittedly civil society is oft en employed aspirationally rather than analytically.
Suggesting that the totalitarian public sphere could be “a stepping stone” to
actually existing civil society is not a very diff erent claim than that tentatively made
by civil society theorists: that by acting “as if” in Havelian terms, you begin to make
it so. Dissent has never magically added up to an instant and robust civil society and
to suggest otherwise is to caricature both a rich literature and a varied approach.'