What is civil society? | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, September 20, 2008 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, September 20, 2008

What is civil society?

Rahad Abir studies the history behind it

Civil society. The term has now been around for a few decades, largely since the 1980s. Some sociologists and political scientists coined the term here in Bangladesh. The thought of civil society mainly originated, however, in the eighteenth century in Western Europe. But why and wherefore civil society in Bangladesh?
Now, let us try to find out what civil society actually is. The primary idea of civil society came from the writings of Hobbes (1588-1679) and Locke (1632-1704). They thought of civil society as an artificial construct. According to them, human beings' usual dwelling place is nature. They considered civil society as a sphere that maintained civil life, the realm where civic virtues and rights were derived from natural laws. However, they did not hold that civil society was a separate realm from the state. Rather, they underlined the co-existence between the state and civil society.
The leading thinkers of the Enlightenment considered civil society as a separate realm that stood for the protection of individual rights and private property. Conceiving this idea, Hegel held that civil society had emerged at the particular epoch of capitalism and therefore it serves its interests. Those interests are individual rights and private property. Hence, he used the German term Buergerliche Gesellschaft (bourgeois society) to denote civil society.
For Karl Marx civil society was the 'base' where productive forces and social relations took place. Agreeing with the link between capitalism and civil society, Marx held that the latter represented the interests of the bourgeoisie. He considered the state and civil society as the executive arms of the bourgeoisie; therefore, both should be allowed to wither away. This negative impression about civil society was rectified by Antonio Gramsci that led to the revival of the term in contemporary times.
Karl Marx apart, Gramsci did not consider civil society as coterminous with the socio-economic base of the state. Rather, Gramsci viewed civil society as the site for problem-solving.
At this point in time, we may take a serious look into Fakrul Chowdhury's Civil Society. This book, 304 pages in all, is a collection of the write-ups of twenty five individuals. Among the names worth mentioning are Jean Jacques Rousseau (translation by Sarder Fazlul Karim), Rangolal Sen, Muntasir Mamun, Joyantokumar Roy, Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury, Dr. Atiur Rahman, Salimullah Khan, Jatin Sarker, Anu Muhammad, Muhammad Habibur Rahman, Rashed Khan Menon, Emajuddin Ahmad, Farhad Mazhar, Syed Manzoorul Islam, Michael Edward, Thomas Caruthers, Lesley A Murray, and so on.
In Bangladesh, a dispute arose regarding civil society in the year 1997. The cause basically centred on a convention on the subject that took place at the Asia and Pacific Ocean regional scale on 24 July 1997. At the time, many write-ups from our intellectuals were observed on the issue in different newspapers. Since that convention a decade has gone by. But still most of us are not clear about the goals and activities of civil society. This book will help readers to have a better understanding of this topic.
Undoubtedly it can be said that this book is a pioneer work in the Bengali language. Moreover, on this theme this collection happens to be the first in the two Bengals. Fakrul Chowdhury, the editor of this book, is a versatile writer and has had a penchant for this kind of intellectual exercise. Last year he published a collection on the subject of colonialism and post-colonial readers. Fakrul Chowdhury's Civil Society should be the recipient of appreciation by readers on a wide scale.

Rahad Abir is a journalist.

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