Ancient Western Philosophy
Lịch sử Triết học Tây phương cổ đại (translation)
David Wolfsdorf, Temple University
History of Western Philosophy: Modern
— Lịch sử triết học Tây phương hiện đại
Syliane Malinowski-Charles, Temple University
Lịch sử tư tưởng triết học Việt Nam
History of Vietnamese Philosophical Thought (translation)
Nguyễn Hùng Hậu, Hồ Chí Minh National Political Academy
Vietnamese Philosophy from Nôm Manuscripts
— Triết học Việt Nam qua văn bản Nôm
Ngô Thanh Nhàn, Temple University
Metaphysics and Epistemology
— Siêu hình học và nhận thức luận
Western Ethics and Political Philosophy
— Đạo đức và triết học chính trị Tây phương
Shelley Wilcox, San Francisco State University
Một vài nét về lịch sử tư tưởng triết học đạo đức của Việt Nam
— A Historical Sketch of the Vietnamese Ethical Thought
Nguyễn Thế Kiệt, Hồ Chí Minh National Political Academy
Triết học chính trị thời kỳ xây dựng quốc gia phong kiến Việt Nam độc lập tự chủ
Political Philosophy in the Period of Building an Independent and Self-determined Vietnamese Feudalist Nation (translation)
Gs.Ts.Trần Phúc Thăng, Hồ Chí Minh National Political Academy
Gender and the Public Sphere: A genealogy from the West
— Giới và Cõi công: Một phả hệ từ phương Tây
Mary Hawkesworth, Rutgers University
Political Economy: A Brief Overview
Kinh tế chính trị học tổng quan
Peter Manicas, University of Hawai'I at Mānoa
The Philosophy of Language and Thought
Triết lý của ngôn ngữ và tư tưởng
Gerald Vision, Temple University
— Mỹ học
Free Will and Determinism
— Tự ý và quyết định luận
Clyde Dunton-Gallagher, Temple University
The Mind-Body Problem
Vấn đề tinh thần–thể xác
Clyde Dunton-Gallagher, Temple University
— Chủ nghĩa tương đối
Patrick Denehy, Temple University
Tư tưởng nhân nghĩa Việt Nam
— Vietnamese Concepts of 仁義 Humanity and Justice
Dr. Nguyễn Minh Hoàn, Hồ Chí Minh National Political Administrative Academy
Chủ nghĩa yêu nước Việt Nam
— The Concept of Vietnamese Patriotism
Prof. Dr. Trần Phúc Thăng, Hồ Chí Minh National Political Administrative Academy
Đạo làm người
— The Dao Theory of Being Human in Vietnam
Dr. Trần Đăng Sinh & Dr. Lê Văn Đoán. Hanoi National University of Education
Hỗn dung tam giáo ở Việt Nam
— The Unity of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism in Vietnam
Prof. Dr. Nguyễn Thị Nga, Hồ Chí Minh National Political Administrative Academy
Tư duy nội quán (Vipassanā) của Phật giáo và vai trò của nó trong tư duy của người Việt
—Buddhist deep vision (Vipassanā) and its role in the Vietnamese thinking
Prof. Dr. Hoàng Thị Thơ, Director of Eastern Philosophy Study, Institute of Philosophy, Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences
Ý thức cộng đồng Việt Nam
— The Vietnamese Concept of Community Consciousness
Prof. Dr. Trần Văn Phòng, Hồ Chí Minh National Political Administrative Academy
Tinh thần đoàn kết của người Việt Nam
— The Spirit of Vietnamese Solidarity
Phạm Anh Hùng, Hồ Chí Minh National Political Administrative Academy
Chủ quyền quốc gia
— The Concept of National Sovereignty in Vietnam
Prof. Dr. Trần Thanh, Hồ Chí Minh National Political Administrative Academy
Khảo cứu triết lý về nhân dân trong lịch sử tư tưởng Việt Nam
—The Concept of People in the history of Vietnamese philosophical thoughts
Dr. Trương Quốc Chính, Administrative Academy & Dr. Nguyễn Thuý Vân, University of Social Science and Humanities
Hướng đến một khái niệm khoa học về xã hội dân sự
Toward a more scientific Vietnamese concept of Civil Society
Assoc. Prof., Dr. Trần Hữu Quang, Sociology, Center for Information, Institute for Sustainable Development in Southern Vietnam (Academy of Social Sciences)
 Center for Vietnamese Philosophy > Handbook on Philosophy Last update: 2007-10-14 
English-Vietnamese Handbook on Philosophy & Political Economy
Center for Vietnamese Philosophy, Culture & Society Temple University

Toward a more scientific Vietnamese concept of Civil Society

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Trần Hữu Quang
Sociology, Center for Information
Institute of Sustainable Development in Southern Vietnam
(Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences)

Hồ Chí Minh City, September 11th, 2008
Translated and condensed, 2012


Many conceptions of civil society in Vietnam in recent years have been influenced by definitions of contemporary international organizations -- the most typical definition consists in the identification of civil society with “civil society organizations”. As a result, this abstract concept has been vulgarized and shorn of its rich dialectical content in terms of its relationship with the State, which many classic authors have analyzed and emphasized. Moreover, there has also been a tendency to mystify or instrumentalize this concept.

Thus, from a social science perspective, it is really necessary to redefine the meaning of “civil society”, as a scientific concept that could be used as a theoretical framework in the analysis of the social reality of Vietnam today.

In Sociologie de l'État (Ed. Grasset, 1979), Bertrand Badie and Pierre Birnbaum have presented two opposite, typical models of civil society, the first one in which the State governs the society (French model), and the second one being a self-organized civil society in which the State is only present to a minimum extent (Anglo-American model). In the view of Danièle Lochak, although this scheme is promising, it is a pity that those authors have not proposed a clear definition of civil society for a further in-depth analysis.1

Before attempting to propose a definition of the concept of civil society, we think that it is necessary to clarify some misunderstandings relating to this concept.

First of all is the inaccurate idea of the nature of the market and civil society, which holds that the market is an entirely independent sphere, lying outside of the political sphere and complying only with its own rules, regulated only by the “invisible hand”. According to this view, the State should not intervene in the market at all. Hence under this neo-liberal viewpoint, the notion of an independent and self-regulating market is transposed to the very idea of the independence and the self-regulation of the civil society vis-à-vis the State. In history, it is effectively true that the capitalist mode of production originated from the formation of the market. However freedoms such as laissez-faire and laissez-passer rights, ownership and usufruct right, contract rights or a complete free trade in general are neither natural nor automatic but have appeared historically as products of the State's action.2

Karl Polanyi in the well-known The Great Transformation (1944) has specified as follows: “Economic history reveals that the emergence of national markets was in no way the result of the gradual and spontaneous emancipation of the economic sphere from governmental control. On the contrary, the market has been the outcome of a conscious and often violent intervention on the part of government, which imposed the market organization on society for noneconomic ends.”3

Before Polanyi, Antonio Gramsci himself made a quite similar remark, criticizing the viewpoint of economic liberals: “It should be accepted that the free trade system is also itself a 'regulation,’ which bears the mark of the State, introduced and maintained by laws and coercion: it is the product of a will conscious of its own ends and not the spontaneous and automatic expression of the economic fact. Thus the free trade system is a political program intended to change, in case of its victory, the leading personnel of a State and the economic program of the State itself, i.e. to change the distribution of the national income.4

The second misunderstanding resides in the reductionist distinction between the public sphere and the private one, as well as in the mechanistic distinction between the political sphere and the economic one. Cao Huy Thuần analyzes this idea: “Capitalism flows into that question (what is public, what is private, where is the boundary between public and private) in order to separate economic and commercial activities from the public sphere, the State sphere, and proclaims that the economic area is not the sphere of the State, rather this is the sphere of private individuals, and therefore the market belongs to the civil society. In parallel with this affirmation, liberalism brings in its ideology, asserting that free competition grants the self-regulating ability to civil society – under the condition that there will be no intervention except economic intervention in economic exchanges. That means that the State should not intervene here. Saying so, liberal theorists have accurately described a new state of fact, a new trend which takes place under the eyes of everybody; but they have raised the description to a principle of law, as if it originates in the essence of things, of nature, of a perennial truth. Hence the State is bad, because of its coercion; civil society is good, thanks to its freedom… In terms of scientific knowledge, nothing is more false than that, for one cannot trace a frontier separating the State and civil society, as well as a frontier separating the political and the non-political.”5

As Hegel and Marx have stated, in feudal and pre-capitalist societies, the whole society belongs to the State, to the political sphere; once capitalist society arrived, economic, social, cultural, religious… spheres have gradually separated from the political sphere. But, to Lochak, if from that we deduce that there is an essential difference between the political and the non-political, that is a “myth”. Lochak wrote: “Undoubtedly all is not political, however the political is a constitutive dimension of human collectives which goes through and impregnates the whole of the life in society, including our everyday life, and therefore it is illusory to pretend to carefully separate it from the rest. As one cannot draw this frontier, to define civil society as a totality of non-political relations is a falsely conceptual definition...”6

The third misunderstanding consists in the view of civil society as a form of organization, a definite mode of social organization, or a definite societal model. This conception has confused an abstract idea used for the analysis of social reality with a societal ideal which people strive to attain, and thus has impoverished the analytical content of the concept “civil society” by transforming this latter into a dream or even a myth. We could use this concept of civil society as an “ideal societal model” with the aim of criticizing social realities, yet we are afraid that this is only a criticism based on a dream (although very beautiful!) and not yet a real criticism based on the weapon of rational analysis.

In parallel with the previous misunderstanding is a fourth one considering civil society as an institution or a social actor, thus implicitly transforming civil society, which is a complex concept containing many social relations, into a “partner” (of the State), a “counterweight force” vis-à-vis the State and/or the market, or an “intermediary” organization (between the State and individuals) – as if “civil society” is a uniform mass of people having a uniform point of view, being equal and having no class division!

In the Dictionary of Sociology (1998), Gordon Marshall stated that there are nowadays several different definitions of civil society, however authors usually agree to the following main characteristics of this concept: (a) this concept speaks of public life rather than private or familial activities; (b) it lies outside of the family and the State; and (c) it exists in a rule of law context.7 We would like to add a fourth characteristic: the definition of the concept civil society necessarily should not be separated from its relationship with the State.

If one agrees with the above characteristics, one can accept that the theory of civil society of Antonio Gramsci is still today an efficient one, which could be used fruitfully in the analysis of different relationships between the State and society in contemporary social systems, even in contemporary Vietnamese society. Although Gramsci has developed his ideas in analyzing capitalist society, his theoretical framework of the State and civil society could be applied accurately in the analysis of Vietnamese society today, which still is a society with class divisions.

Inspired by theoretical ideas of Gramsci,8 we would like to propose a concise definition of civil society as follows (not entirely similar to that of Gramsci):

(a)Civil society is a concept used to indicate the public social space lying outside of the State and the private sphere of individuals and families, comprising the whole of institutions relatively autonomous from the State, and voluntary activities in such areas as economy, politics, society, culture, education, mass media, religion, etc. (i.e. including economic activities, enterprises, and political parties).
(b)Civil society and the State form the total social system of a State/nation (i.e. the State in a broad meaning) in which the State (i.e. in a narrow meaning) is the instance of exercising the coercion function, and civil society is the instance of exercising the hegemony function or ideological direction function of the dominating class by creating a consensus among other social classes and strata. Thus civil society has more or less close and organic relationships with the State. However at the same time, it has a relative autonomy, because without a consensus in the civil society, the State cannot maintain its ideological hegemony and hence necessarily loses its legitimacy, and in this case retains only its coercion function.
(c)Civil society is a sphere in which conflicts of interest occur, and thus economic and ideological struggles between social groups and strata, as well as between the ruling class and other inferior classes and strata.
(d)The form of civil society has appeared only with the capitalist socio-economic formation, in the context of the corresponding form of the modern State, i.e. the rule of law. Therefore civil society could exist only when the rule of law has been effectively established.

Our above definition of civil society is not a political or jurisprudential definition, but rather a political sociological definition or a political philosophical one. This definition considers civil society as an analytical concept, which means it is abstract and neutral, and thus one cannot say that it is good or bad, positive or negative, for this concept doesn't include values or value judgments. In other words, this term could only be applied to study and analyze the relationship between the State and society, and could not be used as a flag or a mobilizing slogan, for in our opinion, we repeat, it is only an analytical concept and not some ideal social model. Moreover it is necessary to recall the remark by Gramsci when he emphasized that the distinction between the concept of civil society and that of the State is a “methodological distinction” and that we must avoid a reductionist “mechanical distinction”.9

We can now clarify the distinction between the two translations used for “civil society” in Vietnamese: “xã hội dân sự” and “xã hội công dân”.10

When distinguishing between “xã hội dân sự” (civil society) and “xã hội công dân” (literally, “citizen society”), Nguyễn Trần Bạt argued that “citizen society” [xã hội công dân] is a society in which the members are citizens, strictly speaking”. We agree entirely on this point. However we could not approve his following distinction: “… if civil society [xã hội dân sự] is a society which lies ouside of the State, which doesn't need the State, then the citizen society [xã hội công dân] is the legalization of the civil society [xã hội dân sự]. (…) Citizen society is a society which needs the State and the State should comply with rules of citizen society in its activities. On the other hand, civil society is a society which doesn't depend on the State. In other words, to speak of civil society is to speak of human rights, while to speak of citizen society is to speak of civic rights. (…) Citizen society is a society closely connected with the State, with law; while civil society is a society by itself, not dependent on the State. But what does civil society depend on? If laws are regulating means of relations in citizen society, what regulates relations in civil society? I think that that is the culture.”11

In our opinion, civil society is effectively outside of the State, but it is absolutely not a “society by itself”; it cannot be a society “not dependent on the State” or which “doesn't need the State”. Moreover, when we talk about “human rights” (in civil society), if there does not exist the crucial role of the State and the legal system, who will have the full competence or power to guarantee the respect and the exercising of these rights inside the civil society? We think that culture alone could not be the unique regulating factor, although this factor is actually a very important and necessary one.

Our above proposed definition of civil society could be understood as formed by both following meanings: (a) “civil society” in a broad sense, or more precisely in the conception of Hegel, which emphasized the characteristic of a community of individuals or “men12; and (b) “citizen society” which stresses the characteristic of a community of citizens (citoyen or Bürger) in a State/nation.

In legal terms, “civil society” (in a narrow sense) is the sphere that is governed by laws concerning civil life, or more precisely, private law (in contrast with public law), that means the sphere of relations between persons and legal persons (Civil code, Trade law, Labor law...). When speaking about the concept of “citizen society”, we stress the status, role and relations between communities of people regarded as citizens vis-à-vis the State/nation; however this content still remains within the general definition of civil society (in a broad meaning) as we have elaborated earlier.

On the individual level, one could say that everybody has always to assume three different statuses in their life: (a) the status of a family member (belonging to the private life sphere); (b) the status of a worker (bread-winner), a customer (when shopping for example) or member of an association or organization (this is the sphere of public life); and (c) the status of a citizen (belonging to a State/nation, and in relation with the State/nation). Even a governmental official still has to assume all these three statuses: he/she must go shopping, go to school to pick his/her child up after work hours, and is not exempt from his/her own civic duties vis-à-vis the State. Both the (b) and (c) statuses take place inside civil society.

When analyzing the relationship between the market economy, the rule-of-law State and civil society in Vietnam, Trần Ngọc Hiên noted that the renovation policy switching to a market economy starting from 1986 “laid the first brick” for this relationship; after that “the second brick” was laid with the establishing of the idea of rule of law (nhà nước pháp quyền) in 2001 (in documents of the Ninth National Communist Party Congress), but until now the “third brick (i.e. civil society)” has not yet been laid, to “create a full foundation for economic, political, institutional relations in our country”.13

In the theoretical context of the relationship between the State and civil society presented in the last section, we believe that, starting from 1986, the renovation (đổi mới) in its essence has been a crucial milestone marking a completely new process in the relationship between the State and civil society, although it has been mainly limited to changes in the economic sphere. During that time, economic institutions and activities have gradually been returned back to the civil society sphere (recognizing business freedom, removing measures of “hindering rivers and forbidding markets” – “ngăn sông cấm chợ”, equitization of State enterprises…). However from then until now, many cultural and social institutions (such as education, health care, book publishing, press…) still remain in the direct control and management of the State, meaning that these areas have not yet returned back to the civil sphere (“dân sự hoá” in Vietnamese), despite the implementation of policies called “xã hội hoá” (“socialization”).

We should note that the Vietnamese term “dân sự hoá” (civilianizing) that we use here doesn't correspond to the term “tư nhân hoá” (privatization) although the content of the term “dân sự hoá” could include measures such as privatization. The mentioning of the “civilianizing” issue means that we should address again the problem of structure and activities of social institutions14: the State or the government today is not and should not be the subject of all social activities, on the contrary, in the school institution for example, teachers are subjects of educational activities,15 or in medical institution, doctors are subjects of health care activities for patients.

But saying that does not mean that the State has no relationship with areas such as education or health care; on the contrary, a State in the modern times should always assume its responsibility for the rights of attending schools and health care of people, by reserving an appropriate proportion of the national budget as well as providing necessary conditions such as policies, regulations, building lands... for these areas. Nevertheless the State is not and should not be the direct actor of educational or health care activities, these sectors should be exercised by schools and hospitals. A public school or a public hospital, although remaining organizations under the State, should not be considered as organizations in the State apparatus. Schools and hospitals are not organizations belonging to the political institution like the government, the national assembly or ministries... but they belong to the educational institution and the medical institution.

In Vietnam, it is because of the non-distinction between the administrative or governing function (of governmental institutions) and the professional function which belongs to social and cultural institutions (i.e. belonging to the civil society) that until today there still exists the phenomenon that we call “nhà nước hoá” (Statization) or “hành chính hoá” (administratization) among almost all cultural, educational and social organizations, even among mass organizations and associations. The characteristics of this situation are exactly the same as the ones of State and collective enterprises in the pre-renovation period – only in the renovation policy line, the government insisted on the separation of the administrative function from the function of business among ministries and departments, or the clear distinction between monitoring agencies and business units.

At last, concerning the Vietnamese social reality, we would like to comment on two corollaries among many other ones that we can deduce from our proposed definition of civil society.

(a) If we could create a high degree of consensus, civil society activities will enhance strongly the mobilization of very diverse resources, abilities and initiatives of social strata into the country's development, and thus implicitly reinforce the strength and the legitimacy of the State itself, as well as consolidate national unity. However, we should emphasize here that this consensus could only be attained if we could assume an ideological hegemony or direction vis-à-vis the civil society by actively establishing legal conditions and opening up favorable real conditions for the formation of civil society's institutions, as well as freedom of various voluntary activities. The risk of losing this “hegemony” is that without it, we have left only the “coercion” of the State apparatus vis-à-vis society. A dynamic and healthy development of civil society is the very measure of the legitimacy of the State.

(b) Civil society is an abstract and complex concept, and not an institution or an organization having concrete forms in the scheme of some definite social model. It is hard to speak of an orientation towards “building civil society”, and it is also difficult to elaborate a specific program for “consolidating” or “promoting civil society”. If we really want to form a civil society, undoubtedly we should and only could talk of the needs of the construction of a rule-of-law State. Because in the end, it is only in the framework of the rule of law, strictly speaking, that we could have a civil society.


[1]    See Danièle Lochak, “La société civile: du concept au gadget,” in Jacques Chevalier et al., La Société civile. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1986, p. 67.
[2]    See Danièle Lochak, op. cit., p. 49.
[3]    Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation. The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (1944), Boston, Beacon Press, 2001, p. 258.
[4]    Antonio Gramsci, Gramsci dans le texte, edited by François Ricci and Jean Bramant, translated by J. Bramant, G. Moget, A. Monjo, F. Ricci, Paris, Ed. Sociales, 1975, p. 469.
[5]    Cao Huy Thuần, “Xã hội dân sự?” (“Civil Society?”), Tạp chí Thời đại mới (New Times Review), No. 3, 11-2004.
[6]    Danièle Lochak, op. cit., p. 70.
[7]    Gordon Marshall (Ed.), A Dictionary of Sociology, Oxford, New York, Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 74.
[8]    Gramsci's theory of civil society has inspired many researchers. See for example P. Ramasamy, “Civil Society in Malaysia: An Arena of Contestations?”, in Lee Hock Guan (Ed.), Civil Society in Southeast Asia, Singapore, Institute for Southeast Asian Studies, 2004 ; Muthiah Alagappa (Ed.), Civil Society and Political Change in Asia: Expanding and Contracting Democratic Space, Palo Alto, Stanford University Press, 2004 ; Ingrid Landau, “Law and Civil Society in Cambodia and Vietnam: A Gramscian Perspective”, in Journal of Contemporary Asia, Vol. 38, No. 2, May 2008.
[9]    Antonio Gramsci wrote: “The ideas of the Free Trade movement are based on a theoretical error whose practical origin is not hard to identify; they are based on a distinction between political society and civil society which is made into and presented as an organic one, whereas in fact it is merely methodological. Thus it is asserted that economic activity belongs to civil society, and that the State must not intervene to regulate it. But since in actual reality civil society and State are one and the same, it must be made clear that laissez-faire too is a form of State 'regulation', introduced and maintained by legislative and coercive means.” (Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, edited and translated by Quentin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, London, Ed. Lawrence & Wishart, 1971, p. 371)
[10]    In our opinion, the Vietnamese term “xã hội dân sự” corresponds to civil society in English, société civile in French and Zivilgesellschaft in German; meanwhile, the term “xã hội công dân” corresponds to civic society or citizen society in English (công dân means citizen), société civique or société des citoyens in French and Bürgergesellschaft in German.
[11]    Nguyễn Trần Bạt, “Bàn về xã hội dân sự” (Discussing Civil Society), 15-8-2007, (accessed on 5-12-2012).
[12]    “Dans le droit, l’objet, c’est la personne, dans le point de vue de la moralité, c’est le sujet, dans la famille, le membre de cette famille, dans la société civile, c’est le Bürger comme bourgeois. Ici, au point de vue des besoins, c’est le concret de la représentation que l’on nomme l’homme; c’est donc seulement maintenant et à proprement parler seulement ici, qu’il est question de l’homme en ce sens.” (Georg W. F. Hegel, Principes de la Philosophie du Droit, traduit par Robert Derathe, Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, 1986, §190). “Im Rechte ist der Gegenstand die Person, im moralischen Standpunkt das Subjekt, in der Familie das Familienglied, in der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft überhaupt der Bürger (als bourgeois) – hier auf dem Standpunkte der Bedürfnisse ist es das Konkretum der Vorstellung, das man Mensch nennt; es ist also erst hier und auch eigentlich nur hier vom Menschen in diesem Sinne die Rede.” (Georg W. F. Hegel, Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts, 1821, §190).
[13]    See Trần Ngọc Hiên, “Kinh tế thị trường định hướng xã hội chủ nghĩa với nhà nước pháp quyền và xã hội dân sự nước ta” (Socialist-Oriented Market Economy, Rule of Law and Civil Society in Vietnam), Tạp chí Cộng sản (Communist Review), No. 10 (154), 5-2008.
[14]    See Cao Huy Thuần, “Định chế : cái 'đã' và cái 'đang' ” (Institutions: the Instituted and the Instituting), Tạp chí Thời đại (Times Review), No. 5, 2001, pp. 1-8; Trần Hữu Quang, “Phát triển các định chế xã hội : Một trong những tiền đề xã hội của quá trình phát triển ở thành phố Hồ Chí Minh” (Developing Social Institutions: One of Social Premises of the Development Process of Hồ Chí Minh City), Tạp chí Khoa học xã hội (Review of Social Sciences), No. 11 (87), 2005, pp. 20-26.
[15]    See Trần Hữu Quang, “Thử bàn về triết lý giáo dục” (Discussing on the Philosophy of Education),, accessed on 20-4-2009.

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