A Conceptual History of Civil Society: From Greek Beginnings to the End of Marx


  • Boris DeWiel




The idea of civil society has undergone a renaissance in recent years, but missing from this literature is an explanation for its historical transformation in meaning. Originally civil society was synonymous with political society, but the common modem meaning emphasizes autonomy from the state. This paper traces this historical transformation within the context of the history of ideas, and suggests that the critical event was an eighteenth-century reaction against the rationalistic universalism associated with the French Enlightenment. The continued significance of the question of universalism is suggested by the fact that universalistic Marxist Leninist theories provided the ideological underpinnings for the destruction of civil society in Eastern European nations. The paper concludes that three elements are essential to the modern understanding of civil society: its autonomy from the state, its interdependence with the state, and the pluralism of values, ideals and ways of life embodied in its institutions.

Author Biography

Boris DeWiel

Boris DeWiel is a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Calgary. Among his publications are "The Politics of Ideological Diversity" in Roger Gibbins et al, Mindscapes: Political Ideologies Toward the 21st Century (Toronto: McGraw-Hili Ryerson, 1996), and articles on multiculturalism and environmental science. He is the holder of numerous awards and fellowships, including most recently a SSHRC Doctoral Fellowship (1996-1998). He served on the CBC Ombudsman's Independent Advice Panel reviewing the CBC's coverage of the 1997 federal election campaign. His dissertation, entitled "Democracy as Diversity: Civil Society, Pluralism and the Limits of the State," will be completed in 1998.