= refers to a Civil Society tradition within Marxism
* Article: For a Sociological Marxism: The Complementary Convergence of Antonio Gramsci and Karl Polanyi MICHAEL BURAWOY. POLITICS & SOCIETY, Vol. 31 No. 2, June 2003 193-261
"The postcommunist age calls for a Sociological Marxism that gives pride of place to
society alongside but distinct from state and economy. This Sociological Marxism
can be traced to the writings of Gramsci and Polanyi. Hailing from different social
worlds and following different Marxist traditions, both converged on a similar critique and transcendence of Classical Marxism. For Gramsci advanced capitalism is
marked by the expansion of civil society, which, with the state, acts to stabilize class
relations and provide a terrain for challenging capitalism. For Polanyi expansion of
the market threatens society, which reacts by (re)constituting itself as active society,
thereby harboring the embryo of a democratic socialism. This article appropriates
“society” as a Marxist concept and deploys it to interpret the rise and fall of communist orders, the shift from politics of class to politics of recognition, the transition
from colonialism to postcolonialism, and the development of an emergent transnationalism."
"The three foundational claims of classical Marxism will be replaced by three
postulates of Sociological Marxism. In discussing each postulate we begin with a
Gramscian formulation, point to its shortcomings, and show how Polanyi might
come to Gramsci’s aid.
1. Instead of the capitalist economy sowing the seeds of its own demise, capitalism creates an active society or civil society that contains but does not end tendencies toward crisis
and contradiction. Whereas Gramsci makes civil society
central to his analysis, he has little comprehension of its genesis, why it might
appear in some nations and not in others. By looking upon society as a reaction
to the market, Polanyi points to a theory of its origins.
2. Instead of class struggle intensifying with the polarization of class structure,
class struggle is organized on the terrain of active society or civil society.
Whereas Gramsci has a convincing analysis of hegemony as the organization
of class struggle within limits of capitalism, he does not have a theory of
counterhegemony. While Polanyi does not comprehend the power of capitalist
hegemony, his displacement of experience from production to exchange creates the grounds for a potential counterhegemony.
3. Instead of the spontaneous maturing of the conditions of socialism as capitalist
forces of production are fettered, socialism is a political project ― the subordination of the economy to self-regulating society. Given that there is no inevitable final crisis of
capitalism and class struggle does not necessarily intensify,
so diverse political projects form within capitalism―fascism, social democracy, as well as socialism. For Gramsci, three factors shape political trajectories: historic legacies, the
balance of class forces in organic crises, and national
models as carried by intellectuals. If Gramsci’s analysis centers on the national
level, Polanyi’s analysis of reactions to markets operates at local, national, and global levels. "
"As capitalism rebuilds itself
so must Marxism. It is after all a theoretical tradition that claims ideas change with
the material world they seek to grasp and transform. Thus, every epoch fashions
its own Marxism, elaborating that tradition to tackle the problems of the day. In
this article I offer the outlines of a Sociological Marxism that emerges from the
hitherto unexamined and unexpected convergence of the mid-twentieth-century
writings of Karl Polanyi and Antonio Gramsci. That they both, independently,
converged on the concept of “society” from very different Marxist traditions suggests they were grappling with something novel and important. Indeed, it is the
thesis of Sociological Marxism that the dynamism of “society,” primarily located
between state and economy, is a key to the durability and transcendence of
advanced capitalism, just as its fragility proved to be the downfall of Soviet communism. I shall try to show how the elaboration of Sociological Marxism is also
well adapted to the postcommunist age, one that is dominated by a triumphant
global capitalism that is proving astonishingly effective in discrediting and dis-
solving all alternatives to itself.
The Frankfurt School developed gloomy
theories of the (ir)rationality and durability of capitalism, and part of that gloom
came from German sociology.
Still, there was another Western Marxism, which did not succumb to the
despair of the time but drew on a heavy dose of idealist thought to establish the
foundations of Sociological Marxism. Its two major exponents were Antonio
Gramsci and Karl Polanyi, widely influential but nonetheless idiosyncratic in the
seriousness with which they treated the notion of society. Even though they took
very different paths, they exploited the idea of society to retain both socialist
vision and a close connection to the working class. But first and foremost, “society” was a conceptual innovation to grasp the longevity of capitalism, its failure to
succumb to the laws that Marx had laid down for it. In this way Sociological
Marxism finally begins to grapple with the meaning of society, something sociology has singularly failed to do.
In Marxist hands society is not a general notion that applies transhistorically to
ancient and medieval worlds, tribal and complex systems, traditional and modern
orders, embracing all the separate and functionally independent institutions that
together form a coherent and bounded whole. Rather, Gramsci and Polanyi endow
their notions of society with historical specificity. For Gramsci, society is civil
society, which is always understood in its contradictory connection to the state.
Civil society refers to the growth of trade unions, political parties, mass education,
and other voluntary associations and interest groups, all of which proliferated in
Europe and the United States toward the end of the nineteenth century. At the
same time, new forms of transportation (automobiles, railroad), communication
(postal service, newspapers), and regulation (police) connected people to one
another as well as to the state. On the one hand, civil society collaborates with the
state to contain class struggle, and on the other hand, its autonomy from the state
can promote class struggle.
For Polanyi society is what I call active society, which is always understood in
its contradictory tension with the market. Polanyi is not always clear about what
populates active society, but in nineteenth-century England it includes trade
unions, cooperatives, the organization of the factory movement to curtail the
length of the working day, the Chartist movement to extend political rights, and
rudimentary development of political parties. On the one hand, the market tends to
destroy society, but on the other hand, society (re)acts to defend itself and to subordinate the market. Polanyi often refers to society as having a reality of its own,
acting on its own behalf, whereas Gramsci understands civil society as a terrain of
struggle. For both, however, “society” occupies a specific institutional space
within capitalism between economy and the state, but where “civil society” spills
into the state, “active society” interpenetrates the market. For both, socialism is
the subordination of market and state to the self-regulating society, what Gramsci
calls the regulated society.
It is perhaps strange to link Gramsci and Polanyi. They are rarely seen as paral-
lel or even connected thinkers.14 Gramsci, after all, is firmly located within the
Marxist tradition, preoccupied with Lenin’s questions of power and domination,
his unique contribution being to bring culture and ideology to the center of politi-
cal analysis. Subjecting sociology to withering criticism, Gramsci’s kinship with
Durkheim and Weber is easily missed.15 Polanyi, by contrast, is often associated
with Weber’s analysis of economy and adopts as his own Durkheim’s signature
tune, the “reality of society.” With Weber, Polanyi insists on the place of the state
in forging and then regulating a market economy. Today, Peter Evans takes this
Weberian Polanyi further with his concept of “embedded autonomy.” With
Durkheim, Polanyi insists on the social underpinnings of the market, Durkheim’s
celebrated non-contractual elements of contract, as well as non-contractual society. Mark Granovetter represents this Durkheimian Polanyi with his insistence on
social networks as a precondition of market exchange.17 The connection of
Polanyi to Gramsci is made all the more unlikely by Polanyi’s focus on the realm
of exchange rather than production, and by Polanyi’s frequent dismissal of “popu-
The defining divergence of both Polanyi and Gramsci from classical Marxism
is the periodization of capitalism based not on its economy but on the appearance
of active society/civil society. For Polanyi, society counters the market, while for
Gramsci, it is an extension of the state. For both, it acts as the foundation of a new
form of “organized” or “regulated” capitalism, creating new possibilities and
obstacles for a world within and beyond capitalism. But where does this “society”
come from? How is it born? Here the two theorists part company: Gramsci has
surprisingly little to say about its origins, whereas Polanyi traces it to the market
revolution but in so doing makes a series of questionable assumptions and claims."
Gramsci: The Political Functions of Civil Society
"Gramsci’s prison writings are an attempt to come to terms with the failure of
revolution in the West, and more specifically with the rise of fascism in Italy. After
the occupation of the factories in Turin fizzled out and after the various postwar
struggles of workers in other European countries, especially in Germany, came to
naught, his theoretical attention turned increasingly to the importance of political
parties, ideology, and the state. He identified the rise of a new form of domination,
The “normal” exercise of hegemony on the now classical terrain of the parliamentary
regime is characterised by the combination of force and consent, which balance each other
reciprocally, without force predominating excessively over consent. Indeed, the attempt is
always made to ensure that force will appear to be based on the consent of the majority.
Force never disappears but recedes in visibility as the arena of consent
expands. Force moves offstage to be mobilized against individual deviants and in
anticipation of moments of crisis.41 If sociologists contrast social order sustained
by “value consensus” with a social order sustained by fear of coercion, Gramsci’s
hegemony explicitly connects the two. Thus, consent is not to be understood as the
sociologist’s “spontaneous consensus” that holds society together but rather as
something that is organized through specific institutions and always (and necessarily) backed up by the potential application of force.
Specifically, the new form of domination finds its positive institutional expression in the expansion of the state to embrace what Althusser later calls “ideological state apparatuses,” including specifically education and the law but also, what
Gramsci merely glimpsed, namely welfare agencies. Hegemony is not just “political,” however, it is also “civil”; that is to say, it involves not just the expansion but
also the extension of the state to the newly constituted civil society, the complex of
institutions and organizations that stand between state and economy. Gramsci,
thereby, introduces a new periodization of capitalism, one that is no longer
defined by the transformation of the economy but by the presence or absence of a
sturdy civil society connected to an expanded state.
The rise of a civil society, connected to the state, marks not only different periods of capitalism but different regions of capitalism. It applies to “modern States”
but not to backward countries or colonies.42 Here Gramsci draws the distinction
between “East” and “West.”
In Russia the state was everything, civil society was primordial and gelatinous: in the West,
there was a proper relation between State and civil society, and when the State trembled a
sturdy structure of civil society was at once revealed. The State was only the outer ditch,
behind which there stood a powerful system of fortresses and earthworks: more or less
numerous from one State to the next, it goes without saying―but this precisely necessitated an accurate reconnaissance of each individual country.
If early capitalism, colonialism, or “backward states” such as Russia might succumb to frontal assault, what Gramsci called War of Movement, then advanced
capitalism calls for an entirely new strategy, a War of Position, that would slowly
conquer the “trenches” of civil society before seizing state power.
The massive structures of modern democracies, both as State organisations, and as complexes of associations in civil society, constitute for the art of politics as it were the
“trenches” and the permanent fortifications of the front in the war of position: they render
merely “partial” the element of movement which before used to be “the whole” of war,etc.
Civil society smothers any attempt to seize state power directly, so that revolutionary activity involves the slow, patient work of reorganizing associations, trade
unions, parties, schools, legal system, and so forth. The political strategy of War of
Movement, what we might call “classical revolution,” the rapid and incisive conquest of the State, belongs to an earlier period,
in which the great mass political parties and the great economic trade unions did not yet
exist, and society was still, so to speak, in a state of fluidity from many points of view:
greater backwardness of the countryside, and almost complete monopoly of political and
State power by a few cities or even by a single one (Paris in the case of France); a relatively
rudimentary State apparatus, and greater autonomy of civil society from State activity; a
specific system of military forces and of national armed services; greater autonomy of the
national economies from the economic relations of the world market, etc.
Whenever Gramsci talks of state and civil society he refers to their political
functions with respect to the organization of class struggle. Indeed, by his definition the state, potentially, could embrace any institution: “the State is the entire
complex of practical and theoretical activities with which the ruling class not only
justifies and maintains its dominance, but manages to win the active consent of
those over whom it rules.”46 To talk of functions, however, avoids the question of
origins. Where does this new sturdy civil society with its close connection to the
state come from? At different points Gramsci hints “that the continuous development of the economic apparatus of production” requires raising the “civilization
and morality of the broadest popular masses,”47 but the exact mechanisms, leading
to this new configuration of ditches, fortresses, and earthworks, are never studied.
As so often with functional analysis, institutions appear because they have to!
Gramsci may be silent about the mechanisms for the general expansion and
extension of the modern state, still he is very interested in the source of one of its
specific forms, namely Italian fascism, in which the state absorbs and regulates
civil society. His analysis focuses on fascism’s class origins: first, the absence of
peasant revolt; second, a repressive agrarian social structure inaccessible to work-
ing class; and third, a reactionary coalition of landed classes and bourgeoisie.
Gramsci’s point of reference is the French Revolution in which the Jacobins
harnessed a revolutionary peasantry under the leadership of the bourgeoisie.
The Jacobins, consequently, were the only party of the revolution in progress, in as much as
they not only represented the immediate needs and aspirations of the actual physical individuals who constituted the French bourgeoisie, but they also represented the revolutionary
movement as a whole, as an integral historical development. For they represented the
future needs as well, and, once again, not only the needs of those particular physical individuals, but also of all the national groups which had to be assimilated to the existing
The Italian counterpart to the Jacobins, Garibaldi’s Action Party, was spineless
and dependent, unable to make up for the backwardness of the Italian bourgeoisie.
It failed to champion land reform that might have girded the peasantry into a revolutionary force. Instead of leading the bourgeoisie in a forging of national hegemony, it became
involved in a competitive struggle with the conservative Moderate Party that held political sway in the movement for the unification of Italy, the
Risorgimento. This national unification was, from Gramsci’s comparative perspective, a top-down affair, a passive revolution―a revolution without a revolution, a molecular process
known as trasformismo. It did not establish a vibrant
civil society that would have been the bulwark of liberal democracy.
The legacies of passive revolution were not only a weak civil society but also a
limited socialist movement. Bereft of revolutionary traditions, the Southern peasantry was held in a feudal vice by their overlords, clerics, teachers, and civil servants, an array of
traditional intellectuals. When the industrial workers of Northern Italy had their revolutionary moments after World War I, they were isolated.
They could not extend their factory occupations beyond the narrow confines of
Turin not only because the peasantry was inaccessible but because they faced a
reactionary power bloc forged between the southern landed classes and the northern bourgeoisie. Still, after the First World War, class struggle did intensify, but
the political crisis that ensued had a fascist rather than a socialist denouement. The
socialists and then communists lost control (if they ever had it) of civil society,
giving way to fascism that turned society into an instrument of its dictatorship.
What Gramsci offers is a comparative history of the particular configurations
of state and civil society found in advanced capitalism but not a more general theory of the origins of civil society. For a study of the general mechanisms of its
appearance, Gramsci substituted a functional analysis, a theory of how capitalism
was well served by civil society. Still this was a revolutionary breakthrough in
Marxist thinking, elaborating Lenin’s theory of the state by, first, expanding the
meaning of the state to include positive as well as repressive apparatuses and, second, extending the state to include civil society. He discovered a new form of domination, hegemony,
that transformed both the meaning and the strategy of socialism. Even if he did not have a well-elaborated theory of the origins of the
institutions of hegemony, he did suggest a line of argument that gave centrality to
class forces and class alliances. Polanyi takes the analysis of the class origins of
society much further by shifting the terrain of examination from the political to
the economic and, within the economic, from production to exchange."
Polanyi: The Economic Genesis of Society
"As we know Polanyi’s point of reference was not Italy but England, not politics
and the bourgeois revolution but economics and the market revolution, not the formation of a national bourgeoisie but the formation of national markets. Still, the
lynchpin of his analysis is “society,” or more precisely “active society.” Moreover,
its appearance coincides temporally with Gramsci’s civil society.
In the half-century 1879-1929, Western societies developed into closely knit units, in
which powerful disruptive strains were latent. . . . Since society was made to conform to the
needs of the market mechanism, imperfections in the functioning of that mechanism, created cumulative strains in the body social.
A market economy requires an active society. With the ascendancy of the market
as the dominant mode of economic regulation, society molds itself to the market
and thus becomes a conduit of its tensions and contradictions.
Instead of economy being embedded in social relations, social relations are embedded in
the economic system. . . . For once the economic system is organized in separate institutions, based on specific motives and conferring a special status, society must be shaped in
such a manner as to allow that system to function according to its own laws.
But what does it mean for society to allow the market to function “according to its
It means that three key factors of production―labor, land, and money ― must
be protected against commodification. To reduce labor to a commodity that is
bought and sold is to destroy its distinctively human character upon which
depends its usefulness. Equally, to commodify land is to threaten the environment
and agriculture whereupon land also loses its use value. Finally, to commodify
money is to create such uncertainty as to imperil the very process of exchange.
Once again, reduction to exchange-value undermines use-value. Society must
react against the market’s tendency to create these three fictitious commodities.
“This was the one comprehensive feature in the history of the age (nineteenth century).”
What guarantees society’s reaction, what promotes social protection
against commodification? Are we back again, with Gramsci, to a crude functionalism, in which “the reality of society” enters deus ex machina to spontaneously
contain commodification? Not quite! Societal restraints on the market are
impelled by class forces that are historically contingent.
Polanyi rests his case for the class origins of society on the peculiar history of
England. He devotes much space to Speenhamland, a rudimentary system of welfare that subsidizes wages and creates a dependent working class stripped of self-
organizing capacity. With Speenhamland’s repeal in 1834 an anemic working
class is thrown into the jaws of the market, forcing it to fight for its very existence.
If Speenhamland had prevented the emergence of a working class, now the laboring poor
were being formed into such a class by the pressure of an unfeeling mechanism. If under
Speenhamland the people had been take care of as none too precious beasts deserve to be,
now they were expected to take care of themselves, with all the odds against them. If
Speenhamland meant the snug misery of degradation, now the laboring man was homeless
in society. If Speenhamland had overworked the values of neighborhood, family, and rural
surroundings, now man was detached from home and kin, torn from his roots and all mean-
ingful environment. In short, if Speenhamland meant the rot of immobility, now the peril
was that of death through exposure.
For the working class to survive, it had to organize itself in its self-defense. “The
abolishment of Speenhamland was the true birthday of the modern working class,
whose immediate self-interest destined them to become the protectors of society
against the intrinsic dangers of the machine civilization.” This demoralized,
lethargic, disoriented working class spontaneously sprung to life in defense of
“society,” against the onslaught of the market.
In this account the creation of a resilient active society is coterminous with the
creation of such working-class institutions as trade unions and cooperatives, as
well as passing legislation, such as the factory acts, that limit labor’s commodification. In short, once the old community was destroyed, society expanded under
the seismic pressure of class forces. But do such class forces always spring to the
defense of society? Reading Polanyi’s description of England one might think so,
but turning to his analysis of colonialism one readily realizes that there are specific conditions for the birth of society. In colonialism, the weakness of society’s
reaction prompts a cultural and social catastrophe that destroys precapitalist community of kinship, neighborhood, profession, and creed, in other words, all forms
of indigenous, organic society.55 One condition in particular, absent but necessary
for a resilient society, is sovereignty. Without an independent state, argues
Polanyi, colonial society could not protect itself against ravaging international
trade and imperialism. This is what distinguishes the European power from its
We can now see further parallels between Gramsci and Polanyi. Just as
Gramsci distinguished between “West” and “East” on the basis of the strength of
civil society, so Polanyi distinguishes between England and her colonies on the
basis of society’s reaction to the market. The parallels continue into the origins of
the cases that are of most immediate interest to them, namely two pathological
forms of society―political despotism (fascism) in the one case and market despotism (self-regulating market) in the other. Just as Gramsci was preoccupied with
the consequences of passive revolution that characterized the top-down Italian
Unification in the second half of the nineteenth century, so Polanyi was preoccupied with another species of passive revolution, the reactionary paternalism of the
Speenhamland system of parish welfare. Just as Gramsci saw the Risorgimento as
an elite maneuver that kept the peasantry firmly subordinated to feudal hierarchies, so Speenhamland was introduced at the end of the eighteenth century to trap
labor into bondage to local landed classes. Both the Risorgimento and
Speenhamland were designed to prevent revolution (political and market, respectively), and both depended on the pacification of the subaltern classes.
The parallels don’t stop here. Let us take a closer look at the Speenhamland
system ― a system of poor relief that subsidized wages by bringing them up to a
minimum level, based on the price of bread. With wages guaranteed, employers
had every interest in paying workers only the barest minimum and turning them
over to the parish for the rest. The system was demoralizing for workers because
they had no incentive to contribute labor, their life-giving force, since their
incomes did not depend upon it. As the drain on the resources of the parish
increased so the “aid in wages” and the minimum they could sustain fell further
and further below subsistence. Far from abolishing indigence, dependency, pauperism, and work shirking, Speenhamland made it universal. If the intent was to
protect workers from the labor market, in reality it drew every shred of independence from the sinews of the working class. Polanyi spares no language in condemning Speenhamland as an
abomination, the source of popular demoralization,
a crime against humanity, lacerating the laboring class and leading to the worst
form of dependent pauperism. In its hands “the right to live” became a “sickness
unto death.” Its corrosive effects prompted the liberal creed of Malthus, Ricardo
and Townsend, a utopian faith in the market as universal panacea that then underwrote the abolition of all outdoor poor relief in the new Poor Law of 1834.
Curiously, Gramsci condemned the rural hierarchies in much the same terms,
numbing the peasantry into passivity, subjugating them to all manner of traditional intellectuals, from school teachers to petty officials, from clergy to the
grand intellectuals of the Mezzogiorno. He too contrasted the stifling rural communities with the exploding working class, exploited but nonetheless free to forge
history on its own terrain. Gramsci was hopeful for a rural-urban alliance of subaltern classes, while Polanyi considered the abolition of Speenhamland to be sufficient to liberate
the working class. In the end the Risorgimento deepened into fascism, whereas Speenhamland was swept away in the market revolution."
Polanyi: Societal Interest and the Market
"Although Gramsci is hostile to any deterministic laws of history, there is no
doubt that there is a preferred end point, namely socialism, and it is from this
standpoint that he views all trajectories of history. As we shall see, the same is true
of Polanyi, and he too privileges a conjunctural view of history in which alternative trajectories are always possible. Indeed, his close attention to English history
on the one side and his concern with multiple outcomes in other countries ―
communism, fascism, and social democracy―underscore his own revulsion for
any inevitability about the future. There was nothing necessary about the emergence of the market as we saw in his quite contingent account of the rise and fall of
Speenhamland. Only once the “self-regulating” market was ascendant in England
did it spread across the globe, albeit unevenly, generating different waves of reaction and different political solutions, one of which, at least, was potentially socialism.
Instead of Gramsci’s analysis of the three moments of any conjuncture (economic, political, and military), Polanyi shifts the focus of his analysis to a com-
pletely different realm, to his three fictitious commodities (land, labor, and
money). Commodification destroys their true character. As we have already
observed, this triple commodification sets the stage for the mobilization of classes
against the corrosive effects of markets. In England, workers counter the dehumanization of labor with the cooperative movement, trade unionism, and
Chartism. Through several channels manufacturers are, thereby, prevented from
pursuing blind selfish interest. With respect to land, the agrarian classes introduced environmental laws and tariffs to protect their interests in agriculture. With
respect to money, the interests of all classes are affected. Fluctuating exchange
rates on an open world market have devastating consequences for businesses and
thus for all. There is a common national interest in the constitution of national cur-
rencies protected by a central bank.
If commodification sets the stage for the reaction of classes, what determines
the actual mobilization of classes and the organization of class interests once the
active society appears? Is there an equivalent to Gramsci’s three levels of class
formation? Just as Gramsci regarded narrow economic-corporate or even economic class interests as a limited basis for class organization, so Polanyi repeatedly says that the
mobilization of “sectional” or “narrow class interest” cannot
deliver intended results. As in Gramsci’s notion of hegemony, Polanyi’s classes
are more effective when they defend the general interest. But here is where
Polanyi and Gramsci part company. This general interest is not another name for
the interests of capitalism, but it represents a societal interest. “Ultimately, what
made things happen were the interests of society as a whole, though their defense
fell primarily to one section of the population in preference to another.” Thus, in
nineteenth-century England the landed classes often represented the societal
interest against commodification. They were at the forefront of legislation to regulate the length of the working day and thereby represented the interests of the
working class against exploitation. At other times, it appears that the working
class was at the forefront in defending its own interests as societal interests. Capitalists, too, could be at the vanguard of defending the general interest when they
oppose open exchange rates. Classes compete with one another to represent their
own interests in terms of the preservation and expansion of society.
This is what Polanyi presumably means when he writes, “The fate of classes is
much more often determined by the needs of society than the fate of society is
determined by the needs of classes.”77 When classes struggle for their own sectional interests they are going to be ineffectual, but when they struggle to defend
or expand society, then they are likely to be much more successful. In other words,
for Polanyi, society is the transcendent historical category and not class! That is
why he so strongly insists on “the reality of society,” and why we refer to his “society” as “active society.” He substitutes the movement from “society-in-itself” to
“society-for-itself” for the conventional “class-in-itself” to “class-for-itself.”
Socialism is none other than the society realizing its potential: “Socialism is,
essentially, the tendency inherent in an industrial civilization to transcend the self-regulating market by consciously subordinating it to democratic society.”78
There’s more than a whiff of teleology here! Socialism may not be inevitable,
but “an inherent tendency of industrial civilization” is not far off. We are reminded
of Eduard Bernstein’s evolutionary socialism with its law-like expansion of
democracy from the political to the economic arena. On the other hand, there are a
few hints here and there that the transition is not going to be an easy ride and that
the elimination of private property is not a smooth, frictionless process.
From the point of view of the economic system, it [socialism] is, on the contrary, a radical
departure from the immediate past, insofar as it breaks with the attempt to make private
money gains the general incentive to productive activities, and does not acknowledge the
right of private individuals to dispose of the main instruments of production.
Polanyi never addresses how this “radical departure from the immediate past,”
this rupture, will take place. His failure to interrogate and problematize the transition to socialism is rooted in his failure to appreciate the strength of class domination.
Talking of a tendency inherent in industrial civilization rather than in capitalism, Polanyi overlooks capitalists struggling with all their strength against the
abolition of private property or clinging to the pursuit of profit.
For Polanyi, any class can represent its interests as the general or societal interest within capitalism. It is not the prerogative of capitalists! In other words,
Polanyi may talk about classes representing a general interest, but this is not a
means to consolidate domination; it is not hegemony.81 Where Polanyi talks of a
common or coincident interest, joining all classes, Gramsci talks of the coordination of antagonistic class interests. We can see the difference between Gramsci
and Polanyi in their treatment of the English landed classes. Both recognize that
the landed classes represent a general interest when they fight on behalf of the
working class for the shortening of the length of the working day. However, where
Polanyi sees that general interest as a common societal interest shared by all
classes, Gramsci sees the general interest as the enlightened interest of the capitalist class, which will prevail as long as there is capitalism.
The class relations created by industrial development, have induced the bourgeoisie not to
struggle with all its strength against the old regime, but to allow a part of the latter’s façade
to subsist, behind which it can disguise its own real domination.
Where Polanyi sees “society” (active society) as the grounds for solidarity among
all classes, Gramsci sees “society” (civil society) as the arm of capitalist hegemony. This hegemony is so powerful that the transition to socialism requires an
arduous, difficult, and perhaps even impossible War of Position. Undoubtedly,
bourgeois democracy provides a more fertile terrain for a War of Position than
does authoritarian capitalism, such as fascism, but there is no hint of any inherent
tendency for bourgeois democracy to become radical democracy. The power of
capitalist hegemony, working through the connection of state and civil society,
has to be transformed through extended struggles into a fundamentally new moral
and intellectual order―the so-called regulated society. The socialist end point is
similar in both cases―an economy subjugated to the self-organizing society―
but Gramsci is far more pessimistic about its realization."