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Mainstream, VOL L, No 1, December 24, 2011 (Annual 2011)

Civil Society, Corruption and Social Change

Tuesday 27 December 2011, by Anil Rajimwale

The words ‘civil society’ have become quite popular lately, thanks mainly to the recent movement against corruption led by Anna Hazare. At least one good thing that has emerged is the consciousness and self-consciousness of the civil society, whatever may be its interpretation by various commentators. Unfortunately, for the most part, the term is being used without its real and scientific meaning.

Scientific Interpretation

CIVIL SOCIETY delimits that part of the society which is not political and which consequently covers the ‘civil’ part of it. Therefore, it is a vast field of activities and institutions outside the realm of the state, although many activities have a political tendency. Politics has to do with power and the civil society has quite a close relation with it, along with its other functions.

Karl Marx was the foremost ideologue of the civil society. It was he who derived the political ideas and institutions from the socio-economic base, and thus explained the emergence, evolution and role of the non-political part of society. He showed that the economic relations give rise to the civil, social and cultural institutions as also to the political ones. He thus put the whole question in a proper perspective and on a scientific basis.

These civil institutions are particularly developed in the modern times with the growth of the industrial and capitalist society. The civil society includes mass of the people, the various classes, in particular the labouring sections, without whom the society cannot exist, and a complicated system of a whole range of institutions: social, religious, partly political, individual and citizen-related, family, cultural, welfare, residential, part of rural panchayat level and so on. The more conscious and developed the civil society, the greater the people’s influence, even control, direct and indirect, over the political institutions and policy-making.

Gramsci: Theoretician of Civil Society

ANTONIO GRAMSCI was among the foremost Italian and modern political thinkers, who developed the concept of the ‘civil society’ much further. His was a rich contribution to the evolution of political theory, an activity sadly lacking in the present-day political leaders and thinkers. He traced the lines and outlines of the convoluted and complicated social institutions in Italy and Western Europe. Italy is similar to India in many ways, and Gramsci’s theories give an insight into our own civil society with its ‘alleys’, ‘lanes’ and ‘by-lanes’.

Gramsci pointed out that there is a constant ‘war of positions’ with a series of manouvres for the control of the people’s institutions of the most varied kind. People look upon the various political institutions and parties with their own vision and perspectives. On the other hand, the parties look upon the people and institutions through their own ideological prism of economic, political and class interests. In fact, it is the economic class and group interest that percolated down to the social and political vision, thus enhancing the role of ‘ideology’. This word ‘ideology’ today is under serious discussion, and not without reason.

Gramsci had to pen down many of his ideas in Mussolini’s jail, and therefore was often forced to use indirect expressions. But then that was not always the case. He also developed many original political and civil lexicon.

In the complicated ‘Gramscian terrain’ the battle of wits and nerves must first be won before positions spread throughout the social field are taken over. It is ultimately the battle for the minds and consciousness of the masses, their social and cultural existence and their ideas. The social structures have first to be won over, before the political ones, through persuasion, so as to convince and fashion favourably the mass consciousness and its shades. This is a particular political culture, and culture here is a form of existence of politics in the civil and social
terrain. ‘Culture’ here, in this context, has a typical connotation, which at everyday mass scale reflects a relationship to the events in the terrain. The development of culture creates its own discourse, which acts as the medium in which social-civic ideas sprout.

There is a continuous struggle for winning over the minds of the people, a struggle for their hegemony. For Gramsci, this struggle was more important than any immediate winning of political power. Hegemony of the mind paved the way for political hegemony. Therefore, Gramsci was in no hurry to win power; for him the minds of the people must first be won over; the path to power then became easy and voluntary, thus holding back any dictatorial tendencies.

Gramsci made some original contribution to the modern scientific understanding of political and social processes. He was a great political theorist and it was he who really developed the concept of ‘praxis’, a form of movement within the confines of the modern advanced capitalist social plane and structures.

Louis Althusser was another Marxist political theorist, who contributed to the evolution of the modern civil society and its intricacies with ideology. But here we will not have time to dwell upon his ideas as also of many other Marxist and non-Marxist political theorists, important though they are.

Civil Society in India

AMONG those who understood civil society in India properly were Mahatma Gandhi, P.C. Joshi and S.A. Dange. They were among the rare theoreticians and practitioners in this field yet to be surpassed. They understood the Indian masses the civil society as none others, and thus were head and shoulders above all others. Nehru also belongs to this special category.

The post-independence India developed as a special category, an entity apart from all others in the developing world. One of the problems in the socialist countries was to restrict the growth of the civil society, and as a result they suffered heavily. Ultimately, their societies fell part, and that is a sad part of history. Yet, the people ultimately asserted themselves in the USSR and carried out some sort of ‘people’s revolutions’, though not of the usual kind. But that is another subject needing a separate treatment.

India showed it had a strong, viable and pulsating civil society. The prolonged freedom movement generally in an open form, struggle for step by step constitutional reforms and a strong growth of democratic institutions after independence, contributed to the expansion of the civil society. Besides, India has a strong cultural, religious and philosophical heritage, a composite culture and history. Forces on the extreme Right-wing and ultra-Leftwing have made precisely these institutions their target. Cultural, religious, civil, political, media and press freedoms, right to express opinions and dissent generally with-out fear, a large number of newspapers and journals all over the country with conflicting views, open criticism of the ruling and other parties, a series of change of governments at the Centre and in the States and such other developments have contributed greatly to the emergence and development of a powerful civil society in India, acting as a healthy deterrent to the parties and organisations, both ruling and Opposition.

Civil Society and Mass Movements

THE working people in India have played a great role in transforming the country into a strong entity. The workers, peasants, the poor and down-trodden, the intelligentsia, small owners, entrepreneurs, sections of the capitalist class, middle strata etc. have contributed to the development of the nation in their own way. Therefore, the concept of ‘civil society’ in our country covers a wide spectrum of forces.

The struggle for nationalisation of the banks of the monopoly houses, for example, played such a crucial part in the development of the economy, and the working class was in the forefront of the movement. The struggle to take away the privy purses of the princely states, the demand to restrict the growth of the monopoly houses, the struggle to get a progressive President elected at the Centre in 1969, friendship with socialist countries, strengthening of the Nehruvian framework, developing public or state sector as the core of the economy at the commanding heights, nationalisation of major industries as a part of the anti-monopoly, anti-imperialist struggle and so on were the hallmark of post-independence history of the struggle between the forces of progress and reaction. The civil society played a crucial role in these developments.

The movements showed that one had to attack the class and big vested interests behind the system of exploitation, corruption and people’s problems like price rise and unemploy-ment. The concentration of wealth and growth of finance capital have to be prevented to fight corruption and growth of disparities between the rich and poor. This is among the main lessons of the people’s movement in independent India. Unless you fight and seek out the source at the concentration of wealth, growth of monopolies, hold of the feudal relations and influence of imperialism, you can’t hope to reach the root of the problems. Middle classes played a singular role in these developments by spreading healthy, progressive and scientific approach in cooperation with the working classes and masses including the poorest of the poor. The greatness of Gandhi, Nehru, Dange and P.C. Joshi was that they brought out the poorest people onto the political and social stage as the makers of history and included them as active players in their grand vision and project of a vibrant India.

Civil Society as a Historic Bloc

IT appears that today some forces want simply to forget and exclude the common working masses and downtrodden as the makers of history and as active elements of the social movement, and seek to confine the civil society to certain sections only. But restriction, reductionism and sectari-anism of the potential social forces drastically minimise the transformatory capacities inherent in the civil terrain. This reductionism increases the tendencies of political concentration and compulsion in the political arena in the same proportion.

Maximalism rather than minimalism should be the way of social life; otherwise narrow political contingencies will take over and rule the roost. It has to be realised that the ‘social’ in the society is a kind of historical bloc, which then deals with and converts into the political energies and creates its own ‘front’ in relation to particular problems including the political ones. The social front or the ‘historic bloc’, to follow the Italian scientific political lexicon, should be expanded rather than reduced, to include the ever-growing social forces. Today they include growing and widening conscious and active new middle classes/ strata. But one can’t ease out or ignore the common workers, poor and landless peasants and workers, and the most downtrodden. This approach goes against the very concept of the ‘civil society’.

It is this broadest possible ‘historic bloc’ or objective ‘united front’, to use the Dimitrovian concept (after Georgi Dimitrov) and its application as and to the social reality that will bring about changes in the further democratic direction. Dimitrov today is one of the most under-estimated, uder-rated theoreticians of the united front of the people. But let us remember that it was his theses that saved the world from the barbaric forces of world fascism. If today we are living in a free world, it is because of Georgi Dimitrov’s concept of united front and of Togliatti’s ‘historic bloc’.

Therefore, the struggle to change society necessarily means to broaden the civil society and to further expand and strengthen the existing parliamentary institutions as the tools and means of democratic power-shifts.

[Summary of the talk given by the author at a meeting of the All India Progressive Forum, Chandigarh, September 4, 2011]

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