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A second generation of grassroots movements in central and eastern Europe?

What comes next for central and eastern Europe’s civil society and social movements? The trend is for new forms of social participation that are community-oriented.

Ionel N. Sava
11 May 2015
open Movements

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Gdansk shipyard. Demotix/Elisabeth Blanchet. All rights reserved.

Gdansk shipyard. Demotix/Elisabeth Blanchet. All rights reserved.A quarter of a century ago, huge demonstrations marked the fall of communism. The right to protest was the first natural consequence of regime change for the people of central and eastern Europe. However, the transition to democracy and a market economy also meant constant and organized public participation. The sooner the better.

In such an environment, sustained by a multitude of donors and foreign organizations, international NGOs engaged in extensive programmes with local civil societies. Assisting organizations and groups as examples and vehicles of democracy and civil society-building was the preferred approach of that time. As a result, in 1998 there were some 5,000 foundations and more than 20,000 associations in Poland alone. The support was duly rewarded, when we consider that a group of former communist countries joined the western organizations by the end of the 1990s, followed by a second group a decade later.

The question is: what comes next for central and eastern Europe’s civil society and social movements? The integration with the west is secured in spite of a serious crisis in Ukraine. Under the umbrella of the EU and NATO, ordinary citizens in central and eastern Europe came to care more about the environment, natural resources, corruption, education and jobs. This brief essay explores to what extent central and eastern Europe are about to move, in both the medium and long term, from assimilating the dominant western model in this fashion to reinventing cultural difference. and thereby creating those arenas in which local players compete for strategic decisions. It focuses on what was termed ‘civil society’ in the 1990s, the ‘third sector’ in the 2000s and broadly the ‘SM sector’ today as the main location for change.

From Solidarnosc as a ‘total movement’ to civil society in the transition

The roots of post-communist civil society can be traced back to the time of ‘Solidarnosc’. In his pioneering work published in 1984, Alain Touraine called the Polish trade union a “total social movement” in the sense that it incorporated a broad societal aspiration of political freedom, national liberation and cultural emancipation. It was ‘total’ due to the fact that, in the relationship with the totalitarian state, workers’ rights could not be achieved in the absence of political rights and of emancipation from Soviet domination. In the early 1980s, the tiny workers’ trade union in Gdansk was like David challenging Goliath. However, its fight was instrumental for the whole of central and eastern Europe. Its strength increased such that in under a decade, ‘Solidarnosc’ moved its programme from its trade union repertoire (stage I) to self-management of a state enterprise (stage II) and then to political democratization (stage III).

As predicted by Touraine, regime democratization made possible the cultural offensive of the mid-1980s, when dissident intellectuals took the lead. Vaclav Havel, Milan Kundera and Gyorgy Konrad, among others, depicted precisely the misery of central Europe that was culturally part of the west and politically part of the east.

Later on, and not much different from Touraine’s idea of the positive role of the intellectuals, the Hungarian sociologist Ivan Szelenyi and collaborators argued that in actuality, it was the former communist elite that changed its preferences and initiated political change. The difference was that the new elite recruited informally more from the industrial and administrative sectors and less from the ideological core. The potential for change was associated in Szelenyi’s view with the managerial elite. In opposing the party nomenclature, the technical and administrative elite (the directorial class) made a conjectural alliance with the ‘intellectual dissidents’. They were entrusted precisely with a cultural function during the transition from communism to capitalism: to spread the ideas of freedom, democracy and civil society as opposed to oppression, totalitarian state and mass society.

Other neoclassical sociologists of transition, such as Stark and Bruszt, were more sophisticated when it came to the idea of ‘civil society’. They saw the transition to capitalism and democracy as mutually reinforcing in the context of extended social networks empowered with deliberative and associative functions. The important role was not allocated to intellectuals but to something akin to deliberative networks, which were actually civil society networks that proliferated all over society with the aim of improving both the market and state functions. In this case, civil society organizations played a role somewhat similar to a watchdog of democracy.

On the one hand, Szelenyi and others considered that, in the absence of an economic bourgeoisie, the cultural bourgeoisie took over the post-communist societies in partnership with the managerial elite. On the other hand, for Stark and Bruszt, intellectuals’ moral discourse was not enough, as they considered post-communist societies anomic and therefore in great need of rebuilding sociability by confronting both the old socialist state and the anarchical new global market. During transition, extended accountability could be developed by deliberative and associational social networks, which prevented the formation of a capitalist class with an oligarchic orientation and of a cultural class alien to local needs.

Civil society was therefore an umbrella concept (or a ‘master frame’ in the terminology of social movement theory) extended to social networks as a necessary precondition for collective action during post-communism.

A second generation of grassroots social movements

It is worth mentioning that the American Sociological Association submitted its 1999 annual award to G. Eyal, I. Szelenyi, and E. Townsley, who premised their theory on the agency of a bureaucratic elite in alliance with civil society intellectuals in order to advance liberal reforms. However, just a couple of years later Michael Burawoy observed that “as the new bourgeoisie reaches for global hypermodernity, they could thrust the mass of the population into a pre-modern quagmire”. The well-known sociologist from Berkeley thought that central and eastern Europe would experience a kind of post-colonial syndrome: a disappointment with the post-communist transition. If true, then a form of “post-socialist critique” is about to emerge and encounter the current civil society and neoliberal ideologies of progress, which constitute the dominant culture.

However, is that turn going to reflect class struggle, as Burawoy suggests, or cultural struggle, as I think is the case? Taking into account that the working class has transformed itself over the last decades and the conditions to call it such have changed as well, my hypothesis is that a cultural turn is much more probable. Its source is not the past social experience (as the nineteenth century cultural ‘Bürgentum’ of Szelenyi and others, or the post-communist pathway, as in Stark and Bruszt’s  theory), but rather current social practices that put more and more emphasis on urban middle-class cultural preferences. I am closer to Stark and Bruszt, but the focus is not as much on the formation of new institutions by deliberative and associational practices. The initiative is rather with the new individual and collective players and with their strategy.

This does not mean that ‘civil society’ is no longer necessary in central and eastern Europe. Kerstin Jacobsson recently pointed out in her edited book Beyond NGO-ization: the development of social movements in Central and Eastern Europe that “to focus on formal organizations (partly because they are easier to account for and are represented in official records) may lead researchers to miss important mobilization that take place in less structured formats, such as loose activist networks, local grassroots activism or short lived mobilization”. This is to say that social movements should go beyond NGO-ization and look for complementary collective actions.

Fortunately, things seem to move ahead. As Jacobsson also notes in the introduction of the same book with Steven Saxonberg, “civil society in Central and Eastern Europe has undergone tremendous changes over the past three decades: from the state-controlled associational life…to the Western-sponsored ‘liberal’ civil society…to today’s more diverse civil life”.

One of the most notable developments today is grassroots activism across central and eastern European cities: a new type of activism which is domestically funded, grassroots driven, and has been developed in response to local problems and needs, while often being inspired by urban movements.

Grzegorz Piotrowski, a young Polish sociologist, argues that there is already a shift from civil society organizations towards grassroots groups in general, a process that suggests a significant shift in the composition and ways of collective action of the whole civil society sector in eastern Europe. Due to information technology and new media, new opportunities for collective action are given to marginal groups. An example in case is the use of social media during the Romanian presidential elections in November 2014 when online migrants mobilized families and friends at home to cast their ballots.

As reflected by social movement theory, the role of this second generation of grassroots movements in central and eastern Europe could be that of the production of new collective players and of social arenas. According to James Jasper, in a cultural perspective, beneath the images of ‘social movements’, “structural opportunities’ and ‘environment’, there are actually the incipient strategic interactions that engage individual and collective actors in a variety of exchanges. There is a social movement when these players feel and live togetherness and as such individuals, formal organizations, networks and clusters coordinate events and share goals and know-how about tactics.

At this stage, one could only guess to what extent a second generation of grassroots movements will change the course of central and eastern Europe social movements to more domestic and identity-oriented as well materialist-demanding organizations. Alongside transactional activism, which is still strong, the trend is for new forms of social participation that suggest community-orientation in their medium and long term collective actions. Usually, this is a laboratory where new styles, social meanings and cultural critiques are informally exercised and eventually institutionalized. The next decade shall show us the path on which central and eastern Europe is heading.

On 11-12 May 2015, the International Sociological Association Research Committee on Social Movements (ISA 47) organizes a regional conference on Social Movements in Central and Eastern Europe, at the University of Bucharest, Romania. The programme is available here. On this occasion, openMovements is publishing a series of articles on social movements in central and east Europe. Editors: Ionel N. Sava, Breno Bringel and Geoffrey Pleyers.

How to cite:
Sava I. N. (2015) «A second generation of grassroots movements in central and eastern Europe?», Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements, 11 May. https://opendemocracy.net/ionel-n-sava/second-generation-of-grassroots-movements-in-central-and-eastern-europe

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