The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci, Part 1

Perry Anderson’s “Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci” looks at the shifting meaning of several core concepts, which he argues Gramsci built upon and elaborated within the Marxist tradition. Anderson begins his survey by looking first at the relationship between “state” and “civil society” in Gramsci’s work. According to Anderson, this relationship undergoes several “oscillations”: 1) the State contrasts with Civil Society, 2) the State encompasses Civil Society, and 3) the State is identical with Civil Society (p. 13).

Gramsci shifts for several reasons: he was writing under a prison censor after being jailed by Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini before World War II; his writings are fragmented and incorporate allusions to different periods and political contexts; and, the very evolution of the Western bourgeois democratic state is contrasted with the East, particularly the Russian Tsarist state. So, for example, while there is a balanced relationship between state and civil society in Western Europe during the early 19th century, by the mid-to-late century, the state appears to take on a more autonomous character and can even suppress civil society, as evidenced by Louis Bonaparate III’s dictatorship in France.

Anderson also looks at how the relationship between state and civil society intersects with another key concept, hegemony. While this word has been applied extensively in Marxist discourse, to justify everything from reformist attitudes toward the state, to postmodern “Subaltern” approaches that argue bourgeois hegemony never existed in non-Western places such as India, Anderson carefully lays out why it is still an innovative concept. According to Anderson, Gramsci’s innovation was not that he invented the term per se. Anderson claims that many Russian Marxists used the term since before the October Revolution. They used it, however, to refer to the political relationship between the proletariat and the peasantry, and the “commanding” role of the former.

In contrast, Gramsci uses the concept of hegemony to produce “a differential analysis of the structures of bourgeois power in the West” (emphasis in the original, p. 20). Anderson shows why this is still important for understanding the relationship between state and civil society, given the fact that in the West the bourgeois democratic state depends on “trenches” and “fortifications” (to use the military metaphors from World War I adopted by Gramsci, pp. 8-9) that prevent a single, knock-out blow, even during a moment of crisis. Hegemony is the cultural dimension of bourgeois power that integrates other classes under its rule.

Finally, in the last part of the section that we read, Anderson tries to grasp how Western Marxists in the late 1970s have justified their approaches to alliances with bourgeois parties and social democracy. He argues that one major misinterpretation of Gramsci is, for example, the belief that bourgeois ideology “mystifies” the proletariat in media and education. This leads to the belief that revolution simply requires challenging bourgeois ideology in the context of civil society. Anderson argues that in fact that the state itself is the political and ideological form of bourgeois rule. It inherently assumes that people are abstractly free, juridically-constituted citizens, who are endowed with individual rights, such as the right to own property.

Anderson is careful, however, not to completely dismiss the formal achievements of bourgeois democracy, such as the right to freedom of expression, especially after the painful experience of fascism. He even says many of these rights were won by the labour movement. Still, he critiques contemporary Marxists who wish to further democratize the capitalist state, without acknowledging its unassailable limits. The upshot when interpreting Gramsci at least is that:

It can now be seen why Gramsci’s primary formula was mistaken. It is impossible to partition the ideological functions of bourgeois class power between civil society and the State, in the way that he initially sought to do. The fundamental form of the Western parliamentary State—the juridical sum of its citizenry—is itself the hub of the ideological apparatuses of capitalism (p. 29).

Redefining Civil Society in the Sri Lankan Context

In our discussion we focused mostly on the meaning of these oppositions, particularly state versus civil society, and our understanding of Sri Lankan civil society. Generally in Sri Lanka when people refer to “civil society” they tend to refer to an elite set of NGOs in the capital of Colombo which are often donor-driven and depend on outside funding for major research projects. This has also created a progressive space many wish to recognize for challenging the nationalism predominant in the rest of the country. It is clear from reading Anderson’s take on Gramsci, however, that this space implies a very narrow understanding of the term civil society.

We discussed whether we can re-appropriate the term civil society and apply it to other areas of social life in Sri Lanka. There are two major challenges we foresee: 1) how to identify other organizations and spaces that fall under a broader definition of civil society, and 2) formulating the relationship between the state and civil society as a question of socialist political strategy.

With regard to the first point, we wish to point out that there are already many existing organizations that function in a broader sense as civil society, including unions, co-operatives, samitis, sabhas, and other local organizations. While some may receive funding from donor projects, they are also part of the context of local government and thus intersect with the state at its lower levels. We should analyze the extent to which these associations can be politicized as part of a progressive movement. The danger, however, is that they are also often incorporated into the patronage network of major political parties. But this leads us back to the question of how the Sri Lankan state is structured, and what kind of analysis we can construct.

In terms of the second point, the reason we might argue why civil society takes on a narrow definition in Sri Lanka is because there has been a failure to properly theorize the relationship between the state and civil society. This relationship must be conceptualized as part of a political strategy to win over the masses to socialism, and the unassailable limits imposed by the capitalist state. Currently there is much talk about constitutional reform, but how is this being theorized as part of the broader evolution of the Sri Lankan state? What is the relationship between the progressive opposition and the current government? And, as several commentators have pointed out, why restrict ourselves to discussing the national question without recognizing its intersection with class struggle?

These must first be re-formulated as terms within a Marxist discourse that has long been absent in Sri Lanka, including revisiting the “national question” as a critique of the bourgeois democratic state.

20th June 2016