The term civil society was used by writers such as Locke and Rousseau to describe civil government as differentiated from natural society or the state of nature. The Marxist concept derives from Hegel. In Hegel civil or bourgeois society as the realm of individuals who have left the unity of the family to enter into economic competition is contrasted with the state or political society. Marx uses the concept of civil society in his critique of Hegel. It is used as a yardstick of the change from feudal to bourgeoisie society. Civil society arose, Marx insists from the destruction of medieval society. Previously individuals were part of many different societies such as guilds or estates each of which had a political role so that there was no separate civil realm. As these partial societies broke down, civil society arose in which t he individual became all important. The old bonds of privilege were replaced by the selfish needs of atomistic individuals separated from each other and from the community.
The fragmented conflictual nature of civil society with its property relations necessitates a type of politics which does not reflect this conflict but is abstracted and removed from it. The modern state is made necessary and at the same time limited by the characteristics of civil society. The fragmentation and misery of civil society escape the control of the state which is limited to formal negative activities and is rendered impotent by the conflict which is the essence of economic life. The political identity of individuals as citizens in modern society is severed from their civil identity and from their function in the productive sphere as tradesmen, day labor or landowner. Although Gramsci continues to use the term to refer to the private or non state sphere, including the economy, his picture of civil society is very different from that of Marx.Gramsci insists on its complex organization as the ensemble of organisms commonly called private where hegemony and spontaneous consent are organized.
He argues that any distinction between civil society and the state is only methodological since even a policy of non intervention like laissez faire is established by the state itself. A fully developed civil society is presented as a trench system able to resist the incursions of economic crises and to protect the state. Whereas Marx insists on the separation between the state and civil society, Gramsci emphasizes the inter relationship between the two. The state narrowly conceived as government is protected by hegemony organized in civil society while the coercive state apparatus fortifies the hegemony of the dominant class. In any actual society the lines of democration between civil society and the state may be blurred but Gramsci argues against any attempt to equate or identify the two. And while he accepts a role for the state in developing civil society, he warns against perpetuating state worship.Gramsci redefines the withering away of the state in terms of a full development of the self-regulating attributes of civil society. In Marx's writings civil society is portrayed as the terrain of individual egotism.