Through Gramsci’s Eyes: Civil Society and the Creation of the
One of the dominant political questions of the early 20th century for political scientists was determining why Marxist revolutions had not taken place in any parts of
in the West, there was a proper relation between state and civil society, and when
the State trembled a sturdy structure of civil society was at once revealed. The State was only an outer ditch, behind which there stood a powerful system of fortresses and earthworks… (Gramsci 1971: 238).
For Gramsci, civil society was part of a large cultural and ideological hegemony of the State that prohibited the existence of revolution, Marxist or otherwise, from getting a foothold in many Western European countries, particularly in fascist
The purpose of this paper is twofold. First, I seek to define civil society. I will explore the term civil society as it used in most political science texts. I conclude that Gramsci viewed civil society as much more than just, as Schmitter and Karl say, the right to “autonomous group activity” (Schmitter and Karl 1991: 79). Most civil society, Gramsci believes, is not autonomous or independent of the state at all. Second, I seek to answer why Gramsci might see civil society as a hindrance to revolution. This question is answered best by a historical look at Gramsci’s life, most specifically his upbringing in southern Italy and the rise of Mussolini’s fascism, coupled with the divisions and disunity of the Italian Marxists.
One of the best and more recent definitions of civil society was formulated by Schmitter and Karl in their influential essay, “What Democracy Is…and Is Not.” For Scmitter and Karl, civil society exists because of “autonomous group activity” whereas citizens, “by remaining independent of the state, not only can restrain the arbitrary actions of rulers, but can also contribute to forming better citizens” These “autonomous groups” can be anything from the Sierra Club to elderly women meeting in a church discussing politics. For the optimistic Schmitter and Karl, civil societies could be the mediators between the State and its citizenry that is “capable of resolving conflicts… without public coercion” (Schmitter and Karl 1991: 79-80). Weigle and Butterfield clarify this common definition by breaking down civil society two ways: legal and orientational. In “legal” civil society, the State allows social self- organization and defines the relationship between the state and society. In other words, the actual freedom autonomous groups has varies based on the legal codes of different countries. By “orientational” civil society, Weigle and Butterfield, denote the “identity of the social actors,” to chose and fight for the outcomes they seek. This can also vary depending of the values of the autonomous groups involved in the particular struggle (Weigle and Buttefield 1992: 3).
Gramsci did not know Schmitter and Karl’s definition of civil society, but it is certain he would have disagreed with them in part. Gramsci knew all too well that “autonomous groups” were most often not “independent of the state,” especially those groups which have an institutional or traditional base like the churches, schools, or press (Cox 2002: 359). Although Marx did not explicitly articulate Gramsci’s theory of civil society, he illustrated this same point when he bemoaned the influence of the Catholic church, an institution he thought was less than independent of the state. Gramsci had a similar notion of the role of the Masonic lodge in
The Southern Question
The unification of south and north
Without delving much more into the history of Italian unification, or lack thereof, it is obvious the divisive politics of
Personally, Gramsci was torn on how to help the south. The presence of the “gelatinous” society offered great prospects to Gramsci, and Lenin provided a model for revolution. But Gramsci was not Lenin. While Lenin’s “road to socialism was short but sheer,” Gramsci’s notion was of a much more prolonged, thought out process (Anderson 1966: 224). A speedy revolution could lead, Gramsci thought, to dictatorship. But assembling a group of class conscious workers was the key. Unfortunately, the modes for worker mobilization in southern
Rise of Fascism
It is not for certain whether Gramsci is speaking of fascism directly when he discusses the “proper relation between State and civil society” that exist in
While socialists had thought fascism would be an isolated incident, history proved otherwise. As Davidson eloquently wrote: “Italian socialism needed to be dipped in reality to see the country for what it was instead of through the blinkers of a rigidly determinist Marxism” (Davidson 1982: 248). Indeed, despite a substantial working class or proletariat in southern
But the rise of fascism precipitated in other ways. It is important to note – and possibly mind boggling to Gramsci -- that fascists received a great deal of indirect support from those that were simply “anti-socialist.” While this support would seem to stem from rich capitalists and industrialists, it was small farmers that proved to be loyal allies for Northern fascists (Adamson 1980: 79). Moreover, the divisive history of the two predominant Marxist political parties – the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) and the Italian Communist Party (PCI) – did not help Gramsci’s revolution in the slightest. Gramsci, while formally a PCI member, knew that the longer conflicts existed between both parties, the greater the chance
The division of the parties could not have been good for a revolutionary cause and often Gramsci wondered if he did the right thing by supporting the PCI so fervently. In the meantime, fascism grew in
Richard Cox noted that to understand Antonio Gramsci, one has to understand his history. He wrote: “Gramsci’s concepts were all derived from history – both from his own reflections upon history…and from his personal experience of political and social struggle” (Cox 2002: 357). This statement would seem to hold true for anyone. In other words, history and our own “personal experience” shape us all. But for Gramsci, this proved especially true. Each page is a manifestation of the life he lived and the world around him. From the “southern question” and the rise of fascism alone, Gramsci learned bit by bit the obstacles a cultural and ideological hegemony posed to revolution. His theory that civil society was part of a large cultural and ideological hegemony changed the way many, including Marxists, viewed revolution. But without those key historical events in his own life, his theoretical conclusions might have been different.
Many scholars have written that Gramsci was the most “functional” and “workable” of all the Marxists of his day. Whether one agrees with this assessment is open for debate. But this in turn implies that Gramsci really knew, first hand, about the proletarian struggle and therefore applied his own theories to practice. Or, as the case was with civil society, he took his “personal experience” and inked it to paper. Gramsci was right in his assessment of civil society. Most forms are inevitably linked to the state in some way, and yes, this does pose a threat to revolution. The sobering reality is that Gramsci – with all the right knowledge -- could never mount the proletariat revolution against the hegemon he knew so much about.