Wednesday, December 18, 2019


The reconstruction of Polska YMCA in the immediate postwar period was a classic example of what is nowadays called “civil society,” a phenomenon that has gone by other names in the past. In the eighteenth century, Edmund Burke wrote admiringly of the “little platoons,” the small social organizations from which, he believed, public spirit arose (and which he thought were threatened by the French Revolution). In the nineteenth century, Alexander de Tocqueville wrote equally enthusiastically of the “associations” that “Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form.” He concluded that they helped ward off dictatorship: “If men are to remain civilized or to become so, the art of associating together must grow and improve.” More recently, the political scientist Robert Putnam has redefined the same phenomenon as “social capital,” and concluded that voluntary organizations lie at the heart of what we call “community.”

By 1945, the Bolsheviks had also developed a theory of civil society, albeit one that was entirely negative. In contrast to Burke, Tocqueville, and their own Russian intellectuals, they believed, in the words of the historian Stuart Finkel, that “the public sphere in a socialist society should be unitary and univocal.” They dismissed the “bourgeois” notion of open discussion, and hated independent associations, trade unions, and guilds of all kinds, which they referred to as “separatist” or “caste” divisions within society. As for bourgeois political parties, these were meaningless. (As Lenin had written, “the names of parties, both in Europe and in Russia, are often chosen purely for purposes of advertisement, the ‘programs’ of parties are more often than not written with the sole purpose of defrauding the public.” 

The only organizations allowed to have a legal existence were de facto extensions of the Communist party. Even completely apolitical organizations had to be banned: until the revolution had triumphed, there could be no such thing as an apolitical organization. Everything was political. And if it was not openly political, then it was secretly political.

From that assumption, it also followed that no organized group was above suspicion.

Anne Applebaum, (2012-10-30). Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 (148-149). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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