GRAMSCIAN CONCEPTS : Gramsci’s Use of the Term ‘Civil Society’

Peter Custers

[What follows is an excerpt from ‘Introducing Gramscian Concepts: Towards a Re-Analysis of Bangladesh’s Political History’ from Aritro, quarterly magazine of Bangladeshis in Germany, October-December, 2000. We publish this as a mark of respect to the late Dr Peter Custers and to familiarize our readers with the depth of his Marxist theoretical understanding. We are grateful to Ms Sumati Nair for her permission for us to publish his article in part in this issue and in full in the next issue of MLND.]

3. Gramsci’s Use of the Term’Civil Society’

Let’s now try to delineate the meaning of each of Gramsci’s concepts separately. The term civil society can be traced to the great 19th Century German philosophers. It was used both by Marx and by Hegel, from whom Marx borrowed (a part of) his method of analysis. Hegel had used the term civil society to refer to all pre-state relations, i.e. to all relations beyond the immediate sphere of the state. Thus, for Hegel, the term civil society included all economic relations. Further, Marx too had employed the term civil society in his writings, but contrary to Hegel had restricted it to refer only to the economic base of society. It can be very confusing to compare the definitions given by various philosophers for the same concept. Nevertheless, for a proper understanding of Gramsci’s system of thought it is necessary to know that the definition of the term civil society has historically evolved, and that Gramsci transformed the meaning of the term to suit his own theoretical ends (see footnote).

To repeat for the sake of clarity, what has been briefly stated in the section above: Antonio Gramsci, contrary to Hegel and Marx, used the term civil society exclusively to describe and conceptualise the superstructure, and in particular those institutions of the superstructure which do not (or not officially) form a part of the repressive apparatus of the capitalist state. They include church institutions; the educational establishments, ranging from primary schools to the academia; the media such as newspapers, journals and the radio; trade unions and political parties; and all other intermediate institutions that play a distinct role in the intellectual and moral life of society. In short, the term civil society covers all the institutions located in the intermediate sphere of class society. Gramsci realised, perhaps more sharply than other theoreticians of the workers’ movement in his time, that the ‘weight’, the influence, of these institutions expands gradually as capitalist society evolves.

Further, there were concrete historic reasons impelling Gramsci to conceptualise capitalist society in the given manner. Gramsci believed that the failure to achieve a revolutionary transformation in countries of Western Europe after World War I needed a specific explanation.
After all, the expectation of imminent revolution had been quite widespread, reflected for instance in the theory of more or less automatic ‘breakdown’ of capitalism. Gramsci from his side believed that (then) existing Marxist analyses of revolutionary transformation were one-sidedly ‘economistic’: they wrongly presumed that a crisis in production relations, in the base of society, would inevitably result in a revolutionary outburst, in the conquering by the working class of the institutions of the capitalist state . As Gramsci argued, Marxists had underestimated the influence which institutions belonging to civil society hold over the thought processes of subaltern classes. These institutions serve to ideologically reinforce the subservience of society’s oppressed.

In other words, Gramsci’s theoretical ideas were grounded in his analysis of European history, and it would not be wrong to state that the ‘Prison Notebooks’ which contain his mature theoretical ideas, are Eurocentric in content. When comparing the political processes in France, Italy and other European countries, Gramsci primarily addressed the increasing complexity of superstructural institutions and relations in so called ‘advanced’ capitalist societies. Yet, as we will see in the second part of this essay, the term civil society and other Gramscian concepts can very well be used to analyse the political evolution of East Bengal/Bangladesh during the twentieth century. Though most institutions belonging to the intermediate sphere were erected only in the later part of British colonial rule or more recently ― they have in course of the previous century come to exert a crucial influence upon the intellectual and moral life of East Bengal/Bangladesh.

Lastly, it is necessary to emphasize once again that Gramsci considered civil society to be an arena of class struggle. It is here that different classes compete for ideological hegemony in society, and their competition can take a variety of forms, including both non-violent and violent forms. In recent decades, the concept of civil society, while neglected by Marxist parties, has been much abused by reformist propagandists, who aim at mystifying social relations and at confusing the public. Non-governmental organizations, for instance, project civil society as their arena for participation in bourgeois politics. Yet for Gramsci, the use of the term civil society was closely related to his conceptualisation of class society. He used the term not to weaken or undermine, but precisely to strengthen the class struggles of the proletariat and other classes striving to achieve liberation from exploitation, from oppression and from ideological domination by the bourgeoisie.


The differences between Hegel’s and Marx’s usages of the term civil society on the one hand, and Gramsci’s on the other, have been discussed in depth by Norberto Bobbio, Gramsci e la Concezione della Societa Civile (which essay appeared in a Dutch translation in the Dutch Marxist journal Te Elfder Ure No.28, January 1981, p.367); here Bobbio argued that the theory of Gramsci heralded a fundamental renovation vis-a-vis the whole Marxist tradition; as Bobbio stated: in Gramsci’s conceptualisation ‘civil society does not belong to the base but to the superstructure (p.378).

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