What Is Civil Society?

A Marxist Critique of the Concept of Civil Society

Taimur Rahman

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, many left intellectuals have been gripped with the fever of civil society. From non-governmental organisations and human rights groups to academics and activists, the so-called democratic opposition has taken recourse to the concept of civil society to fight the evils of the modern world. However, few have questioned, and others have deliberately not spoken about, what the concept civil society actually means.

The French and American revolutions are recognised as the cornerstones of democracy and civil society. The ideological framework developed during these bourgeois democratic revolutions is the accepted foundation of civil society.

According to the constitutions formed during the French and American revolutions, civil society is based on six tenets: Property, equality, liberty, security, secularism, and the free press. For example, in The Declaration of the Rights of Man, Article 2 defines ‘liberty, property, safety and resistance against oppression’ as the natural and inviolable rights of man.1

At first glance these concepts appear to be the embodiment of justice. Indeed, that is what is incessantly preached by top journals to daily newspapers. However, a closer look reveals that civil society goes no further than the rule of the capitalist class. In a word, civil society is a euphemism for the class rule of the capitalist class.


The central tenet of civil society is the inviolability of private property. For example, Article 16, Constitution of 1793: ‘The right of property is the right which belongs to all citizens to enjoy and dispose at will of their goods and revenues, the fruit of their work and industry.’2 This tenet is true of all constitutions premised on civil society.

Marx says: ‘The right of man to private property is, therefore, the right to enjoy one’s property and to dispose of it at one’s discretion (à son gré), without regard to other men, independently of society, the right of self-interest. This individual liberty and its application form the basis of civil society. It makes every man see in other men not the realisation of his own freedom, but the barrier to it.’3

Thus, the use of private property at will, in other words, in utter disregard for the rest of mankind, is enshrined in the very constitutions of bourgeois democracy and civil society. The selfish use of resources is a central tenet of civil society.

We understand from a study of economics that private property obeys certain laws of development. What interests us is the law of concentration of capital: the fact that the richest 3 individuals have more money than 600,000,000 people in the world. It is clear that this type of growing inequality does not contradict the tenet of private property.


Civil society defines the concept of equality as (Article 3, Constitution of 1795): ‘Equality consists of the fact that the law is the same for all, whether it protects or punishes.’4

In other words, equality in civil society consists in ‘equality before the law’ but not equality or the end of classes. In other words, it is equality in the purely legal sense and not in the economic or human sense. Equality within civil society, therefore, is entirely compatible with vast and growing economic disparity, concentration of wealth, power, and privilege. In fact it would be more correct to say that the concept of equality touted by civil society is premised on economic inequality since civil society itself is premised on private property. In what sense can one talk about liberty in such a society?


The grand word liberty conveys a sense of freedom from exploitation. However, this notion is entirely incorrect. According to Article 6 of the 1793 constitution ‘Liberty is the power that belongs to man to do anything that does not infringe on the right of someone else.’2 Similarly according to the Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1791 ‘Liberty consists in the power of doing anything that does not harm others’ defined by law.1

Therefore, liberty within civil society implies the right to do anything that does not infringe on the property of others. The boundaries of liberty within civil society are defined by law that upholds the inviolability of private property as the central tenet of civil society. In other words, liberty is premised upon the right to exploit workers via the institution of private property. Furthermore, the attempt on the part of workers to change social relations (which cannot be done without infringing upon private property) is not the realisation of liberty but the infringement of liberty. In conclusion, liberty within civil society is nothing other than liberty for the capitalist to exploit the workers.


Civil society is prevented from falling apart from the stress of economic inequality by the concept of security. Article 8 of the Constitution of 1793 says, ‘Security consists in the protection afforded by society to each of its members for the conservation of his person, rights, and property.’2

Marx writes: ‘Security is the highest social concept of civil society, the concept of the police. The whole of society is merely there to guarantee to each of its members the preservation of his person, rights and property.’3

 In other words, security within civil society is not the security of people from hunger, poverty, deprivation. But merely the security of property and rights defined as the unimpeded individual use of that property. Therefore, security is not understood as security of the people or the individual in general but specifically security of property and the utilisation of property.

Marx writes: ‘Thus, 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. … The only bond that holds them together is natural necessity, need and private interest, the conservation of their property and egoistic person.’3

Civil society is based on capitalist exploitation (property), formal equality before the law, liberty to exploit workers, and a police force to guarantee security. It is high time that those who speak in the name of civil society should realise that they speak only in the name of capitalist exploitation.

Some might argue that while the above may be correct, nonetheless, secularism and the free press are positive benefits of civil society.


The common impression about secularism is that it is the anti-thesis of religion or of religious intolerance. This view is supported by the religious right who never tire of inveighing against the secularists. As we find out this view is also not correct.

According to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, 1791, Article 10, ‘No one should be molested because of his opinions, not even religious ones.’1 Furthermore, ‘the liberty of every man to practice the religion to which he adheres’ is guaranteed as human right.1 The Declaration of the Rights of Man 1793, Article 7, upholds ‘the free exercise of religious practice’.1 The Constitution of 1795, Section 14, Article 354, argues that freedom of religion is so obvious that the ‘necessity of announcing these rights supposes either the present or the recent memory of despotism’.4 Similarly, the Constitution of Pennsylvania of 1776, Article 1, Paragraph 3 says, ‘All men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences: no man can of right be compelled to attend, erect or support a place of worship, or to maintain any ministry, against his consent; no human authority can, in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience.’5 The Constitution of New Hampshire 1784, Article 5 & 6 says, ‘Among the natural rights, some are in their very nature unalienable … Of this kind are rights of conscience.’6

In Pakistan the point of contention between the bourgeois secularists and the religious right is not concerned with whether or not there should be religion or religious worship (both uphold the right of religious worship). The central issue between these two parties is whether the state should be a theocracy or a secular state.

The bourgeois secularists wish to see the capitalist economy run in accordance with the most modern notions of capitalist relations. Amongst other things, this includes the emancipation of women within the confines of a capitalist economy. Naturally, such limited emancipation also has a similarly restricted impact on the working class or peasant women.

The religious right, who are often petty-bourgeois, wish for a capitalist economy with a more traditional superstructure. This traditional superstructure, in reality, is a more oppressive ideological structure in relation to the rising working class movement than bourgeois democracy. Therefore, they are the principle obstacle in the path of development of working class consciousness.

The conflict between these two social groups is over the particular form of capitalism (modern or traditional). While the religious right is a more obvious enemy, bourgeois secularists are able to present themselves as defenders of the interests of the working class. Revolutionary forces must use the right hand to fight the influence of the narrow minded right-wing forces, and the left hand to fight the influence of bourgeois secularists in the realm of ideology.

Free Press

According to the Constitution of 1793, Article 122, the ‘unlimited freedom of the press’ is guaranteed as a consequence of the right of man to individual freedom. However, a deeper reading shows that the freedom of the press is limited by the concept of public liberty. The same article says that ‘the liberty of the press must not be permitted when it compromises public liberty.’2 In other words, the freedom of the press must not be permitted when it impinges on the right of the capitalist class to exercise its liberty to exploit the workers through the institution of private property. It has become quite obvious that a tight censorship is maintained over all the media of the world, despite the claim that we have entered an era of communications and free information. But it is less obvious that such censorship is not contradictory to civil society. Civil society is premised on the right of censorship in to protect liberty based on private property.


The reader can see from the above exposition of the concept of civil society that it is wholly tied to the class rule of the capitalists. Therefore, the conclusion that civil society is merely a euphemism for the class rule of the bourgeoisie is not unfounded. Furthermore, the argument that the use of the concept of civil society by a particular group is different from the above exposition ignores the nature of politics. The subjective desires of individuals or groups are wholly irrelevant in relation to the use of the concept civil society. In the political field, the concept is intellectually and morally tied to the class rule of the capitalists. This link cannot be changed and the concept cannot be appropriated for revolutionary purposes.

Therefore, it is high time that activists realise that civil society is premised on exploitation, narrow individualism, oppression, inequality, and censorship. Those who are genuine to the people must develop new theoretical premises upon which to conduct the struggle for the emancipation of people.

The author is General Secretary, Communist Workers and Peasants Party, Pakistan.


1.Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen 1791

2. French Constitution of 1793:
     http://translate.google.com.pk/translate?hl=en&sl=fr&u=http://fr.wikisource.org/wiki/Constitution_du_24_juin_1793&ei=MQrRTdT_DonNrQfv_8H    CCg&sa=X&oi=translate&ct=result&resnum=2&ved=0CCgQ7gEwAQ&prev=/search%3Fq%3DArticle%2B16,%2BConstitution%2Bof%2B1793%26hl% 3Den%26biw %3D1024%26bih%3D649%26prmd%3Divnsb

3. Marx, K ‘On the Jewish Question’

4. French Constitution of 1795:
    http://translate.google.com.pk/translate?hl=en&sl=fr&u=http://mjp.univ-perp.fr/france/co1795.htm&ei=LQ3RTZioL4jSrQeksd3CCg&sa=X&oi=translate& ct=result&resnum=4&ved=0CDUQ7gEwAw&prev=/search%3Fq%3DArticle%2B3,%2BConstitution%2Bof%2B1795%26hl% 3Den%26biw%3D1024%26bih%3D649%26prmd%3Divns

5. Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania 1776:

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