Newsletter #55: Gramsci Says, “Don’t Mourn — Think, Then Organize!” with Michael Denning

By Michal Schatz

A colleague, despairing over the dismal state of the British left, recently asked me if I really believe political change is possible. After all, Jeremy Corbyn’s defeat in the UK’s 2019 general election, like Bernie’s primary loss shortly thereafter, proved how steep the Left’s path to power remains. It’s hard to fault comrades for flirting with hopelessness after taking account of the myriad challenges — skyrocketing inflation, a looming global recession, the lingering phantom of a century-defining pandemic, and the ever-mounting threat of climate catastrophe — facing the Left today. Against this impulse, Michael Denning demonstrates in this week’s Dig episode that Antonio Gramsci offers a useful blueprint for responding with action to the disappointment of defeat.

Denning’s Gramsci is a theorist of political organizing, defined as much by determined optimism as by a tempering realism. Drawing a useful parallel between Gramsci and his contemporary, the US organizer Joe Hill, Denning reminds us of Hill’s famous refrain, “don’t mourn, organize!” But how do we move from defeat to organizing? For Gramsci, the first step in this process is a rigorous, historically contextualized analysis of the present. It’s no accident that Gramsci was introduced and popularized to the anglophone world through the work of Communist historians like Eric Hobsbawm at a moment when the promise of Soviet communism had dissipated, in the aftermath of the 1956 crises precipitated by Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin and the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Remembering that all political struggle is contingent, that historical, political, social conditions — and thus opportunities — evolve, is essential to creating new forms of organization and mapping new plans of action. Movements don’t fail for the same reason every time. Indeed, a given strategy or tactic might succeed in one instance but fail in another.

One of the most productive ideas in the interview for me was Denning’s suggestion that Gramsci’s approach should also be flipped on its head. In victory, as in defeat, it’s essential to conduct a sober analysis of the results. Denning gives the example of the Yale graduate workers’ union’s recent momentous win — a victory thirty years in the making. But he doesn’t let us celebrate into complacency. The union’s ultimate success may be as much the product of the specific conditions of the neoliberalized university and the academic profession’s current precariousness as an ideological shift brought on by decades of relentless organizing.

A similar example might be the Amazon Labor Union’s successful union election at JFK8 using methods that defied US labor’s long-standing organizing formula — a strategy that hasn’t yet been successfully replicated. Gramsci helps pull us back from hubris and see that, like our losses, our victories are always partially contingent on conditions outside of our own making. The task for socialist organizers is to understand the specificities of a given struggle and why certain strategies were effective in that context in order to determine when they might be successfully deployed again.

Through Denning’s reading of his work, Gramsci provides an antidote to the type of despair many on the Left are experiencing today. Pragmatic but driven to action, there is always something to be learned from defeat and new conditions creating opportunity for socialist struggle on the horizon.

Further Reading and Listening Part One of our interview with Michael Denning is a crucial primer for the topics covered in this week’s episode. If you haven’t done so already, check it out here or read it here. To dig deeper into Denning’s idea of Gramsci as organizer, check out his 2021 New Left Review essay.

Eric Hobsbawm’s essays on Gramsci in his book How to Change the World were my first introduction to Gramsci’s thought and offer an accessible overview of both Gramsci’s ideas and their reception. To better understand the anglophone New Left’s relationship to Gramsci, check out Perry Anderson’s The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci.