Newsletter #54: Gramsci’s Good Sense, with Michael Denning

by William Harris

2022 was the year I nearly became a Michael Denning completist. Early in the year, I read his New Left Review essay on how the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s writing might speak to us now as a theory of organizing. Later I read his early book, Mechanic Accents: Dime Novels and Working-Class Culture in America, a slim study of popular literary culture and its allegorical meanings in the era of the Knights of Labor, and re-read his encyclopedic classic, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century, on how Popular Front–era radicalism instilled itself deep in the pores of American culture. I chased this with a short, invaluable essay, “Representing Global Labor,” reminding us that our ideas of the working class are always matters of form and figuration. And I finished my year of Denning with what struck me as his best book, Noise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Musical Revolution, a history of how a suite of late-1920s circumstances — commercial recording, urban migration, new vernacular music, stirrings of socialist-tinged anti-colonialism — launched a long twentieth-century process of decolonizing our ears.

Across this body of work emerges a distinctive sensibility — one apparent, too, in the first episode of The Dig’s two-part interview with Denning, where we listen to a mind infectiously optimistic, committed but non-sectarian, alive to contradictions, insistent on the importance of swimming through the waters of mass culture, and aware that everywhere, at all levels of our impoverished cultural world, ordinary people are thinking and finding meaning.

Listen to part one of The Dig’s interview with Michael Denning here.

If you want to chart a pre-history of this sensibility, you could do worse than turn to Antonio Gramsci, the great theorist of socialist maneuver and the dilemmas of revolutionary culture, and now the subject of Denning’s current work. Denning’s Gramsci is at once a thoroughly historical character, knowable only through the particulars of turn-of-the-century Sardinia and Turin, and a figure that might be set loose from that time and place and projected onto our own. How might we put Gramsci’s questions about revolutionary strategy to work in today’s US? How might he help shine new light on our cultural formation, regional disparities, political contradictions, and — most importantly — how we think of organizing?

As Dan says, this week’s episode was a kind of appetizer. Tune in next week for a fuller elaboration of Denning’s version of a Gramsci for our American times — a theorist of the humble organizer and the ordinary intellectual.

Further Reading If you’d like to read more on Gramsci’s afterlives, check out Perry Anderson’s 2016 essay, “The Heirs of Gramsci,” along with his classic work, “The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci.” And for related Dig listening, revisit another great interview on the theory of organizing, “Hegemony How-To” with Jonathan Matthew Smucker.