The Struggle Continues

Remembering Antonio Negri

Antonio Negri’s passing is an epochal moment for the European left, although not the end of an epoch.

He always had a solution. Antonio Negri, Berlin.

The tally of Negri’s years of activism and scholarship comprises seven decades and constitutes a thread of continuity from the radical left of the high Cold War to today’s post-Marxist left.

Born in Padova in 1933, Negri was active in his youth in GIAC, the Catholic youth movement, and his father was instrumental in founding the Italian Communist Party (PCI).

Although he died when Antonio Negri was only two, his father’s militant engagements left a lasting influence on the future philosopher.

After spending time on an Israeli kibbutz in the early 1950s, Negri embraced communism and joined the Italian Socialist Party in 1956.

By the early 1960s, he was involved in the circles that produced workerism and Autonomist Marxism.

Alongside Mario Tronti and Raniero Panzieri, Negri was an editor of the heterodox Quaderni Rossi (Red Notebooks), which had an outsized influence on Italy’s New Left despite running only six issues.

The kidnapping and murder of ex-premier Aldo Moro in 1978 is shrouded in myth and mystery. As a prominent figure on the far left, Antonio Negri was suspected of direct involvement.

Moro’s murder accomplished nothing except to give the Italian government increased license to crack down on leftists.

In April 1979, Negri was arrested and charged with having a leadership role in the Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades), and thus of involvement in the murders of Moro and others, as well as of plotting the overthrow of the government.

Although the charges of Negri’s association with the Brigate Rosse quickly collapsed, he was nonetheless accused of involvement in another murder and of having “morally concurred” with the killing of policemen in a failed bank heist.

Imprisoned for four years awaiting trial, Antonio Negri was elected to the Italian legislature and left prison under a claim of parliamentary immunity.

With the help of philosopher Gilles Deleuze, he then fled to France, where he spent 14 years in exile. Negri taught at Paris VIII (Vincennes) and the Collège international de philosophie, but he was forbidden to engage in political activism.

Returning to Italy in 1997, Negri served out the balance of his sentence until it was commuted in 2003. While in prison, he composed several significant works, most prominently Empire, written in collaboration with Michael Hardt, the book for which he is best known.

Negri’s Marxism has always been of a more or less unorthodox variety. His involvement with the workerists at Quaderni Rossi and the Potere Operaio (Workers’ Power) group is emblematic.

Potere Operaio’s guiding principle was to conceive of working-class power outside the bureaucratic sclerosis of the PCI.

Following Hungary’s failed revolution in 1956, Western European communist parties were notable for being hide-bound and ideologically stagnant.

This helps explain the speed with which they collapsed after the fall of the USSR. It may not have been their lifeline, but it was crucial to their legitimacy.

The bureaucratised sclerosis of the French Communist Party spun off a wide range of counterproposals, from Daniel Cohn-Bendit’s Obsolete Communism and the various strains of French Maoism to Michel Foucault’s neoliberally tinged analytics of power at the opposite extreme.

In Italy, workerism arose from similar impulses.

In the decades after the Second World War, the PCI had acclimatised itself to the realities of life under Alcide De Gasperi and his Christian Democratic successors. Although Gramsci was still held in reverence, his thought was invoked mechanically, stripped of its radical, disruptive impulses.

Under Palmiro Togliatti, the PCI had resigned itself to an unending war of position, begging for scraps from the Christian Democrats’ table.

The workerist approach, carried over into Autonomism, was organising at the micro-level. In practice, this meant abandoning the attempt to establish ideological hegemony in civil society in favour of shop-floor-level militancy.

It was not coincidental that a later workerist formation designated itself Lotta Continua (Continuous Struggle) as it sought to take the bottom-up approach to politics into the 1970s.

The struggle was not the PCI’s Soviet communism but rather grassroots organising undertaken by students, other young people, and workers.

This politics, based on the model of workerism, shaped Negri’s views from his incarceration through his exile in France and after.

In 1979, Negri published Marx oltre Marx (Marx Beyond Marx), in which he engaged at length with the Grundrisse, the preparatory material for Capital produced by Marx in the winter of 1857-8.

This book was held in low regard amongst orthodox Marxists. Dissident Marxists also showed little interest in the Grundrisse, at least initially.

For those opposed to rigidified Soviet-style communism, the favoured point of reference was Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts, with their Hegelian and overtly humanistic overtones.

Although some took the Grundrisse seriously (such as Helmut Reichelt and others in Germany associated with the so-called “new Marx interpretation”), it was most often invoked by Louis Althusser and his acolytes as part of their rejection of the early Marx.

For Antonio Negri, by contrast, the Grundrisse was a source of insights into Marx’s account of the labour process. This was a world away from French philosopher Louis Althusser’s obsession with Marxism’s abstract “scientific” qualities.

Instead, Negri focused on how the material in the Grundrisse could illuminate class struggle and militancy.

Empire (2000) was co-written with the American political philosopher Michael Hardt. Its aim is to refocus Marxism in an era in which market globalisation has downsized the nation-state, internationally dispersing political power and struggles for social justice.

Empowering the left in this new context is the book’s goal. Following the Cold War, progressives now had to fight a mix of intergovernmental forums like the G8 and global economic institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. If it sounds complex, it is.

Philosophically, Empire is an ambitious attempt to integrate several strains of post-structuralist thinking into Marxism by complicating its account of how power functions within the global system.

The work of Gilles Deleuze looms particularly large here, with his concept of “deterritorialisation” appearing in the text even before the main pagination has begun.

One particularly interesting innovation is Negri’s reconfiguration of Marx’s revolutionary subject, the legendary proletariat.

One of the central problems of 20th-century Marxism has been the question of who will carry out the revolution. This had been an issue ever since Europe’s working classes rallied to defend their nation-states at the outbreak of World War I.

By the Cold War, with working classes seemingly well integrated into the circuits of middle-class consumerism, the Marxist account of class consciousness seemed increasingly remote, as did the idea that the working classes were likely to rise up to overthrow the system.

Antonio Negri’s account of shifting identities in Empire tries to cut to the base, focusing on economic inequality as a persistent producer, if not of class consciousness, at least of an oppositional consciousness that endures the manifold changes of the modern capitalist system.

In the succeeding volumes of Hardt and Negri’s political trilogy, Multitude (2005) and Commonwealth (2009), the authors present accounts of democratisation and property’s role in modern political theory.

It is hard to synthesise a coherent political position from these works, but perhaps that is the point. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri were less interested in offering up a political program than in analysing the shape and dynamics of the existing system in the hopes of highlighting opportunities for activism.

In this respect, Negri remained true to Autonomist political leanings until the end of his life. In his view, what was needed was not a unified mass organisation but decentered movements of the dispossessed and disadvantaged who could bring their own concerns and experiences to the struggle.

Negri’s final work, Marx in Movement: Operaismo in Context (2021), makes this point forcefully.

Meant as the opening of a new, multi-volume account of politics, the book is both an account of the complex history of Italian Autonomism and an attempt to update it to acknowledge the specific conditions of postmodern capitalism.

It is not entirely clear that either the Empire trilogy or Marx in Movement provide an unequivocally valid account of modern capitalism or the means to resist it.

What is clear is that Negri’s philosophy creates a compelling framework to examine the changes in capitalist organisation to judge the effectiveness of leftist tactics and make new ones.

In this respect, Antonio Negri’s work, like his life, remains exemplary.

Photograph courtesy of Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung. Published under a Creative Commons license.