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Civil Society - Conceptual History from Hobbes to Marx

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I am looking at the conceptual history of the concept of civil society from Hobbes to Marx. Such analysis extends the relevant categorical frameworks in use today. Also it allows to distinguish premodern and modern layers in the concept indicating what versions have become questionable and inadequate today. By properly identifying both the historical and philosophical conditions that made the vision of civil society possible in the past, we may arrive at a more coherent understanding of its relevance to contemporary political life in both the West and the East.1 The contemporary revival of the concept of civil society raises questions about its current conditions, relevance and usefulness. New theoretical analyses aim to stir up new discussions about an old-fashioned category, to invest it with fresh theoretical meaning and political significance.
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol
Prifysgol Cymru Aberystwyth Department of International Politics
University of Wales, Penglais, Aberystwyth, SY23 3DA
Ffôn/Tel: +44 (0) 1970 622702
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Post-e: gwleidyddiaeth@aber.ac.uk E-mail: interpol@aber.ac.uk
Gwefan/Website: www.aber.ac.uk/interpol/
Civil Society – Conceptual History from
Hobbes to Marx
Marie Curie Working Papers – No 1 (2001)
By Dorota I Pietrzyk
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
Prifysgol Cymru Aberystwyth University of Wales Aberystwyth
Introduction
The idea of civil society is deeply rooted in the tradition of political thought. In modern philosophy it
emerged along with the rise of capitalism and liberal thought. Primarily understood as a political society by
thinkers such as Hobbes and Locke, in the eighteenth and especially in the nineteenth century, the notion of
civil society was used to describe a sphere of social activity distinguished from the state.
In the first part of my thesis, I am looking at the conceptual history of the term from Hobbes to Marx. Such
ananalysis extends the relevant categorical frameworks in use today; also it allows us to distinguish
premodern and modern layers in the concept indicating what versions have become questionable and
inadequate today. By properly identifying both the historical and philosophical conditions that made the
vision of civil society possible in the past, we may arrive at a more coherent understanding of its relevance to
contemporary political life in both the West and the East.1 The contemporary revival of the concept of civil
society raises questions about its current conditions, relevance and usefulness. New theoretical analyses aim
to stir up new discussions about an old-fashioned category, to invest it with fresh theoretical meaning and
political significance.
Currently, the term civil society is associated with the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. During the
1980s it came to have a very specific meaning, referring to the existence of self-organized groups or
institutions capable of preserving an autonomous public sphere, which could guarantee individual liberty and
1 See Adam Seligman, The Idea of Civil Society, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
Prifysgol Cymru Aberystwyth University of Wales Aberystwyth
check abuses of the state. The reappearance of civil society in East-Central Europe during the 1980s paved the
way for the 1989 revolutions. The civil society based literature in Eastern Europe postulated that since
democracy was introduced, civil society would automatically follow its institutionalisation.
The concept of civil society I attempt to apply to my thesis extends back to de Tocqueville and to the Scottish
moralists. It refers to a public space between household and the state, aside from the market, in which citizens
may associate for the prosecution of private interests within a framework of law guaranteed by the state. This
sociological variant of civil society affirms the self-organization of society, rejects the state-dependency of
citizens and treats civil society as an activity in its own right which is not reducible to the economic structure.
To this I would also attach the idea of civility as developed in the Scottish and English tradition over three
centuries, as well as the concept of political culture.
There is growing agreement about the importance of civil society, but there is also growing disagreement
about its exact meaning. In the contemporary revival of the idea of civil society, the concept has come to
mean different things for different people causing a great number of ambiguities and confusions. What makes
the idea of civil society so attractive to many social thinkers? To put it in Andrew Arato words, ‘civil society
not only helps to describe at least some of the transitions from soviet type system but provides a perspective
from which an immanent critique can be and should be undertaken.’2 The aim of such a critique is to indicate
the choices accessible in the creation and development of new democratic and liberal institutions. But,
ironically, while the idea of civil society has been taken up by mainstream Western intellectuals as the new
cause célèbre, the new analytic key to analyse the social order, in East-Central Europe some thinkers are
2 Andrew Arato, ‘Revolution, ‘Civil Society and Democracy’, Praxis International, Vol. 10, Nos.1/2, 1990,
p. 25.
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
Prifysgol Cymru Aberystwyth University of Wales Aberystwyth
beginning to doubt the efficacy of the whole notion in dealing with the problems facing societies in the midst
of the transition to a capitalist, free-market economy.
For some theorists, such as Ernest Gellner, civil society is a ‘natural’ condition of human freedom but the
question is whether it is a given good or rather, as it was viewed by Ferguson or Hegel, the result of the long
historical process. For some theorists such as Kumar or Hann the term ‘civil society’ is not very helpful in
understanding social realities, particularly in circumstances that are radically different from those in which the
term was first used. I would argue that the old concept has still something to tell us not only about the past but
also about the present, but it requires a systemic theory, an effort that has been recently undertaken by Jean
Cohen and Andrew Arato who wanted to posit a common normative project. In their view the concept of civil
society is essential if we are to understand the ventures of transition to democracy and the self-understanding
of the relevant actors. I argue that civil society can be identified with democratisation and liberalization but it
is a far more comprehensive and deeper concept than democracy for the latter gives us a little indication of
state-society and inter-societal relations.
What makes society “civil” is the fact that it is the locus where citizens can freely organize themselves into
groups and associations at various levels in order to make the formal bodies of the state authority adopt
policies consonant with their perceived interests. Yet, civil society cannot be viewed as opposed to the state
and economy by definition. These three spheres of liberal democracy are strictly interconnected. Free
exchange of goods and services and the state, based on the rule of law, are preconditions of liberty and thus
civil society. But at the same time both a corrupted state and a corrupted economy can be the greatest danger
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
Prifysgol Cymru Aberystwyth University of Wales Aberystwyth
for civil society. The liberal democratic order should involve equilibrium between these three sets of factors:
adequate government, a properly functioning market economy and a civil society that can balance the two
other factors.
Civil society and the state although distinct are never wholly autonomous in their relations with each other.
But they are different in the objects they pursue. The limited state cannot be deprived of a necessary power to
maintain the conditions of a well-ordered society such as the rule of law, security and justice. On the other
hand, a strong civil society can flourish only within a strong state - in the sense of its legitimacy and the
effectiveness of its political institutions, rules and orders. A weak and contested state can be a major
impediment for the development of an active citizenry. The state and civil society, as argued by David Held,
must become the condition for each other’s democratic development.3
It seems to be inevitable that the destiny of civil society will continue to be inseparably intertwined with the
success of liberal democracy. Historically democratic societies were grounded upon the structure of a
pluralistic civil society and a constitutional liberal polity. They were the outcomes of historical realities. In
Eastern European countries it was relatively easy to establish institutional democracy after 1989, but it is
much more difficult to introduce democratic customs and political culture. The absence of public debate
generates a formidable obstacle to the development of democracy. I argue that these two terms: civil society
and democracy, although their connotations are different, overlap each other. On the one hand, civil society is
most often understood as a democratic society, on the other hand, democracy presupposes the existence of
3 David Held, Models of Democracy, Cambridge: Polity, 1999, p. 224.
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
Prifysgol Cymru Aberystwyth University of Wales Aberystwyth
civil society. Social and historical contexts, as well as non-state institutions, are preconditions of a democratic
order without which ‘democracy’ might be illusionary. Nevertheless, civil society cannot in the long run be
institutionalised without some of the structural possibilities that in the West are carried by liberal democracy.
But it should be added that both concepts are bounded by normative considerations.
In the last part of my thesis I intend to examine the concept of global civil society which I consider as a
synthesis of a theoretical reflection on the idea of civil society. I aim to discuss the philosophical rationale of
the concept starting with Kant. A truly novel aspect of Kant’s theory of civil society, in comparison to Locke,
Smith or Ferguson, is his statement that civil society shall be attainable not only in a domestic sphere, within
a nation state, but also among states as a condition of international political community. Another step in
Kant’s political philosophy is thus his view of a cosmopolitan law and of perpetual peace. He argues that
some of the basic rights states guarantee to their citizens should also apply in other states or in state-less
communities.
The institutions of civil society have historically been national and constituted by the relationship to the
nation-state. Civil society has been, almost by definition, national. This situation has begun to change in a
fundamental way. The increase of common expectations, values and goals – the beginnings of common world
culture and especially a political culture – is not simply reflected in parallel demands in individual nation-
states but, essentially, in the growth of common expectations of the state system, with demands through the
world for action by the ‘international community’ and in particular in new expectations of international
institutions such as the UN.
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
Prifysgol Cymru Aberystwyth University of Wales Aberystwyth
The global extension of the concept is an entirely novel development, which is arguably having both positive
and negative practical effects. Since we can distinguish between a society of human individuals and one of
states, an important question arising here is that of how are the concepts of global society, seen as something
which is just starting, and international society, which does exist, to be related? Global economic integration
has been studied apart from the development of the state system, and global cultural integration – these three
main sets of processes are, however, what have together created the basis of a world society. At the core of
the development of global civil society is the concept of global responsibility; members of global society are
starting to try to make the state system responsible – in the way in which national civil societies have, in the
past, generated pressures to ensure the accountability of national states.
To sum up, the concept of civil society, founded on rights, associations, the public sphere and normative
assumptions, played and still plays a central role in the development of liberal democratic theory and also in
its supra-national extension. I intend to examine, critically evaluate and justify its theoretical usefulness toady.
The purpose of this chapter is to trace the development of the idea of civil society as it was distinguished from
the other forms of social order and to examine in theoretical terms the general relationship between civil
society and the state.
Hobbes and Locke
Thomas Hobbes and John Locke are thinkers I want to begin with, as they were the first ones who started
thinking of society not as a natural community, like for instance Aristotle did, but as a result of a social
contract. For Hobbes, the state plays the most important role as it guarantees peace and self-preservation.
Civil society may flourish only when the state is strong. On the other hand, for Locke, the most important
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
Prifysgol Cymru Aberystwyth University of Wales Aberystwyth
aspect of social life was freedom of individuals who first create civil society and than the state which protects
individual’s rights. This liberal concept of a weak state is much more popular now, in our times, when liberal
democracy seems to be the best political regime.
The twin devices of the state of nature and the social contract were developed in the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries in admittedly broad context of political thinking; this is why the reference is to civil society. The
main assumption of this theory is that equality is the natural condition of mankind – humans are equal in the
state of nature. Since equality also entails freedom, than each individual had the right in the state of nature to
enjoy this freedom. This natural equality is perfectly consistent with inequalities in physical or mental
capacities.
Hobbes assumed that the earliest states had been families and that commonwealths could begin through
conquest. Nevertheless, he considered commonwealth by institution as the paradigm case of how
governments arise since, and similarly to other contractualists, he grounded the government upon the consent
of governed. Such a people’s consent instituted absolute sovereignty. According to Hobbes, and it was a
novel argument, the government by institution arises through contract between individuals excluding the
sovereign for he is not a party of the original contract. In his view society and the state require justification
since they are not natural, what is natural is the state of nature where people follow their emotions rather than
reason. Hobbes saw the natural condition of mankind outside civil society as one of misery. In the state of
nature approximate equality makes it rational for everyone to fear everyone else and it is the state of war.
Under such condition cooperative enterprise is impossible since there are no rules besides the rule of self-
preservation and people all lack the amenities of civilized living. In the state of nature everyone has the
“Right of Nature”, which is “the Liberty … to use his own power, as his will himself, for the preservation of
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
Prifysgol Cymru Aberystwyth University of Wales Aberystwyth
his own Nature; that is to say, of his own Life; and consequently, of doing any thing, which in his own
Judgment and Reason, he shall conceive to be the be aptest means thereunto.”4 The right of nature is not a
sufficient means of securing self-preservation; it can be protected only within society with its authority and
rules. In Hobbes’ account, fear is a major motive impelling people in the state of nature to make the covenant
by which a sovereign is set up. People are not naturally sociable as it was in Aristotle’s theory, in Hobbes’
view, they enter civil society mainly through fear of their lives. Not natural sociability but calculations of how
to provide best self-preservation is the main reason of establishing society. People in the state of nature must
assemble and agree upon a sovereign to whom they will transfer the right of nature. For Hobbes, all moral
principles derive ultimately from individual self-preservation.
In Locke’s account, the state of nature is already social and political. ‘Men were led to the state of nature and
to set up society and political organization because they had to find a source of power for the regulation of
property.’5. Political power originates in consent because all men are free and equal in the state of nature. It
serves the public good since the natural law commands preservation. The premise of natural freedom and
legitimate power cannot include submission to the absolute, arbitrary will of another man as it Hobbes
seemed to assume. The right to delegate power, that is to form a government, is one that the community
cannot lose and it is a right that cannot itself be transferred.
Locke describes two stages relationship between government and society: individuals create society
obligating themselves to the majority of the group, which in turn obligates the community to a particular
government established by it. The political arrangements of the liberal state appear as rules for regulating the
4 Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. by Richard Tuck, Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996, 14/64
5 John Locke, Two Treaties of Government, New York: Mentor, 1965, p. 93.
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
Prifysgol Cymru Aberystwyth University of Wales Aberystwyth
competition among them. ‘The majority have the right to act and conclude the rest’. In Locke’s theory, the
consent is the sole origin of political obligation. The decision to join a society is the result of calculation that
membership in a society is the necessary means to secure our preservation. Permanent obligation is, in turn, a
necessary condition for the preservation of society. There would be no political society with authority distinct
from the designated government. When the government dissolved the society would also dissolve: each
individual would be free from any obligation to the others.
The purpose of Locke’s discussion of society and government is to establish the relationship of right and
obligation between them and between the individual. The formation of political society is coeval with the
formation of political government in the broad sense. Locke’s initial premise is neither natural selfishness nor
natural sociality, but natural freedom and natural rights that must be protected in civil society.
The earliest modern usage of civil society referred to a created political order. The term was used as opposed
not to the state but to the natural condition of mankind that is the state of nature. Subsequently, the term was
applied in precisely opposite sense to any political community understood as a result of the natural
development of society (the Scottish Enlightenment) and, later on, to a non-political order. The traditionally
dominant view refined that usage to refer to a specifically economic order contrasting the sphere of civil
society with the state (Smith and especially Hegel).
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
Prifysgol Cymru Aberystwyth University of Wales Aberystwyth
Adam Ferguson
Ferguson has adopted the old concept of civil society to modern political theory, but in his view, as it will be
stressed later, it has a very specific connotation; civil society in Ferguson is considered as a society polished
and refined and is characterised as a certain stage of social, political, and economic advancement.
Furthermore, Ferguson was a civic humanist and his vision of civil society must be understood in the context
of the civic tradition originated in Aristotle and the philosophy of stoicism. This context was lost in the
subsequent theory of civil society, but, arguably, can still be attractive today.6
The main concern of Ferguson and such prominent Scottish thinkers of the eighteenth century as Lord Kames,
John Millar, and William Robertson, was an attempt to create categories for the explanation of material,
economic, and social progress.7 In Ferguson’s view, progress is a measure of civilization; mankind aiming to
remove inconveniences and to gain advantages which could improve its present stage, arrive at ends that
cannot be perceived, such as the foundation of civil laws and political establishments. Political leadership
leads in the long term to a permanent subordination.8 Ferguson notes that progress of civilization is
spontaneous and gradual. Whether it is barbarian or the polished condition, there is no government that could
be copied from a plan. If we look back at the history of mankind, we will notice that the progress of society,
civilization, has never been predictable, never been a result of a single project or projects. Social organization
and different kinds of government emerged out of natural differences between people. Civil society developed
spontaneously along with the refinement of manners, the development of commerce and the division of
6 See Ernest Gellner, Conditions of Liberty. Civil Society and its Rivals, London 1994, pp. 61-80.
7 Fania Oz-Salzberger, ‘Introduction’ in Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
8 Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1966, p. 122.
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
Prifysgol Cymru Aberystwyth University of Wales Aberystwyth
labour. Ferguson traces the progress of man through various stages of society – from primitive savagery to
advanced civilization, viewing society as a dynamic changing pattern of behaviour reflected in institutional
arrangements. In his account of the refinement of nations, Ferguson does not set up specific causes of the
progress from barbarous to polished society but stresses two features of such a progress: gradualness and its
spontaneous character. In this he continues Mandeville’s evolutionary account of society.
Like Montesquieu, Ferguson emphasises that there are different forms of government that fit different social
conditions and suit needs of people: ‘Forms of government are supposed to decide of the happiness or misery
of mankind. But forms of government must be varied in order to suit the extant, the way, and the manners of
different nations.’9 Civilization develops along with the refinement of manners and the search of
improvement. In emerging from rudeness and simplicity individuals learn subordination to rules and customs.
The development of private property, which is considered by Ferguson as a matter of progress, distinguishes
rude and barbarous nations from the ones in the advanced states of mechanic and commercial arts. Following
Locke, Ferguson finds the origin of property in labour. The right which comes from it is viewed as the right of
possession or property: ‘It is a right, in the labourer, to the exclusive use of his powers, and of their lawful
effects, even during the intermissions of that use’.10 Property combined with reflection and foresight makes
the individual care about his interest. ‘He apprehends a relation between his person and his property, which
renders what he calls his own in a manner a part of himself, a constituent of his rank, his condition, and his
character, in which, independent of any real enjoyment, he me may be fortunate or unhappy […]’.11
9 Ibid. p. 62.
10 Adam Ferguson, Principles of Moral and Political Science, New York & London: Garland Publishing, 1978, vol. II, p. 208.
11 Ferguson, Essay, p. 12.
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
Prifysgol Cymru Aberystwyth University of Wales Aberystwyth
Although Ferguson viewed property rights and their protection as a necessary condition of individual freedom
of citizens, it was Hume’s insight that property must be founded on justice for the relationship between man
and his property is not natural but moral. The distinction of property and the stability of possession are ‘the
most necessary to the establishment of human society’ as well as to perfect harmony and concord within a
nation.12 Justice, based on a convention, although its single acts might be contrary to public interest, must be
seen as highly beneficial requisite to the support of society and the well-being of every individual.13
Ferguson rejected the ‘diffusionist’ theory of civilization according to which civilization is seen as transmitted
from nation to nation from its original source in Egypt.14 Nations borrow from their neighbours only those
inventions that they can easily adopt since their conditions are nearly the same. ‘Any singular practice of one
country is seldom transferred to another, till the way be prepared by the introduction of similar
circumstances.’15 In every society the pursuit of perfection creates a condition of progress although not every
society is progressive. In polished societies the separation of professions has led to improvement of skills and
advance of commerce and production. As a consequence ‘the sources of wealth are laid open’ and the greatest
perfection in civil and commercial arts can flourish.16 Since the liberal and mechanic engagements require
different talents, the division of labour results in the general improvement of professions and also in the
hierarchy of ranks.
The term ‘polished’ is used by Ferguson to describe not only the state of nations in respect to their laws and
12 David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, part III, p. 315.
13 Ibid, p. 319
14 See Duncan Forbes, ‘Introduction’ in Adam Ferguson, An Essay….p. xxiv
15 Ferguson, Essay, p. 169.
16 Ibid., pp. 180-81.
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
Prifysgol Cymru Aberystwyth University of Wales Aberystwyth
government but also to ‘their proficiency in the liberal and mechanical arts, in literature, and in commerce.’17
The law of nations, the advancement of commercial arts, and the refinement of manners are seen as a measure
of progress, politeness and civilization. They are also crucial for the development of civil society. But that last
process requires, according to Ferguson, something else: the rivalship of nations and the practice of war. The
possibility of war calls for national unity and public defence. It gives rise to many departments of state and
engages intellectual talents and virtues of citizens. ‘Sentiments of affection and friendship mix with
animosity; the active and strenuous become the guardians of their society; and violence itself is, in their case,
an exertion of generosity as well as of courage.’18 War, as it is viewed by Ferguson, strengthens the bands of
societies and the national spirit. War can also be considered as a builder of moral and internal unity.
Nevertheless, even for Ferguson while in itself war is not a corrupt institution, it could often be corrupted.
Consequently, Ferguson’s idea of progress should be understood not only as an account of technological
development but also as a moral improvement: ‘The wealth, the aggrandizement and power of nations, are
commonly the effects of virtue; the loss of these advantages, is often a consequence of vice.’19 Political life,
which by civic humanists is seen as a distinctive and central part of every citizen’s life, necessitates men’s
intellectual and moral power. According to Ferguson, progress would not be possible without man’s seeking
for perfection understood as the realization of man’s full human nature within a political society and as an act
of choice.20 Virtue and cultivation of moral sentiments play the key role in Ferguson’s concept of civil
society. The strength of the state depends not on its wealth but, above all, on virtue of its citizens. This idea is
undoubtedly stoic inspiration. For Ferguson as well as for Aristotle man is considered as zōon politikon; “man
17 Ibid., p. 205
18 Ibid., pp. 24-5.
19 Ibid., p. 206.
20 Ferguson, Principles II, p. 9.
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
Prifysgol Cymru Aberystwyth University of Wales Aberystwyth
is by nature the member of a community”, individual is a part of a whole.21 Unlikely Hobbes, Ferguson
insisted that benevolence, acting in the interest of others, was a natural instinct.
Ferguson’s Essay can be grasped more as a history of civilization rather than of civil society. Why did he
prefer the latter term? ‘Civilization’, as he stresses in Principles, in the nature of things as well as a term
belongs to the effects of law and political establishments rather than to ‘any station of lucrative possession of
wealth.’22. The criterion of civilization in Ferguson’s view is thus political. The term ‘civil society’ describes
a state of society polished and refined but also relates to its economic and political establishments. Not every
advanced society can be called ‘civil’ but only those in which individuals might enjoy civil liberty under
government protecting their rights and interests. As it will be emphasised later, civil or political liberty of
citizens is for Ferguson one of the main attributes of civil society.
Both the progress and the decline of society cannot be foreseen, but there are some observable factors that
make its decay predictable. Threats to flourishing civilization troubled Ferguson most throughout his Essay.
The advanced societies can be characterised by the plurality of opinion and range of knowledge that are
encountered among different levels of society. ‘Mildness of manners’ commonly shared by all parts of a
polished society is the essential attribute and mark of civilization. But although Ferguson saw in commercial
society the most advanced stage of social development, he nevertheless was concerned with the real worth of
civilization purchased through commerce and individuals’ pursuit of wealth as well as their preoccupation
only with their own interests. The refinements of the polished age are not free of danger. In his account of
progress, Ferguson observes ’dialectic’ of virtue and corruption, of the rise and fall of nations. ‘The virtues of
21 Ferguson, Essay, p. 57.
22 Ferguson, Principles I, p. 252.
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
Prifysgol Cymru Aberystwyth University of Wales Aberystwyth
man have shone most during their struggles, not after the attainment of their ends. Those ends themselves,
though attained by virtue, are frequently the causes of corruption and vice.’23 Progress is never and by no
means guaranteed and decline is always a possibility. The scene of human life frequently changes and
mankind can rely only on its virtue while trying to avoid regress and despotism.
The separation of professions affects particularly those who should make up the political class. Commerce
and the specialisation brought about the whole progress of cultural, moral, and material civilization. But as
long as individuals – autonomous morally and politically human beings move away form the characteristics
of zōon politikon, corruption of republican virtues is inevitable. If citizens retain virtú itself, understood as a
moral virtue, and give up civic values that characterise political virtue of citizens, they must regress towards
the condition of tribesman.24 Ferguson’s account of progress in society demonstrates very clearly how virtue
in its classical sense can be carried and demolished by the increase of society itself. Though he did not try to
find a solution to all problems generated by a commercial society, he was aware of tragic sense of
contradiction built into the historical process.
Conversely, In Hume’s view, in the process of social division commerce, in the long term, will make possible
individual satisfaction of moral and material requirements of citizenship since commerce can bring to all
independence and better material conditions making political activity possible. Hume stressed the values of
universal laws and stable political institutions which made the social and individual growth possible: ‘the ages
of refinement are both the happiest and most virtuous; wherever luxury ceases to be innocent, it also ceased to
be beneficial; and when carried a degree to far, is a quality pernicious, though perhaps not the most pernicious
23 Ferguson, Essay, p. 206.
24 See J.G.A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment. Florentine Political Thought and Atlantic Republican Tradition, Princeton ; London : Princeton
University Press, 1975, p. 501.
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
Prifysgol Cymru Aberystwyth University of Wales Aberystwyth
to political society. […] Another advantage of industry and of refinements in the mechanical arts, is, that they
commonly produce some refinements in the liberal; nor can one be carried to perfection, without being
accompanied, in some degree, with one other.’25
Ferguson’s understanding of society differs from the view of his predecessors Thomas Hobbes and John
Locke and, first and foremost, is signified by a break with the state of nature and social contract theory: ‘It
appears from the history of mankind, that men have always acted in troops and companies; that they have
apprehended a good of the community, as well as of the individual; that while they practice arts, each for his
own preservation, they institute political form, and unite their forces, for common safety’.26 In the Essay,
Ferguson stresses that ‘man is, by nature, the member of community; and when considered in this capacity the
individual appears to be no longer made for himself.’27 Individual freedom and happiness might interfere with
the good of society but it is the latter that should prevail. The public good should be considered as the
principle object of individuals’ endeavours and the happiness of individuals as the great end of civil society.
In like manner to Hume, Ferguson argues that the state of nature is a mere abstraction since man was formed
for society and always existed within a community. Furthermore, man is not only a social being but also a
political being: ‘Society is the natural state of man, and political society is the natural result of his experience
in that state of society to which he is born.’28 This experience begins with the genesis of every society and is
accumulated through ages. Similarly, political establishments are a result of a gradual formation and the
experience of generations. Ferguson also rejects the contract theory as a hypothetical base of society. If
Hobbes is right and all obligations of men in society rest upon a supposed original contract, it will be difficult
25 David Hume, Political Essays, ed. by K. Haakonssen, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. 106-7.
26 Ferguson, Institutes of Moral Sentiments, p. 54.
27 Ferguson, Essay, p. 57.
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
Prifysgol Cymru Aberystwyth University of Wales Aberystwyth
to find a foundation of the contract itself.29 Social organization and political institutions emerge spontaneously
out of the diversity of talents and passions and of the natural necessity to act in company. Unlike Hobbes,
Ferguson ascribes natural rights to every person stating that ‘original rights’ are personal and express ‘what
everyone from his birth is entitled to defend in himself, and what no one has a right to invade in another.’30 In
accordance with the liberal tradition, Ferguson views the establishment of government as the foundation of
coercive laws which define and protect rights and privileges. In modern Europe the political and commercial
arts have been so interwoven that the promulgation of laws was necessary in order to regularise the
acquisition and exchange of property.
Ferguson aims to arrive at a realistic evaluation of human nature, its reality and consequences rather than its
origins.31 His empiricism made him believe in the natural sociability of man. Alike Hume and against Hobbes
and Rousseau he rejected the whole concept of the non-social state of nature. It is ‘reality’, ‘facts’, ‘reason’
and ‘science’ all our reasoning must be founded on. In other words, we must turn to evidence.32 The latest
efforts of human invention are but a continuation of certain devices which were practised in the earliest ages
of the world, and in the rudest state of mankind.’ Both the savage and the polished nations share the same
human nature whose main characteristic is its progression and attempt of perfection and improvement.
Ferguson insists on the one hand on the universality of human nature, and, on the other hand, on the diversity
of social and political institutions and ideals.
This short analysis of the Ferguson’s account of society demonstrates his affinity with the civic tradition
which viewed human being as a social and political animal and as a member of community rather than as the
28 Ferguson, Principles II, p. 268.
29 Ibid., p. 221.
30 Ibid., p. 196.
31 See Ferguson, Essay, p. 26.
32 Ibid., pp. 8-9.
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
Prifysgol Cymru Aberystwyth University of Wales Aberystwyth
individual. His view of civil society should be grasped in this context. Primarily, the concept of civil society
was understood as a political community (union) of free citizens in a city-state or a modern state. The crucial
characteristic of this classical concept was a lack of distinction between the state and society. In eighteenth
century, when political economy redefined civil society as a sphere of free, self-interested individuals, civil
society was grasped as distinct from the state, and, especially in German philosophy of the nineteenth century,
as contrasted with it.33 In Ferguson’s theory, civil society is understood first and foremost as the locus of
material civilization and social, and intellectual progress. He contrasted ‘civil’ not with ‘natural’ but with
‘rude’. Civil society developed as a result of a slaw process of refinement and improvement of arts, trade, and
military culture. Rude nations were shaped into civil society through ‘the policy of government of their
country; their education, knowledge, and habits’ and these factors had ‘great influence in forming their
characters.’34
The term civil society can be grasped at least in three different ways. First, and it is the widest meaning – civil
society signifies civilization. In this context the progress of society from rudeness to refinement described by
Ferguson, the stage where civil society emerges and develops, may be used to describe civil society in terms
of civilization and its development. However, for Ferguson the criterion of civilization was political and thus
civil society had the political as well as a broader connotation, which “civilization” and “society” had not.35 In
Ferguson’s view civil society means a state of society “polished” and “refined” as opposed and contrasted
with a rude and barbarian one.
33 Manfred Riedel, ‘Gesellschaft Bürgerliche’, in: O. Bruner, W. Conze, and R. Koselleck (eds), Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, vol. 2, Stuttgart: Klett,
1975, p. 721.
34 Ferguson, Institutes, p. 170.
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
Prifysgol Cymru Aberystwyth University of Wales Aberystwyth
More technically, civil society can mean the state or a state of society with a regular government, political
rules and subordination as opposed to the state of nature. This view we find in Hobbes and Locke. In Hobbes
theory, civil society is identified with the state based on the social contract. It guarantees to its citizens peace
and self-preservation and requires their subordination. For Locke, though people first create society as a result
of a social contract and than authority and thus the state, in fact the situation is very similar to that described
by Hobbes; in both cases civil society is meant as opposed to the state of nature.
The civic concept, which Ferguson and other Scottish thinkers developed from Machiavelli and his republican
followers, was adapted to the new discourse about modern commercial society, about progress, virtue and
wealth in political society. The civic ideas of active participation and citizen virtue in Scotland interacted with
concepts of freedom, property and justice derived from the natural law tradition, theories of Locke and
Montesquieu.36 The civic tradition of classical and particularly Aristotelian origin focused on the institutional,
moral and material condition of a free citizenship in a political community. In this tradition political
community was defined by possession of a civil government and militia that secured freedom of all citizens to
participate in the political life and defence of their community. In order to take advantage of their freedom
and participation citizens must be capable of moral virtue and a commitment to the public life.37 Fulfilment of
these conditions of citizenship depended upon the possession of material independence and autonomy. In
turn, if citizens value private benefit and their own interests more than the public good, it leads to corruption
fatal for political institutions. Scottish philosophers of the eighteenth century found the civic tradition
applicable to the social circumstances of advanced commercial society. Whereas Adam Smith and David
35 Forbes, ‘Introduction’, p. 27.
36 See Fania Oz-Salzberger, Translating the Enlightenment.. Scottish Civic Discourse in Eighteenth-Century Germany, Oxford: Clarendon Press,
1995, p. 3.
37 John Robertson, ‘Scottish Political Economy Beyond the Civic Tradition: Government and Economic Development in the Wealth of Nations’,
History of Political Thought, Vol. IV, No. 3, 1983, p. 452.
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
Prifysgol Cymru Aberystwyth University of Wales Aberystwyth
Hume tried to adapt this tradition to the positive pursuit of wealth, Adam Ferguson saw its concepts as an
antidote to the danger of corruption and the loss of virtue in commercial society. Conversely, Smith, for
whom the individuals’ self-interested pursuit of wealth – their desire of ‘bettering our condition’ – is a motor
of progress of society, saw first and foremost obstacles to universal citizenship in the circumstances of
commercial society.38 In Ferguson’s view, virtue and citizenship form a context for his critical discussion of
the division of labour, luxury, private property and class division. As pointed above, Ferguson was
preoccupied with the problems of advanced commercial society, especially the coexistence of wealth and
virtue. His notion of corruption and civic virtue was rooted in stoic, especially Cicero’s thought but his
analysis of morality was in both economic and ethical terms distinctly modern. He emphasised in the
Principles that Stoic philosophy was the source from which ‘the better part of Roman law was derived’ and to
which ‘jurisprudence must ever recur’. In Montesquieu, whose works are echoed in Essay quite often,
political virtue – the principle of republics – is not identical with moral or Christian virtue but consists in an
equal subjection to the republic’s laws, their good and prosperity. It is political virtue that makes man a zōon
politikon and thus human.
Both Hume’s and Smith’s theories were to break with the civic humanist tradition, mainly by abandoning the
notions of a political community and citizens’ militia.39 Ferguson argued against Smith that although wealth
and luxury are not in themselves immoral and that progress can be the unintended consequence of commercial
selfishness, civic participation in public life and military valour cannot become a matter of a separate
profession which involves only a few. Furthermore, no system of laws, either of political or of natural laws
itself can preserve a political society. Without the maintenance of civic virtue the strength and vitality of
38 Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, Oxford 1976, II.iii.28.
39 See Duncan Forbes, Hume’s Philosophical Politics, pp. 152-72, 224-30; J.G.A. Pocock , ‘Cambridge Paradigms and Scotch Philosophers’, Wealth
and Virtue, ed. by I. Hont and M. Ignatieff, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983, pp. 240-41.
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
Prifysgol Cymru Aberystwyth University of Wales Aberystwyth
political community can be easily eroded. Even the best political institutions are not a sufficient device to
maintain liberty of individuals: ‘the liberties they enjoy cannot be long preserved, without vigilance and
activity on the part of the subject.’40 Without civic participation and patriotism the government of a
commercial society might easily become despotic and its manners corrupted. Civic participation was for
Ferguson a moral necessity and a ‘basic truth’ of civil society as such. Political freedom presupposes civil
liberties but the former does not exist without political participation. Political refinements might secure the
person and their property without any regards to their political character; ‘the constitution indeed may be free,
but its members may likewise become unworthy of the freedom they possess, and unfit to preserve it’.41 ‘The
character of man, their reason and the heart are best cultivated in the exercise of social duties, and in the
conduct of public affairs’.42 For Ferguson, such institutes as personal freedom, secured property, and
individual rights are insufficient if they are divorced from the civic concept of exercised virtue and active
citizenship. One of the main preoccupations of the Scottish philosopher was political passivity of polished
society. Political freedom and participation was a label of a good form of government and of a free state.
Another aspect of Ferguson’s theory of virtue within civil society worth emphasising is his view of
commercial society as contrasted with the one in which military honour was central. Ferguson has laid the
intellectual foundations of the case for a Scottish militia in his Reflections previous to the Establishment of a
Militia (1756). The issue of the militia plays a very significant role also in his Essay. As David Kettler has
concluded, participation in national defence is for Ferguson one of the few means by which members of
commercial society might act to maintain its progress.43 Ferguson’s discussion on militia illustrates clearly
40 Ferguson, Essay, p. 56.
41 Ibid. pp. 221-2.
42 Ferguson, Institutes, p. 291.
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
Prifysgol Cymru Aberystwyth University of Wales Aberystwyth
that patriotism becomes important for politics and that military engagements can be a great school for civic
virtue:
The departments of civil government and of war being separated, and the pre-eminence being given to
the statesman, the ambitious will naturally devolve the military service on those who are contended
with a subordinate station. They who have the greatest share in the division of fortune, and the greatest
interest in defending their country, having resigned the sword, must pay for what they have ceased to
perform […] A discipline is invented to inure the soldiers to perform, from habit and from the fear of
punishment, those hazardous duties, which the love of the public or a national spirit, no longer inspire.
[…] to separate the arts which form the citizen and the statesman, the arts of policy and war, is an
attempt to dismember human character, and to destroy those very arts we mean to improve. By this
separation, we in effect deprive a free people of what is necessary to their safety. 44
For Ferguson, the most important context for the practice of citizenship remained military training and public
defence.45 His insistence on the need to sustain the virtue of higher ranks makes the Essay to rest on the civic
principles.
Ferguson’s theory of man in society was a response to Rousseau and his account of civil society was
formulated as a critique of Hobbes. He was also addressing thinkers such as Montesquieu, Mandeville, Hume
and Smith. Polemically with some of them, he insisted that classical civic concepts focusing on active
citizenry and political participation were still valid and their practical application necessary in commercial
society since any political community might be free and prosperous without them.
43 David Kettler, The Social and Political Thought of Adam Ferguson, Ohio State University Press, 1965, pp. 266-7.
44 Ferguson, Essay, p. 151, 230.
45 John Robertson, The Scottish Enlightenment and the Militia Issue, Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers 1985.
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
Prifysgol Cymru Aberystwyth University of Wales Aberystwyth
Although Ferguson renewed modern interest in the term of civil society so powerfully adopted later by Hegel,
it must be stressed that Ferguson’s use of the term, although it might have influenced Hegel’s concept of
bürgerliche Gesellschaft, was different from Hegel’s application. For Ferguson, ‘civil society’ has a broader
connotation including citizens as well as institutions and laws. In his view, civil society cannot be grasped as
a sphere outside political establishments; it is understood as the polity itself and is conceived, above all, in
civic and political terms, as a locus of the exercise of political virtue; in conducting the affairs of civil society
mankind can pursue their best talents and find objects of their best affection.46 Civil society is formulated in
his theory as a positive concept, as a moral category, a measure of a good government or society. In
Ferguson’s texts civil society never appears with a negative qualification.
As Fania Oz-Salzberger has argued, according to Ferguson, political community – civil society was always
there as a mode of human existence and social bond.47 Thus, our contemporary usage of civil society can
hardly be derived from Ferguson’s theory. For both Smith and Ferguson, civil society meant a realm of
solidarity based on moral sentiments, natural propensity to active citizenship, and concern about public good.
Hegel’s distinction between civil society and the state, distinction between the private sphere of economy and
public sphere of government was completely alien to the civic tradition advocated by Ferguson. Unlike his
contemporaries, Voltaire and Hume, he believed that even highly developed societies are in danger of
retreating into despotism. Unlike his readers Hegel and Marx, he was not concerned with demonstrating that
mankind moves along a precondition course towards a noble future. But, as I wish to argue, what might be
relevant for a contemporary reader is Ferguson’s emphasis on the civic participation that is active citizenry
based on virtues of active public life.The central thesis of the Essay is the thesis, which calls attention to
46 Ferguson, An Essay, p. 155.
47 Oz-Salzeberger, Introduction, p. xviii.
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
Prifysgol Cymru Aberystwyth University of Wales Aberystwyth
political responsibility and civic virtue of citizens, and also to the dangers of unrestrained trust to political
institutions and laws. These of his preoccupations remained relevant. When separation of arts and privacy
have replaced community and publicity, when social man replaced the public man, public life marked by
corruption of manners and apathy cannot hold despotism at bay.
Ferguson’s concept of liberty should be understood in this context which is not purely negative one. For
Montesquieu, laws support the fabric of society and freedom of individuals. In Hume’s theory and also his
philosophical history, liberty is understood as law and order and the history of liberty is the history of
progress of society. As a political scientist he knows that there was no true liberty without the rule of law
which guarantees personal freedom and security. In his essay Of the Origin of Government Hume remarked
that man was naturally inclined not only to form society but also naturally progresses to establish political
community in order to administer justice. Government’s main purpose is distribution of justice and thus
peace, safety and mutual intercourse in society. In Hume public liberty is the guarantee of personal liberty and
security of the individual.48 Moreover, all the arts and sciences arose among free nations such as ancient
Greeks; the decline of liberty causes also the decline of letters and ‘spread of barbarism.’49 It is impossible for
the arts and sciences to arise, among any people unless they enjoy the blessing off a free government.
Similarly, only under a free government can commerce flourish. Ferguson is a more cautious observer;
although he acknowledged the beneficial influence of laws on the social stability and saw their creation as a
demarcation of civil state, he emphasised that mere laws cannot preserve liberty. Rights of citizens and their
obligations must be accompanied by ‘the vigour to maintain what is acknowledged as a right.’50 In fact, for
Ferguson, liberty is in a great danger in the modern, commercial state, where government is preoccupied only
48 Hume, A Treatise, part III.
49 Hume, ‘Of Civil Liberty’, in: Political Essays, p. 53.
50 Ferguson, Essay, p. 166.
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
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with the security of person and property and citizens with the pursuit of only their own interests. Liberty
means also a firm liberal spirit that cannot be superseded by any political establishments which themselves
are not sufficient means for the preservation of freedom.51
In Ferguson’s view, civil society is comprehended as a moral order contrasted with the order of the state. As
the above analysis demonstrates Ferguson retained the civic concept. The crucial issue for him is not the
question of what is natural and what unnatural, but what is moral and unmoral, just or unjust, happy or
wretched. Man does not have to choose between wealth and virtue since human society has great obligation to
both and they are not opposed one to another. In modern European nations a strong tendency can be observed
towards a shift from honour to interest and this is the main concern of Ferguson, i.e. the corruption of
manners. When people turn rather to their interests, when they concentrate on the luxury and prefer its objects
to their characters and their ranks, the corruption of manners may lead to a despotic government since it
makes people unfit to enjoy liberty. Citizenship is based on good manners and virtues and hence is connected
with liberty, with preservation of the liberal spirit. The state cannot make man virtuous, it is up to the
individual, but at the same time ‘the disinterested love of the public is a principle without which some
constitutions of government cannot subsist.’52 There is no one particular order but many orders among free
people. Civil society cannot emerge suddenly, simply as a result of some liberal and democratic institutions
established as opposed to authoritarian ones. It is a process requiring not only just liberty and free market
economy, but also citizens who are interested not only in their private lives but in the public as well.
According to Ferguson, the free market may lead to a new kind of serfdom. In the twentieth century the
51 Ibid., p. 266.
52 Ibid., p. 158.
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
Prifysgol Cymru Aberystwyth University of Wales Aberystwyth
liberal thinker F.A. von Hayek was concerned by the entirely opposite phenomenon: the lack of a free market
and social planning is a “road to serfdom”. Nevertheless, for Ferguson, I would argue, not just a free market
itself is dangerous, but free a market without any restraints such as those, which are a natural result of good
manners and moral sentiments. He did not underestimate the benefits of life in advanced society and its
material standard. As it was argued above, Ferguson as a civic humanist shared a belief in the classical
political values. Good citizenship was for him both morally imperative and crucial to the good condition of
the state. He did not view the situation of a commercial society as hopeless; he saw some supports which
could improve it. It was, above all, political education of a leadership and the cultivation of patriotic
sentiments through institutions such as a militia. Moreover, civic participation was understood by the Scottish
philosopher, and can still be understood, as an expression of political liberty, not only as the continuance of
virtú. Ferguson does not deny the advantages that a commercial society brings. However, he is perturbed by
some aspects of the accompanying deferment of the virtues, in particular by the implicit devaluing of an
active public life. Unlike Smith, for Ferguson despite the undoubted value of ‘modern liberty’, the values of
‘ancient’ or ‘republican’ liberty still have a place. What Ferguson fears most is the loss of these latter values
in commercial society.
Civil society can prosper along with disinterested love and concern of the public, not only of our own well-
being since these two things are closely connected. In Ferguson’s view, the rule of law (although for him it
does not guarantee automatically our liberty) and a good form of government appropriate to a particular
society, assure individuals not only the participation in a public life, but also give them the opportunity to
practice their skills, virtues, to develop their moral sentiments and hence to be free. Unlike Hume, he did not
take the benefits of civilization for granted and was more preoccupied with the dangers accompanying the
growth of commercial society of self-interested individuals. For Hume, satisfied with British society and its
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
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government, it is rather the enlightened pursuit of happiness, security of property, the rule of law, and
freedom of thought that is a measure of a prosperous society within which participation in politics is restricted
because of ignorance of the common people. Hume differs from Ferguson in his realistic account of society,
especially in his break with both civic and natural law tradition. Different are also their accounts of freedom;
since for Hume the distinction between “personal freedom”, understood as passive rights of property in the
private sphere, and “civil liberty” based on active citizenship as the exercise of sovereignty is central in his
political position.53 The argument following this distinction was that in commercial society personal freedom
is more necessary than civil liberty which should be restrained for a few. Justice became a substitute of
Virtue. For Ferguson, the rule of law was entirely consistent with the destruction of civil liberty under a
despotic government; as a civic humanist he valued civil liberty much more highly than private freedom. ‘It is
possible from an opinion that the virtue of men are secure, that some who turn from their attention to public
affairs, think of nothing but the numbers and wealth of a people: it is from a dread of corruption, that others
think of nothing but how to preserve the national virtues. Human society has great obligations to both. They
are opposed to one another by mistake.’54 In civil society then we can have both wealth and virtue but in fact,
and Ferguson did not foresee this, in modern European societies participation and thus political liberty was
based on wealth.
Adam Ferguson’s concept of civil society might seem archaic to a contemporary reader but when it is viewed
in a broader context of civic tradition, as I was trying to do above, it proves to be rich in conclusions that can
be still inspiring. For Ferguson, the essence of a thriving civil society was demonstrated in terms of civic
ideals among which active citizenship and concern about the public good, and patriotism were predominant.
53 See Michael Ignatieff, ‘John Millar and Individualism’, Wealth and Virtue, pp. 329-331.
54 Ferguson, Essay, p. 146.
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
Prifysgol Cymru Aberystwyth University of Wales Aberystwyth
The contradictions and uncertainties we face today in liberal democratic societies are, at least partly, the result
of processes that worried Ferguson most. The growth of commercial society, individualism, grandeur of
personal liberty, and recently globalization has been accompanied by the decline of ideals such as concern
about the common good, active citizenry, or civil liberty. Instead of the language of a political community
politicians speak the language of individuals, men and women, or families. What Ferguson can teach us today
is that society can be civil if individuals pursuing their aims through different forms of associations do not
turn their back on the polity and its endeavours; if the public space and the private realm are not characterised
by a huge gap between them.
Many of Ferguson’s fears did not arise as a real danger but one of them, which seems to be central, is still
with us: citizens’ life cannot be meaningful outside the public space. Individual liberty cannot stand in
opposition to political liberty which is practised only within the realm broader than the sphere of family and
friends. On the other hand, political establishments themselves – as often argued by Ferguson – when
indifferent to citizens, may easily deepen the gap between the public and the private: ‘The political
indifference and apathy of the citizens and the state retreating on its obligation to promote the common good
are civil society’s unpleasant, yet legitimate children.’55 If modern times transformed the individual from
political citizen into market consumer, depriving them of the vision of a space transcending their own
concerns, perhaps a new theory of civil society can offer us a better understanding of our own condition if this
insight is at the same time a lesson from thinkers whose critical reflection about politics has not necessarily
been confined to their epochs.
55 Zygmunt Bauman, In Search of Politics, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999, p. 156.
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
Prifysgol Cymru Aberystwyth University of Wales Aberystwyth
Adam Smith
It was Adam Smith, another great Scottish thinker who spoke, at least in some respects, the same language as
Ferguson: in their vision there was no strict distinction between the public and the private, between the private
interest and the public good. Hume’s philosophy and the subsequent theory of liberal individualism meant a
departure from this tradition. This later tradition, as argued by Adam Seligman, meant a radical transference
of thinking about civil society based on the unity of reason and moral sentiments.56
As a moral theorist, Smith has shown interest in the modern discussion on society along with Mandeville and
Ferguson. In the Scottish tradition influenced by the Aristotelian and stoic philosophy, man is seen primarily
as a citizen. Smith underlines this characteristic of man as zoon politikon: ‘It is thus the man, who can subsist
only in society, was fitted by nature to that situation for which he was made.’57 “Man, it has been said, has a
natural love for society, and desires that the union of mankind should be preserved for its own sake.”58 The
challenge set by Ferguson and Smith was to reflect on the contradictions that arise in particular in commercial
society associated with the industrial revolution. They searched for an adequate explanation for the
complexity of the modern form of civil society with its extensive inequalities and individualization. Both
Ferguson and Smith stressed that commercial society does not merely lead to the corruption of manners, of
people’s moral sentiments, through the conflict of virtue with self-interest, but also to the increase of industry,
fairness in exchange, employment of means of persuasion and mutual interest.59 In the Theory of Moral
Sentiments, Smith argued in favour of the public virtue of justice which must be presupposed for just
56 Adam B. Seligman, The Idea of Civil Society, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992, pp. 30-32.
57 Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976, p. 85.
58 Ibid., p. 88.
59 Ferguson, Essay, p. 134.
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exchanges and the well-ordered society where commerce and private virtues flourish.
Smith remarks that the decisive criterion in differentiating between early and civilized forms of society is the
form of their economy, which he elaborated in the Lectures on Jurisprudence in terms of ‘four stage theory’.
He illustrated how the division of labour increases the wealth of nations, which may be just said to arise from
it. Moreover, the free market brings about the great increase in commerce and improvement of that division.
‘As commerce becomes more and more extensive the division of labour becomes more and more perfect.’60
Commercial society was regarded by Smith as the last stage of the development of society and characterized
in terms of division of labour, system of law, contracts, money, exchange and private property. The modern
manufacture and the technical separation of tasks presuppose an accumulation of capital and a transformation
of production, which minimize socially the time required to produce a specific product. This technical aspect
of the division of labour realized a particular form of social co-operation. Most importantly, it led to a
separation of commercial social relations from the modern polity.
Like all other ‘states of society’, the age of commerce generates certain ways of acting, a distinctive set of
manners. The alienation as a product of commercial society discussed seventy years later by Marx, in Smith’s
account is the sick condition into which ‘the labouring poor, that is the great body of the people, necessarily
fail unless government takes some pains to prevent it.’61 This basic remedy is education – it deals directly
with the numbing of the intellectual virtues and indirectly with weakening of the social virtues.
60 Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, p. 356
61 Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1981, p. 782
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
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Smith’s purpose was ultimately political: moral philosophy had generated the political rules by first making
the moral rules “scientific”. Having established the possibility of science of politics, Smith made the stoic
cardinal virtues the foundation of it. Justice was for him the foremost virtue in a commercial or liberal society.
The other main virtue was benevolence, which meant civic commitment or the virtue that had been essential
for the survival of the ancient republics. The central argument was that it was possible to combine justice and
benevolence, and therefore to provide liberalism with a sense of virtue. ‘As society cannot subsist unless the
laws of justice are tolerably observed, as no social intercourse can take place among men who do not
generally abstain from injuring one another; the consideration of this necessity, it has been thought, was the
ground upon which we approved of the enforcement of the laws of justice by the punishment of those who
violate them.’62
Unlike Hobbes who had thought that human self-love and beastliness could be circumscribed (only) by an
authoritarian state, and unlike Hume who thought that solution was commerce and a human social consensus,
Smith argued that each individual had an innate tendency to respect rules of natural justice. According to
Smith, there are two principles, which induce man to enter into civil society: “the principle of authority and
the principle of utility”. Smith’s moral psychology holds that we are thoroughly “social”, interdependent and
communal beings whose good can be achieved only in concert and through sustained friendship. For Smith,
as for the Platonic tradition, “the human good” and the virtue remain central to politics. This standpoint Smith
shares with both Ferguson and Kant. But politics (in the broad sense of the term) must also be given full
consideration in theories of how the human good and the virtues may come to be practiced.
62 Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, p. 87
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
Prifysgol Cymru Aberystwyth University of Wales Aberystwyth
Smith notes that humans have a natural desire to better their condition. This desire usually takes the concrete
form of an “argumentation of fortune”. In order to achieve it, individuals should enjoy the private liberty to
decide for themselves how to deploy their resources and skills.63 Smith describes it as the ‘obvious and simple
system of liberty where everyone is left perfectly free to pursue his own interests in his own way.’64 Thus in
Smith’s view a government has only three tasks: protection from external foes; preservation of public works,
including importantly education and exact administration of justice. Provided that individuals do not violate
the laws of justice then they are to be left alone to pursue their own interests. This is one of the crucial
characteristics of the liberal view of liberty and thus liberal civil society although itself it is not sufficient.
Ancient freedom was exclusive, liberty, as it is described by Smith or Hume, can be enjoyed by all.
The Scottish social theorists emphasize that humans are naturally social and that this sociality expresses itself
institutionally. But it is evident to experience that this institutional expression is not uniform. A truly novel
aspect in the social theory of the Scottish Enlightenment is a perception that the world contains a variety of
social practices and institutions that endures for this conviction that these differences extend beyond some
basic universality.
Summing up, in Smith’s view, liberal commercial society does require civic virtue and may in turn encourage
it. The indispensable virtue of the public sphere is commutative justice. The free market including the market
of religions inevitably entails the constant circulation of labour, capital, views about the human good, and
political opinions – especially flourishing of education, science, philosophy and the arts. Smith holds that
sentiment, imagination and understanding, not philosophical reason, are the basis of sympathy, and are of the
63 Smith, Wealth of Nations, p. 454.
64 Ibid., p. 687.
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
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chief points in thinking about liberal societies. Smith and Ferguson observe that government emerges
gradually and is restrained by rules. The pattern is the same as that traced by Locke in his formal account of
the inconveniences of the state of nature. But according to Smith, the social regularity in the second stage
establishes dependency relationships. Such regularity thereby introduces also, as Smith says, ‘some degree of
civil government.’65 This is traditional Lockean link.
Immanuel Kant
Kant’s political philosophy is rooted in his moral philosophy, the latter is the basis for the former and both are
derived from pure practical reason. The justification of the state is found in pure practical reason alone and in
justice. Thus, while examining Kant’s view of the state and civil society we ought to still have in mind the
principles of his moral philosophy, above all the principle of autonomy of the individual and of the kingdom
of ends. The main links between morality and equality are freedom, as the essence of moral law and contract.
The law-protected sphere of freedom constitutes an environment for morality, a place within which morality
has effect. If a good will is the only unqualifiedly good thing on the earth then politics as a qualified good
must serve morality and be instrumental to it. The state that pursues moral evil cannot be praiseworthy. In
Kant’s practical philosophy, politics and law serve a high purpose; they are the guarantors of those negative
conditions that make respect for the dignity of men as ends in themselves much more possible.
The concept of a social contract plays a very significant role in Kant’s concept of civil state: ‘In all social
contracts, we find a union of many individuals for some common end which they all share. But a union as an
end in itself which they all ought to share and which is thus an absolute and primary duty of all external
65 Ibid., p. 715.
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
Prifysgol Cymru Aberystwyth University of Wales Aberystwyth
relationships whatsoever among human beings, is only found in a society in so far as it constitutes a civil
state, i.e. a commonwealth.’66 The German philosopher took the concept of a social contract from Rousseau
and his idea of the volonté generale. The social contract establishes the union among individuals for some
common purpose that they all share, so it presupposes existence of rightful, self-regulated freedom. This
rightful freedom means that we obey no external laws except those to which we have been able to give our
own consent. The civil constitution finds its ultimate purpose in making a nation genuinely self-determining.
A republican constitution, which was for Kant the best form of government, assumes that each citizen gives
his consent to the action of sovereign through being directly or indirectly represented in the legislature.
Hence, the citizen may, in a moral sense, regard all laws as emanation of his will, and this is an echo of
Rousseau’s general will.
Kant’s social contract theory is ideal rather than historical, like Hume he rejects the notion of historical
contract.67 The idea of the social contract, as Kant considers it, is a ‘rational picture for judging any lawful
public constitution’. The law must be considered just as long as it is possible for entire people to agree to it
and this concept of social contract serves one of the main principles of Kant’s political philosophy, suggesting
that a just political state must guarantee each citizen the greatest possible freedom consistent with a like
freedom for all other citizens. Thus, a maximum equal liberty is one of rational ends of the general will, or of
the people considered as a whole. At the same time this is the central principle of republicanism. Kant
believes that republican form of government is morally optimal as it offers the greatest possible amount of
liberty for all citizens. Moreover, the republican state fulfils the objective of the social contract principle.
66 Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals, trans. M. Gregor, Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 73.
67 See Kant, ‘Theory and Practice’ in Political Writings, ed. H. Reiss, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
Prifysgol Cymru Aberystwyth University of Wales Aberystwyth
The only conceivable government for people capable of possessing rights is not paternal but a patriotic one;
‘A patriotic attitude is one where everyone in the state, not excluding its head, regards the commonwealth as a
maternal womb.’68 Kant considers paternal government as a despotic one for it destroys individual freedom of
choice, whereas the republican constitution based on the separation of powers (legislative, executive and
juridical), and implied by the idea of social contract, protects liberty. Moreover, only a strict division of
powers can make the rights of citizens safeguarded and avoid despotism.
As states become more republican, politics at the national and international level will increasingly give men
the chance to have the kind of will they should have and realize some moral ends on a legal basis. The
political order will then be parallel with, though never identical to the moral one. This consideration once
again indicates how much important is the normative side of Kant’s concept.
According to Kant, the idea of social contract and the idea of property are the just and moral basis of civil
society, which is viewed as a necessary political society. It is necessary because justice cannot be applicable
in the state of nature. Political society is the condition of the possibility of justice as it provides the system of
public law. In Kant’s view, ‘all men ought to enter a civil society or juridical state of affairs’.69 The main
purpose of civil society is to force human beings to respect each other’s rights. But increased civil freedom is
not enough, political freedom as well as a republican form of government is also required. The concept of
political authority, when we consider the defence of individual freedom, is thus crucial for Kant. He tries to
find a justification for the authoritative use of coercion by the state pointing out that it serves only to defend
freedom of individuals. Public right is a device, which by the restriction of each individual’s freedom makes it
68 Kant, Political Writings, p. 74
69 Kant, The Metaphysical Elements of Justice, ed. by J. Ladd, Indianapolis, 1999, p. 37.
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
Prifysgol Cymru Aberystwyth University of Wales Aberystwyth
harmonize with the freedom of everyone else (insofar as it is possible within the terms of a general law). As
Kant claims, ‘a civil constitution is a relationship among free men who are subject to coercive laws, while
they retain their freedom within the general union with their fellows’70. He adds that such is the requirement
of the pure reason. The problem arising here is how to view the tension between Kant’s notion of individual
freedom and his defence of the authoritative use of coercion by the state. The possible answer to
that question seems to suggest that the acceptance of a political authority is necessary to achieve a condition
of justice and right. Within a civil society freedom must be restricted in the name of defending freedom itself.
This concept is followed by Kant’s theory of rights, which I will not examine here. Political authority in Kant
is the precondition for both peace and freedom, not only within the state but also among states. I will come
back to it later.
The civil state regarded purely as a lawful state is based on three principles: 1) the freedom of every member
of society as a human being; 2) the equality of each with all the others as a subject to the state; 3) the
independence of each member of a commonwealth as a citizen. The first two principles have been already
mentioned; the third one means that a will of another person cannot decide anything for someone without
injustice. Independence is a prerequisite for the unity.
One of the fundamental issues in Kant’s concept of civil society, along with the principle of moral autonomy
of the individual, is his view of citizenship. He distinguishes between two categories of citizen: Staatsbürger
i.e. the citizen in the accurate sense, and Staatsgenosse. It is a very restricted concept as only those who serve
no master other than the state and possess property can be called citizens. All the others are only
Staatsgenosse, i.e. companions. In order to be a citizen individual ought to meet not only the moral condition
70 Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals, p. 73.
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
Prifysgol Cymru Aberystwyth University of Wales Aberystwyth
but also the material one. The moral condition of political freedom consist in obedience to self prescribed
laws; it is considered by Kant as the right to participate with others in determining the laws to which all are
equally subject. Political freedom must be also restricted in another way. The members of a representative
assembly having legislative authority are to be elected by voters who are adult males and “have some
property.”71 These persons alone qualify as “active” citizens. The rest are only “passive” ones although they
must be assured the same civil rights. Such a concept does not seem to be justified. If we take into account
moral principles of Kant’s philosophy namely the concept of the greatest possible human freedom of choice,
the amount of such freedom increases in proportion to the number of people who are allowed to exercise
freedom of choice. Hence excluding anyone from the franchise diminishes the sum total of human freedom.
In Kant’s view, civil society cannot exist without the state and is often meant by him as a political society
with its institutions such as a public law or the representative authority. Sometimes Kant uses the term “civil
state” and this suggests that even if the distinction between civil society and the state in Kant is not very plain
and these two spheres presuppose each other, the state with its coercive power is only a necessary instrument
to maintain civil condition of a society and to guarantee individuals moral autonomy and freedom.
A truly novel aspect of Kant’s theory of civil society, in comparison to Locke, Smith or Ferguson, is his
statement that civil society shall be attainable not only in a domestic sphere, within a state, but also among
states as a condition of international political community. Another step in Kant’s political philosophy is thus
his view of a cosmopolitan law and of perpetual peace. He argues that some of the basic rights states
guarantee to their citizens should also apply in other states or in state-less communities; ‘the peoples of the
earth have thus entered in varying degrees into a universal community and it has developed to the point where
71 Kant, Metaphysical Elements of Justice, pp. 314-15.
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
Prifysgol Cymru Aberystwyth University of Wales Aberystwyth
a violation of rights in one part of the world is felt everywhere.’72 The precondition of perpetual peace is then
the acceptance of the formal equality of states as members of the international community together with the
related principles of non-interference. Kant acknowledges the central role of states as actors in international
relations, but although the world is populated by states with totally different constitutions, he assumes that
there is a single universal human reason. Since, the only acceptable political constitution for all nations is the
republican one.
Three rules are necessary to attain perpetual peace: firstly, every state should have the republican constitution,
secondly, the right of nations shall be based on a federation of states, thirdly, cosmopolitan right shall be
limited to condition of universal hospitality. The body of law is viewed by Kant as based not on coercion but
on its moral authority. He considers universal civil society as the greatest problem of humanity when he
stresses: ‘The greatest problem for human species, the solution of which nature compels him to seek is that of
attaining a civil society which can administer justice universally.’73 This Kantian ideal has never been
achieved but presumably, we are closer to it today than, lets say, twenty years ago, at least in Europe.
Hegel and Marx
The political philosophy of Hegel is grounded not in some universal characteristic of human nature or in the
ideal of fundamental rights (as for instance in Locke) but in ethical life, in the philosophy of spirit. His
ontological vision is a framework for his political philosophy. The goal toward which everything has a
propensity is the self-understanding of Spirit or Mind. Man is the vehicle of this self-understanding. The full
72 Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals, p. 352, Political Writings, p. 45.
73 Kant, Political Writings, p. 45.
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
Prifysgol Cymru Aberystwyth University of Wales Aberystwyth
realization of absolute Spirit presupposes a certain development of man in history, and the form of life which
man must attain is, above all, the social one. In order to realize Spirit’s fulfilment, man has to come to a
vision of himself as part of a larger entity. For Hegel the state is the real expression of such a universal life.74
In the Encyclopaedia of Philosophical Science, Hegel distinguishes three parts of the philosophy of spirit:
subjective spirit, objective spirit and absolute spirit. The Philosophy of Right, which I will focus on, deals
with the objective spirit, the dialectic of law, morality and ethical life – Sittilchkeit. Ethical life is the unity of
the will in its notion with the will of the individual. It is ‘the concept of freedom developed into existing
world and the nature of self-consciousness.75 Hegel stresses that the right of individuals to their freedom can
be fulfilled when they belong to an actual ethical order. In ethical life a particular will is identified with the
universal will – man has rights so far as he has duties, and vice-versa.
There are three moments of ethical life in Hegel’s concept:
1. The family – the natural or immediate sphere of the ethical world;
2. Civil society – ethical life in its division and appearance;
3. The state – freedom universal and objective.
‘The creation of civil society is the achievement of the modern world which has for the first time given all
determinations of the Idea their due.’76 In Phenomenology of Spirit Hegel seeks to demonstrate that modern
European culture was a product of a historical evolution. Its main stages were: the Roman Empire,
Christianity and secular Enlightenment. Hegel, like Ferguson, views civil society as the attainment of modern
society within which individual self-interest receives legitimisation and is emancipated from the religious and
74 Charles Taylor, Hegel, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975, p. 336.
75 F.W. G. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, trans. T.M. Knox, London: Oxford University Press, 1942, p. 105.
76 Ibid. addition to & 182.
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
Prifysgol Cymru Aberystwyth University of Wales Aberystwyth
ethico-political considerations. But what Ferguson stresses most, is the necessary link between civility and
political virtue. In Hegel’s view, this distinctively modern phenomenon is opposed to a political society and
had no foundation in the ancient world where “social” as we understand it, did not exist.
Hegel considered civil society as the embodiment of universal egoism – treating everybody as a means to my
own ends is a typical expression in economic life where we use the needs of others to satisfy our own ends.
While the state is characterised in terms of the readiness to put up with sacrifice on behalf of others, the
consciousness of solidarity and community. Hegel’s definition of civil society follows the classical
economists’ view of the free market: ‘an association of members as self-subsistent individuals in a
universality, which, because of their self-subsistence, is only abstract. Their association is brought about by
their needs, by the legal system – the means to security of person and property – and by an external
organization for attaining their particular and common interests.’77 Thus, in Hegel’s view, civil society
contains three stages: a) a system of needs; b) the administration of justice; c) the public authority and
competition It is the sphere where individuals seek to satisfy each others’ needs through work, production and
exchange. It is based on the division of labour, system of social classes, law which promotes security of
property, and may be regarded as the “external state” based on need and at the same time as the system of
universal interdependence and lower kind of knowledge – “understanding” (Verstand). Individual pursuits are
linked through a web of mutual dependence that is governed by a system of formal rules described by Hegel
as “external state” or “state based on need and abstract reasoning”.
Bürgerliche Gesellschaft is recognized by Hegel as the rise of the economic sphere of “private affairs”.
Within this sphere individuals seek to satisfy their needs and the activities as well as the relations involved in
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
Prifysgol Cymru Aberystwyth University of Wales Aberystwyth
their satisfaction, and although these needs are the ultimate basis of civil society, Hegel’s concept also
includes the public authorities. They ensure the safety of persons and property and therefore are considered as
a part of civil society. It is worth mentioning that private property is regarded by Hegel as “the embodiment of
personality”, as a basic requisite for men in his struggle for recognition and realization in the objective world.
It is a very liberal view.
The fundamental characteristic of civil society in Hegel is that describing it as the battlefield where each self-
seeking individual is totally absorbed in pursuing his own selfish ends (it remains Hobbes’ bellum omnia
contra omnes). At the same time it also is a process of mediation and particularity. In civil society
particularity and universality have fallen apart.78 Free individuals are so intent on satisfying their own private
ends that they have lost respect for the common good.
It was Adam Smith who before Hegel formulated the concept of historical development of society in terms of
commercial stage as the last stage of its development and characterized commercial society by the expanded
division of labour, system of law, contracts, money, exchange and private property. The conflicting nature of
the division of labour - one of the central concerns in the Scottish Enlightenment’ thought and political
economy, was one of the main conceptual resources for Hegel’s writings on politics and economy. Both
Smith’s and Hegel’s social theory underlined the theoretical and political importance of the modern division
of labour.
77 Ibid. & 157.
78 Ibid. & 184.
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
Prifysgol Cymru Aberystwyth University of Wales Aberystwyth
For Hegel, what defines civil society as civil, as opposed to a political society, is its division into various
classes and estates that have their own distinctive outlook, interest and way of life. These estates – the
peasantry, the business, and the ‘universal’ class of the state functionaries – provide the crucial links or
“mediations” between the natural society of the family and the more abstract rationality of the state. Like
Montesquieu and later de Tocqueville, Hegel considered the corporations as essential to the structure of
modern freedom – the freedom to associate. Meant as free organizations, corporations give individuals
opportunity to organize themselves according to their professions, trades and interests. ‘Unless he is a
member of an authorized corporation…an individual is without rank or dignity, his isolation reduces his
business to mere self-seeking and his livelihood and satisfaction become insecure. (…) He cannot live in the
manner of his class, for no class really exist for him.’79 In Hegel’s view, such voluntary organizations help to
channel the egoistic ends of members of civil society into a universal structure. He stresses that on the one
hand there is the particularity of need and satisfaction, and on the other hand the universality of abstract right
– in corporation these moments are united in “an inward fashion”. Civil society is not a wholly “atomistic”
condition, but a “civic order”; each burgher is an inhabitant of a particular city or commune, he has a certain
trade or profession he may be a member of a guild or corporation.80 This Hegel’s view was developed later by
Tocqueville in his excellent account of the condition of democratic society.
In Hegel’s concept, civil society passes over into state – the highest level of the development of the Spirit.
And though civil society precedes the state in the logical order, is ultimately dependant upon the state for its
very existence and preservation. The state as the actuality of the ethical Idea ‘is absolutely rational inasmuch
as it is the actuality of the substantial will which it possesses in the particular self-consciousness once that
79 Ibid. & 255.
80 Hegel, ‘The German Constitution’ in Hegel, Political Writings, New York: Garland Pub, 1984,
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
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consciousness has been raised to consciousness of its universality. This substantial unity is an absolute
unmoved end in itself, in which freedom comes into its supreme right.’81 Hegel emphasizes that the state
cannot be confused with civil society since the state’s relation to the individual is quite different from that of
civil society based on need. He was the first thinker who strictly distinguished civil society from the state and
this separation, which was an abrupt break with tradition, corresponded to a revolutionary historical change.
Thomas Aquinas, Bodin, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke and Kant used “political” and “civil” as synonymous. In
Hegel, civil society does not transcend the state, it will never be able to solve the problem of poverty. The
opposition between the total wealth of society and individual well-being is sharp enough to make civil society
inherently unstable. Thus Hegel concludes that civil society depends on the state and cannot exist without it.
Hegel argues that the rationality that infuses the world of man becomes apparent for the first time within the
state. It is hidden in family and appears as an instrumentality of individual self-interest in civil society. Only
in the sphere of the state does reason become conscious of itself. The unity of subjective consciousness and
the objective order is the ethical moment in the state. Based on rational freedom, the state enables each to
realize this freedom in conjunction with others, while in civil society one can realize one’s ends only by
disregarding everyone else’s aims. The state is freedom universal and objective. Freedom in civil society is
purely individualistic and this concept has to be superseded by the ethical order, which makes my freedom
dependant on that of the other. For Hegel, the idea of the state is not given but is the consequence of historical
development – only in the modern society the element of subjectivity, of freedom - absent in the ancient polis
can emerge.
Although he emphasizes the fact of a pronounced primacy of the political that coexists with pluralism of
81 Hegel, Philosophy of Right, & 258.
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
Prifysgol Cymru Aberystwyth University of Wales Aberystwyth
autonomous voluntary bodies and non-political spheres of human life, such as family and civil society, it does
not seem to be the authoritarian moment of Hegel philosophy. It does not mean of course that Hegel’s
position is wholly liberal, for he insists on the positive role of the state as being the embodiment of man’s
self-consciousness. Hence, not every state qualifies to this characteristic. Furthermore, the way the institutions
of the state are organized decides whether individual self-consciousness finds its adequate expression in the
sate.82 According to Hegel, the greatest enemy for personal freedom is a ‘mechanistic’ conception of the state,
which views the state solely as an instrument for the enforcement of abstract rights. He also argues that a
serious threat to freedom is “the principle of atomicity” – the tendency of the individuals to be only abstract
persons and subjects who fail to actualise their personality and subjectivity in a fulfilling the social context.
Hegel, like Ferguson or Hume, rejected the concept of social contract warning that we cannot consider the
state as a contract: ‘We are already citizens of the state by birth, the rational end of man is life in the state.’83
His view requires a dual character of modern man: man as a member of civil society and as a citizen of the
state. The same individual works for himself and his family and at the same time for the universal and has it
as an end. From the former viewpoint he is called bourgeois, from the latter citoyen. The specific point, which
Hegel shared with Steuart and Smith, was expressed in the “System of Needs”. Hegel underlines there that ‘In
this sphere, the individual, as the concrete whole of his particularity and his need, sets himself as his end.’84 In
line with the Scots, Hegel stresses that though self-interested, the individual is not alone, but is, indeed by its
own aims and wants related to other individuals. The particular purposes are linked with the subsistence and
well-being of the others. There is thus a created system of interdependence, or to use the formulation of the
82 See Shlomo Avineri, Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State, Cambridge, London: Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 181.
83 Hegel, Philosophy of Right, addition to & 75.
84 Ibid.
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
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Scots ‘a mercenary exchange of good offices.’85 In his economic analyses, Hegel shared the crucial premise of
the Scots in his account of human needs. It seems to be beyond doubt that in his “system of needs” Hegel
accepts and reproduces the free market economy in all its basic elements.86
Civil society has been transcended in the state. In Hegel’s view, within the modern state individual freedom
and communal responsibility, right and duty, the private man and the public man are finally united in a higher
synthesis; freedom attains its full significance. We are free only when we overcome particularity and act
‘universally’ and ‘objectively’ according to the concept of the will.87 It is Hegel’s aim in Philosophy of Right
to show, how the modern state is after all the actuality of concrete freedom.
The justification of the state in Hegel is quite different from that of the classical liberalism. Not the individual
but the state is viewed as an absolute end. It is the actuality of ethical Idea, the manifestation of the objective
mind, which qua the substantial will reveals to itself, knowing and thinking itself. The state is the highest
stage of the development of the Objective Spirit. The difference between civil society and the state consists in
the fact that the state is the end for itself as the highest stage of Morality and the actuality of the ethical Idea,
while the ultimate end of civil society is to protect individual interests of its members. In other words,
according to Hegel, who fails to differentiate civil society from the state, views the state solely as something
accidental and as the instrument of defending interests of the individuals. The state appears in this view as a
supreme entity, higher than the individual and civil society.
85 Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, p. 86.
86 Norbert Waszek, The Scottish Enlightenment and Hegel’s Account of ‘Civil Society’, Dordrecht ; London: Kluwer Academic, 1988, p. 196.
87 Hegel, Philosophy of Right, & 23.
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
Prifysgol Cymru Aberystwyth University of Wales Aberystwyth
Hegel distinguishes ‘the political state proper’ from the state in a broader sense, the community with its
institutions and regards the latter sense as the individual’s final end. As the individual’s highest freedom
consists in membership in the state, the higher consciousness of freedom is the consciousness of this
membership, in what Hegel calls the ‘political disposition’ or ‘patriotism’. The current liberal view of
freedom, quite on the contrary, locates it outside the state, in the sphere where we can practice our freedom
without any interference.
Hegel’s reading of Ferguson, Smith, Ricardo and Hume convinced him that the expansion of economic forces
had completely changed the notion of the private sphere and civil society. Previously it was possible to
subsume the economy under the category of the private and identify the civil sphere as the state. For Hegel
civil society, which was once synonymous with the state and excluded the economy, now includes the
economy, while the state emerges as a separate political sphere. This is the crucial point in Hegel’s theory of
civil society and the state for the later discussion on civil society and it still provides terms in which we can
discuss the whole issue. In comparison to Kant, Hegel would argue that Kant falsely posed the question of
how politics and morals could be united; for Hegel they are different moments of ethical life in its totality. In
his view only the state can act as the ‘reality of the ethical idea’. The good of the individuals and the good of
the state are separate things.88
In Hegel’s theory, the concept of civil society has been transformed and posed as the object of historical
development and conceived as an arena of conflicting particular interests distinguish from the state. Hegel
aimed to provide an account of the conditions in which modern man might find a form of harmonious life, in
which he could be free. For Locke, Ferguson or Kant, this form of life was attainable within civil society. For
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
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Hegel, the unity of the particular and the universal described as ‘ethical life’ could be achieved only within
the state. It is in the relationship to the state that everything else finds its proper place and thus, in Hegel’s
view, the state has ontological priority.89
Conversely, Marx saw the solution of problems posed by the eighteenth century theorists of civil society not
in the division between civil society and the state but in its eradication. This abolition was viewed by Marx as
a future desideratum to be achieved after the Revolution. A future unity of human existence and thus true
freedom might be achieved only through the negation of the distinction between civil society and the state and
’dissolution’ of the latter. Marx was very critical of a positive concept of civil society: ‘Marx was very critical
of a positive concept of civil society: ‘Marx accepted Hegel’s account of civil society, especially its darker
aspects: ‘none of the so-called rights of man goes beyond egoistic man, man as he is in civil society, namely
an individual withdrawn behind his private interests and whims and separated from the community and
whims and separated from the community. Far from the rights of man conceiving of man as a species-being,
species-life itself, society appears as a framework exterior to individuals, a limitation of their original self-
sufficiency. The only bond that holds them together is natural necessity, need and private interest, the
conservation of their property and egoistic person.’90 According to Marx, political revolution, which followed
the rise of commercial society, abolished the people from the community and thus the political character of
civil society. Political emancipation reduces man as an independent individual to a member of civil society or
to a citizen, a moral person.91 But for Marx, this is not a true emancipation; ‘man must recognize his own
forces, organize them, and thus no longer separate social forces from himself in the form of political forces.
88 Ibid., & 257.
89 Adrian Oldfield, ‘Hegel: Rational Freedom in the ethical Community’ in Oldfield, Citizenship and Community. Civic Republicanism and the Modern
World, London and New York, 1990, p. 82.
90 Karl Marx, ‘On the Jewish Question’, in: idem, Selected Writings, ed. by David McLellan, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977,
p. 54.
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
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Only when this has been achieved will human emancipation be completed.’92
With Marx the theory of civil society reaches its end. He accepted Hegel’s account of civil society but
rejected his account of two other spheres of social life, family and the state. According to Marx, in society as
a whole, viewed as bourgeois society, people treat each other primarily as means to their own ends and the
class solidarity is exceptionally weak. Whereas for Hegel it was true about civil society but not about the
whole social world, for Marx the relationships of bourgeois society were predominant and excluded any
concern about the public good and any kind of social bonds. Thus humanity in modern world can recover
itself only by ’dissolution of society’ and only as a particular class – the proletariat.93 Contrary to Hegel,
Marx’s doctrine assumes that the state, which is an instrument of class rule, will disappear with the
disappearance of classes. Marx calls the bourgeois state ‘an illusory form of life’ and treats it as a symptom of
alienation. If for Hegel civil society should ‘resolved’ into the ethical universal entity of the state, Marx
resolves it into itself through the future negation of the existent distinction between civil society and the state
and a future unity of human existence. His theory aimed to provide an account of this unity and thus of true
freedom but not through the state which alienated individuals from themselves but in another unity through
the future reunification of civil and political society.
Conclusion
The major concern of social philosophers in the eighteenth century was the vision of an autonomous social
order, the problem of the proper relations between the individual, society and the state, between the public
and the private. The concept of civil society was viewed, at least by some of them, as a solution to these
concerns. For Ferguson, Smith or Kant civil society was a normative category describing a desirable social
91 Ibid., p. 57.
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
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realm which was not strictly distinguished from the state. The idea of civil society was seen as a unity of
individuals’ life, a sphere of solidarity and moral sentiments. It was also the arena of active citizenry and of
the concern about public issues.
In the tradition of the philosophy of natural law, the term societas civilis was a synonymous, according to the
Latin use, of political society and thus the state. Locke used both terms interchangeably. Also Rousseau and
Kant did not entirely distinguish between civil society, which was contrasted with ‘state of nature’, and the
state. Conversely, in the Hegelian-Marxist tradition, the term civil society was used to mean pre-political
society and its anatomy is to be sought in political economy.94 In Hegel, the political stage of human
development is embodied in the state seen as a different and higher stage from civil society that is to be
transcended by the state.
The writings of Hegel and Marx continue interest in the paradigm of civil society in the nineteenth century,
however, as Adam Seligman has noticed, ‘its viability as a concept and model of social representation
disappears.’95 In Hegel, civil society disappears into the universal state, in Marx, in the future reunification of
civil and political society.
With Marx the classic idea of civil society comes to its end.96 After Marx the concept of civil society looses
its significance as the paradigm of both liberal and socialist theory of politics. But contradictions the concept
92 Ibid.
93 Marx, ‘Towards a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Rights: Introduction’, in: idem, Selected Writings, p. 73.
94 See Norberto Bobbio, ‘Gramsci and the Concept of Civil Society’, in Civil Society and the State. New European Perspectives, ed. by John Keane,
London, 1988, pp. 78-80. Bobbio stresses that this is a radical innovation within the tradition of natural law. For Hegel, the distinction between pre-
state and state is a distinction between the sphere of economic relations and that of political institutions.
95 Adam Seligman, ‘The Fragile Ethical Vision of Civil Society’, in Bryan S. Turner (ed.), Citizenship and Social Theory, London: Sage Publications,
1993.
96 See Seligman, The Idea of Civil Society, p. 57.
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
Prifysgol Cymru Aberystwyth University of Wales Aberystwyth
of civil society was supposed to solve remained. The contemporary revival of the concept poses the old
questions anew. Many thinkers today view the idea of civil society as a normative, ideal model for social life
and a new or rather a renewed paradigm of political science. I argue that the revived concept of civil society
has a great explanatory potential for both the theory of transition in East-Central Europe and the theory of
political. A close examination of the conceptual history of the idea of civil society provides a philosophical
perspective and the categories, which are indispensable for the examination of the contemporary theories of
civil society.
Adran Gwleidyddiaeth Ryngwladol The Department of International Politics
Prifysgol Cymru Aberystwyth University of Wales Aberystwyth
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Academic1988.
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