This paper focuses on those countries in Eastern Europe and South America where civil society emerged as a cause celebre in the successful transition to democracy: Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland, Argentina, Brazil and Chile.It offers a theoretical analysis of precisely how civil society was conceptualized by its protagonists in their pre-democratic contexts by studying their writings from the pre-democratic period. The latter have been largely ignored in later narratives which chart a linear progression from brave western-oriented dissidents to mass mobilization to liberal democracy. Studying the original documents may provide new clues as to how these ‘dissidents’, for want of a better word, saw the nature of the regime, how they conceptualized civil society and the sources of its power, and what exactly their democratic aspirations where.
The purpose of the paper then is to re-examine what civil society might actually be and how it might function under authoritarian regimes, and to formulate hypotheses about its potential relation to democratization or non-democratization in contemporary settings, on the basis of the writings of the Eastern European and South American ‘members’ of civil society who reintroduced the term into political theory and practice.
This publication is part of the working paper series of the Knowledge Programme Civil Society in West Asia.