Nurturing Civil Society

Framing Democracy: Civil Society and Civic Movements in Eastern Europe

The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 7, Issue 1, November 2004

By John K. Glenn III
Stanford University Press. / 272 pp. / $55 (hardcover), $18.95 (paper)
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Reviewed by Gerald M. Easter*

In Framing Democracy, John Glenn seeks to explain the variation in regime transitions that have occurred in Eastern Europe. The book “offers a critique and reformulation of existing theories of democratization, as well as earlier understandings of the fall of communism.” It claims to make three distinct contributions to scholarly understanding of post-communist politics: first, to move beyond the “Gorbachev-effect” explanations of communism’s collapse; second, to identify the mechanisms of mobilization and bargaining that influenced transition paths; and third, to redefine the concept of “civil society” as a framing strategy of movement leaders. The analytical framework of the book is drawn from the comparative literature on social movements. To demonstrate the analytical claims, the book provides a systematic comparison of the processes of communist collapse in Poland and Czechoslovakia.

The book’s initial claim to provide a unique perspective on the fall of communism in Eastern Europe seems somewhat exaggerated. Glenn makes a good point in stressing that the promotion of Mikhail Gorbachev to the leadership the Communist Party of the Soviet Union is a necessary but not sufficient explanation for the subsequent events in Eastern Europe. He argues that these regimes did not all of a sudden lose their ability to use force as a result of Gorbachev’s arrival. Instead, he rightly insists that scholars should distinguish between the capacity to use force and the willingness to use force. The key to the old regime collapse, he argues, is the emergence of a “political opportunity structure” that constrained those in power and emboldened their challengers. While the concepts associated with social movement literature offer a nice analytical packaging, this observation really is not distinct from the conventional take on the collapse found among comparative scholars. The fact of the matter is that the Soviet leadership is intricately a part of the political opportunity structure in these countries, and Gorbachev’s coming to power cannot be separated from that.

Glenn does a better with the second claim, to identify mechanisms of bargaining and mobilization. Here the reader is sure to be impressed by the real strength of the book–the solid case studies focusing on the strategizing and maneuvering of the opposition movements. The book provides original case studies constructed from an array of primary and secondary sources. The studies get inside the opposition movements in Poland and Czechoslovakia, revealing the rifts that divided movement leaders over how best to respond to the powers that were. It reminds the reader that these movements for the most part lacked consensus on goals and tactics. It was only the changing political opportunity structures that ultimately dictated the appropriate course of action: in Poland, roundtable bargaining and gradual reform; and in Czechoslovakia, rapid mobilization and sudden collapse. The case studies are particularly good at showing why the Church in Poland and the theater community in Czechoslovakia emerged as influential actors in shaping the strategies of the opposition movements. The book’s empirical chapters are generally well-written and tell an interesting story.

The book’s final claim is to redefine the concept of civil society as a kind of “framing” strategy to explain better the collapse of communism and the subsequent trajectory of the democratic transitions in Eastern Europe. This is a controversial claim. A number of scholars have attempted to link communism’s demise in Eastern Europe to the challenge presented by an emergent civil society, but these efforts have failed to persuade post-communist scholars. If a consensus does exist, it is that groups such as Solidarity and Civic Forum represent “movement society,” as opposed to civil society, because they lack institutional foundations and organizational coherence. Movement society is a term popularized by Steven Fish over ten years ago in a book on the Russian transition, arguing that the social movements that brought down communism lacked the institutional basis upon which new democratic regimes could be built.

Glenn rejects this institutional dimension and instead argues that civil society is a product of a “framing” discourse. This redefinition is likely to meet resistance from most comparative scholars, who will charge that Glenn is engaging in “concept stretching.” Besides, the notion of frames is not applied to great effect here. It is a loose concept applied to such a wide range of events that it softens its analytical punch. Speaking more generally, the concept of “frames” itself, while certainly popular of late in comparative politics, is not without problems, and this work does not escape them. A frame is supposed to be a strategy employed by aspiring political leaders to stir up collective action, and an unconsciously embedded cognitive filter in the heads of the targeted masses. But the transition from instrumental leadership tactic to widespread collective belief is not clearly explained. Do frames shape actions, or do actions shape frames? In the end, this work does not come up with a convincing answer.

Despite the limitations of the analytical framework, Framing Democracy warrants the attention of comparative scholars. The cases, in particular, bring nuance to the general understanding of the processes of the communist collapse in Eastern Europe.


* Gerald M. Easter is a professor of political science at Boston College. He is the author of Reconstructing the State: Personal Networks and Elite Identity in Soviet Russia (Cambridge University Press, 2000) and Fiscal Crisis and the Post-Communist State: Politics of Revenue Bargaining in Poland and Russia (forthcoming).