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9 Civil Society, the State and the Nature of Power Civil society Previous chapters have examined the relations of classes and social forces and the nature of the political and ideological struggles in which they engage. But we have not yet discussed the state which profoundly affects, and is affected by, the relations of forces (except on p.15 where Lenin's theory of the state was briefly discussed). It was suggested that his definition of the state as 'an instrument of the ruling class' and as 'a machine for the repression of one class by another' was defective and 'economistic' because it assumed a mechanical relationship between economics and politics or, to be more precise, between the relations of production and the state. We can say that it is an example of a particular form of economism which has persisted long after some ofthe cruder forms have passed away, and which can be termed 'class reductionism', the tendency to reduce complex political and ideological relations to class relations. As Gramsci says, 'the historical unity of the ruling class is realised in the state'. Yet the state is also affected by class struggles and by popular-democratic struggles; so that, as Gramsci puts it in the n~te on the relations of forces discussed earlier (p.32), the life of the state is 'a continuous process of formation and superseding ofunstable equilibria'. Thus, although a hegemonic class predominates in the state, it cannot use the 68 CIVIL SOCIETY, THE STATE AND POWER state simply to impose its interests on other classes. The life of the state has a 'relative autonomy' from the ruling class, because it is the outcome ofthe balance offorces. Gramsci did not employ the term 'relative autonomy' which has come into use since his time, but it expresses very well his own thinking on the state. The central problem concerning the state is the nature of the power exercised by a ruling class over other classes. For the character of the revolutionary strategy which is appropriate for a class aiming to achieve state power will depend on the understanding reached by that class on the nature of power what it is and how it is exercised. As Gramsci said 'little understanding ofthe state means little class consciousness'. The main proposition advanced by Gramsci is that the state cannot be understood without a thorough understanding of civil society. Anyone who reads through the passages in the Selections from the Prison Notebooks collected by the editors under the heading 'state and civil society' is likely to find them very stimulating but also rather confusing. They were written at different times and Gramsci never had the opportunity to put them into a coherent shape. This sense ofconfusion is heightened by the central role Gramsci gives to civil society (contrasted with political society) which is difficult to understand because it is never clearly defined. The nearest he comes to a definition is a passage in the note on the formation ofintellectuals: What we can do, for the moment, is to fix two major superstructural 'levels': the one that can be called 'civil society', that is, the ensemble of organisms commonly called 'private', and that of 'political society' or 'the state'. These two levels correspond on the one hand to the functions of 'hegemony' which the dominant group exercises throughout society and on the other hand to that of 'direct domination' or command exercised through the state and 'juridical' government (SPN 12). And in his letter of7 September 1931, he refers to civil society as comprising 'the so-called private' organisations like the church, the trade unions, the schools, etc., and adds 'it is precisely in civil 69 GRAMSCI'S POLmCAL THOUGHT society that intellectuals operate specially ...' (SPN 56n). Making use of these and other passages in .the Prison Notebooks a definition of civil society can be constructed. It comprises all the 'so-called private' organisations such as churches, trade unions, political parties and cultural associations which are distinct from the process of production and from the public apparatuses of the state. All the organisations which make up civil society are the result of a complex network of social practices and social relations, including the struggle between the two fundamental classes, capital and labour. One set of institutions, the apparatuses which make up the state, are separated from the organisations of civil society in having a monopoly of coercion. Thus a capitalist society is composed of three sets ofsocial relations: the relations...


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