Many assume that “civil society” is a neutral term, meaning the realm of human activity outside the state and outside the economy. However, the term is far from neutral.

We need to remind ourselves that the original term is bürgerliche Gesellschaft, or bourgeois society. So what “civil society” really means is bourgeois civil society. It is inescapably tied up with the development of capitalism and the seizure of power by the bourgeoisie. So the question arises: is a socialist civil society possible? To answer this question, we must analyze the problems of bourgeois civil society before examining what socialist civil society might be. This will then provide a framework for understanding the role of religion in such a form of civil society.

Bourgeois Civil Society

The first important insight into bourgeois civil society comes from Hegel.  Bourgeois civil society is a new development that arises with capitalism and the bourgeoisie. Such a society contains everything that is outside the state – economics, voluntary associations, education, health, the law, and religion. The primary feature of this new formation is the individual, so any social connections are formed by individuals.

The problem, for Hegel, is that the individual is deeply alienated.  The individual is torn between being an individual in association with other individuals in bourgeois civil society and an individual subject to the state. This rampant individualism destroys all that lies in its path, so the only solution for Hegel is the state, which must unite people – and towards which religion must also play its appropriate role.

Thus, for Hegel bourgeois civil society is not the space for freedom of expression and association; instead, he reminds us that civil society is not only the distinct product of a modern social formation (middle class and capitalism), but also an alienated reality, torn between the demands of the private individual and the state.

Marx appreciated Hegel’s insight that bourgeois civil society is alienated, but he developed a sharper analysis of this alienation. He argued that the state does not provide a missing unity.  Instead, it is opposed to bourgeois civil society.

The reason is that the state always exercises the interests of a particular class over a fractured civil society. Further, Marx focused not on the state, but on the dynamics of this civil society. The root cause of alienation lies with economics, which Marx examined in careful detail in Capital. Alienation is due to exploitation and the production of surplus value, and to the class conflict that ensues.

In short, Marx emphasised Hegel’s insight that this type of civil society is inescapably capitalist and bourgeois. For Marx, religion too was transformed, into a mode of individual expression that suited the new situation, if not being constitutive of it.

After Marx, the definition of bourgeois civil society made a profound shift by distinguishing between economics and civil society. This distinction enabled civil society to gain the appearance of neutrality and universality. This move was enabled by back-translating the English term, “civil society,” into German: it became the more neutral term, Zivilgesellschaft (instead of bürgerliche Gesellschaft).

So we find Jürgen Habermas, the leading proponent of bourgeois civil society, proposing that its liberal goal is to enforce and police a universally accessible language. This clearly liberal project must be determined and policed, identifying what can be accepted and rejected.

At this point the work of Domenico Losurdo, the Italian philosopher, provides another insight. Losurdo enables us to tackle the claim that bourgeois civil society involves freedom for all to express their views. However, the slogan of “freedom for all” relies on a definition of “all” that excludes the majority. If you do not fit its definition of “all,” then you do not count. This means that liberalism and repression are two sides of the same coin; bourgeois “freedom” and “democracy” are inseparable from exclusion and dispossession.

Let me give an example. The American slave owner, Thomas Jefferson, wrote in The Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” But this phrase relied on a crucial restriction of the sense of “all,” which did not include slaves, women and “inferior” folk. One cannot understand “American liberty” without slavery and dispossession, for one sustains the other.

Bourgeois civil society is rather different from what its proponents suggest. It is an alienated product of bourgeois social formations and rampant individualism (Hegel), a location of economic exploitation and contradictions (Marx), and a zone that operates by a universal of exclusion (Losurdo).

Socialist Civil Society

By contrast, what is socialist civil society? It is consciously class based.  It redefines the sense of freedom; and it operates knowingly at the complex intersections between the two levels of official and unofficial discourse.

In more detail: since bourgeois civil society is a product of capitalism and the bourgeoisie’s rise to power, socialist civil society is (in theory) based on a very different class formation – workers and peasants. It implies that a communist party is able to seize power and enact the political power of the workers and peasants.

In this new context, the old exploiting classes have lost power, with the result that they may oppose the new order (and so be dealt with resolutely), opt out of the new order and leave the country, or consign themselves to take a very different and subordinate role. Hence a space opens up for what may be called socialist civil society. Now the formerly excluded are included, the formerly voiceless learn to gain a voice, the formerly devalued are valued.

Further, socialist civil society develops a very different understanding of freedom. I mean not the revolutionary freedom of seizing power, but freedom after the revolution, when socialism has achieved power. Constructing a new society, as Mao Zedong pointed out, is infinitely more complex and difficult. The same applies to freedom in socialist civil society. The following factors are most important.

1) At its basis, the freedom of socialist civil society is partisan, since it is initially of workers and peasants. How is this different from bourgeois civil society, which limits who can be free? Instead of exercising freedom for a minority (the bourgeoisie), it applies to the vast majority of people, the workers and peasants. Only this is genuine, actual freedom.

2) This partisanship of freedom is openly so. By contrast, bourgeois pretends that “pure democracy” and “freedom for all” are for everyone, but they are not, for they conceal the specific class nature of this “freedom.”. This means that one must be open about the partisan nature of proletarian freedom. It is openly linked to workers and peasants.

3) As Hegel observed, bourgeois freedom is predicated on the individual, while proletarian freedom is collective. If one begins explicitly with the collective, then freedom begins to mean a very different type of freedom in which the individual finds a new space.

4) This apparently individual, bourgeois freedom operates within a society that holds private property as sacred, with the basis being private property in land (as Marx and Engels pointed out). It is a society based on the power of money, with vast differences between the very wealthy and the masses of people living in poverty. In other words, bourgeois freedom serves the cause of capitalism in which the vast majority are systematically denied freedom. In this situation, socialist freedom emancipates labour from the yoke of capitalism and replaces it with socialism. Only when workers and peasants are free from systemic capitalist exploitation can they be truly free.

5) The nature of socialist freedom relies on a new definition of the universal. While bourgeois freedom constitutes a false universal, based upon a particular which is concealed (namely the power of capital), socialist proletarian freedom is a genuine universal, based not upon greed or careerism but upon the interests of the vast majority that unites the best of the past’s revolutionary traditions and the best of the present struggle for a new life.

6) Socialist civil society may be described as both freedom from and freedom for. It is freedom from bourgeois civil society, with which it is incompatible. This reality is revealed by the function of liberal or bourgeois democracy, which has become an effective tool for excluding any type of viable socialism. Indeed, when a communist government concedes to institute a bourgeois democratic system, it soon finds itself out of power and all that it has worked for is lost.

By contrast, socialist civil society is freedom for the construction of socialism, which some elements of the bourgeoisie may come to support. In this context, it becomes possible to see different roles for the internet, if not religion, which is predicated on freedom for socialism.

7) Eventually, this new type of freedom will become a habit, a feature ingrained into daily social life, so that people are no longer conscious of what freedom and unfreedom might be. This is a crucial transformation, but it takes a long, long time and is very much for the future. This step entails moving beyond the partisanship of socialist freedom, but it can only be achieved through such a form of freedom. It is simply impossible to do so through bourgeois freedom. Instead, through socialist freedom, eventually freedom and democracy become not a goal to which one must strive but an everyday habit.

Thus far I have addressed two theoretical features of socialist civil society, in terms of its class nature and the understanding of freedom. The final point concerns the complex interplay between official and unofficial discourses. Let me give one example from among many.

The Chinese writer Sun Li (1949-2010) had a lifetime of service to the communist party, with a reputation of being faithful, honest and direct. At the same time, he wrote letters to his wife, Yu Xiaohui, expressing some criticisms and misgivings. Which is the real position of such a person? A faithful and upright member or a critic with misgivings? The answer is neither, but both. Indeed, it is precisely in the intersection between the two that socialist civil society finds its function. And a clear consciousness of this in-between, of not dialectical, nature of the situation is crucial for such a civil society.

It this dialectical space we find signs of socialist civil society. Such a civil society is not the expression of misgivings or criticisms, but the close and dialectical connection between them and the official position. This situation pertains as much to the new young member, the old stalwart, the intellectual, worker or farmer.


I have provided a preliminary outline of what a socialist civil society may be, based on the fact that civil society is not neutral but partisan. What is so often presented as “civil society” is in fact bourgeois civil society, with its individualism, alienation, exploitation and exclusions in the name of a false universal.

By contrast, socialist civil society is predicated on the dominance of workers and peasants (even as they are transformed by socialism in power), by a thorough redefinition of freedom, and by the subtle and dialectical interplay between official and unofficial discourse. As for the full implications concerning religion, that is the topic of another study.

Roland Boer is Professor of Literary Theory at Renmin (People’s) University of China, Beijing, and Research Professor in Religious Thought at the University of Newcastle, Australia. An internationally recognized lecturer, he is the author of numerous articles and books, including In the Vale of Tears (Historical Materialism, 2014),  Lenin, Religion, and Theology (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, Criticism of Earth (Historical Materialism, 2013), and Political Grace (Westminster John Knox, 2009).

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