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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

'Civil society' and democracy: A rejoinder

BLADE NZIMANDE and MPUME SIKHOSANA continue the debate on the role and nature of civil society

The aim of this rejoinder is to engage some of the replies to our original piece, published and unpublished. Since the most substantial reply has been that by Mayekiso, the bulk of this rejoinder will engage that reply.1

It is clear in our reading of Mayekiso's response to our article that he has either not done a systematic and thorough survey of classical Marxist literature on the subject of 'civil society' or he has misunderstood what the classics say. This is apparent from the kinds of conclusions he draws after 'surveying' the classics on this question. Our response shall only be limited to an illustration of the inaccuracies in some of his conclusions about Marx and Gramsci and to correct misrepresentations of our views before we expose the naivete of his latest invention - a 'working class civil society'.

There are a number of issues that we would have liked to take up with Mayekiso. Due to space we are going to focus our response on his notion of a 'working class civil society', a notion on which the rest of his argument is based.

Firstly, Mayekiso is simply wrong to assert that there is no single conception of the classcharacter of civil society in the classics. One must make a distinction between differing Marxian conceptions of.civil society and differing conceptions of the class character of civil society. Mayekiso is not even aware that he is actually introducing a theoretical confusion here. The reason why this is a confusion is that in the classics there is a consensus on at least the class character of 'civil society'. For Marx and Engels 'civil society' is born out of the transition from feudalism to capitalism. We would in fact even argue that 'civil society' is specific to the epoch of capitalism. By its very nature, contested as it is, 'civil society' is primarily, under capitalist society, in the service of the bourgeoisie. It is the manner in which capitalist exploitation takes place in the era of the rule of the bourgeoisie. This is exactly the same point that Gramsci made in his discussion of hegemony. It is only when the working class becomes hegemonic in society that a revolution becomes possible, and whose consumation produces new relations that can-not simply be characterised as the changing of relations between state and 'civil society'.

Let us make a brief review of Marx and Gramsci's works to further illustrate that: i. There is no contradiction in their understanding of the concept although there is a difference in emphasis, and ii. in both, 'civil society' and the state are inseparably linked.

The concept of 'civil society' in Marx and Engels

Whilst the use of the concept 'civil society' is drawn from the Hegelian tradition, it does not follow (as Mayekiso suggests) that Marx's analytical and theoretical deployment of the concept is Hegelian (where 'civil society' and the 'state' are distinct). Marx's entry point in his Early Works is the reversal of what Hegel says, by pointing out that the real theatre of history is not the state but 'civil society' itself. The first thing that Marx does is to historicise this separation between political society and 'civil society', and he firmly traces this separation to the advent of bourgeois society. In his Early Works he explains the separation in the following manner:

The abstraction of the state as such belongs only to the modern time, because the abstraction of private life also belongs only to modern times. The abstraction of the political state is a modern product... In the Middle Ages there were serfs, feudal property, corporations of trade and of learned men,etc. This means that in the Middle Ages property, trade, society and men were political; the material content of the state was delimited by its form; each private sphere had a political character or was a political sphere or politics formed the character of the private sphere. In the Middle Ages the political constitution was the constitution of private property, but only because the constitution of private property was the political constitution. In the Middle Ages the people's life and the state's life were identical. Man was the real principle of the state, but it was unfree man. So it is the democracy of unfreedom, perfected alienation. Theabstract, reflected opposition only begins with the modern world. The Middle Ages embodied the real dualism, and the modern time the abstract dualism...2

A number of points become clearer here as to what Marx at this stage understood 'civil society' to be. Firstly, 'civil society' was born out of bourgeois revolutions as part of the freeing of the capitalist productive forces. Secondly, the birth of civil liberties come with bourgeois society. But these liberties do not constitute, according to early Marx, human emancipation and full freedom. Because already at this stage Marx was fully aware of the abstract nature of this dualism in modern bourgeois society. He referred to this dualism as abstract in the sense that the state poses as separate from 'civil society', and 'civil society' poses as an autonomous sphere where people could pursue their own interests with= out any hindrances. In other words, the separation of 'civil society' and the 'state' is an embodiment of human alienation and more sophisticated forms of the institutionalisation of capitalist exploitation throughout society. This separation also serves to mask the true nature and basis of exploitation in modern bourgeois societies. What Marx is pointing out here is that the' freer' bourgeois society seems to be, the more exploitative it becomes. This is what we understand to be the essence of the separation between 'civil society' and the 'state', according to Marx. It is for the above reasons for instance that we are extremely perturbed by the uncritical and romantic celebration of 'civil society' by the South African Left.

Horn says, "...I am not convinced that, having found problems with Glaser and Swilling's analysis of civil society and democracy, we have therefore to conclude that civil society is an inherently liberal or bourgeois concept, to be avoided at all costs by Marxists".3 Whilst Horn does not clarify why she believes the current usage of 'civil society' is not a liberal bourgeois one - other than perhaps a new faith by the South African Left - we want to make it clear that our conclusions about the concept are not based on the critique of Glaser and Swilling but on Marx and Engels' works who demonstrate clearly that' civil society' emerged out of the bourgeois revolutions as a precondition for the consolidation of capital accumulation. This separation was a precondition for the liberation of serfs as well as the creation of the modem proletariat free to sell its labour. Civil liberties were born out of this necessity for the first time in the history of human societies. Prior to that there was no such separation. However, the birth of civil liberties, and Marx was fully aware of this, marked the new conditions for the emerging proletariat under which it was to be made available to the vagaries of capital accumulation in bourgeois societies. In fact, it is the separation of 'civil society' from the state that delivers the classes oppressed under feudalism as the proletariat under capitalism. This gives 'civil society' four of its most important characteristics: i) It was a new form under which capitalist exploitation was to be maximised; ii) 'civil society' is specific to the epoch of capitalism; iii) the separation between 'civil society' and 'political society', whose institutional expression was the state, was the basis of exploitation under capitalism in the same way as slavery and feudalism was to slaves and serfs; and iv) 'civil society' can only exist where there is 'political society'(or the state), and not just only the state, but an oppressive capitalist state. That is why Marx spoke of the dissolution of both the state and 'civil society' and not of reabsorption as Bobbio argues4.

Although Marx in his early works refers to this distinction, it seems as if he is already sceptical of the formulation that the two spheresare actually separate. At this stage Marx seems to have been using 'civil society' in a descriptive sense rather than an analytical sense ie. taking its separation from political society as a given, an outcome of bourgeois society. How-ever it is very clear from the above quotation that he was already giving an indication of how property relations, even in modern bourgeois society, are the foundation of 'civil society'.

What still remains unclear at this stage is whether this separation, which Marx acknowledges, is real or apparent. According to what Marx says, ie abstract dualism , we would argue that the separation is both real and apparent. It is real in so far as it is an expression of the actual liberation of serfs and turning them into modem citizens with voting rights. But at the same time it is apparent in that the separation between 'civil society' and the political society does not abolish inequalities based on property. It is important to quote Marx in full in his essay On the Jewish Question to illustrate this point:

And yet the political annulment of private property has not only not abolished private property, it actually presupposes it. The state does away with difference in birth, class, education, and profession in its own manner when it declares birth, class, education, and profession to be unpolitical differences, when it summons every member of the people to an equal participation in popular sovereignty without taking the difference into consideration, when it treats all elements of the people's real life from the point of view of the state. Nevertheless the state still allows private property, education, and profession to have an effect in their own manner, that is as private property, as education, as profession, and make their particular natures felt.5

Whilst the state, especially as embodied in bourgeois constitutions, claims to have abolished class, property and other social distinctions, by giving 'equal' status to all its citizens irrespective of these qualities, in actual fact the state is an embodiment of these distinctions in 'civil society'. From the above quotation it can also be concluded that Marx was becoming acutely aware of how bourgeois political institutions reify 'civil society' into a 'private sphere'. Such reification is projected ideologically in the separation of the political state from 'civil society'. Already, we would argue, from these early works Marx begins to anticipate the dissolution of this separation with the dissolution of bourgeois society. In fact he makes the following conclusion in On the Jewish Question:

The actual individual man must take the abstract citizen back into himself and, as an individual man in his empirical life, in his individual work and individual relationships become a species-being; man must recognise his own forces as social forces, organise them, and thus no longer separate social forces from himself in the form of political forces. Only when this has been achieved will human emancipation be completed.6

Our understanding of Marx's use of the concept is that from his very early works it is clear that a full understanding of 'civil society' will lead to the analysis of property relations. In other words, it is not by chance that Marx moves to economic studies, rather it is a further development of the analysis of the basis of 'civil society'. It is not his study of the capitalist economy that makes him discover the real nature of 'civil society', but it is his study of 'civil society' that leads him to unpack the 'hidden abode' of 'civil society' as the real motor of history. It is this particular under-standing that leads Marx to a materialist analysis and grasp of the state as simultaneously acting above society and an institutional expression of relations in ('civil') society.

From the above assertion we would then argue that at this early stage, the term 'civil society' is only used in order to show that to make the separation is a fragmented view of society. Already in this text he is laying the foundations for his later works and. a more proper conceptualisation of what has been referred to as 'civil society'. The following quotation is evidence of this:

Civil society embraces the whole material intercourse of individuals within a definite stage of the development of productive forces. It embraces the whole commercial and industrial life of a given stage and, in so far, transcends the state and the nation, though, an the other hand again. it must assert itself in its foreign relations as nationality. and inwardly must organise itself as state7

We have also been accused by a number of people in various presentations of our paper that we have used Marx and Engels' works in a theological sense, and that we are relying too much on Marx's early works. In responding to these criticisms we need to ask what the basis of all Marxism is, is it not Marx and Engels' works in particular? Besides we find Marx and Engels as relevant today as they were during the 19th century and even more so for on the question under discussion. This is not to suggest blind acceptance of everything that Marx and Engels say. We want to argue, however, that the cornerstone of Marxism is Marx and Engels' analysis and explanation of capitalist society and that communism offers the highest form of human emancipation. Any departure from this should be accepted as an abandonment of Marxism as a revolutionary science. As Marx explains that the ideological separation of 'civil society' and the state was a necessary precondition for class exploitation, his critique of 'civil society' forms the basis of his analysis of bourgeois societies. If Marx and Engels's works are no longer the theoretical foundations of Marxism this has to be argued and demonstrated. Similarly if Marx's early works are not useful at all, this also has to be demonstrated. In fact such criticisms of our work and usage of Marx and Engels seems to confirm our worst fears about the usage of the notion of 'civil society' by sections of the South African Left, that this is a prelude to the abandonment of Marxism and the socialist project. In fact such bland assertions about Marx and Engels, without any argumentation, are unMarxist to say the least!

'Civil society' in Gramsci's works

As we have already mentioned it is erroneous for Mayekiso to say that Gramsci understood 'civil society' to be only superstructural. It is argued here that in order to fully comprehend Gramsci's usage of the term one needs to understand the context within which he was using it. Gramsci's primary concern, particularly in his Prison Notebooks, is the under-standing of the question of contestation over state power. It is in this context for instance that he comes up with his concept of hegemony. We find this to be Gramsci's central concern, and even his understanding of the role of the state, intellectuals and the Party is firmly grounded in this concept.

Like Marx, Gramsci sees 'civil society' as the theatre of struggle and a terrain where real power is contested and in no way does he understand 'civil society' to be only superstructural.He compares 'civil society' to the trenches in modem warfare:

... in the case of the most advanced States ... 'civil society' has become a very complex structure and one which is resistant to the catastrophic 'incursions' of the immediate economic element (crises, depressions, etc). The superstructures d(our emphasis) civil society are like the trenches of modern war-fare. In war it would sometimes happen that a fierce artillery attack, seemed to have destroyed the enemy's entire defensive system, whereas in fact it had only destroyed the outer perimeter; and at the moment of their advance and attack the assailants would find themselves confronted by a line of defence which was still effective8

When Gramsci says, "The superstructures of civil society..." it further illustrates the point that in Gramsci 'civil society' is not only superstructural. However there is a new element that Gramsci introduces to the concept of 'civil society' ie. its resistance to change even in the face of serious political and economic changes or crises. It is not only the resilience of 'civil society' per se that he refers to here, but is pointing to a more fundamental phenomenon ie. the dominant group's hold over institutions of society, even if only ideologically, in spite of crises and changes.

Given the above, one would assume that Gramsci had a dualistic understanding of bourgeois society, as consisting of a 'resilient', sometimes 'autonomous' 'civil society', and repressive political society, when in fact he is merely illustrating the different ways in which a ruling class exercises power. In the light of the above we will still assert that Gramsci uses this distinction as a methodological rather than a structural or organic distinction, in order to demonstrate how hegemony operates, as Gramsci himself makes the point.

The main problem with Mayekiso's interpretation of Gramsci is that it is part of the emerging reformist reading of Gramsci 's works on 'civil society' in South Africa, which is heavily influenced by Bobbio's interpretation of Gramsci. For instance Mayekiso 's assertion that "...civil society interrelates dialectically with class divisions at the level of economic production and with the class state...", implies that class relations are external to 'civil society'. It is absurd, to say the least, that Gramsci would have asserted that, on the one hand ' civil society' is the theatre of struggle, and at the same time conceive of 'civil society' as only super-structural and devoid of economic class divisions. Otherwise what is the basis of such struggles in capitalist society?

We want to reiterate (and demonstrate since we are accused of digging up isolated quotations) that Gramsci's use of the concept is not inconsistent with the critique of the early Marx and Engels. Whilst Mayekiso fails to illustrate convincingly how he arrived at the conclusion to the contrary, he can only manage to say that the contradiction lies in that "...for the young Marx, civil society em-braces both the economic base as well as aspects of the superstructure...By contrast (our emphasis), Gramsci tends explicitly to locate civil society in the superstructure."9 Marx under-stood the connectedness of the economic base and the super-structures, but Marx became more interested in the mode of production and property relations in capitalist society (the material or economic base of 'civil society') and the state (a superstructure of 'civil society'). Gramsci's works, without any contradiction to Marx, focused on the superstructures of 'civil society' because this is where hegemony is achieved and this was his main concern. It is erroneous to conclude (when Gramsci says "What we can do, for the moment, is to fix two major superstructural 'levels': the one that can be called 'civil society'... and that of 'political society' or the 'state'.") that Gramsci understood 'civil society' to be only superstructural. If it is so then either Gramsci was not a Marxist or Mayekiso is not. We challenge Mayekiso in this regard to provide evidence on why Gramsci regarded 'civil society' as only superstructural.

'Working class civil society' or working class hegemony?

Given the above we would therefore argue that Mayekiso's notion of 'working class civil society' is not only theoretically unsustainable, but it is also ideological. In summary there are four main reasons why we say so.

Firstly, Mayekiso does not answer our most serious charge against protagonists of 'civil society', ie, the failure to relate the question of 'civil society' to the struggle for state and political power. Mayekiso simply re-asserts the same liberal arguments about' civil society' and then tries to give these arguments some revolutionary respectability by" simply adding 'working class' to 'civil society'. Mayekiso seems to think that a class analysis of civil society is undertaken if one prefixes 'civil society' with ' working class'. He precisely does this in order to avoid class analysis.

He avoids class analysis by his very problematic assertion that "...it is clear in South Africa that the most developed organs of civil society serve the bourgeoisie: their chambers of business, their wealthy Johannesburg north-em suburbs ratepayers associations, their parent-teachers associations, their sports clubs, heritage foundations, cultural associations, and so forth." He then continues to say, organs of 'civil society' do include bourgeois organisations and institutions but "For working class people...the organs of civil society include civic associations, trade unions, the women's groups, youth groups, churches, burial societies, and other organisations, formal and informal, that represent the interests of poor and working people."10 In this scenario then how does a' working class civil society' come about? Again, even in his latter formulation, it can be demonstrated quite easily that civics, women's groups, burial societies, and even trade unions are not always in the broader working class interests and at worst are not always progressive.

Secondly, building socialism is a working class political project. It is anomalous that Mayekiso argues for a 'working class civil society' without ever relating this to the question of contestation of state power which the bourgeoisie presently wields to oppress the working class in particular. Having shown the bourgeois roots of a 'civil society' separate from the state, the naivete of a 'working class civil society' becomes obvious. In fact this is where the ideological nature of this notion becomes clearer.

To even contemplate using the notion of 'working class civil society' shows the extent to which bourgeois ideology of separating 'civil society' and the state has been successful under capitalism, even with some of our own comrades. This notion is ideological in the Mandan sense. According to Marx and Engels bourgeois ideology is not a fictional presentation of reality but is rooted in material relations and conditions prevailing in society; yet bourgeois ideology is an inverted representation of that reality.

The working class struggle is not about the seizure or transformation of 'civil society' into a working class 'civil society', as Mayekiso's argument imply, but it is about the fundamental transformation of capitalist society. Such transformation also implies that the distinction between the state and 'civil society' must progressively disappear, since such a distinction is the embodiment of the alienation, exploitation and oppression of the working class under capitalism.

Thirdly, whilst Mayekiso agrees that the classics are consistent in seeing 'civil society' as a contested terrain, he continues to talk about two 'civil societies' - working class and bourgeois 'civil societies', as if 'civil society can be owned by one particular class. We would rather talk about working class hegemony in society.

Lastly, and perhaps the most serious problem with Mayekiso's argument is that he approaches the task of building democracy only from the perspective of township civic organisations. Whilst this approach is understandable coming from an activist in civic organisations, it should never be presented as the totality of the tasks involved in building democracy.

For communists, the task is not to look at the working class only in relation to its role in 'civil society' another implication of the notion of 'working class civil society' - but to be equally concerned with state power and the attainment of a proletarian state.


1. Mayekiso, M (1992) "Working class civil society" in The African Communist, 2nd Quarter, No.129

2. in McLellan, D (ed) (1977) Karl Marx: Selected Writings London: Oxford University Press p.30

3. Horn, P.(1992), "I am not convinced", The African Communist, no.129, 2nd Quarter, 1992, p,42.

4. Bobbio, N. (1988) Which Socialism? London: Polity Press.

5. in McLellan, D op cif, p.45

6. ibid., p.57

7. ibid - emphases added

8. Hoare, Q and Smith, GN (1971) (eds) Selections from the prison notebooks of Antonio Gramsci London: Lawrence and Wishart p.235

9. Mayekiso, M op.cit, p.34.

10. ibid., p.33.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.