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There has been a recent general resurgence of interest in civil society, a resurgence that is also found in adult education. Radical adult educators, in particular, view civil society as the privileged sphere of radical learning and social change. It is seen as the site to engage in democratic struggle, social movements and political change. This new elevation of civil society is tied into a wider crisis on the political left – the crisis of socialism. This crisis is reflected in the wider debates on the politics of civil society, a debate centred on the differences between Marxist and post-Marxist definitions of civil society. The purpose of this paper is to clarify this debate, and outline its implications for adult education theory and practice. To this end, the paper examines the history of the civil society idea, a history demonstrating that analyses of civil society need to be placed alongside understandings of the state and the market. These understandings of political and economic society provide the bases for two very different political agendas – socialism and radical democracy. The paper discusses how these two agendas impact on adult education, in particular how different analyses of the state/economy/civil society relationship suggest divergent conceptions of social conflict.