Making Sense of Antonio Gramsci

Michael Denning

The Italian communist Antonio Gramsci left behind a rich and complicated legacy of thought on socialist strategy for transforming the world. Historian Michael Denning guides us through the great — and misunderstood — thinker.

School children looking at a mural portraying Antonio Gramsci. Orgosolo, Sardinia, 1975. (Mondadori via Getty Images)

Interview by
Daniel Denvir

Few thinkers on the Left loom as large as Antonio Gramsci. He’s cited often by a wide range of thinkers for a wide range of purposes, but few actually bother to take the time to really read and wrestle with the Italian communist, especially in his historical context.

For the Jacobin podcast the Dig, Daniel Denvir spoke at length about Gramsci and the relevance of his legacy today with Yale historian Michael Denning. This is the second installment of a two-part conversation with Denning on Gramsci; you can read part one here, listen to part one here, and listen to part two here. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Daniel Denvir

Let’s return to the concept of hegemony. Gramsci was drawing on Lenin’s concept of hegemony, which Lenin had used to describe how communists could exercise power in a country where industrial workers were only a very small minority.

How did Gramsci remake hegemony into a more general concept to describe how any social group governs or might seek to govern? How does this theory of hegemony taking off from Lenin allow us to both understand what sort of social forces dominate at present, and also what sort of politics might be capable of overthrowing and supplanting them?

Michael Denning

The relation between Gramsci and Lenin is an interesting one. Gramsci says two things regarding hegemony about Lenin. One is that Lenin’s idea of hegemony was a philosophical as well as a political advance. Two, he says that that moment is the moment when Lenin is pushing for the strategy of the United Front, which Gramsci himself will then hold onto for a number of years, and he sets it against various notions of immediate insurrection, which other members of the Communist International at that point are calling for. Gramsci already feels, as a result of the defeats after 1919 and 1920, that it is a moment for neither a kind of pure working-class base nor a kind of insurrectionist politics, and that he’s already imagining some new form of united front in order to oppose fascism.

This idea is not just a political strategy, but a philosophical concept. Gramsci says at various points that the central issue, the kind of the cell of political thought, is the question of rulers and ruled. He says that this is not the case of human nature. It’s not that there always are leaders and led. How does one want to develop leaders in a situation where one wants to create a society that is not divided among leaders and led?

So the notion of hegemony emerges out of theorizing how leaders should lead, how a party should lead, how the leaders in a party should lead. And there are three stages. Moving from the economic corporate moment to the hegemonic moment is a move from where one stands together with other people because they share the same economic position or status as oneself. His example is one tradesman standing next to another tradesman, one businessman standing next to other businesspeople, to a notion where a political organization would not be just people standing next to each other according to their self-interest but would have a wider vision of a new conception of the world, a new society, a new way of organizing things.

For him, that hegemonic moment is when some organized political group, led by organizers, would actually be able to enunciate such a position and win consent from other allies to that position. He says sometimes that that actually might mean sacrificing some of one’s own self-interest in order to give stuff to your allies, in order to build a wider movement.

Using the example of late tsarist Russia and early Soviet Russia: precisely because the rural peasant population is so huge, any movement built out of industrial workers and trade unions would actually have to make concessions to the peasantry in order to win it over. This was an issue that Gramsci was clearly interested in, because Italy was a country with a large southern region of rural agricultural peasant populations, tenant farmers, day laborers.

That question remains a question in any kind of politics: what are the trade-offs that a political organization is willing to make, not with its enemies necessarily? It’s not that one is trying to win over one’s enemies; it’s about building alliances with one’s allies.

Gramsci always goes back and forth between current political examples and past historical examples, and he will go back to past examples in Italian history to show how certain groups had actually been so interested in their own self-interest that they never actually presented a hegemonic strategy and won over allies, and were as a result unsuccessful.

For him, that will be a matter of the differences between trade union strategies and a party strategy. If a trade union strategy will always be defined by members’ interests, either in the particular local or the other people who are members of that union or that craft, a political party must bring together not only workers from a whole variety of different kinds of occupations and sectors of society, but people who are outside the working population, unemployed people.

The other phrase that he’ll use a few times is “hegemonic apparatus” or “apparatuses of hegemony.” That is the idea that organizers and intellectuals and legislators and party militants actually create educational, cultural newspapers. A number of times, he says things like, a newspaper can be a party itself. He says that the Times of London in England is a political party. One might actually think of the New York Times as a kind of political party. Those apparatuses of hegemony are kind of the vehicles and instruments through which this wider conception of the world can be exercised.

Politics and “Organic Intellectuals”

Daniel Denvir

Gramsci writes, “Since all men are political beings, all are also legislators. Every man in as much as he is active, i.e. living, contributes to modifying the social environment in which he develops.” Relatedly, he argues, “All men are philosophers.” In making this argument that everyone is a legislator, Gramsci is asserting that power is not specific to the state, but something generalized in all sorts of different ways throughout society — from the state, of course, but also to the workplace, the home, everywhere.

That seems like a major critique of prevailing ideas of what politics is. It’s not something concentrated among a select group of leaders, nothing exclusively organized around the state. What are the full implications of what Gramsci is saying here? What does it suggest about how to think about the scope of socialist politics? And then how does it relate to his classic formulation of what he calls organic intellectuals?

Michael Denning

One way of trying to put together Gramsci’s thought is to think about those two halves, that sense that everyone is a philosopher and that everyone is a legislator, as two halves of his grand project, of his way of thinking about the world. Everyone is a philosopher and everyone is an intellectual, but that comes with the proviso that in the social division of labor, some people have the role of intellectuals. Some people, that’s their job. Other people actually nonetheless exercise intellectual thought in their daily life.

He’ll have almost exactly the same argument about how everyone is a legislator. There are indeed professional legislators. There are people who are professional politicians, and he does not dismiss them. On the other hand, politics is not limited to those people. In some sense, everyone is a legislator. In that other sense, he says, the scope of your legislation is different depending who you are. If you’re in the national legislature, you have a very different scope than if you were on the city council. If you’re on the city council, you have a very different scope than if you’re in a department meeting.

But even in the department, in a university, you legislate in a certain sense by setting norms of conduct, setting syllabi, setting curricula, setting exams. Gramsci says that everyone can be coercive. You can give out negative grades in the classroom, for example. In various forms in your day-to-day life and work, you are actually setting norms of conduct and policing the norms of conduct of the people around you.

He actually goes on to say, even if you only follow orders, if you actually only exercise those norms of conduct, you are in that way legislating — if you stop at the red light or stop sign. You don’t have the same power as the people who put the stop sign at that junction. But that is part of the legislation of daily life. That’s a very powerful and rich way of thinking about political action.

That struggle between leaders and led, between the leaders and the subaltern, is one of the ways this is structured. Gramsci will say that it’s often disguised, because what is a relation of authority and power is said to be merely a technical one. Various structures of authority appear to be about lifting up someone who’s more expert, has more authority, but actually may simply be a way in which somebody can boss someone else, despite there being no real difference in skills or knowledge.

This puts politics right into the workplace. Gramsci writes, “Hegemony is born in the factory,” which has often been taken too reductively. But the general sense is that leadership is born in the norms of conduct in workplaces and all kinds of workplaces.

As to the organic intellectual: in English, we tend to divide a set of words called organic, an organism, from organizer and organization. In a way, that one set of words seems to have a kind of biological nature, and the other requires a more mechanistic nature. That actually isn’t so in Italian, so that an organism and an organization are not two, one biological and one mechanical, but actually a similar set of words.

So an organic intellectual in Gramsci’s sense is not somebody who has roots in a particular world. It is someone who organizes. In that, one could actually see “organizer” and “intellectual” as synonyms.

He is very interested in the social groups that one comes out of. He often suggests that the organizing intellectuals of the working class are people who come out of working-class communities. But their job is an organizer of a trade union, or a shop steward, or an organizer of a political party. And you can tell that because in fact, his organizers of the capitalist class are not people who are born into the capitalist class. His examples are advertisers, financiers, managerial people. People who organize the daily work of capitalist businesses are the organic intellectuals of the capitalist class.

Though Gramsci never uses this phrase, I think one could imagine a notion of organic legislators, people who are the organizers in various forms of daily life and work or engage in social movements (rather than extend to everyone the notion of being an organic intellectual). One might imagine a dichotomy between organic intellectuals, organizing cultural and intellectual and educational life on the one hand, and organic legislators on the other. If the one is dealing with concepts of the world in his phrase, the other is dealing with norms of conduct.

Mass Culture

Daniel Denvir

Gramsci also writes, “But innovation cannot come from the mass, at least at the beginning, except through the mediation of an elite for whom the conception implicit in human activity has already become, to a certain degree, a coherent and systematic, ever present awareness in a precise and decisive will.”

What does this elucidate about Gramsci’s conception of the world-making power inherent in every person? And how does that relate to his assertion here that that major ideological transition seemed to require an organized leadership outside of the masses’ everyday life and argument?

Michael Denning

I would have two answers. One is about the specific historic conditions of Gramsci’s world and Gramsci’s moment in history. Remember that during this period from, say, the 1860s to the 1930s, there is an extraordinary migration around the world of people from rural, agricultural, and peasant worlds into the new industrial factories that are taking off. This is the era of Fordism. In many ways, Gramsci is a Marxist of the Fordist era. Marx was a Marxist of the pre-Fordist era. We are living in a post-Fordist era.

Everything that Gramsci indicates in his critique of political science is that elite theories that say the elite will always be with you are totally wrong. I think he’s thinking in a very specific moment where a certain new population has to be educated, has to be brought into political action. A parallel figure of someone slightly younger who lived the other side of that, the great Trinidadian Marxist C. L. R. James, writes in the 1940s and 1950s about how the ordinary worker of that era is more advanced in their conception of the world than Hegel and Kant were, precisely because of the advent of mass literacy and the new kinds of work that people did in the 1940s and 1950s.

Gramsci is in a world where what we think of as mass culture does not yet exist. There is the early bit of film, there’s a bit of radio. He’s very interesting when he’s writing about mass serial novels or whatever, but the kind of industries of popular storytelling and popular sharing of experiences that are so fundamental to the post-1940 world are really not the world of Gramsci. Gramsci, whenever he is looking at the changing of popular mentalities, will look at the Catholic Church for his examples to model his new organizer, his new party. He’s saying, “Wow, look at how successful the Catholic Church has been. If someone wants a new conception of the world, imagine it this way.”

For leftists to think about the ways that religious organizations have created new conceptions of the world and sustain them over generations is really powerful. On the other hand, there is a moment where you feel that Gramsci, unlike Marxists even of a generation later, is not really aware yet of the difference that film and radio broadcasting and mass culture, mass spectator sports are going to make.

Daniel Denvir

How does Gramsci’s conception here compare to that of Robert Michels, a leading thinker among the Italian elite theorists? Michels argues that by its very nature, the hierarchy inherent to organization and the divide, the corresponding divide between leaders and led, inherently leads to what he calls the “iron law of oligarchy” and an inherent tendency within organizations and parties toward top-down rule. Michels starts as a communist, I believe, or a socialist and ends up a fascist.

Michael Denning

Gramsci is aware of two different trends, one extremely pessimistic and the other curiously optimistic.

On the one hand is a pessimistic political science that is really being invented at this time — Michels, Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca. This remains an important tradition in political science to this day, which basically sees elites as necessary, that democracy is nothing more than the circulation of elites. Participatory democracy is not possible.

On the other hand, Gramsci’s also facing what one could think of as the optimistic side of management theory, from Frederick Winslow Taylor and a number of thinkers from the 1910s and 1920s. American thinkers are actually thinking that we can develop a management science that can make workers happy with their work and make the workplace not only more technically efficient, but also one that would respond to workers’ emotional and psychological needs.

Gramsci actually wants a kind of radical democratic organization theory that is on neither side. He was thinking that indeed one could build parties and leaders that can get to a world beyond the leaders/led divide, and that one could also create workplaces that can get beyond having bosses and workers, where the production could be controlled by those who are doing it.

Daniel Denvir

One way maybe to get at this difference between Gramsci and Michels is in Gramsci’s analysis of the structure of political parties or political organization more generally. He identifies three critical segments. First, the mass element. Second, the principal cohesive leadership element. And third, an intermediate element “which articulates the first element with the second and maintains contact between them not only physically, but also morally and intellectually.”

Explain these components and particularly how Gramsci saw them cohering through an intermediary, cadre layer. Why is this intermediate layer so critical to organization?

Michael Denning

Because the intermediate layer is the one that is the most interesting and the least clear. For Gramsci, it was indeed the parish priests and the parish nuns. Those were the people who day-to-day actually were the intermediaries between the popes and the theologians and the bishops — who were making the big organizational decisions in the church — and the church’s faithful. What he saw his own party needing to do was to create a huge number of parish priests and nuns to be not the rank and file, but intermediaries.

He saw it in some ways in the Italian Socialist Party. He wasn’t really out there running for office in those years. He was very active in the Casa del Popolo or the People’s House, which was a building at which journals were housed, and night schools and party meetings took place. It was a kind of center for the neighborhood. He gave lectures there. He was writing and editing newspapers. He saw that as part of that intermediate stratus.

Remember, the Italian Communist Party is founded in 1921, Gramsci is imprisoned in 1926. There’s only about five years when he is a leader of this new party and where he is actually creating this set of intermediaries in the face of fascism.

Gramsci is trying to imagine a part of his party that doesn’t yet exist and that won’t exist for the most part under fascism, and doesn’t really come into play until after World War II. One of the reasons for Gramsci’s historical importance in Italy, where Gramsci’s ideas about this will be fundamental, is that in the postwar decades the Italian Communist Party became a major political force electorally, in cultural institutions, in educational institutions, for half a century.

Also, Gramsci’s pamphlet writings were written to train party militants. He’s very interested in having a school, because he saw that the Left was growing and gaining a whole set of new people who are joining organizations, joining movements, who don’t have all of the history and knowledge about the Left. How do you bring people up to speed? How do you train a new generation?

It’s not so much a sense that something has to come from the outside or that people have to be moved from a reformist to a revolutionary mode. It’s rather that every political organization has a whole sense of experience, both good and bad, of victory and defeat. Yale graduate teachers recently won their union recognition election. Of those voting, 91 percent voted for the union, after thirty years of struggling for a union and thirty years of multiple generations of graduate teachers who have come in, spent a few years, worked hard for that union, passed on, left and whatever.

Those organizers tried to both pass on the history of what succeeded and what failed, and to bring into membership people who had just arrived. Remember, one of the striking things about any union thing is that you don’t get to pick your members. So how do you build workplace solidarities with people who you have nothing in common with other than the same employer happening to hire you?

I think that that sense of that intermediate is kind of creating that world of people who can bring people into a political movement. And here, Gramsci is quite clear: there is no education without educators. There’s no organization without organizers.

Daniel Denvir

How does Gramsci help us think about organizing in a more political way than the American tradition? That tradition has been so heavily influenced by the anti-political Saul Alinsky, but also shaped by a century-plus of black and labor freedom struggles.

Michael Denning

And one movement that is shaped from day one by the Alinsky model — you know, in some sense, one of the most powerful of those Alinskyite models — is the farmworkers of Cesar Chavez and the building of the boycotts of lettuce and of grapes. So that sentence was not meant as a kind of attack on the American organizing tradition, but meant rather for us, I think, in the United States, to recognize how rich the tradition that we have is. But you know, how come there’s no socialist party in American history? One could put it the other way around. Why are there so many powerful left-wing organizing traditions in American history?

On the other hand, many of us who went through those different moments probably can remember moments where larger issues of culture, of education, of what the new conception of the world that we are fighting for were bracketed, often in the interest of what has to be done tomorrow. There is a kind of way in which the pragmatic nature and results-oriented nature of US politics, the fact that indeed pragmatism is in some sense the kind of fundamental US ideology . . . You know, if one were to say, who is the American Gramsci? It’s probably John Dewey, the great pragmatist philosopher, also one of the great theorists of progressive education. Dewey’s ideas have become common sense in many ways for left-liberal teachers and political people in all sorts of ways — people who probably don’t even realize that they’re doing what Dewey had said.

And that notion — that kind of results-oriented, instrumental way of thinking about politics — has a lot of power to it, but it misses, I think, what Gramsci reminds us of: that one really has to have a different conception of the world. There’s not just a long-term changing of people’s ideas on a particular issue; to change someone’s mind about, say, their stance on abortion, is dependent on an entirely different understanding of the world and of life and of the relations between men and women and of situations of sexuality. These are not just issues in that short way. In some senses, those parts of the American left that were hegemonic in that way — if one thinks of the power of the women’s movement in “consciousness raising” of that moment — have sometimes sort of started from one’s own life.

That’s what Gramsci says: the first thing we have to do is understand the self as this contradictory place and to make an inventory of the traces of that history that are inscribed in our own selves. And in some sense, that was the powerful Gramscian moment — though they rarely cited Gramsci, and they didn’t need to — of the early women’s movement. One actually had to think about how one’s own personal life had been shaped in some ways in order to imagine a world and an emancipatory world beyond that.

And so somehow to capture those two halves — not to give up the day-to-day political issue, but to realize that argument about every one of us being a legislator, meaning in a fundamental way that the personal is political, that in some ways the personal is one of those terrains where legislation is taking place — is, I think, one of the things that Gramsci powerfully reminds us of.

The other thing that I think is why I find myself going back so often to Gramsci, reading Gramsci with younger people, is Gramsci rarely has a sort of condescending “I told you so.” His opposition to economistic politics — “oh, well, it’s because it was in somebody’s self-interest, they were making money or whatever” — is not that it’s wrong. It’s that it’s a cheap way of making you feel like you know more than the other people do. And Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, particularly, are a powerful reflection on what went wrong, why they were defeated.

And he says about those three parts of the party that you just mentioned, that the responsibility may be unequal in different cases, but all of them are responsible for the defeat. And he’s saying that in the face of a fascist regime coming into power. And we have to think both as leaders of the party, as the intermediaries and as the members of what we did wrong and how to understand that. And so there’s a kind of powerful humility about Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks that is, let’s say, not there in some of the more celebrated Marxists who are writing, say, after the victory of a revolutionary regime in some kind of place — “you know, well, if you just follow the way we’ve done it, then you too, will do this drama.” Gramsci actually is more like the opposite: don’t do what we did because what we did didn’t work. But actually think seriously about what we tried.

It’s Not Arbitrary

Daniel Denvir

Gramsci writes about a successful ideological project: “It is evident that this kind of mass creation cannot just happen arbitrarily around any ideology simply because of the formerly constructive will of a personality or group which puts it forward solely on the basis of its own fanatical, philosophical or religious convictions. Mass adhesion or non-adhesion to an ideology is the real critical test of the rationality and historicity of modes of thinking.”

This seems on some level like a really obvious insight, and yet it’s so common still today for people to believe either that good arguments can win political fights or that just sheer perseverance can win a struggle. And I would argue that this is maybe more common among people on both the Left and the center, because the Right arguably is both more adept at linking economic crises to social politics on the symbolic level, but also at attaching its ideology to mass institutions like evangelical churches. I don’t think the Left has been able to figure this out in the absence of mass union density. And obviously there’s not that much of a religious left either.

Are we on the Left stuck in this position where we have all these theories of organization but stuck bowling very alone?

Michael Denning

Gramsci doesn’t often write about left and right in that way that we think about. You know, for Gramsci, there are really the dominant classes, the ruling classes — the people who control the economic and political levers of power — and the subaltern. But if one were to translate sub and altern into English, as I sometimes like to do, it is the “under others.” And so one of the arguments he’ll say very straightforwardly is that, well, the history of the ruling classes is an easy history because it’s essentially the history of the state, because they control it. The history of the under others is very hard to figure out because it’s all over the place, just as the under others are all over the place. They’re not unified in a state. They’re not unified even in a political party very often.

And so the question is: How does a whole set of peoples in a society who were defined as under others — not just defined as under others, but who live as under others, who are those who are subordinate to other people or those who have precarious employment or are being bossed around all the time, who have to work all the time — actually imagine themselves together? Imagine themselves as having a conception of the world that is different than that that is given to them by the universities and the schools and the television studios and the networks and the Googles and the Twitters and all of that?

So for Gramsci, the subaltern is not just a cast of characters — it is a cast of mind. To be subaltern is to be deferential. It is to say, “Oh, somebody else knows better. Somebody else should lead in that kind of way. I will follow.” And for the moment to turn the subaltern, the under others, into another term that he uses — the “collective worker” — is actually in some sense the progress of hegemony. To actually have that moment of dependence and deference turned into a moment of self-assertion, self-legislation, self-constitution is that moment of hegemony. It draws on various traditions of the under others.

So he’ll say again and again that there is a long tradition of fairy tales and utopian dreams and stories that someday it’s going to be different. There are long ways of reading religious scriptures across the way. He has a great example: the worker, the Catholic worker, who said, “Well, Jesus says the poor will always be with you. Isn’t that against your thing?” And the Catholic socialist worker says, “For that we will keep one poor worker just so that we don’t prove our savior wrong.”

And so he actually sees a variety of subaltern visions of the world and how it might change possibilities of a new conception of the world. He does think for the most part that these contradictory, sometimes incoherent, not necessarily connected views of the world need to be cohered — “conformed” is one of the words. For Gramsci conforming is actually a positive term. It means forming with other people, forming with other ideas. It’s related to reformation. Reforming, transformation, transforming, and conforming are all in a similar set of metaphors that he regularly uses in that kind of way.

Daniel Denvir

I think maybe the hanging thread there is in the disorganization of social life, with there still being powerful mass institutions on the Right, namely evangelical churches. It sometimes feels as though we are attempting to win these arguments either through rhetorical superiority or sheer perseverance, when what we need is these institutions.

Michael Denning

Right, so here’s a question about whether there’s a limit to Gramsci’s moment of history and why I said that the era of the party is over. Which is to say the same question of Gramsci’s not knowing about an entire industry of entertainment and mass culture.

One of the things that Gramsci’s generation was able to do was to imagine that a political party could be the focus of people’s daily life. And they were. Socialist and communist parties had sports clubs, hiking clubs, reading clubs. This was in places where there was no insurance for working-class people. So indeed, if you wanted to have insurance, even burial insurance or health insurance . . . the early kind of strike insurance came out of unions and parties. Newspapers and magazines were there; the Communist Party, even by the 1930s, had artist unions and John Reed Clubs for writers. Imagine that there was a whole kind of subculture, a world that one could be part of.

And one of the things about the shift from that moment of parties to our moment of parties is it is arguable that no one, including myself or whatever, actually goes to a political party for all of those daily life things that we have so many institutions in mass culture for. That’s actually affected the churches as well, just as the churches, whether evangelical or non-evangelical, had a place in people’s daily life. That has actually receded. And I think they were all aware of that.

One of the reasons churches have been able to hold on in some ways — one of the things that the Left failed to do, those left parties — was that they created powerful life transition moments around births, around death, around marriages and couplings and things like that. As a result, many people returned to their churches at those moments in the life course. And Gramsci, I think, thought that that was necessary, that a real new party would actually have to be a party that would celebrate births and mourn deaths and bring people together, because otherwise you really weren’t fully — in his way — a kind of ethical party or cultural party in that sense.

Whether any party will ever do that, or whether the ratification of political life into a very special part of the world dominated by professional politicians, professional pundits, professional money raisers, who, actually, that’s just what they do . . . The rest of us, it’s just like a spectator sport. You know that the Republicans and the Democrats are like the Yankees and the Red Sox. You’re born into rooting for one side. Sometimes your side doesn’t look as good as it does at other times. But basically, you’re not going to switch sides unless something dramatic really happens or whatever. Your engagement in it is not much. You know, I don’t know with me whether the Red Sox or the Democrats . . . actually, I’ve probably cried more over the Red Sox than the Democratic Party. I hate to say that.

Those early days when unions had that position was a moment when the relation between one’s workplace and one’s neighborhood was often much closer, and when people who worked at the same factory lived in the same neighborhood and sometimes actually their landlords were the same people who owned the factory. And that’s much less the case now. And the separation has been noted by a number of political scientists. People often have a different politics at work — where they’re often quite militant because they actually want more salary, they want more benefits, they want more control over their work — than at home, where they actually end up being homeowners, worrying about the property values of their neighborhood, who comes into it, or whatever.

And since our politics are divided, we vote where we live. We don’t vote where we work. Political parties campaign around a certain kind of residential politics, a politics of “not in my backyard,” a politics of boundaries and borders, rather than a politics of what’s taking place at work. But those are the kind of really fundamental questions, I think, that Gramsci’s idea of how politics takes place raises for us.

Daniel Denvir

Gramsci writes, “If the ruling class has lost its consensus, i.e. is no longer leading, but only dominant exercising coercive force alone, this means precisely that the great masses have become detached from their traditional ideologies and no longer believe what they used to believe previously, etc. The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born. In this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

In recent years, leftists have repeatedly returned to this passage and to the concept of interregnum to explore what it means to be living through what feels like such an interminable crisis. What does Gramsci mean by the interregnum that characterizes a long crisis? And how does it help us think through the nature and type of crisis that is underway?

Michael Denning

It’s kind of interesting because in that same passage, I believe he says what triggers that crisis: when the ruling class has failed in a major undertaking that it has actually asked for and received popular support for. For him, the big example of that is losing a war. If you have actually mobilized your population to fight in a war and you lose that war, that loses the legitimacy of that leadership and as a result gives tremendous new power for alternatives to emerge.

Daniel Denvir

Look at the Portuguese dictatorship, for example.

Michael Denning

Yeah, and one can even go back to the Soviet revolution, 1917. It comes out as the Russian tsarist empire is not winning that war. The Bolsheviks tie themselves to a call for land, bread, and peace. After World War II, the most powerful left-wing movements in Europe were in places where the leaderships — whether it was Greece, Italy, Vichy France — had actually made an alliance with fascism and the Nazis and were discredited. In Vietnam after the Japanese empire is defeated in World War II, it is at that moment that the Viet Minh and Ho Chi Minh are able to build a National Liberation Front.

The other side is that moments when those ruling classes have won have been very difficult for the Left to make headway, so that even though there was probably more popular socialist sentiment in the United States in the 1940s than at any other time in American history, the government won World War II. And it came out of the war with a tremendous sense not only of dominating the US, but a new kind of domination of the world, announcing straightforwardly that an American century was forthcoming. And that made it very difficult for the American left to organize against it. And in many ways, the American left did what it could only do, which was to see itself as the junior partner of Roosevelt’s New Deal, a New Deal for the whole world. And actually the Left at that point hoped that it could ride the coattails of Roosevelt and victory.

A generation later, I’ll just say for myself, the defeat of the United States in Vietnam actually was a major crisis of authority. That crisis led to, I would say, despite all the stuff about Watergate . . . the reason that Nixon was about to be impeached and had to resign was because of the failure of a major thing that had actually been demanded of the American people, which was to support the war in Vietnam, to support the United States as a policeman of the world in that kind of imperial thing. The double whammy of the loss of the war in Vietnam and the deep recession of 1973–74, marked by “the oil crisis,” was a powerful delegitimating moment of US leadership.

Has there been a similar one since then? That was one of my questions about 2008. Did that mark a similar crisis? Does COVID? That one I’ll let everyone who’s listening make their own decisions and analysis, because the politics depends on how you analyze that. What’s possible depends on how you see those forces.

Daniel Denvir

In terms of these levels of crisis conjunctural or organic, could there also then be a more profound level of crisis, something more fundamental that might not have been visible to Gramsci in the 1920s, a level at which deepening climate change means that these various crises underway for various durations add up at some point to something like a general crisis of the twenty-first century?

Michael Denning

Yeah, you know, I do think that Gramsci is probably not the best person to be thinking about the crises of nature, of the metabolic relation between humans and nature. Climate change is one part of but a whole set of environmental catastrophes and disasters in relation to animals, plants, the biosphere, the atmosphere throughout. In that sense, Gramsci, like many of his generation, is a Fordist Marxist who comes out of the tremendous utopianism of the metalworking machinists whom he organized, and out of those factory workers who thought they were rebuilding a new industrial world of plenty and post-poverty in some kind of way. And there’s lots of moments where Gramsci is that kind of a figure and maybe someone could find it, but I don’t really see much of the roots for a kind of ecological Gramsci.

And secondly, Gramsci felt that the communists of his generation were abstractly internationalist, that they had an idea that their internationalism was so powerful that they thought that indeed you could use the same strategies in every country and build a world working class, an international working class. Gramsci, seeing the limits of that, actually wanted to emphasize the national and the popular. Gramsci is one of the great theorists of the specificity of particular situations, of actually having to take into account the very particular natures of Italian history and Sardinian history and Mediterranean history.

And as a result, Gramsci I think gives short shrift to international crises. To actually read US crises outside of climate change or outside of the crises that are taking place in China and India and Indonesia, the largest countries in the world, would be really mistaken as well. And there’s some ways in which one of the difficulties of the Left’s tradition was often to take a particular name as a banner to fight under. That one was a Gramscian or a Trotskyist or even a Marxist or whatever. And the richer way to think of it is really that, you know, since the early nineteenth century, there have been movements of workers in the new kinds of workplaces that emerged out of the industrial revolution and the new factories and offices.

There are been movements of women that have essentially revolted against medieval and patriarchal forms of family. There have been movements of enslaved and colonized peoples, and those three sets of movements have in some ways shaped emancipatory politics for the last two hundred years. Those movements have had a lot of different political ideologies. In some sense, each of those movements has had some set of them who have thought of themselves as socialists or communists in one way or another. And within that world there’s been a smaller set who’ve imagined themselves as somehow linked to that tradition of thought that was marked by Marx and Engels.

But even then, I would say that one should be thinking of Marx and Engels, not as Marx and Engels as two people, but as part of that tremendous revolutionary generation of 1848. Marx, after all, is an exact contemporary of Frederick Douglass, and Frederick Douglass is writing his manifestos against slavery and about the revolutions of 1848 at the same time that the young Marx is writing the Communist Manifesto with Engels. And so in some sense, I think the Left has to imagine that we inherit a set of debates and contributions toward emancipation. A nineteenth-century word, twentieth-century word is probably liberation. I don’t know what the twenty-first century word is, but it is imagining some other world.

And in that sense, those figures are part of that tradition, whether it’s Marx and Douglass from the generation of 1848, or whether it’s Du Bois and Gramsci from the generation of 1919, or the figures of the 1960s, or the figures of 2008. And after you put in those names, we are in some ways in dialog with all of them and actually have to keep their work alive at one level, which is something that the more academic side like myself do, but that’s only because it can be made to live for people. Oftentimes in any kind of intellectual tradition the parents’ generation seems exhausted, and by returning to the grandparents’ generation, all of a sudden new kinds of things can happen.

Now, Gramsci was, oddly enough, probably about the same age as my grandparents. And I did feel for me that going back to Gramsci’s formulations often seemed to actually go back to before the common sense that came out of World War II, that came out of the Cold War that my parents’ generation dealt with. But I would never argue that Gramsci is necessarily the most important, the most vital, the best Marxist of the twentieth century or whatever, but rather has to be seen in what is a fundamentally rich, varied, diverse, emancipatory discourse that represents both sides, that has attempted to be organic legislators, organic organizers and organic intellectuals trying to both understand and change the world.

Maneuvering and Positioning

Daniel Denvir

Gramsci makes a famous distinction between what he calls the war of maneuver versus the war of position for how to conceptualize socialist strategy. Before we get into the many implications of these concepts, explain what they mean.

Michael Denning

Let me say two things about them. One is, I personally am not the most drawn to Gramsci’s military metaphors. He wrote after World War I and draws a whole set of military metaphors, including this one. I’m not sure they are for me. The second is that the definition is difficult. There’s a very nice little book that came out recently, The Dialectic of Position and Maneuver, which really tries to track Gramsci’s usages and basically finds that Gramsci contradicts himself.

I found myself drawn recently to a passage where he says that there were three kinds of war: war of position, war of maneuver, and underground war. He gives an example: Gandhi’s nonviolent struggles in colonial India against the British. He says the boycott is a kind of war of position. Strikes are a kind of war of maneuver, and then the underground war is literally underground in that way, being a colonial situation.

He’s trying to think about different forms of strategy. He is trying to think outside of the models of either a purely workplace union model or a parliamentary struggle. He associates the workplace union model with Rosa Luxemburg, saying that her book on the mass strikes that took place across the Russian Empire in 1905 is the best book on war of maneuver from a working-class point of view, but he’s dissatisfied with that coming out of his own experience of the mass strikes and factory occupations of 1919 to 1920. But he’s also finds that the parliamentarism of the Italian Socialist Party, which he had been part of, and even of the Italian Communist Party, doesn’t exactly work.

So I think about them not as a kind of opposition. A more accurate way of thinking about it is as a dialectic moving back and forth between moments of a war of position and moments of a war of maneuver.

Gramsci means different things in different places. In other parts of the world, Gramsci is seen as the one European Marxist who actually looked at the world from the Global South. So the subaltern studies group in South Asia and India sees Gramsci as a way to think through some of the specificities of Indian history and the Indian subcontinent. In Latin America, particularly in Brazil and Argentina, some see Gramsci as speaking to their living in postcolonial nation states, where they are no longer colonized in the twentieth century but somehow seem to be dependent in a way on world capitalism in a way that was not unlike Southern Italy.

In the second half of the century, Gramsci actually speaks to different constituencies in very different ways. In that sense, Gramsci seemed to suggest that the days of 1848 and 1917, the war of maneuver, the fast mobile strike against the state, the taking over the Winter Palace — all were passed and led into a new kind of moment of a war of position.

Daniel Denvir

In these passages where Gramsci is teasing this out, thinking about how conditions have changed since the storming of the Winter Palace — whether he’s arguing that it’s an end to the war of maneuver permanently, or whether he’s just talking about more subtle changes and in the conjuncture — he writes, “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 of civil society are like the trench systems of modern warfare.”

Then, “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.”

What is this theory of civil society in advanced capitalist democracies, if not heralding the definitive end of the war of maneuver? Because as you argue, there’s actually more of a dialectic and tension or dynamic between the two. What does it then suggest about the operation of capitalist power in the nature of the bourgeoisie as a ruling class?

Michael Denning

In the financial crisis of 2008, when all of a sudden some of the largest banks in the world are melting down, very quickly, huge amounts of money were printed and put into the economy.

It’s intriguing — Gramsci is using the military metaphor even in that passage that he writes that it’s not that they’re challenged by the state; they’re challenged by an economic depression. And so the trenches take effect in some sense if there’s a kind of economic crisis. And so one could read the tremendous amount of energy to save the world capitalist system in those years after 2008 as an example, precisely, of those trenches. I think I would probably agree with that: it seems to be all of the accounts of the amount of work that was put together, then the fact that some countries were actually bailing out other countries, and the sense that somehow this system was too big to fail and that we’re even going to have to support some of the weak links in that in order to not see a kind of cascading or falling down of that order.

On the other hand, one would say, and here I’ll take Gramsci’s other side, which is Gramsci’s saying that the trouble with that kind of economism is that after the fact history always sounds like it was going to always be the case. So one could say the same thing about January 6. One could say, well, even when we’re watching it on television, it seemed a farcical attempt at a coup in whatever kinds of things — it seemed like the craziest thing. People were just wandering around. There were indeed some people who had their weapons, and no doubt they were brought by Proud Boys or whatever and wanted to get in. But there were other people who just seemed like — and having been to many demonstrations — they were there because it was the thing that was happening; they’re taking selfies and taking pictures.

Daniel Denvir

The Q Shaman was also there.

Michael Denning

It was a kind of strange combination. And one could say that indeed the trench systems of civil society prevented a right-wing coup and Trump taking over or whatever. But I think Gramsci would actually caution us, having lived with Mussolini, to say that lots of things can happen. He says it absolutely directly. The end of that day could have been quite different. That all of a sudden there could have been, you know, I won’t even try to imagine the scenarios, but there are scenarios where indeed there was not the peaceful transfer of power, transfer of power from Trump to Biden in two weeks.

And in fact, some of the people who ended up lining up with Biden and finally seeing all of this and trying to marginalize Trump . . . and then all of a sudden McCarthy goes from one thing to another. You see how volatile it was, and indeed a few things that could have gone differently and that could have turned into America’s March on Rome with Trump as the Mussolini figure.

And so there is a sense that Gramsci wants to capture both halves of that. One has to actually think about the power of the trenches of civil society, because after all, the banks other than the Federal Reserve, those giant insurance companies are private entities. Twitter and all of those things are private entities and not state entities; they nonetheless end up becoming the trenches that hold the state from falling at different points.

But Gramsci is also wanting to say, on the other hand states do fall. And we have seen moments when states have fallen. I remember a line from Perry Anderson that says, well, the parliamentary road to socialism has not been proved that effective very often. But the parliamentary road to fascism has happened several times. The sense that actually the forms of parliamentary regimes are not like, once you’re there, you’re there forever, is another of the kind of warnings that I think Gramsci’s attention to the conjuncture . . . In retrospect you have Hitler’s putsch a decade before he actually comes to power. It’s only in retrospect that one sees the first beer hall putsch as a kind of precursor of the Third Reich, rather than being a kind of weird, offhand abstract.

And that was going back to that earlier thing about whether a movement is an abstract movement or whether it’s really an organic movement. The abstract movements are the ones that have the manifestos. They’ve got a bunch of people, but it never goes anywhere. It never wins any consent. The organic movements are the parties where, much to anyone’s expectation, all of a sudden . . . One might actually take, indeed, the black liberation movement of the ’50s and ’60s, the women’s liberation movement of the ’60s and early ’70s, as movements that were started by small numbers of people and take off amazingly.

You know, there’s some wonderful letters (or, I think they were the letters) that C. L. R. James is writing in the mid-1950s saying how shocked he is at this movement being led by this Southern preacher. Now, James had been watching everything in African-American politics for a decade or more and was involved in movements in St Louis and Detroit. He did not expect all of a sudden for this to emerge in Montgomery. And so there is that sense of the surprise of political movements and when all of a sudden they take off, and when they don’t take off. Another way to ask that question is, which are the ones that are real grassroots movements and which are . . . what’s the phrase?

Daniel Denvir

Grass tops.

Michael Denning

Astroturf or grass tops, right, are fake movements. And it’s hard to determine that at the beginning of any particular movement, whether it’s going to go one way or the other.

Daniel Denvir

You discuss that remarkable difference between how Gramsci was received on the Italian New Left and the New Left elsewhere. How was Gramsci received by the Anglophone Marxist left at the moment in the 1970s when the notebooks were first translated into English? So many things come to mind, especially a big impact on the circle around the New Left Review, including Perry Anderson’s 1976 mega-essay “The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci,” which has since become a book. Also, the entirety of Stuart Hall’s work.

Michael Denning

There had been a few collections in the ’50s that came out, but the big collection in 1971, Selections From the Prison Notebooks, really puts Gramsci on the map. One of the differences in how his work is received is related to the degree that the communist tradition is powerful in a country. Gramsci becomes a figure for a reformation inside the Communist Party, for people trying to break with the old Stalinist party and trying to invent a new model. This is the case in Italy.

Among those figures in Britain, a number of them, particularly the great historian Eric Hobsbawm, will be among the first figures who bring Gramsci to the British. He was a figure in what was known as the Communist Party Historians Group and had tried to create a Gramscian culture around the British Communist Party. E. P. Thompson, though he will break from the Communist Party, nonetheless comes out of that same world. Even Stuart Hall, though, as far as I know, was never a member of the British Communist Party, and was very close to the journal Marxism Today, which becomes an outlet pushing for the reforming of the Communist Party in Britain.

The US Communist Party was much less important politically on the Left and had basically been so destroyed by the Cold War. So Gramsci has little impact on that. There’s a little bit among certain Italian-American communists, particularly the historian Eugene Genovese. But actually the renovation of the US Communist Party is done by black activists who emphasize the US Communist Party’s important role in black activism — figures like W. E. B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Angela Davis, various dissident small-c black communists like Nelson Peery or Harry Haywood. So in the US case, it is the African-American reformation of American communism that is much more important than the Gramscian one. In that case, Gramsci has less importance.

But there’s another part where these selections come through: the student New Left. One of the curious things about the Selections in English is that it puts the sections on intellectuals and education up front. Those are the first parts of the book, and it’s very odd. I never teach the book that way, because you can’t start by trying to understand Gramsci on intellectuals and Gramsci on education. Not until you get four hundred pages in to figure out Gramsci’s basic arguments about thought and common sense and philosophy. Still, this spoke very powerfully to the New Left in North America and in Britain, because all of a sudden you had someone who was actually theorizing, from a Marxist position, the very specific position of the education system, of the forming of intellectuals, of the creation of organic intellectuals. That became really important.


Daniel Denvir

What was Eurocommunism and how has Gramsci’s influence on it been viewed? It’s often been castigated for a certain kind of reformism. Is that fair? And why does Gramsci either way lend himself to those sorts of interpretations, both from admirers and detractors?

Michael Denning

Eurocommunism comes out of the moment in the ’60s and ’70s when the communist parties realize that they have to establish themselves as legitimate actors in a competitive parliamentary system if they want to remain mass parties, rather than tie themselves to the Leninist hope of overthrowing the state. They realized that they would have to be elected to state power, not overthrow the state.

As a result, there is a battle inside all of the parties about whether to stay with the old version of how to do politics or move to the new version. Gramsci will be taken as the figure for the move toward a more parliamentary road and doing battles in civil society. The Italian party is the one party that moved in that direction earlier than the French party or the other parties in Western Europe.

It’s hard not to see this in retrospect, in the tremendous victory by Francois Mitterrand in France in 1981, which bridged the divide between the French Socialists and the French Communists to put together a united front and win the election. At the time, it was conceivable that Mitterrand’s election was as much of a promise of the future as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher’s elections in Britain and the United States were. Now, in retrospect, we know that Reagan and Thatcher were the future. Eurocommunism fell apart very quickly.

In fact, at the time, the American socialist Michael Harrington wrote a wonderful account of the capital strike. International capital pulled its money out, disinvested from France, and basically said, you cannot create a French socialism on your own or else we will put France under. As a result, Mitterrand immediately walked his program back, in order to avoid crashing the French economy. Pretty quickly, Mitterrand ended up looking a lot like the Bill Clinton or Tony Blair type of social democrat.

You can criticize those social democrats for the failure of their imagination, but in fact, they were defeated. Mitterand’s original hope was to fulfill the hopes of 1968 in 1981, rather than being the pallbearer of the hopes of 1968.

That’s why for me, the moment of Gramsci’s greatest popularity clearly was in the ’70s and ’80s, when the idea of a reformed socialism that was to the left of social democracy and a communism that was not the old Stalinist thing could come together. In Donald Sassoon’s great thousand-page history, One Hundred Years of Socialism, he sees that moment in 1978–79 as the moment of the highest success of European socialism and communism, but also the moment when it then loses very quickly to the forces of neoliberal capital and the new kind of hegemony that Reagan and Thatcher represent in the early ’80s.

Daniel Denvir

What have theorists of left populism like Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe drawn from Gramsci? And what sort of politics have they drawn from that, most notably Podemos in Spain? What sort of politics did their Gramscianism make for? And how did that compare to the Eurocommunist experience?

Michael Denning

It depends what you mean by populism. The difficulties that I have with the Laclau and Mouffe versions of taking up Gramsci is that they tied Gramsci’s thought with a postmodern attention to the politics of discourse and discourse as politics. You see this as early as Laclau’s first book, Politics and Ideology in Marx’s Theory: a sense that populism is a politics that creates an ideological alliance around the people against the power bloc.

As a result, it can go in a lot of different ways, because one can articulate the power bloc in different ways and one can articulate the people in different ways. But their argument is that in modern societies, particularly in electoral parliamentary electoral societies, you can’t win elections by being against the people. If you want to win an election, you actually have to say you’re on the side of the people. As a result, you generate a kind of discourse about “the people.” There’s a powerful argument by Adam Przeworski about labor parties. If you say your party is the party of, say, industrial workers, at a point where industrial workers are only 20 percent of the population, it’s very difficult to hold on to a labor or worker identity and win a majority of the people. You have to have a majoritarian strategy in electoral systems that require majorities.

Gramsci argues that a popular movement actually has to build a majoritarian strategy that includes all of those different sectors. In his day, this included the peasants; in our day, it is the service sector, workers in a variety of different social movements that have to be put together around a rhetoric.

This tendency of reading Gramsci falls into that ideologism that Gramsci himself criticized, and that misses the fact that these social groups are connected to economic foundations in one way or another. If populism simply means parties claiming to speak for the people, then everybody is a populist in modern politics, and populism isn’t a terribly interesting issue.

One might actually see that populism is the form of politics that has organized itself around what Marx called the secondary forms of exploitation. If wages were, in his sense, the primary form of exploitation, the various cuts that are taken out of your paycheck — taxes, rent, insurance, interest on loans — are the secondary forms of exploitation, and populist parties have often been parties that have organized around these other forms.

Gramsci and Coalitional Politics

Daniel Denvir

In recent years, a number of socialist thinkers have picked up where Gramsci left off. I’m particularly thinking of Gabriel Winant’s work on emergent forms of class composition and what sort of coalitional possibilities they hold out. The old markers of mass heterogeneity — the peasantry, for instance — no longer exist in the way that they did, particularly in places like the United States. But this country now does have a massive, diverse professional-managerial class, variegated ranks of service workers, varying relationships to assets, particularly homeownership among working-class people. There are so many marks of contradictory differentiation.

What resources would Gramsci have for thinking about this motley class composition? And what sorts of working-class coalitions might his thinking help us think through developing under present conditions?

Michael Denning

I think he puts us on our own and has us do work like what Gabe has done. In the case of The Next Shift, he describes that long shift of Pittsburgh from being a steel town to being a hospital town, and at the same time, at various stages, the different conjunctural political battles that took place, and the way that is lived: not just as different kinds of occupations, but as he finds out in his various interviews, even in this shift in the same families as the next generation takes different kinds of jobs than their parents did, or people who have moved into a city that had been seen as a dying city to the present, when the city is seen as a growing city.

Gramsci’s view breaks up our own reified notions of who counts as workers. The first step, he says, in looking at any social movement is to figure out the composition of the people who make up this thing, and not to assume in advance that you know that composition. Just figuring out the composition of different social groups and social movements is a crucial one.

I’m more invested in a continually renovated, left, emancipatory analysis than I am in it being called “Gramscian.” But it’s unlikely that one will find Gramscian thinking necessarily from people who define themselves as “Gramscians.” But as one is thinking through the particularities of different struggles, Gramsci says to us again and again that you can’t take the characters of the struggle for granted, that even social groups are formed in the process of political struggles.

Daniel Denvir

How should US leftists, as both internationalists and inheritors of a settler, slave society, work with Gramsci’s insistence that any potential hegemon needs to speak to the national popular patriotism? For obvious reasons, that has always been fraught for the US left.

Michael Denning

The two things that I think Gramsci is most useful for Americans is, one, to get out of America. One of the powers of Marxism for people on the US left is it is an international discourse that forces you to learn other languages, other national traditions, other political traditions, and not think that American politics is all there is to politics.

And the other thing is that Gramsci is very useful because he is writing in a country that, if it was ever a major world power, was well into antiquity. Gramsci is very useful in realizing how fragile any hegemonic alliance is, and it makes one have to rethink US history not as one long hegemonic moment.

On the other hand, to understand the peculiarities of American experience — the hemispheric American experience, the weird and tragic clash of European settlers, Native American inhabitants and peoples, and enslaved Africans transported by the millions — there is something about American exceptionalism, about the settler, enslaved, and indigenous histories of the Americas that Gramsci hardly grasped. Anyone who’s looking to Gramsci to figure that out would be mistaken there.

It’s clear that Gramsci’s great US counterpart, W. E. B. Du Bois, thought about those issues much later. Yet even Du Bois is not that concerned with the indigenous history of the Americas. I think we still have to write those histories in the United States and across US boundaries.

One of the problems with the Marxist tradition has been to actually, like liberal traditions, see the United States as kind of a European extension. And one would then read all the Europeans and see the United States as the end of that. Gramsci would let us think that maybe Brazilian Marxists could help us think about a new American Marxism.