Thursday, March 16, 2006

Comparative Politics: Essay on Antonio Gramsci

Through Gramsci’s Eyes: Civil Society and the Creation of the Marxist State


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 Western Europe, particularly those countries which exemplified greatly the “class struggle” Marx so blatantly saw throughout history. When Lenin and the Bolsheviks triumphed with their own communist revolution in 1917, more head-scratching persisted. “Why not us?,” many asked. The experience of the Soviet Union in particular, where practically no industrialized bourgeoisie existed in 1917, was even more perplexing. The Soviet Union case seemed like an anomaly to many Marxist observers. But for Italy’s Antonio Gramsci, an up-and-coming Marxist in 1917, the reasons for the revolution in Russia seemed obvious:

In Russia the State was everything, civil society was primordial and gelatinous;

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 Italy where he resided. While in Russia, it was only a ruling elite that was overthrown, in Italy, the “dominance and subordination” manifested itself in the form of culture and ideology (Williams 1977: 595).

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.

Civil Society

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 Italy (Cox 2002: 359). Norberto Bobbio shared Gramsci’s opinion in Democracy and Dictatorship, noting that “parties have one foot in civil society and the other in institutions.” For Bobbio, Gramsci further understood what Marx could not – that civil society created an ideological hegemony, not just a material, economist one (Bobbio 1989: 25-29). If this was so the case, “civil society could be used by the working class to slowly create its own hegemony of interests” (Weigle and Butterfield 1992: 4).

The Southern Question

The unification of south and north Italy, or the Risorgimento, in the 1800s, left significant political tensions in Italy for many years. Specifically, south and north Italy were quite different in many respects. In the north, the Italian territories were developing at a rapid pace with urbanization of the masses and a growth in education. In the south, where Gramsci lived and was raised, underdevelopment was prevalent and many lacked proper education. Those prosperous few that inhabited southern Italy were large landowners, ruling over an often times weak and “politically impotent” rural class (Adamson 81). As well, outsiders from the central and northern regions occupied southern Italy politically, much like the south after the Civil War (Urbinati 1998: 372). Richard Bellamy argued that divisions were exacerbated by what he called “legal Italy” and “real Italy.” On the one hand, “legal Italy” was the notion of a single, unified Italian state. But “real Italy”, was the realization of an Italy with “divergent religious traditions, economic attainment and polarized classes: a tension epitomized for contemporaries in the southern question” (Bellamy 2002: 127).

Without delving much more into the history of Italian unification, or lack thereof, it is obvious the divisive politics of Italy held a great effect over Gramsci. Nadia Urbinati illuminates this same historical fact. Although Gramsci’s most influential writings have less to do with the particulars of Italy, Urbinati argues that much of Gramsci’s writing and theory deals from his direct experience in the “subordinated” southern Italy. “The South,” adds Urbinati, “was the link between his existential experience and his public and intellectual life. Southern Italy epitomized Gramsci’s condition and theory of subordination…” (Urbinati 1998: 370). Very true, and also his theory of civil society. For Gramsci, southern Italy represented the most “gelatinous” of regions, yet controlled – politically, culturally, ideologically, economically – by the northern hegemony.

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 Italy where nonexistent. As Gramsci wrote: “…a class which has to work fixed hours every day cannot have permanent and specialized assault organizations – as can a class which has ample financial resources and all of whose members are not tied down by fixed work” (Gramsci 1971: 232).

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 Western Europe. Fascism did have tremendous impact on Italy, and that never was exemplified more than in the ideology’s relationship with society and use of nationalist rhetoric. Because of the overall disunity of Italy after supposed unification, Mussolini’s appeals to nationalism in the state created hegemony of the interests: cultural, ideological and economical. Nationalism, to sum up Italian historian Alastair Davidson, cooled the differences between the developed north and the dilapidated south (Davidson 1982: 4). Moreover, fascist nationalism thwarted efforts of “legal” civil society by punishing certain speech, thus creating their own “orientational” civil society by shifting the focus of the debate off minority opinions, particularly those of commmunists. While Italian fascism was not necessarily brainwashing the citizenry, “some forms of experience [were] readily available to consciousness,” while others were suppressed or not taken seriously (Lears 2002: 334).

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 Italy, no revolution existed. Any chance at “class consciousness,” something Gramsci had hoped for, faded with the rise of fascism and the influence of nationalism. The fascist example demonstrated beautifully Gramsci’s point about subordination, hegemony, and his belief in the base-superstructure, whereas Gramsci “narrowed the economic base [of Marxism]… and broadened the superstructure to include political society, civil society and the state” (Lears 2002: 327).

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 Italy would be lost to the fascists. The idea of joining the parties together was at first repulsive to Gramsci, if “not insane” as Walter Adamson wrote in Hegemony and Revolution. But Gramsci at last resigned himself to the idea of a “united front,” only to get rejected by the PSI at the Milan Congress in 1923 (Adamson 1980: 76). A united front could have certainly watered down the ideological impact that PCI and Gramsci hoped to have, but on a more positive note, it also would have strengthened the proletarian cause, if only numerically, against a dominating fascist influence.

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 Italy. The division of the PSI and PCI (and later the peasant PPI) teach another important lesson about civil society to Gramsci, one he could not have learned by looking at the Russian example alone. If the economic and political disunity of “legal” Italy did anything good for “real” Italy it was this: In the southern region, a gelatinous, albeit often times subordinated, civil society did exist. It seems the trappings for a revolution were possible before the rise of fascism. But there simply was no “united front.” Gramsci must have learned from his mistake then when in 1921 he wrote that “emancipation” of the proletariat was only possible through “alliance[s]” (Gramsci 1977: 376).


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.

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