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ECPR Press > Monographs > Civil Society in Communist Eastern Europe

Civil Society in Communist Eastern Europe Civil Society in Communist Eastern Europe
Opposition and Dissent in Totalitarian Regimes
Matt  Killingsworth (Author)
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Format: Paperback
ISBN: 9781907301278
Page Extent: 184 pp

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About the Book

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 society’ existed.

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.'


  Pub Date:

May 2012


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