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The politics of civil societyBig society and small government$

Fred Powell

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9781447307150

Published to Policy Press Scholarship Online: September 2013

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781447307150.001.0001

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Radical civil society, early social movements and the socialisation of the state

Radical civil society, early social movements and the socialisation of the state

(p.94) (p.95) Four Radical civil society, early social movements and the socialisation of the state
The politics of civil society

Fred Powell

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

In this chapter the author examines the role of radical civil society in promoting social justice. The impact of political revolutions is juxtaposed with the influence of early social movements in the pursuit of emancipatory change. The chapter examines a variety of theatres of political and social change including the United States, Germany, Russia, Britain and France. A core theme underpinning the chapter is the socialisation of the state. It is argued that a fusion between the state and civil society produced the welfare state.

Keywords:   radical civil society, social justice, welfare state, early social movements, social democracy

The history of political and state theory in the nineteenth century could be summarized with a single phrase: the triumphal march of democracy. Progress and the extension of democracy were equated, and anti-democratic resistance was considered an empty defense, the protection of historically outmoded things and a struggle of the old with the new.

Carl Schmitt, The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy (1988, p 22)

The politics of radical civil society is the product of modernist utopian aspirations to create a more virtuous state. It is also the product of the capacity of citizens to employ their new-found political influence over the polity in an emerging democratic order. Democracy is the product of modernity: a belief in society’s capacity to transform itself into a more just, egalitarian and caring form. This involved a rupture with the previous minimalist, ‘nightwatchmen’ state. What we are witnessing in modernity is the fusion of the state and civil society, through the process of social and political evolution that ultimately produced the welfare state. There were two elements underpinning this fusion. First, the statisation of society – state interventionism. Second, the socialisation of the state – the welfare state. The first of these processes is entirely compatible with an authoritarian state that disregards human freedoms and suppresses civil society. The second envisages a benevolent state committed to democracy and human welfare but with no clear role for civil society, which it tends to marginalise. A benevolent state has little obvious need for an independent civil society, since it has become the custodian of civic virtue. That is why it is known as the welfare state. Yet the resulting fusion had its critics, as this chapter will demonstrate. The idea of creating a ‘Big Society’ based on greater social equality was viewed by both liberals and conservatives with deep suspicion. But it came to epitomise the radical civil society agenda of social justice.

(p.96) Modernism and the quest for social justice

Modernity gave birth to a movement called ‘modernism’, which was revolutionary in its impact. It was a disparate movement, in which emancipatory politics intersected with avant-garde literature and art. Modernism was a gamble with history and consciousness that was born of outrage at the state of human affairs. The activities of artists and writers geared to transform human consciousness by an appeal to sensation found a response among political agitators and social reformers. The publication on the eve of the 1848 revolutions in Europe of Marx and Engels’ The Communist Manifesto (Marx and Engels, 1967) epitomised the impact of modernist ideas on politics. But while modernism sought to transform the world in the direction of greater equality and liberty, it found its mirror image in anti-modernism. The latter sought to pursue a counter-transformation, back to earlier social and cultural forms that are represented in an iconography of idyllic family and communal life. In other words, modernism, epitomised by the big city with its dangers of revolution, violence and permissiveness, is contrasted with the rural bucolic life of certainty and stability, where the seigneurial presence of God provides an anchor for enduring authority.

Modern protest movements have been very much an urban phenomenon. The relationship between ideas and action is a complex one. Socialists, trade unionists and feminists provided the intellectual impetus behind urban protest, but, at popular levels, the issues were not ideological. Rather, they were about wages, unemployment, tenants’ rights and slum housing conditions, free school meals, poor relief and other practical issues that reflected the daily concerns of people living in poor communities. While the leadership hoped that their left-wing ideological perspectives would filter down, compromise was the political and social reality. Protest usually took the form of strikes, demonstrations and marches. Action was organised rather than spontaneous. The intellectual leadership sought to impose discipline, as well as ideology, on a natural sense of injustice felt by poor people.

The emergence of nationalism in the late 18th century coincides with the activation of citizens in the affairs of the state. This led nationalism to be perceived in Europe during most of the 19th century as a democratic revolutionary movement. However, in the latter half of the 19th century and in the early 20th century, the rise of radicalism, socialism, feminism and anarchism as popular protest movements pushed nationalism in a reactionary revanchist direction in Europe. On the other hand, nationalism became synonymous with (p.97) anti-colonial liberation struggles against European colonisation in less developed parts of the world. Everywhere, cultural nationalism, with its emphasis on national languages, became a potent influence in the age of mass literacy. Territory, language and religion became the defining characteristics of nationalism.

Despite this dissonance between the leadership and the communities of protest, they shared a common belief in human progress. They both firmly believed that society could improve, if they could influence the state in the direction of social justice. Their modernist position stood in marked contrast to pre-modern protest movements. The latter were usually about agrarian use rights, or were religious in character and rooted in a belief that there had been a decline in the standards of the past, which needed to be restored. Similarly, there was a noticeable difference between modern protest movements and the later protest movements of the postmodern era, including the student rebellions in the 1960s, the environmental movement, the anti-nuclear movement and the Occupy movement, which have all questioned the consequences and moral basis of progress.

Modernity was a particularly Western phenomenon. Most of the world was shut out from this transformation. The nation-state was very much the product of development. Many of the European countries that were being modernised were simultaneously holding much of the rest of the world in imperial subjugation. This was to last until the middle of the 20th century, when colonialism was finally overthrown. Martin Jacques has argued in the Guardian (Jacques, 2005) that ‘the defeat of colonial rule will come to be seen as the defining event of the twentieth century’. Before 1945, Africa, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and a substantial part of East Asia were ruled by Europe. China was also subject to a particular species of multinational colonisation. The Opium Wars during the mid-19th century against the iniquitous practice of drug trafficking by the invading powers epitomise the colonial relationship.

The American Revolution and unknown civil society: birthing social movements

The American Revolution was the opening event of modernity. Militant American colonists rose up against the British Empire. It was anticipated by the Great Awakening (the American Enlightenment) during the 1740s. But 1776 became the defining movement in liberal politics. The American Revolution was a national rather than a social revolution. Zinn (1999, p 77) calls it ‘a kind of revolution’. Liberalism (p.98) framed the event. However, it was also a story of the incipient emancipatory politics. Liberty did not mean equality. Revolution came to be defined by a campaign for independence by white men of means in the American colonies. For the rest of the population, there was no change. That did not mean that they did not seek change. They did. Their revolution was suppressed, but not without some positive gains. The American Revolution took on its own unique character that was to shape the United States. There was no obvious autocracy to overturn, albeit it was a plutocracy from the start. One group of oligarchs replaced another in an exchange of elite power. But there was a social struggle.

The disempowered did seek to take advantage of the revolutionary moment. Their struggle was to inspire later generations. Defeat was an ideological rejection of the doctrine of the Rights of Man, as experienced by the common people. Revolution in America was liberation of the few at the expense of multitudinous minorities defined by their powerlessness. The latter’s story is a different one from the tranquil Tocquevillian version of America’s associative democracy as a unique product of consensus and national self-belief. America in 1776 was a nation divided – divisions that have defined its modernity. The mythology of a classless society with an open-opportunity structure was constructed on the foundation that America had no feudal social order to constrain the growth of democracy. The reality of political life during the American Revolution was very different from the myth.

Gary Nash, in his ground-breaking book, The Unknown American Revolution (2005), casts this great historic event in a new light. This book defates the popular mythology about America’s glorious revolutionary birth. Nash provides a history from ‘the bottom up’, exploring the experience of slaves, Native Americans, women, and other social groups that contested for power, such as urban workers, tenant farmers and ‘plebeian loyalists’.

Slaves were undoubtedly among the biggest losers. They rallied to the colours in the hope of emancipation. Nash (2005, p 33) comments on their massive participation in the American Revolution. He contends that the failure of the Founding Fathers of the American Republic to endorse the abolition of slavery led to the loss of 600,000 lives 80 years later, during the Civil War. While slaves fought bravely on both sides, most died (often from diseases, notably smallpox), neglected by those who had sought to exploit their bravery. Only in the northern states did small numbers of slaves gain their freedom and win the right to vote as equal citizens (Nash, 2005, p 209). For the rest of the slave population, the American Revolution was a lost opportunity (Nash, 2005, p 407). Nash concludes: ‘Of black Americans who survived the (p.99) war, the vast majority did not leave American shores but remained to toil and carry on the struggle to end slavery where most of them had been born.’

Native Americans fared no better. The Iroquois were crushed forever by the armies of the revolution. In the South, the Creeks and Cherokee were victims of ‘genocidal state policy’ at the hands of the revolutionary militia. To the west, the Shawnees had their villages destroyed and crops burnt. There was no question that the American Revolution was a white man’s revolution. For Native Americans it was a defining event in their ethnic destruction. Resistance almost certainly meant death. For them, there was no liberation, just annihilation (Nash, 2005, pp 377–87).

Women played a part in the American Revolution, often seeking to draw parallels between political tyranny and the tyranny of gender inequality. Abigail Adams (1744–1818) was at the forefront of this campaign. She wrote to her husband, John (later President of the United States, 1796–1800), about the Code of Laws being written by the Founding Fathers:

I desire you would remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorably to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hand of the husbands. Remember all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to ferment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation. (cited in Nash, 2005, p 203)

While her husband dismissed her entreaties as ‘saucy’, Abigail Adams had cleverly linked civil and domestic governance at a time of revolutionary change. The genie was out of the bottle! Women had seized the revolutionary moment to demand equality. The seeds of the suffrage movement had been sown. The women succeeded in winning the right to vote in New Jersey, albeit on a limited and temporary basis. While women’s suffrage only gradually evolved in the United States, there was no going back. Albeit, Zinn (1999, p 103) describes the position of women in post-revolutionary America as ‘house slaves’. However, their influence over civil society was considerable.

Outside the arena of the struggle for constitutional rights, women reshaped civility in American society, setting new standards and expectations for their male compatriots. Nash (2005, p 421) comments:

(p.100) Thus ‘virtue’ before the war a masculine quality that citizen-warriors demonstrated by sacrificing self-interest for the common good and sacrificing individual lives for the good of the whole society had to be retooled and feminized in peacetime if the noble new democratic experiment was to succeed. In this rescue operation, the salvaging of the human traits upon which the republic could be built and sustained lay much in the hands of women. With virtue inculcated by women, the nation might overcome the decay of masculine virtue that brought war on. Women would be the moral bookkeepers and instructors in the new boisterous American society.

The campaign for equality had begun in America. That was the lasting legacy of the struggles of slaves, Native Americans, women and other oppressed groups. They were an unknown civil society but they did leave a significant historical imprint that was to shape America. They had also defined democracy in an alternative way. The Founding Fathers were committed to representative democracy as the embodiment of the liberal ideas of the American Republic. The struggle of America’s unknown revolution has redefined modern democracy in associative terms. Theirs was a disparate struggle, isolated and disconnected in terms of mobilisation. But there was a shared idealism committed to the potential of associative democracy. It was, crucially, to influence more radical expressions of civil society that were to emerge as social movements in modern society. Furthermore, the divergence between representative democracy and associative democracy was to highlight a dichotomy between ‘thin’ democracy and ‘thick’ or ‘strong’ democracy.

Liberty, equality and civil society

The United States became the archetypal liberal society. Its identity and institutions were founded on classical liberal principles, what we call today neoliberalism. In many respects, this philosophy viewed human welfare as a private virtue to be pursued by the individual through self-help. Heywood (2003, pp 47–8) argues that classical liberalism rests on four core principles:

  • egoistical individualism: human beings are naturally self-interested, with a pronounced enthusiasm for self-reliance tempered by charitable giving and a culture of philanthropy;

  • (p.101) negative freedom: human beings should be free to do what they want without state coercion;

  • minimalist state: the state is a ‘necessary evil’ that imposes a collective will in society, constraining human freedom;

  • civil society: in contrast to the state as the realm of coercion, civil society represents the ‘realm of freedom; bringing balance and equilibrium to the body politic’.

These classical liberal principles equated with virtue in the minds of the Founding Fathers of the United States, albeit virtue etched in the pursuit of fortune. They were rich and powerful men who believed they were creating a utopia based on the unlimited natural resources of America. In many respects, their optimism was well placed. America was to grow into the wealthiest nation in the world. It was to forge a specifically Anglo-Saxon model of development, emulated across the English-speaking world and admired across the planet. It stood out in sharp contrast to Europe, which was to be shaped by the French Revolution of 1789.

Both the American and French revolutions were products of the 18th-century Enlightenment. However, they offered quite different interpretations of its meaning. For Americans (at least, those within the ruling orders), liberty defined virtue. On the other hand, Europeans became preoccupied with the pursuit of equality as the defining virtue of the good society. Europe was emerging from a highly stratified feudal social order. The belief that it was possible fundamentally to transform the ancien régime into a new democratic order only by revolutionary action was the motor driving European history. Social policy emerged as an instrument of an egalitarian will that slowly forged the welfare state. Even Americans were not entirely immune. The new political economy was taking shape.

Civil society: the right to associate

European notions of civil society devolved on the right to associate. Europeans’ view of what that right meant went far beyond Alexis De Tocqueville’s bucolic picture of Americans associating in a utopian world, where communitarianism flourished (De Tocqueville, 1956). For Europeans, the right to associate encompassed political, economic and social rights. In other words, association envisaged a robust democracy based on conflict, in marked contrast to the American consensus. European civil society grew out of clandestine Masonic lodges that sought to promote progressive political change, notably in France and (p.102) Germany (Archambault, 1997, p 52; Anheier and Seibel, 2001, p 36). Freemasonry emerged as the first substantive expression of this right to associate, building on medieval roots in guilds and brotherhoods.

This was not a uniquely European phenomenon. The radical influence of freemasonry was also evident in colonial societies, such as Brazil, where Masonic lodges became heavily identified with radical movements dedicated to revolutionary change (Landim, 1997, p 326). But the right to associate was not limited simply to the cultural and political concerns of elites. It also embraced the economic sphere, where workers sought to establish friendly societies, mutual associations, trade unions, working-class political parties, cooperatives and workers’ educational associations (Archambault, 1997, pp 17–52; Anheier and Seibel, 2001, pp 30–52; Deakin, 2001, pp 152–5).

Pre-modern social policy was based on a combination of paternalistic charity and punishment offered in the name of religious virtue (Powell, 2010a, 2010b). The state was the enemy of the poor, whom it sought to coerce with cruel stratagems. Equality changed all that. During the 18th century people in Europe and America came to believe that they could transform their world by transforming the state. In Europe, that meant a secular, republican and socialist future based on the pursuit of equality for all people. Equality entailed greater social justice. At a practical level, people were politically redefined as citizens, with the entitlement to legal, political and eventually social rights. But there was also, at a deeper level, a sense that the world was being transformed and a moral community constructed, where life would be better. The ideals of human progress and social equality became intertwined in the popular mind. It was an irresistible force for change that was to transform political economy, sweep away the Dickensian world of poverty and build a new citadel – the welfare state.

The French Revolution, social policy and civil society

The 1789 French Revolution marked a great rupture in European social policy. It not only ushered in the era of modern democracy, it changed the course of social policy. Archambault (1997, p 29) comments from a French perspective:

This period is truly a break in the development of the nonprofit sector. A drastic redistribution of respective responsibility in the private and public spheres, as far as social issues are concerned, took place. The most impressive work in this field was done by the Comité de Mendicité, (p.103) who considered it necessary to eradicate mendicity, which had been punishable since the seventeenth century. Some very important principles were set out by this committee. ‘The extreme poverty is the fault of government’, therefore ‘public assistance to the poor is a sacred duty. Society owes poor citizens a support and must either give them work or if they are unable to work, secure them a livelihood’.

The revolutionary tradition in France meant that social policy was not polarised around status and class, as it was in 19th-century Britain. There was no pauper class. Both jurisdictions centralised poor relief: one to promote punishment (Britain) the other to increase social solidarity (France). Ashford (1986, p 155) comments: ‘The French centralized to achieve republican goals’, adding that ‘the debate over the bureaux de bienfaisance and the bureaux d’assistance publique makes this unmistakable’. Less than a year after the introduction of public assistance in France in 1905, for the aged and disabled, 644,000 people were in receipt of state aid, with over 106 million francs being paid out in benefits. Furthermore, by 1912, over a million citizens were benefactors of the free hospital care (first introduced in 1893), and following the introduction of a statutory pension scheme in 1910, there were 103,000 pensioners. The local commune had a crucial role in the administration of welfare, albeit that there were concerns about the influence of the Catholic Church and ‘outmoded forms of charity’, as well as the conservative influence of the peasantry, who were instinctively hostile to state welfare. At a national level, aristocrats protested but were usually dismissed as lacking in credibility. Ashford (1986, p 137) notes in this regard: ‘Maurice Sibille, the defender of Catholic privileges and charity, objected to the basic formula, still roughly adhered to in modern French aide sociale, of dividing costs with about a fifth paid by communes, and two fifths by the departments and the state respectively’. Conservative voices were seeking to defend traditional forms of charity, based on paternalistic and egoistic traditions of giving, whereas the post-revolutionary republican tradition had redefined welfare as a right of the citizen and an obligation for the state. On the other hand sociétés de secours mutuelles sought to harness the mutualistic French tradition of social organisation (Palier, 2010, p 35). This was a seismic shift.

Another seismic policy shift was taking shape in France in the form of factory legislation. Émile Zola, in his novel Germinal (1885) (Zola, 1986), using social research undertaken 20 years before, exposed the exploitative work environment that prevailed in French mines and (p.104) factories. This novel ignited public consciousness regarding the excesses of a burgeoning capitalist economy and the need to protect wage labour. Factory legislation existed on the French statute books from the 1840s. However, it was not until 1900 that sufficient resources, in terms of factory inspectors with adequate powers, were made available (Joll, 1976, p 27). Social and industrial legislation were forging a new sphere of public responsibility in France.

German civil society, the emergence of a public sphere

The conception of the public sphere in Germany was also undergoing redefinition. Hegel’s ideas of the fundamental role of civil society were influential. So was the impact of the French Revolution. Anheier and Seibel (2001, p 33) conclude that ‘the French Revolution of 1789 solidified the risk of attack from serfs and the poor on the one side and the increasingly powerful bourgeoisie on the other’. Germany was an uncompromisingly aristocratic political order backed by military power. But even in Germany the impact of the French Revolution forced some political movement. In 1794 the Prussian General Code was promulgated. It introduced formal legal equality and legalised ‘private societies’ (associations), provided that they served the ‘general good’ and did not pose a threat to the political order (Anheier and Seibel, 2001, p 34). The emergence of hilfskassen (friendly societies) provided not only protection against ‘social risks’ but also fora for political discussion (Palier, 2010, p 35).

Napoleon’s defeat in 1815 was interpreted by the German aristocracy as the end of the Franzosenzeit (time of the French). In this regard they were wrong. The democratic spirit unleashed by the French Revolution of 1789 could not easily be suppressed. Young German soldiers who had fought against the French were influenced by their ideas and began to form associations with explicitly political agendas. The Karlsbad Decrees in 1819 responded by suppressing student associations, dismissing liberal-minded university professors, curbing free speech, censoring the press and establishing a central state intelligence service. The consequences of these anti-democratic political measures for German social and political development were disastrous. Civil society was forced underground and marginalised. Anheier and Seibel (2001, p 39) conclude:

The period between 1819 and 1848 was decisive for the future development of associational life in Germany as (p.105) well as for the style of the country’s political culture and discourse. The bourgeoisie’s strong will to engage in the running of the nation’s political affairs was harshly rejected by the aristocratic regime. For almost a hundred years after the Karlsbad Decrees, the great majority of the German bourgeoisie remained excluded from full participation and involvement in national politics. As a result, little political learning took place, and the bourgeoisie could not develop a sense of political burden-sharing and responsibility. This resulted in a widening gap between ambitions and achievement for the bourgeois involvement in public affairs.

The 1848 revolutions that swept across Europe failed to dislodge the grip of the German aristocracy on power. But the seeds of change had been sown in civil society. During the 1850s, civil society flourished in Germany. It was a process that produced several important outcomes. Political parties, liberal and socialist, found their feet in the associational life of civil society. At local level, civil society became an instrument for participation in governance through social engagement. It was based on public–private partnership principles and became ‘the ideal-type of government–nonprofit relationship in Germany’ (Anheier and Seibel, 2001, p 46). This meant that a welfare model was being shaped in Germany that was to involve a shared responsibility between the state and civil society for the poor. This process was augmented by German unification in 1871. Furthermore, it allowed Germany to begin the process of modernisation, providing a social structure within a rapidly growing urban industrial society (Anheier and Seibel, 2001, p 44).

The idea of an interventionist state determining the citizens’ best interests was deeply embedded in German culture, notably in the Prussian tradition of paternalism. The German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck (1815–98), observed in this regard: ‘that the state should concern itself with those of its citizens who need help to a greater degree than hitherto, is not just a duty of humanity and Christianity, which should inspire all the institutions of the state, but also a conservative policy which has as its goal to encourage the view among the unpropertied classes of the population … that the state is not only a necessary institution but also a beneficent one’ (cited in Joll, 1976, pp 27–8). The establishment in 1872 of the German Association of Social Policy (Verein für Sozialpolitik) proved instrumental in promoting public consciousness of the need for social reform. These German social scientists exposed the inadequacies of the social order (p.106) in responding to the challenges of social change that arose from industrialisation and urbanisation.

Russia, modernisation and civil society

In Russia, an even more obdurate aristocracy existed. Change was occasionally attempted, for example, through the zemstovs in the 1860s that facilitated limited provision of healthcare and education. The overwhelmingly rural population was granted limited land reforms after the 1905 revolution, which mainly benefited the better-off kulak class of large peasant proprietors with significant land holdings. For the growing urban industrial class, there were limited social initiatives, including the restriction of working hours (1897), protection against industrial accidents (1903) and two laws limited to a small section of urban workers in larger industries that provided accident and sickness insurance (Thane, 1982, p 120). The resulting discontent was to prove fertile ground for Bolshevik organisation in the cities, which was ultimately to lead to the successful revolution in 1917.

In the final years of the tsarist regime, the government had forced employers to introduce sickness insurance organisations (kassy) operated by joint boards of management, including elected workers’ representatives. State enterprises (including railways and steel plants in the Urals) had their own system of hospitals, clinics and midwife stations providing healthcare for 2.5 million workers and their dependants. The 1912 legislation resulted in a sharp rise in the number of kassy in St Petersburg and Moscow. While revolutionary activists sought to penetrate the boards of management of the kassy, they remained remarkably depoliticised, despite internal tensions between management and workers (Andrle, 1994, pp 116–17).

Civil society became a source of intense political rivalry between the regime and its opponents. The term obschestvo came to denote civil society or ‘social public’ in Russia. It was largely the preserve of the heavily radicalised intelligentsia. After the 1905 revolution, Peter Stolypin was appointed in 1906 to the new office of Prime Minister, until his assassination in 1911. He introduced an ambitious modernisation programme that included the replacement of feudal ownership of agricultural land in the countryside (where most Russians lived) by individual private ownership. Andrle (1994, p 7) notes that ‘the novelty of Stolypin’s reforms was their intention to create for the state a new and large social base by turning the peasantry into a class of private property owners and entrepreneurs, whose interests the state would make its business to uphold’. He argues that ‘for the first (p.107) time in the history of the Russian state, the government’s legitimacy would consist not of a conceptual opposition between state interest and self-interest but a fusion of the state interest with the interests of a large property-owning class’ (Andrle, 1994, p 7). Andrle concludes: ‘Stolypin wanted to create a stable “civil society” for the Tsarist state’ (Andrle, 1994, p 7).

The pre-modern fusion between the tsarist state and the dominant rural economy was in sharp contrast to developments in Western Europe. It resulted in a historic collision with modern Russia, led by the cities. The radical intelligentsia in urban Russia was irrevocably committed to modernisation along Western lines. It dominated social and political activism in the cities. But there were more primordial struggles at play in Russia. Underneath the level of political contestation was a deeper struggle for the soul of Russia. The westernisers (with their roots in the Enlightenment) and the Slavophiles, who sought to defend the Russian soul against what they perceived to be the individualistic materialism of Western modernisation, held diametrically opposed views of the future. The Russian Revolution in 1917 ended the debate and absorbed civil society within a totalitarian state apparatus.

Socialism and welfare: a Faustian bargain or utopian ideal?

Marxism envisaged revolution in the French Jacobin tradition. It invented the working class as a ‘new political subject’. Abruptly, the teeming masses of urban poor were turned into the instrument of revolutionary change. The Communist Manifesto (Marx and Engels, 1967) became a clarion call of the revolutionary socialist movement. It contained a comprehensive vision and messianic belief in a better future. Sassoon (1996, p 7) asserts:

By thinking of the working-class as a political class, ascribing to it a specific politics and rejecting the vaguer of categories (‘the poor’) of earlier reformers the pioneers of socialism thus virtually ‘invented’ the working-class. Those who define create. ‘Democratic’ politics, that is, modern mass politics, is a battlefield in which the most important move is that which decides what the battle is about, what the issue is.

What was distinctive about what Marx called ‘scientific’ socialism was its modern message. The socialist movement had a clear idea about the future. It was to be egalitarian. Social justice was the goal. The state (p.108) was to be the instrument. It would bring the private sphere (capital) under the control of the public sphere (society). That was the theory.

But soon theory and action began to come into conflict. For Lenin, from autocratic tsarist Russia, the answer to the question ‘what is to be done?’, which he posed in 1902, was simple. The tsarist state must be overthrown and replaced by the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. In reality, this meant dictatorship of the Communist Party based on the Jacobin revolutionary tradition, which was to unleash the monstrous terror of Stalinism. The ‘Jacobin-Bolshevik model’ has been described by Timothy Garton Ash as ‘storming the Bastille or the Winter Palace; executing the king or the Tsar; a festival of popular liberation turning to terror, as the revolution devours its children’ (Guardian, 1 September 2005). The violent model of change did not recommend itself to many Western socialists, who viewed democracy as the road to social justice based on equal citizenship. Social democracy was born. The mass working-class political party in tandem with trade unions was its voice. Russia was to follow its own path to violent revolution alone.

Germany became the fulcrum of the socialist debate about strategy between the Marxists and social democrats – between revolution and reform. Despite their endless rhetorical victories, Western European Marxists were constantly outmanoeuvred by the gradualist reforming politics of the social democrats. They offered a practical view of socialism that their impoverished working-class political subject could grasp. On the economic front, it meant the right to associate, to strike and to bargain for better wages and conditions. On the social front, it represented the pursuit of the social state based on progressive taxation, pensions for the old, insurance against unemployment and ill health, care of the sick, free education (including school meals) and a right to shelter in the form of social housing. These were the ingredients of the political manifestos of social democratic parties in Western Europe that enabled them to emerge as the collective voice of the working class. The birth of modern democracy and the rise of the mass working-class party are synonymous. What Marxists would view as a Faustian bargain was struck with capital. In reality, the deal struck between labour and capital was essentially based upon a utopian vision of the future, where classes could set aside their differences and peacefully agree the basis of a more socially just and egalitarian future. This was the model of democracy on offer, which was based on the belief that traditional elites could share power with the representatives of the organised working class in the interests of peaceful coexistence. It was a brave and noble ambition, but a profoundly utopian one – social democracy.

(p.109) While Western Europe was the theatre where this project was formed, it soon percolated outwards to other parts of the developed world. New Zealand was an early and enthusiastic convert. Australia followed. Americans proved to be reluctant collectivists, eschewing socialism and only grudgingly granting welfare rights. Canada proved to be more fertile territory for welfare legislation. In South America’s Southern Cone (Argentina, Uruguay and Chile), where European cultural influences are strongest because of the near elimination of the indigenous population, the idea of socialism also proved influential. Kirby (2003, p 24) asserts that Uruguay became the world’s first welfare state. The legacy of the liberator of Latin America, Simon Bolivar (1783–1830), was to inspire a radical political legacy that has continued to the present day in the form of the ‘new Bolivarianism’.

Socialising the state: welfare and social reform

German social reform led the way. In the 1877 election to the Reichstag, the new national parliament, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) won 9.1% of the vote – the same proportion as the conservatives. The Kaisereich was shaken to its foundations. It responded characteristically to this expression of democracy, with repression. In 1878 all forms of socialist activity were banned. Over the ensuing 12 years the anti-socialist legislation closed 332 social democratic associations. Repression proved to be a binding influence on the socialist movement in Germany. In adversity, socialists found unity. The Kaisereich capitulated. In the interests of national integration, the Bismarckian reforms were promulgated by Kaiser Wilhelm I in 1881. There followed a raft of social legislation, including:

  • general health insurance (1883)

  • occupational accident insurance (1884)

  • a general pension scheme (1889).

These Bismarckian reforms have been described as a ‘revolution from above’ (Anheier and Seibel, 2001, pp 47–8). They proved to be the template for many other developed Western societies that sought to temporise with the ambitions of the rising socialist movement. Socialists opposed these welfare measures as an attempt to buy of the workers in a Faustian bargain (Thane, 1982, p 108). The Bismarckian welfare state rested on a political paradox. It was a conservative response to radical civil society’s demands for social justice.

(p.110) Other European nations followed Germany’s example. In France, Archambault (1997, p 35) notes that the Third Republic discovered the virtue of solidarity, summed up by the slogan ‘Everyone is indebted to his neighbour’. The sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) provided the intellectual inspiration for French social policy, based on the principles of solidarity and mutualism that during the 20th century became the cornerstones for the French welfare state. The utopian socialist legacy is clearly discernible. The socialists were split on the issue of social reform. The Marxists, led by Jules Guesde, abstained, 27 socialist deputies voted against and 5, led by the reformist socialist Jean Jaurès, a veteran Dreyfusard, voted for a series of welfare measures in the early 20th century. French socialism was disorganised and heavily fractionalised between utopian socialists, reformists, technocrats and insurrectionists (Sassoon, 1996, p 13). Consequently, social reform and welfare legislation developed more slowly in France, relative to Germany and Britain.

But by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, considerable progress had been made in some areas of French social policy (as noted above). Democracy and war were key influences in propelling France along the road to improving child welfare. France had the slowest rate of population growth in Europe during the second half of the 19th century. Infant mortality rates were disturbingly high. France’s military defeat by Germany in 1871 reminded the country of its vulnerability in terms of manpower to serve in times of war. By the beginning of the 20th century, France had developed an extensive system of child welfare clinics and free or subsidised milk supplies that was well ahead of the rest of the world. France led the world in its child-centred legislation, introducing laws regulating the exploitation of child labour as early as 1840, on compulsory education in 1882, on child protection in 1889 and on child courts and reformatory institutions in 1912. These measures were highly effective in reducing child mortality rates (Thane, 1982, p 119).

In the United Kingdom, radical civil society in the form of the Fabians’ trade union and cooperative societies led to the electoral emergence of the Labour Party in 1906. It was to prove a watershed in British politics. An embattled Liberal government, elected on a landslide in the 1906 general election, introduced a series of social measures in parliament. These ‘Liberal Reforms’ included:

  • 1906 and 1914 Education (Provision of School Meals) Acts

  • 1906 Workmen’s Compensation (Extension) Act

  • 1907 and 1915 Notification of Births Acts

  • (p.111) 1907 Probation Act

  • 1907 Matrimonial Causes Act

  • 1908 Old Age Pension Act

  • 1908 Small holdings and Allotments Acts

  • 1908 Children Act

  • 1909 Housing and Town Planning Act

  • 1911 National Insurance Act.

The key elements in this impressive body of legislation were the introduction of statutory pensions and a system of national insurance. In 1909 the People’s Budget introduced progressive taxation as a means of redistributing wealth between the rich and poor. While national insurance largely benefited white-collar male urban workers, pensions were open to all. There were four applications in Ireland, for every one in England, causing a torrent of racist indignation in the popular press. When the 1911 Census was published in 1917 it became clear that the reason was Ireland’s skewed demographic structure, which had been produced by mass emigration. But the popular myth of the ‘welfare scrounger’ had been born (Powell, 1992, p 139).

The first wave of reforming legislation in New Zealand and Australia came with the Lib-Lab governments elected in the 1890s. Thane (1982, p 113) observes that ‘although socialist and labour movements everywhere tended to be suspicious of public welfare provided by bourgeoisie and aristocratic parties, once in power they were prepared to promote welfare measures’. However, Australians remained highly dependent on self-help and savings. This delayed the introduction of statutory pensions and a national insurance system, widely discussed in Australia before the outbreak of the 1914–18 war.

In Canada and the United States, the impetus towards social legislation is also detectable. While North American elites did not experience the pressure of the rising socialist movement in the manner of their European counterparts, they were sensitive to the reality that the world was changing. Public expectation of government’s becoming involved in regulating both the economy and society was growing. Civil society became the arena in which legislative reform was shaped. Jane Addams (1860–1935) became the embodiment of this fourishing civil society committed to social reform. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931, Addams founded America’s most famous settlement – Hull House in Chicago. It was modelled on London’s Toynbee Hall. She tirelessly worked to promote social justice in housing, factory inspection and the treatment of immigrants, African Americans and women and children. She was elected the first woman President of the National Conference (p.112) of Social Work in 1910. Jane Addams also served as President of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Her most lasting legacy was the promotion of the social sphere as an integral part of the governance of the United Sates. The New Deal was to embody many of the ideals that had informed her lifelong struggle for social justice. Civil society was reshaping the American state by realigning the domestic and civil spheres.

The fusion of civil society and state

What we can conclude from this survey of initial attempts at social legislation that eventually led to the welfare state in industrial societies is that it was a humanitarian affair created in civil society. Some critics see it as too top-down change. As Novak (1988, p 125) puts it:

Social reform is the product of class struggle; but it does not mean that social reforms reflect working-class demands. On the contrary, while working-class pressure has been decisive in determining the timing and scale of reform, the content and the control of social reform has often been determined within the ruling class. Social reform has more often served to undermine working-class politicization and pressure than to reflect it.

Novak’s conclusion is a classic Marxist judgement on the value of the welfare state. It is undoubtedly true that ruling elites were terrified at the prospect of a socialist revolution. The Paris Commune in 1871, which evinced many political tendencies (for example, Blanquist, anarchist and Marxist), unnerved the bourgeoisie and aristocracy of Europe. They were ready to make concessions. However, it is pushing political paradox to the extreme to argue that this raft of social legislation was not in the objective interests of the working class. In Marxist epistemological terms, it began the process of ‘decommodification’, empowering working-class people to move beyond the status of commodities to be bought and sold on the labour market and into the status of full (if passive) citizenship in a new democratic political order. The world had shifted on its axis. Only orthodox Marxists failed to see it. For them, nothing but revolution would do. Social justice achieved through social reform that harnessed the democratic process amounted to political betrayal.

Marxism’s failure to grasp the importance of civil society as a force for social justice in a democratic society was to prove a major blind spot (p.113) leading to tyrannical regimes modelled on Stalinist Russia that professed to oppress in the name of social justice. Only the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci grasped the potential of civil society. Gramsci understood that a Russian-style seizure of power was not an option for socialists in the West. He believed that a strong civil society in the West protected the state from revolution based on the Jacobin-Bolshevik model that had dismally failed. Democracy and civil society had developed into barriers against violent social change. Power could not simply be seized at the top. The welfare state was creating a new democratic civility.

Gramsci addresses the socialist dilemma of choosing between ‘reform or revolution’ by going beyond it in a penetrating analysis of the nature of power. Drawing on military metaphors, Gramsci (1971, p 235) argues that ‘among the more industrially and socially advanced states, the war of manoeuvre must be considered as reduced to more of a tactical than a strategic function; that it must be considered as occupying the same position as siege warfare used to occupy previously in relation to it’. He adds: ‘The same reduction must take place in the art and science of politics, at least in the case of the most advanced states, where “civil society” had become a very complex structure and one which is resistant to the catastrophic “incursions” of the immediate economic element’ (Gramsci, 1971, p 235).

Gramsci (1971, p 238) concluded in relation to the relevance of the Russian Revolution in 1917 that it was the product of a backward civil society that was without relevance for the West:

In the East the state was everything, civil society was primordial and gelatinous; in the West there was a proper relation between the state and civil society, and when the state trembled a sturdy structure of civil society was at once revealed. The state was only an outer ditch, behind which there stood a powerful system of fortresses and earthworks; more or less numerous from one State to the next, it goes without saying – but this precisely necessitated an accurate reconnaissance of each individual country.

Gramsci had dilated the concept of ‘political’ so that it encompassed the entire public sphere. The Jacobin-Bolshevik belief that revolution could be secured by storming the citadel of power was redundant. It was impossible to alter the balance of power relations without persuading civil society. Sassoon (1996, p 78) observes:

(p.114) Throughout civil society everyone has roles and functions, the crucial ones being held by a veritable army of intermediaries whose tasks it is to organize work, culture, religion and leisure (Gramsci called these – misleadingly – the ‘intellectuals’). The ideological capture of this group is central to the conquest of power. No complex social system can survive or be constructed without them. They are the educators, the journalists, the clergy, the communicators, the artists, the advertisers, the disseminators of popular culture, the technical cadres, etc. In other words, all those who translate, modify and adapt and, therefore, constantly alter the dominant and accepted ideas of the existing order so that they can be understood, internalized and accepted by all. In this way, what is historically determined and hence transient appears just, natural and eternal. These intellectual ‘functionaries’ define what is normal and hence what is ‘deviant’; they distinguish the acceptable from the unacceptable in all areas, including production and work, everyday life and the assumption of what is ‘common sense’. And as everyone is, at least some of the time, an ‘educator’ or ‘organizer’ in this Gramscian sense, everyone is, some of the time, an ‘intellectual’. Reciprocal socialization is the business of all humans.

Inherent in Gramsci’s argument is the recognition that social change must be negotiated democratically. A virtuous society can be achieved only if deeply embedded in the body politic through a process of citizen participation. Social legislation is the product of enlightened compromise based on the aspiration for democratic progress.

Gramsci’s ideas were later developed by Norberto Bobbio (1987, 1996). Bobbio presented civil society as the means to generate a framework for radical democracy. Going beyond the reform–revolution dualism, Bobbio argues that significant aspects of power, including the military, the bureaucracy and multinational corporations, are not subject to democratic control. These are democracy’s broken promises. Bobbio sets out to establish procedural minima for democracy, including the value of toleration, non-violence in conflict resolution, enhanced social solidarity and the promotion of radical cultural learning experiences. At the core of his argument is the belief in democratising democracy on three levels: the exploration of direct democracy; the importance of alternative forms of representation; and the opportunity of expanding the space of democracy from the state to civil society (Cohen and Arato, 1994, (p.115) p 167). These radical democratic ideas are similarly advocated by French political theorists Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe.

Marxists were not the only critics of social democracy. A penetrating critique emerged on the right of the political spectrum. Carl Schmitt (1888–1985) has been variously described as ‘the Hobbes of our age’ and as ‘the philosophical godfather of Nazism’. These damning criticisms have obscured the contribution of Schmitt’s role as a political theorist. His apologists have sought to rehabilitate his personal reputation, arguing that he has been politically misunderstood. But there is no doubt that Schmitt joined the Nazi Party in 1933, co-authored part of Hitler’s early legislation ‘synchronising’ the states and rose to the post of Prussian State Councillor under the Third Reich. Holmes (1993, p 38) observes that ‘his unsavory career between 1933 and 1936 is without doubt the main obstacle confronting his rehabilitators’. Schmitt’s anti-liberalism – evident in his two most influential publications before he became a Nazi, The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy (1988 [1923]) and The Concept of the Political (1996[1932]) – provided the intellectual foundations for his political support of the Third Reich. Tracy B. Strong (1996, p xii), in a foreword to a recent edition of The Concept of the Political, states that ‘by virtue of the range of those to whom he appeals and the depth of his political allegiance during the Nazi era, Schmitt comes close these days to being the Martin Heidegger of political theory’. True. But Schmitt also had a profound intellectual impact on the political Left, no doubt drawn to his powerful critique of political liberalism, embodied in the weak Weimar Republic that struggled to govern Germany democratically between 1918 and 1933. Strong (1996, pp x–xi) notes Schmitt’s influence over the political Left in Germany, France and Italy.

Heinrich Meier (1995), who explored the intellectual relationships between Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss, sees the former as a ‘political theologian’, driven by religious revelation. However, the real source of Schmitt’s political inspiration was undoubtedly the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1585–1679), who believed that humanity was unable to distinguish between ‘good and evil’. According to Hobbes, humanity exists in a pre-social state of nature, in which life is ‘… nasty, brutish, and short’, characterised by constant war of every person against every person. Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651) became his philosophical testament to the world, condemning humanity to an authoritarian future. His dismal dismissal of the project of humanism was to shape Schmitt’s two concepts of enmity that divided the world into ‘friends’ and ‘enemies’. It fed the paranoid German right-wing belief that the Versailles Settlement (p.116) of 1918 was a betrayal of Germany and the liberal Weimar Republic its bastard offspring.

In The Concept of the Political, Schmitt targeted the Weimar Republic, advancing a fusion theory of the Sozialstaat (social state). He argues that a fusion of the state and society had created a crisis of legitimacy:

The equation state = politics becomes erroneous and deceptive at exactly the moment when state and society penetrate each other. What had been up to that point affairs of state become thereby social matters, and, vice versa, what had been purely social matters become affairs of the state – as must necessarily occur in a democratically organized unit. Heretofore ostensibly neutral domains – religion, culture, education, the economy – then cease to be neutral in the sense that they do not pertain to state and to politics. As a polemical concept against such neutralizations and depoliticizations of important domains appears the total state, which potentially embraces every domain. This results in the identity of state and society. In such a state, therefore, everything is at least potentially political, and in referring to the state it is no longer possible to assert for it a specifically political characteristic. (Schmitt, 1996, p 22)

Liberalism, in Schmitt’s view, had been sacrificed on the altar of social democracy. It is notable that Schmitt viewed ‘social democratisation’ rather than state interventionism as the root cause of this crisis. The social democratic Weimar Republic was anathema to Schmitt. He argued paradoxically that the association that democracy creates between the state and society produces a totalising political system born out of weakness rather than strength, which is the antithesis of democracy: ‘A pluralist theory is either the theory of state which arrives at the unity of state by a federation of social associations or a theory of the dissolution or rebuttal of state. … The state simply transforms itself into an association which competes with other associations; it becomes a society among other societies which exist within or outside the state’ (Schmitt, 1996, p 44).

In Carl Schmitt’s mind, social democracy and governance were mutually exclusive. He argued that President Hindenburg should establish a constitutional dictatorship under Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution to replace the fragmentation of pluralism with the force of order. These constitutional powers had already been invoked to put down Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch in Munich on 8–9 November 1923. (p.117) When Hindenburg appointed Hitler Chancellor in 1933, German democracy was at an end, but a racial welfare state emerged in the Nazi parody of ‘Big Society’ (see Chapter Five). Schmitt’s critique of the purportedly totalitarian nature of social democracy was taken up during the post-war years by Fredrick von Hayek (1899–1992) and his American disciple Milton Freedman (1912–2006). It was to prove highly influential.


This chapter has charted modernism’s quest for social justice. A titanic struggle took place between Marxists attempting to create a new subjectivity through the revolutionising of the working class, and anti-Marxists committed to social reform. The prospect of revolution drove the motor of history in the direction of a more collectivised society, where welfare began to emerge as a major political objective. The consequences were to change the nature of the state. As Carl Schmitt was to argue, a fusion began to take place between the state and society. In reality, the socialisation of the state was taking place. Social policy was emerging as the instrument of this transformation, providing content that turned the fusion into a dynamic reality. The foundations of the welfare state that was to become the archetypal political formation in the West were laid during this period. The politics of welfare is a modern utopian narrative of an attempt to create a more virtuous society. By socialising the state, democracy and civil society emerge as the generators of social change. But the more successful civil society proved at socialising the state, the more imperilled its own autonomy became. Inherent in the emerging welfare state was a fusion between state and society. The political transformation involved necessitated a reimagining of the state as a benevolent, all-encompassing institution. Could this armoury of violence simultaneously become the instrument for realising utopian dreams? Was progress inevitable? The answer proved to be ‘no’. The first half of the 20th century witnessed the rise of totalitarianism, turning the state into a vast edifice of tyranny. Utopian ideals of human welfare were turned on their head in the new dystopian regimes that evolved into totalitarian societies based on fear. Democracy and civil society were eliminated. We must now turn to consideration of these matters, which highlight the fragility of civil society.