Resurrecting Civil Society – Trust and ghettoization in Czechoslovakian dissent and lessons for Trump’s America

Many moons ago I went to a uni in the Czech republic on exchange, while there I did this essay for a subject called ‘Resurrecting Civil Society’. Although it’s an extreme example there are lessons and warning signs here for today especially in the era of Trump and post-truth “alternative fact” universe.


His pen had slid voluptuously over the smooth paper, printing in large neat capitals


over and over again, filling half a page.

He could not help feeling a twinge of panic. It was absurd, since the writing of those particular words was not more dangerous than the initial act of opening the diary, but for a moment he was tempted to tear out the spoiled pages and abandon the enterprise altogether.

1984 – George Orwell

Trust and ghettoization in Czechoslovakian dissent

This essay is a socio-political description of trust and the ghettoization of Czechoslovakian dissent paying particular attention to the time of ‘normalization’. Dissent will be viewed in the context of the dominant hegemony and existing social structures; the public or grey area; the dissenters and opposition. The notion of trust will be used as the theoretical lens in analyzing dissent with the aid of structural explanations from the interaction order in the description.

The notion of trust proposed by Sztompka (1998: 97) is defined as ‘a resource for dealing with the future… [it is] the bet on future contingents actions of others’ it is a stabilizer of society. Trust can be vested in social objects such as order, institutions, expert systems, organizations, products, social roles and in personages. The collapses of trust in a society creates a vacuum and with it the capacity for civil society. The vacuum according to Sztompka is replaced with fatalism, corruption, excessive vigilance, ghettoization, paternalization and externalization. The notion of ghettoization, which is used in this essay, is the movement toward tribalism and secrecy in groups “building unpenetrable boundaries…in an alien and threatening environment” (Sztompka, 1998: 99).

The theory of interaction order by Ervin Goffman (1983:5) shows that normality or trust is possible only from orderliness that is “predicted on a large base of shared cognitive presuppositions, if not normative ones, and self restrained restraints”. The interaction order is systems of enabling conventions that is not determined but largely influenced by the social structure according to Goffman (1983:11). Normalcy can be a cynical show created with want of authenticity and order creating a minimal interaction order – stripped of a depth without agency. In other words when there is no civil society a unique interaction order is formed which I will argue is that of mistrust in historical Czechoslovakia. The interaction order is one factor that dialectically informs the shape of the dissidence movement.  This notion of interaction order or trust will be coupled with ghettoization in the description that follows.

The Hegemon

Czechoslovakia had a totalitarian regime which is characterized by the expansion of the state beyond its proper boundary into civil society (Tucker 2000:164). Its ideology differs from others in that it sought the ownership of citizen (Hitchens, 2001: 103). The dominant social hegemony in Czechoslovak Socialist Republic (ČSSR) at the time was the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ). The KSČ introduced repressive controls of freedom after the Prague spring in 1968 which saw the end of ambitious liberal reforms. A program of control was sought -‘normalization’ was its form. It was engineered by Gustáv Husák following the roadmap ‘lessons from the year of crises of the party and development’ (Bernard, 1993: 323). It is no coincidence that mistrust was rampant in the Czechoslovak society during the time of normalization. The Parties power partly rests on the social construction of an interaction order that fostered mistrust among citizens. “There are deeper question regarding the interaction order…what is desirable order from the perspective of some can be sensed as exclusion and repression from the point of view of others” (Goffman 1983:5). Exclusion and repression from the Party is a result of, in part, the creation of a normalized society with no trust and an “omnipresent monopoly of control, repression and fear” (Havel, 1984). The hegemony, the Party, is what creates the macro structures or ‘master narratives’ that organizes the society in a certain way. This intern informs the form the opposition through the socializing force of stigma and sanctions from the state and individuals. The Parties apparatus and tools include a subverted legal system; rampant the secret service (StB), control over the mass media and production of propaganda and censorship, control of management and production and of state owned business and the control of institutions. The poet Auden (1968) describes the regime in vivid detail:

The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach:
The Ogre cannot master speech.

It is ironic that Auden describes the ogre like regime as silent because it was the clarion call of writers’ artists and entertainers that formed the most coherent opposition.

The People

The “grey area” is the area of society that excludes the state and opposition; it is the public face of the faceless iron cage of bureaucracy and totalitarianism (Tismaneanu, 2001: 977). It is important to understand the grey area because it is the social milieu where dissent is born. It is also important to note that individuals in government or dissents can participate in the grey area or express public norms; also the governing elites may be included as participating in a form of dissent; showing the deeply layered and complex reality. Havel describes a society in the essay Stories and Totalitarianism where a club of pigeon enthusiasts who once were regarded as private could suddenly be interrogated by the regimes fine tooth comb – opened up to public scrutiny after ‘normalization’.  Havel in this essay describes people he has observed (literally watches them on the escalator) as losing their openness and unassuming friendliness or in other words showing a loss of trust. The interaction order was so polluted by the regime that every day life was deeply politicized and de-humanized. The range of agency in “artistic taste, dressing. lifestyle, circles of friends, religious faith…” is framed in political terms conforming with the master narrative of normalization (Marada, 1997). The fatalism of accepting the regime manifested in passivism and stagnation; the vigilance with which individuals became voluntary agents of the state; corruption and favourtism to those who conformed showing opportunism; the expression externalization found in emigration, sometimes with risk to family and friends; all indicate a society where trust and the capacity for civil society have largely collapsed (Sztompka 1998, Shepard, 2001:33). Goffman (1983:6) elaborates on the internalized norms and inactivity of individuals:

Perhaps behind a willingness to accept the way things are ordered is the brutal fact of one’s place in the social structure and the real or imagined cost of allowing oneself to be singled out as a malcontent.

If the social structures sanctions are meted out with the fact that, in the words of Havel (1975), “every one has something to loose” from the elite to the poor farmer, then it of no surprise that dissidence took the form of a “ghettoized” secretive and atomized community; a process of dissent that was not necessarily congruous or homogenous but decentralized in its structure. However, small cracks did appear in the edifice of power.

The Dissident

I have attempted to show the structures in society and the interaction order it informs, especially in terms of trust and ghettoization, now I will look at how the oppositional elements took shape.

With no lateral trust in social objects, such as institutions, and no horizontal trust the type of dissent took the shape of small acts of counterculture and Švejking; public demonstrations and rallies; voluntary personal harm; to organized groups and their material symbols.

Švejking can be seen as a type of resistance that minimizes risk for the actor. Švejking can be seen as the movement of dumb obedience to passive resistance. The Good Soldier Švejk, alludes to this process, when he explains to Mrs. Müller how to assassinate the archduke:

Some revolvers, Mrs. Müller, won’t go bang no matter what you do. You can lose your mind trying to make them work. … The problem is how to get to him. You can’t go hunting a lord like that in rags. You’ve got to have a top hat on so the police won’t pick you up before you can do it.

The passive resistance can be either in the form of indirect such as not showing the communist symbol in the window of a shop or negatively in “abstaining from expressing loyalty” (Marada, 1997). Small acts of resistance such as Radio free Europe shows the nature of the “internal exile” – one finds authenticity in subversive acts that a thought police would find hard to pin.  This resistance shows that fatalism and humor exist where agency has been all but purged and token acts clothe the loss of trust in an authentic future.

Dissident groups such as charter 77 and the committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Prosecuted were influenced by trust internally in its structure and externally in its behavior. Active dissidents have described their groups as a “community in which one felt free and at ease, at home…strong personal and emotional ties” (Humphrey, 2002). The internal grouping of the dissidents interviewed by Humphrey all shared the social characteristic of the “intellectual” and identified with this notion. The ghettoization of this group is manifest in their internal cohesion as a buttress against intruders – a preservation strategy since intrusion could lead and has led to the jail of much dissidence including some interviewed by Humphrey.

The group that formed around charter 77, a manifesto of human rights, from its onset was relegated to the elite class of writers and intellectuals that “remained isolated from the populace” (Soxenburg, 2001: 11). Their membership reflects the stultification of society and a willingness of people to accept ordered reality – again fatalism. One objective of the group was to have an open and democratic society a normative ideal that stands in sharp contrast to reality of society that was around them. The dissident activities sphere of activity has been described as acting in a “closed mini-version of civil society” (Konipásek, 2002 et al.: 11). The conditions have been described as paradoxical where (Konipásek, 2002 et al.: 11):

The rhetoric and practice of transparency, open information and public control itself developed and worked under conditions of conspiracy and secrecy. Opaque personal networks played decisive role.

The groups maintained a safe distance from outsiders while focusing trust amongst themselves and holding “secret sympathies” (Marada, 1997). Externally, the dissenters, called for anti-political politics in society. It can be regarded as an entreaty for civil society expressing the need for trust. In other words to produce civil society the social cohesion needed to produce has the pre-requisite of trust.

The large-scale public demonstrations that ran up to and in the year of 1989 led to the eventual demise of Party control. These demonstrations can be viewed as a convergence of mistrust in society (Sztompka, 1998) and change in the interaction order. This means the lowering of risk from participation in such activities ie. it serves the interest of the individuals to participate in revolting a gain is perceived as higher than the loss. To go to an event at the antithesis of scale which helped mobilize demonstrations is the death of Jan Palach. His suicide by self-immolation can be viewed as an extreme form of dissent through fatalism, and also, to use a phrase of Havel, totalitarianism nihilization embracing its insane logical conclusion of annihilation.

It has been found that Czechoslovak dissent was framed, in part, by the dynamic force of trust. The absolute control of the state, in the form of communist totalitarianism pervades and erodes the private world of the individual. The Party and its apparatus, through manipulation of the social construction of society, essentially frame the interaction order. The interaction order it fosters eschews trust in society producing vigilance and fatalism. This break down of trust produces the effect of the stultification and ossification of a large segment of populace. Dissent is shaped by the environment around it and shows the hallmarks of a society of mistrust. Dissent internally undergoes ghettoization where it works under conspiracy and secrecy. In terms of the general populace dissent takes the form of Švejking and small token acts of counterculture. Organized dissent, in groups such as Charter 77, operated in shielded communities where friendship and trust prevail. Their strategies often inferentially included the shaping of society in a way to foster trust and in turn civil society. Demonstrations represent calling out by individuals contrasting and highlighting ghettoized forms of resistance that was the norm.

The discussion applies to democratic societies today: what forms of interaction order should be sought after to maximize authenticity and trust in society? What hidden power influences the interaction order to minimize agency and trust in society? Is rampant capitalism, market monopolization and its mutually reinforcing foundation of individualism the burgeoning harbinger of totalitarian nihilization?




Aviezer, T., 2000: The philosophy and politics of Czech dissidence, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh.


Bernhard , M., 1993: Civil Society and Democratic Transition in East Central Europe, Political Science Quarterly, 108(2), 307-326.


Goffman, E., 1975: Encounters: Two Studies in the Sociology of Interaction, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Indianpolis.


Goffman, E., 1983: The Interaction Order: American Sociological Association, 1982 Presidential Address, American Sociological Review, 48(1), 1-17.


Havel V., 1975: Dear Dr. Husak,

Accessed 18-5-2007:


Havel 1984 Anti-political politics

Accessed 18-5-2007:


Havel V., 1987: Stories and Totalitarianism.  

Accessed 18-5-2007:


Hitchens, C., 1988: the Cunning of History, New Statesman & Society; Aug 26.


Hitchens, C., 2001: Letters to a Young Contrarian, Basic Books, Cambridge.

Humphrey, R., Miller, R. and Zdravomyslova, E., 2002: Czech Dissidents: a Classically Modern Community in Biographical Research in Eastern Europe: Altered Lives and Broken Biographies, Ashgate, London.

Accessed 18-5-2007:


Saxonburg, S., 2001: The Fall: a Comparative Study of the End of Communism, Harwood Acedemic Publishing, Amsterdam.


Shepard, R., 2001: Why Plato can’t run the republic, New Statesman; Jul 9.


Sztompka, P., 1998:Mistrusting Civility: Predicament of a Post-Communist Society in Alexander, J. C., [ed.]: Real Civil Societies: Dilemmas of Institutionalization. SAGE Publications, London, 191-210.


Tismaneanu, V., 2001 Civil Society and the Future of Eastern and Central Europe, Social Research, 68(4). 977 -990.  


Marada, R., 1997: Civil Society: Adventures of the Concept before and after 1989.  Czech Sociological Review, 3-22
Zdeněk Konipásek, Zuzana Kusá, Tereza Stöckelová, Tereza Vajdová, Lenka Zamykalová  2002: PUBLIC ACCOUNTABILITY: CZECH NATIONAL PROFILE / 2002,  European research project, Prague.




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