Antonio Gramsci 1891-1937

Antonio Gramsci. State and Civil Society


Caesar, Napoleon I, Napoleon III, Cromwell, etc. Compile a catalogue of the historical events which have culminated in a great "heroic" personality.

Caesarism can be said to express a situation in which the forces in conflict balance each other in a catastrophic manner; that is to say, they balance each other in such a way that a continuation of the conflict can only terminate in their reciprocal destruction. When the progressive force A struggles with the reactionary force B, not only may A defeat B or B defeat A, but it may happen that neither A nor B defeats to other – that they bleed each other mutually and then a third force C intervenes from outside, subjugating what is left of both A and B. It Italy, after the death of Lorenzo il Magnifico, this is precisely what occurred.9

But Caesarism – although it always expresses the particular solution in which a great personality is entrusted with the task of "arbitration" over a historico-political situation characterised by an equilibrium of forces heading towards catastrophe – does not in all cases have the same historical significance. There can be both progressive and reactionary forms of Caesarism; the exact significance of each form can, in the last analysis, be reconstructed only through concrete history, and not by means of any sociological rule of thumb. Caesarism is progressive when its intervention helps the progressive force to triumph, albeit with its victory tempered by certain compromises and limitations. It is reactionary when its intervention helps the reactionary force to triumph – in this case too with certain compromises and limitations, which have, however, a different value, extent, and significance than in the former. Caesar and Napoleon I are examples of progressive Caesarism, Napoleon III and Bismarck of reactionary Caesarism.

The problem is to see whether in the dialectic "revolution/restoration" it is revolution or restoration which predominates; for it is certain that in the movement of history there is never any turning back, and that restorations in toto do not exist. Besides, Caesarism is a polemical-ideological formula, and not a canon of historical interpretation. A Caesarist solution can exist even without a Caesar, without any great, "heroic" and representative personality. The parliamentary system has also provided a mechanism for such compromise solutions. The "Labour" governments of MacDonald were to a certain degree solutions of this kind; and the degree of Caesarism increased when the government was formed which had MacDonald as its head and a Conservative majority.10 Similarly in Italy from October 1922 until the defection of the "Popolari", and then by stages until 3 January 1925, and then until 8 November 1926,11 there was a politico-historical movement in which various gradations of Caesarism succeeded each other, culminating in a more pure and permanent form – though even this was not static or immobile. Every coalition government is a first stage of Caesarism, which either may or may not develop to more significant stages (the common opinion of course is that coalition governments, on the contrary, are the most "solid bulwark" against Caesarism). In the modern world, with its great economic-trade-union and party-political conditions, the mechanism of the Caesarist phenomenon is very different from what it was up to the time of Napoleon III. In the period up to Napoleon III, the regular military forces or soldiers of the line were a decisive element in the advent of Caesarism, and this came about through quite precise coups d'état, through military actions, etc. In the modern world trade-union and political forces, with the limitless financial means which may be at the disposal of small groups of citizens, complicate the problem. The functionaries of the parties and economic unions can be corrupted or terrorised, without any need for military action in the grand style – of the Caesar or 18 Brumaire type. The same situation recurs in this field as was examined in connection with the Jacobin/Forty-eightist formula of the so-called "Permanent Revolution". Modern political technique became totally transformed after Forty-eight; after the expansion of parliamentarism and of the associative systems of union and party, and the growth in the formation of vast State and "private" bureaucracies (i.e. politico-private, belonging to parties and trade unions); and after the transformations which took place in the organisation of the forces of order in the wide sense – i.e. not only the public service designed for the repression of crime, but the totality of forces organised by the State and by private individuals to safeguard the political and economic domination of the ruling classes. In this sense, entire "political" parties and other organisations — economic or otherwise – must be considered as organs of political order, of an investigational and preventive character. The generic schema of forces A and B in conflict with catastrophic prospects – i.e., with the prospect that neither A nor B will be victorious, in the struggle to constitute (or reconstitute) an organic equilibrium, from which Caesarism is born (can be born) – is precisely a generic hypothesis, a sociological schema (convenient of the art of politics). It is possible to render the hypothesis ever more concrete, to carry it to an ever greater degree of approximation to concrete historical reality, and this can be acheived by defining certain fundamental elements.

Thus, in speaking of A and B, it has merely been asserted that they are respectively a generically progressive, and a generically reactionary, force. But one might specify the type of progressive and reactionary force involved, and so obtain closer approximations. In the case of Caesar and Napoleon I, it can be said that A and B, though distinct and in conflict, were nevertheless not such as to be "absolutely" incapable of arriving, after a molecular process, at a reciprocal fusion and assimilation. And this was what in fact happened, at least to a certain degree (sufficient, however, for the historico-political objectives in question – i.e. the halting of the fundamental organic struggle, and hence the transcendence of the catastrophic phase). This is one element of closer approximation. Another such element is the following: the catastrophic phase may be brought about by a "momentary" political deficiency of the traditional dominant force, and not by any necessarily insuperable organic deficiency. This was true in the case of Napoleon III. The dominant force in France from 1815 to 1848 had split politically (factiously) into four camps: legitimists, Orleanists, Bonapartists, Jacobin-republicans. The internal faction struggle was such as to make possible the advance of the rival force B (progressive) in a precocious form; however, the existing social form had not yet exhausted its possibilities for development, as subsequent history abundantly demonstrated. Napoleon III represented (in its own manner, as fitted the stature of the man, which was not great) these latent and immanent possibilities: his Caesarism therefore has a particular coloration. The Caesarism of Caesar and Napoleon I was, so to speak, of a quantitative/qualitative character; in other words it represented the historical phase of the passage from one type of State to another type – a passage in which the innovations were so numerous, and of such a nature, that they represented a complete revolution. The Caesarism of Napoleon III was merely, and in a limited fashion, quantitative; there was no passage from one type of State to another, but only "evolution" of the same type along unbroken lines.

In the modern world, Caesarist phenomena are quite different, both from those of the Napoleon III type – although they tend towards the latter. In the modern world, the equilibrium with catastrophic prospects occurs not between forces which could in the last analysis fuse and unite – albeit after a wearying and bloody process – but between forces whose opposition is historically incurable and indeed becomes especially acute with the advent of Caesarist forms. However, in the modern world Caesarism also has a certain margin – larger or smaller, depending on the country and its relative weight in the global context. For a social form "always" has marginal possibilities for further development and organisational improvement, and in particular can count on the relative weakness of the rival progressive force as a result of its specific character and way of life. It is necessary for the dominant social form to preserve this weakness: this is why it has been asserted that modern Caesarism is more a police than a military system.   [1933-34: 1st version 1932]

It would be an error of method (an aspect of sociological mechanicism) to believe that in Caesarism – whether progressive, reactionary, or of an intermediate and episodic character – the entire new historical phenomenon is due to the equilibrium of the "fundamental" forces. It is also necessary to see the interplay of relations between the principal groups (of various kinds, socio-economic and technical-economic) of the fundamental classes and the auxiliary forces directed by, or subjected to, their hegemonic influence. Thus it would be impossible to understand the coup d'état of 2 December12 without studying the function of the French military groups and peasantry.

A very important historical episode from this point of view is the so-called Dreyfus affair in France. This too belongs to the present series of observations, not because it led to "Caesarism", indeed precisely for the opposite reason: because it prevented the advent of a Caesarism in gestation, of a clearly reactionary nature. Nevertheless, the Dreyfus movement is characteristic, since it was a case in which elements of the dominant social bloc itself thwarted the Caesarism of the most reactionary part of that same bloc. And they did so by relying for support not on the peasantry and the countryside, but on the subordinate strata in the towns under the leadership of reformist socialists (though they did in fact draw support from the most advanced part of the peasantry as well). There are other modern historico-political movements of the Dreyfus type to be found, which are certainly not revolutions, but which are not entirely reationary either – at least in the sense that they shatter stifling and ossified State structures in the dominant camp as well, and introduce into national life and social activity a different and more numerous personnel.13 These movements too can have a relatively "progressive" content, in so far as they indicate that there were effective forces latent in the old society which the old leaders did not know how to exploit – perhaps even "marginal forces". However, such forces cannot be absolutely progressive, in that they are not "epochal". They are rendered historically effective by the adversary's inability to construct, not by an inherent force of their own. Hence they are linked to a particular situation of equilibrium between the conflicting forces – both incapable in their respective camps of giving autonomous expression to a will for reconstruction.   [1933]

8. As is clear from another note (Passato e presente, p. 189) this term was suggested to Gramsci by the analogy commonly drawn in fascist Italy between Caesar and Mussolini. Gramsci pours scorn on the "theory of Mussolini", on the idea that Caesar "transformed Rome from a city-state into the capital of the Empire" – and by implication on the idea that Mussolini had effected a similar transformation in the status of modern Italy.

9. The death of Lorenzo in 1492 marked the end of the internal balance of power between the Italian states, and the beginning of the period of foreign domination which was to last until the Risorgimento.

10. i.e. the formation of the National Government after MacDonald's abandonment of the Labour Party in 1931.

11. October 22 was the date of the March on Rome. The Popular Party at first supported the fascists in pariament and joined the government. In the summer of 1923, however, it split on the issue of policy towards the fascists, and in the elections of January 1924 it presented its own lists of candidates. After the elections it refused to join a common front of opposition parties. On 3 January 1925, the fascist government suppressed freedom of the press. On 9 November 1926 the opposition parties were formally dissolved, and non-fascist deputies were declared to be stripped of their mandates – Gramsci among them (he was arrested on the same day).

12. i.e. the coup d'état whereby Louis Napoleon came to power.

13. This passage appears to refer to fascism again – particularly if it is related to the passage on "Self-criticism and the Hypocrisy of Self-criticism", where Gramsci makes similar points about the non-"epochal" character of the régime, and about its "relatively" progressive character vis-à-vis the preceding bourgeois régime. In another passage, Gramsci is careful to stress that it is important in making any such judgement "to exclude the slightest appearance of support for the 'absolutist' tendency, and that can be achieved by insisting on the 'transitory' character of the phenomenon ...".