Language of Rights June 11, 2021

[Excerpt of] Gramsci on Civil Society

Joseph A. Buttigieg
Duke University Press

Inspired by the late Innocent Chukwuma who, just as he was helping conceive the Symposium, told us of his discovery of Antonio Gramsci’s writings on civil society — we are reposting a brief excerpt from Joseph A. Buttigieg’s article ‘Gramsci on Civil Society’, published by Duke University Press in Boundary 2, vol. 22, no. 3, 1995, pp. 1–32.  Thanks to Innocent, we’ve been thinking about how Gramsci’s ideas could help sharpen the work of activism in Nigeria, and indeed in every country where citizens have been moved to join in direct political action of any form. In reading Gramsci, we are invited to interrogated the nature of civil society organizing, and reflect on how it could shape meaningful social change, rather than reinforcing the liberal economic order and the power of its elites.

[an excerpt of] Gramsci on Civil Society

By Joseph A Buttigieg

Antonio Gramsci’s analysis of civil society, much like his study of the role of intellectuals in society and his concept of hegemony, has long been recognized as one of the most original and important features of the political theory he elaborated in his Prison Notebooks. Scholars have debated at great length the differences and similarities between Gramsci’s concept of civil society and Hegel’s, whether it represents a significant departure from traditional Marxist thought, and what place it occupies (or should be assigned) within the history of political philosophy.


Gramsci regarded civil society as an integral part of the state; in his view, civil society, far from being inimical to the state, is, in fact, its most resilient constitutive element, even though the most immediately visible aspect of the state is political society, with which it is all too often mistakenly identified. He was also convinced that the intricate, organic relationships between civil society and political society enable certain strata of society not only to gain dominance within the state but also, and more importantly, to maintain it, perpetuating the subalternity of other strata.


Gramsci’s most insightful observations on civil society are, more often than not, intertwined with his particular and concrete analyses of a wide diversity of specific phenomena. One must resist the temptation to concentrate exclusively on those few passages where Gramsci attempts to articulate the concept (or facets of it) formally and systematically. There are numerous sections in the prison notebooks that make no explicit mention of the term civil society and yet are of fundamental importance to Gramsci’s development of the concept.

Most important among these are the passages that deal with some aspect or another of hegemony; indeed, in the prison notebooks, hegemony and civil society are interdependent concepts. Gramsci arrives at the concept of hegemony through the detailed study of civil society, and, moreover, his descriptions of the complex interactions among individuals and institutions in civil society constitute a concrete, material exposition of the apparatuses and operations of hegemony.

The site of hegemony is civil society; in other words, civil society is the arena wherein the ruling class extends and reinforces its power by non-violent means. Hence, in the prison notebooks, the close scrutiny of civil society and the study of hegemony are virtually one and the same thing, and the former serves to reaffirm the concrete reality of the latter. From a note that, interestingly enough, does not explicitly employ the terms hegemony and civil society, one can see how, for Gramsci, the study of one goes hand in hand with the other. The note, entitled “Cultural topics. Ideological material” (Notebook 3, ?49), opens with what, in effect, is a description of the overarching research project that englobes most of the fragmentary contents of the notebooks: “A study of how the ideological structure of a ruling class is actually organized: that is, the material organization meant to preserve, defend, and develop the theoretical or ideological ‘front.’ ” What Gramsci is proposing here is nothing less than a study of hegemony; he then proceeds immediately to list the components of the material organization of the ideological structure that need to be studied. The list is remarkable for its detail and testifies to Gramsci’s unwavering attention to the material particularity, the importance he attaches to the molecular aspects, so to speak, of civil society. On the top of the list, he places “the most dynamic part of the ideological structure,” by which he means the press, or, more accurately, the entire publishing industry and every form of publication, including the most humble: “publishing houses (which have an implicit and explicit program and which support a particular current), political newspapers, reviews of every kind, scientific, literary, philological, popular, etc., various periodicals including even parish bulletins.” The other things he lists range from the obvious, such as libraries, schools, associations and clubs of all kinds, and the pervasive activities of the Catholic Church, to the seemingly innocuous, such as architecture, the layout of streets and their names. All of these things constitute the “formidable complex of trenches and fortifications of the ruling class.” The serious study of this “material structure of ideology” would entail a task of colossal proportions, and, yet, it is important for Gramsci because “in addition to providing a living historical model of such a structure, it would inculcate the habit of assessing the forces of agency in society with greater caution and precision.”

Hegemony is non-coercive power, but it is power nonetheless; indeed, the flexible, and often camouflaged, apparatuses of hegemony provide the dominant groups in society with the most effective protection against a successful frontal attack from the subaltern classes. Once a par- ticular social group or grouping becomes hegemonic, it means that it has not only acquired control of the politico-juridical apparatus of the state but also permeated the institutions of civil society-in Gramsci’s sense of the terms, it has assumed leadership (direzione) in the cultural sphere.

What Gramsci has shown is that although the history of civil society may be the history of the acquisition of certain basic individual rights and of the growth of free enterprise economies, it is not the history of freedom tout court, for until now the history of civil society has also been the history of the dominance of one social group over others, the history of groups that remain fragmented, subordinated, and excluded from power. Civil society can only be the site of universal freedom when it extends to the point of becoming the state, that is, when the need for political society is obviated.

The struggle against the domination of the few over the many, if it is to be successful, must be rooted in a careful formulation of a counter hegemonic conception of the social order, in the dissemination of such a conception, and in the formation of counter hegemonic institutions—which can only take place in civil society and actually require an expansion of civil society. This is why Gramsci regarded the corruption of civil society in Italy as tremendously disadvantageous to the interests of subaltern groups. He identified many aspects of this corruption of civil society: among them, the weakness of the political parties who exercised poor leadership in civil society, the failure of successive governments to rise above immediate class interests and their readiness to function dictatorially, the lack of integrity of political and intellectual leaders. The poor condition of civil society in Italy, for Gramsci, was most evident in its cultural decay:

Hence, impoverishment of cultural life and the petty narrow- mindedness of high culture: sterile erudition in place of political history, superstition in place of religion, the daily newspaper and the scandal sheet instead of books and great periodicals. Ordinary everyday fractiousness and personal conflicts instead of serious politics. The universities and all the institutions that developed intellectual and technical skills were impervious to the life of the parties and the living reality of national life, and they created apolitical national cadres with a purely rhetorical and non-national mental formation. (Notebook 3, 119)

This is the kind of passage from the prison notebooks that many readers pass over because it seems to portray a particular historical phenomenon—Italy in the 1930s— that is long past and has no bearing on our time. It is from passages such as this, however, that one learns to appreciate why Gramsci was so deeply concerned with civil society, why he examined its many aspects in such minute detail. Passages such as this should also inspire the readers of the prison notebooks to study civil society critically, as Gramsci studied it. For what Gramsci noticed is as true today as it was in his time, even if the actual circumstances have changed—namely, that modern civilization is very fragile and so are the forms of freedom that come with it. In Gramsci’s time, the impoverishment of civil society prepared the ground for fascism. In our time, civil society in the developed countries appears to be relatively safe, and it would be demagogic (and ahistorical) to suggest that fascism of the same kind that flourished in the 1930s might return. Yet, what kind of conclusions would we arrive at if we were to ex- amine the condition of civil society today, in the way Gramsci examined it, critically, in detail, and from a subaltern point of view? What are we to make of the “petty narrow- mindedness of high culture”—not the “high culture” of Gramsci’s time but of our own? And what about present-day political rhetoric? What about the apolitical mentality of many of today’s intellectuals and technical experts? Could one confidently attest that the 1980s and 1990s have not produced their own form of intellectual charlatanism, a new brand of what Gramsci called “Lorianism”? What about the fragmentation and lack of leadership among the increasing numbers of destitute, powerless people-bereft of hope- in the mist of affluent societies? These are the questions that Gramsci’s writings on civil society should compel the reader of today to reflect on.

Gramsci’s concept of civil society may indeed be of some use when it comes to explaining the reasons underlying the collapse of the totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe. Much more valuable, however, is Gramsci’s distinctive approach to the analysis of civil society—an approach, a critical method, that should animate a new series of inquiries into the present condition of civil society in different parts of the globe. The results of such inquiries are likely to be disconcerting; this should come as no surprise, for the prison notebooks remain a poignant document not because they provide ready- made explanations but because they raise difficult and unsettling questions and are an antidote to complacency—the sort of political and intellectual complacency that has taken hold of civil society since 1989.

This excerpt is intended solely for discussion by participants in the Symposium on Strength and Solidarity for Human Rights. A link to the original piece can be found here.