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The Professor in the Balaclava: Toni Negri and Autonomist Politics

Tobias Abse

"Hope is a projection, is a continuum, is to demand analogy. Here there is no homology of any kind. Here there is neither utopia nor myth. Here there is neither Georges Sorel nor Ernst Bloch. Here there is the richness that tries, the desperation that wins. I look around myself in amazement. Is this really the spirit of the century? Is this really the creative Marxism from which we live? Nothing reveals the enormous historical positivity of working class self- valorisation at this point more than sabotage. Nothing more than this continuous activity of sniper, of absenteeist, of deviant, of criminal that I happen to live. Every time I put on my balaclava, I immediately feel the warmth of the working class and proletarian community around me. This solitude of mine is creative, this separateness of mine is the only real collectivity that I know. Nor does the happiness of the result evade me: every action of destruction and sabotage overflows on to me as a sign of class linkage. Nor does the possible risk hurt me: rather it fills me with febrile emotion, like waiting for my beloved. Nor does the pain of the adversary hit me: proletarian justice has the same productive force of self-valorisation and the same faculty of logical conviction." Antonio Negri, Il dominio e il sabotaggio: Sul metodo marxista della trasformazione sociale, fifth edition, Milan, 1980, p.43 (first edition 1978). My translation – T.A.

ONE OF the strangest media events of 2001 from a left wing perspective was the cult status accorded to the book Empire,1 and the consequent return to public prominence of the more well-known of its two authors, Antonio Negri – or Toni Negri as he used to be known to his followers on the Italian far left. The book does contain an astonishing range of references, and it would be easy to be intimidated by Negri’s real or apparent learning into a respectful silence or a gushing reverence. For those of us only too aware of the kind of confused ideas swirling around in the heads of protestors like Carlo Giuliani 2 and not wishing to see more youngsters dying at the hands of the security forces on Italy’s streets over the next few years, this is not a responsible option.

It is to say the very least unfortunate that in the very year in which Italy experienced an upsurge of the most extensive social movement amongst youth since 1977, Antonio Negri, who for some considerable time seemed a rather discredited figure, both intellectually and politically, suddenly achieved a far greater intellectual influence than he has had for more than two decades. Just as Negri’s violent rhetoric became dominant in the movement of 1977, pushing it towards rabid hostility to the entire unionised working class (not just the egregious individual trade union bureaucrats on the right wing of the PCI like Luciano Lama, the CGIL leader),3 and towards a premature and completely suicidal direct confrontation with the state, so today Luca Casarini, the leader of the Tute Bianche (White Overalls),4 has enthusiastically adopted Negri’s new phraseology centred on the notions of "Empire" and "The Multitude", words which Casarini employs even when faced with interlocutors such as BBC radio correspondents or Italian bourgeois journalists who are utterly at sea in this argot, like the vast majority of their listeners and readers with whom one might have hoped Casarini would wish to communicate. This language is so esoteric to those who have never read Negri (and thus, one suspects, to most of the communists, Catholics and trade unionists who made up the vast majority of the 300,000-strong march on Saturday 21 July at Genoa in which neither the violent autonomists of the Black Block nor the seemingly peaceful autonomists of the Tute Bianche played much of a role) that it is not surprising that Adriano Sofri – the one-time Lotta Continua leader confined in a Pisan gaol, under conditions that do not seem to preclude him from writing regular columns for the centre-left bourgeois daily La Repubblica, for his alleged involvement in the murder of the police superintendent Calabresi in 19725 – suggested with apparent plausibility that Casarini had derived such terminology from the film Star Wars.6

Like the Bourbons on their return to the French throne in 1815, Negri’s disciples have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing. Five years ago, one of his inner circle ominously remarked that "the movement of ’77 constitutes (to use Hannah Arendt’s beautiful expression) a ’future at our backs’, the remembrance of the potential class struggles that may take place in the next phase, a future history".7 Another 1977 – with the militarisation of sections of the Italian left, primarily around the autonomi, and the resulting clampdown by the state – would be a total disaster, and it is our duty to keep alive a collective memory of what really happened in that terrible year that destroyed the hopes of collective change from below that had first arisen in Italy in 1967-69, and of the role played by Negri in that catastrophe.8 We must pour scorn on Negri’s absurd assertion in 1981 that "proletarian memory is only the memory of past estrangement ... communist transition is the absence of memory".9 The Pied Piper of Padua has done enough harm already, to an earlier generation of students and young unemployed and to the Italian workers’ movement, though not to capital and the Italian state, his ostensible targets, who generally benefited from his antics – just as they did in July 2001 from those of the Black Blockers who, insofar as they were not undercover policemen, fascists or apolitical football hooligans,10 are his spiritual progeny, even if the link with the Italian autonomi of the 1970s is often indirect, via the German autonomen of the 1980s, with whom the term Black Block originated, or their American imitators in the 1990s.

Who is Antonio Negri?
Empire has frequently been reviewed, even by writers like Gopal Balakrishnan,11 as if it were primarily a theoretical text, one of whose authors just happens to have had a rather unusual life history by academic standards. The merits of other cult books of the new anti-capitalist movement can certainly be assessed independently of the authors’ biographies. No Logo, Fast Food Nation and The Captive State, to take but three examples, might conceivably be attacked for either factual errors or lack of a sufficiently broad and rigorous analysis of modern capitalism, but anybody whose attack concentrated on the authors themselves would receive short shrift, and rightly so – I remember my intense irritation with a Guardian interview with Jose Bové that seemed far more concerned with his parents’ careers and the collapse of his marriage than with the arguments that he was advancing about food and economics. However, in this instance, what some Negri fans will undoubtedly view as an ad hominem attack is justified. To discuss Empire in isolation from the political, intellectual and criminal history of its 68-year-old Italian co-author strikes me as bizarre, even if very much in keeping with the postmodernist vogue for treating all history (and not just so-called "grand narratives") as irrelevant and tiresome in the extreme.

Negri is to say the least a strange character. He cannot be seen as an intellectual akin to British New Leftists like Edward Thompson and Raymond Williams. Negri always wanted to be in the academic mainstream. One cannot imagine him teaching adult education classes (or even writing a book like Thompson’s Warwick University Limited that destroyed his link with an academic institution). In what he would have rather pompously described as his "Parisian political exile" he carried on at the University of Paris VIII (Saint Denis) exactly where he had left off at Padua before his arrest. Moreover, unlike Williams and Thompson after 1956, he was not at all uncomfortable about centralised political organisations as long as he was at the head of them, as he effectively was in both Potere Operaio (1969-73) and Autonomia Operaia (1973-79). The two sides to Negri do not fit together in the way they did with Edward Thompson, all of whose academic work was fired by intense political commitment. Negri led a double life, at least until his arrest in April 1979, but even in recent years there is a rather unnerving compartmentalisation or dissociation that marks his life and work, and perhaps helps to explain how a man who felt no compunction about leaving his long-time comrades and loyal disciples to face lengthy prison sentences in Italy whilst he lived it up in Paris can now have the sheer effrontery to present himself as a revolutionary theoretician for the new century and babble about "the irrepressible lightness and joy of being communist", as he puts it in the final words of Empire.

Negri is the author of books on Descartes (Descartes politico o della ragionevole ideologia, Milan, 1970), Spinoza (L’anomalia selvaggia: saggio sul potere e potenza in Baruch Spinoza, Milan, 1981), the poet Leopardi (Lenta ginestra: saggio sull’ontologia di Giacomo Leopardi, Milan, 1987), various aspects of legal theory and philosophy (Alle origini del formalismo giuridico, Padua, 1962, and Studi sullo storicismo tedesco, Milan, 1959), the influence of Machiavelli on subsequent political thought (Il potere costituente, Milan, 1992) and the nature of time (La costituzione del tempo, Rome, 1997). Whilst this list deliberately omits some of his more obviously political works,12 it would be fair to say that the greater part of his oeuvre13 would substantiate an image of Negri as a rather old-fashioned bourgeois academic, very concerned with his research, somewhat neglectful of the majority of his students and very eager to assert his power within the academic institution where he worked by appointing his loyal disciples to any post that fell vacant and maintaining tight control over student bursaries. This persona, almost a parody of the remote and arrogant Italian professor against which the original student revolt of 1967-68 was directed, is in fact not that far removed from the image he had within the Padua Political Science Faculty. In many ways, he was a classical Italian university barone.14

Yet Negri is also a man who has been imprisoned for terrorism. David Smith in the Sunday Times has described Negri as "notorious for his involvement in the Red Brigades in the 1970s – who kidnapped and assassinated an Italian Prime Minister, Aldo Moro",15 whilst the Observer’s Ed Vulliamy, who was the Guardian’s Italian correspondent in the early 1990s, labelled him as "once linked with the 1970s Italian terror group Red Brigade" (sic).16 Somehow this does not seem to add up. As a rule, authors of learned works on Descartes do not kidnap prime ministers. Continental Marxist philosophers have been known suddenly to strangle their wives without any serious provocation, as Negri unintentionally reminded me with his discussion in Empire of how "in an extraordinary text written during his period of seclusion Althusser reads Machiavelli",17 but killing public figures is normally beyond them. In fact, of course, the Smith-Vulliamy version, whilst based on the wilder accusations of Italian prosecutors at the moment of Negri’s arrest in 1979 when he was accused of being the mastermind behind the Moro kidnapping, indeed of making a crucial telephone call on behalf of the Red Brigades (Brigate Rosse – BR), is a rather distorted one. It is true that Negri certainly shared the BR’s penchant for violence, proclaiming this in terms that may strike the more jaundiced reader as at least as reminiscent of the Marquis de Sade as of Vladimir Lenin: "Fantasies need heavy boots, desires entail violence, innovation requires organisation. The method of social transformation can only be that of the proletarian dictatorship."18 Nevertheless, the movement he led in 1973-79, Autonomia Operaia (literally Workers Autonomy) was despised by Mario Moretti and the top leaders of the BR, to some extent because of ideological differences that would be lost on the likes of Smith and Vulliamy, but to a greater extent because of an instinctive feeling that these intellectuals were not capable of serious clandestine work.

However, if the BR leadership despised Autonomia, many autonomists were half in love with the BR.19 Franco Piperno and Lanfranco Pace, two leading figures in Autonomia, had acted as intermediaries between the BR and Socialist proponents of a humanitarian negotiated approach to the Moro kidnapping (as opposed to the Christian Democrat-Communist line of intransigence, officially justified by the need to preserve the state’s prestige at all costs20); and they had been able to do this because Valerio Morucci and Adriana Faranda, BR terrorists involved in the Moro kidnapping, had been members of Potere Operaio, the organisation led by Negri in 1969-73 which gave rise to Autonomia Operaia.21 To be fair, there is no evidence that Negri was ever involved in the Moro kidnapping even to the degree that his comrades Piperno and Pace, let alone his former followers Morucci and Faranda, were. However, Negri was one of the main speakers at a meeting of Autonomia Operaia in Rome in May 1978, so it is hard to imagine that he had no idea what his comrades Piperno and Pace were up to in the capital. The most mysterious of the quartet who guarded and ultimately killed Moro, Germano Maccari, who was not captured until 1993 and died in prison of a heart attack in August 2001, had been a member of Negri’s Potere Operaio before joining the BR, rather than of the nostalgic Stalinist wing of the PCI or the more overtly Stalinist (as opposed to spontaneist) Maoist groups, the two main sources from which the BR hard core emerged; but, given that many BR members involved in the operation did not know the real name of "Engineer Altobelli", there is no reason to assume that Negri had kept in touch with one of the many hundreds who had once revered him as the leader of the coming Italian revolution.

However, it has to be emphasised, in order to destroy the widespread myth of there being some sort of iron curtain between the autonomi and the BR, that Pace himself had briefly been member of the BR during 1977. According to the BR member Morucci: "Pace never went beyond basic training, which he began in October or November 1977. He proved to be a bad recruit, failing repeatedly to keep appointments with other members, and showing more interest in all-night card games than in learning the revolutionary’s trade. By January 1978, the Red Brigades had seen enough and discontinued his candidacy."22 In other words, the episode did not come to an end because of any crisis of conscience on Pace’s part, but because he was regarded as too undisciplined to be of any use to a serious terrorist organisation.23

The famous declaration Do You Remember Revolution?, drafted by eleven autonomi including Negri (but not Piperno and Pace, whose dealings with the criminal justice system took a slightly different course) in Rebibbia Prison in Rome in 1983 and subsequently given canonical status by Negri’s associates, cannot be regarded as a serious historical contribution, whether or not one chooses to regard it as a legitimate defence tactic on the basis that revolutionaries are entitled to say anything that assists their exit from a bourgeois gaol.24 Whilst at times internally inconsistent, it contains some choice examples of chutzpah from somebody who a mere five years earlier had been so anxious to write about the joys of wearing a balaclava, proclaim himself a "deviant" and a "criminal", and emphasise how "the pain of the adversary" did not effect him at all. From prison Negri and his chastened co-authors asserted: "That we have nothing to do with terrorism is obvious. That we have been ’subversive’ is equally obvious." Without being specific about Potere Operaio, they claimed of the "revolutionary groups": "The sporadic contacts that existed between the groups and the first armed organisation only confirmed the gulf in cultural perspective and political line that divided them." Nonetheless, they were forced to admit: "In Rome especially, from the end of 1977 onward, the Red Brigades made a large-scale recruitment from the movement, which was in deep crisis."

Negri made Autonomia, whose militants often carried guns, particularly the P38 pistol, on demonstrations, sound like a client group of the Greater London Council during Ken Livingstone’s glory days of the 1980s, talking of "struggle and political mediation, struggle and negotiating with the institutions". Far from reiterating Negri’s "heavy boots" line of 1978, we are told: "There is no ‘good’ version of armed struggle, no alternative to the elitist practice of the Red Brigades; armed struggle is in itself incompatible with and antithetical to the new movements." Given that even in a text as opaque as Empire, Negri, on the very last page refers to "the virtues of insurrectional action of 200 years of subversive experience" – hardly the phraseology of an ideologically committed "peaceful roader" – how can we take the claim of 1983 seriously? But then again, is it any more difficult to believe than the following assertion: "Every regional collective that was part of Autonomy traced the concrete particularity of class composition in that area, without experiencing this as a limitation, but rather as its reason for being. It is therefore literally impossible to reconstitute a unitary history of these movements among Rome, Milan, the Veneto region and the South." Surely a bit of regional diversity does not make the reconstitution of an organisation’s history impossible? Such statements will only convince those who choose to believe that Militant was nothing more than a newspaper and that the Sinn Féin leadership of Adams and McGuinness never knows what the IRA Army Council thinks.25

A murky affair
Whatever one makes of the murky relationship between the BR and Autonomia in 1977-78, Negri’s personal involvement in another kidnapping with fatal consequences is more than probable, if Carlo Fioroni is to be believed.26

Fioroni came from a left wing Catholic background, and met Negri before Potere Operaio was founded as a national organisation in August 1969. Fioroni, a weak character, easily dominated by Negri, cracked up after the kidnapping and accidental murder of his close friend and fellow Potere Operaio member Carlo Saronio on 14 April 1975. According to Fioroni, Negri organised the Saronio kidnapping in the belief that this wealthy family would pay a high ransom for their son. The kidnapping was carried out by Carlo Casirati, a politicised criminal of Negri’s acquaintance; Fioroni was one of his accomplices. It was all supposed to be play-acting, but went wrong when a chloroform-soaked cloth was held on Saronio’s face for too long, and the victim died. Saronio’s death broke Fioroni, who went to the authorities and told them about the criminal activities of Potere Operaio and Autonomia. After some years in jail for his role in the kidnapping, Fioroni fled first to Morocco and then to France where he worked as a teacher of Italian. He reappeared in Italy as a prosecution witness in the Metropoli Trial of Pace and Piperno in 1986-87, during which he had little of substance to say about their dealings with the BR in 1978, since he had been imprisoned at the time. During this trial, Fioroni also spoke about his role as a participant in meetings between Negri and the first BR leader Renato Curcio in the early 1970s. This in no way proves there was any connection between Negri and the BR in 1978 at the time of the Moro affair, during which the imprisoned Curcio was under 24-hour surveillance and had no possibility whatever of exerting any day-to-day control over the operations of the BR, but it does suggest that Negri’s indignant denials of any dealings with the BR should be treated with the utmost suspicion.

Doubtless all Negri fans will dismiss Fioroni as a liar and parrot the line of Do You Remember Revolution?, but there seems no real motive for Fioroni to bear false witness since, unlike many subsequent terrorist or mafia supergrasses, he appears to have gained no material reward for his initial confession and would have been better off (certainly materially and possibly even psychologically) if he had kept silent.

The charge sheet against the self-proclaimed "criminal" and "deviant" Toni Negri in terms of personal involvement in criminal activity, as opposed to mere rhetorical glorification of violence, is not totally dependent on Fioroni’s testimony in the Saronio murder case. A key witness is Giorgio Bocca, the famous Italian journalist, whose viewpoint is best summarised as non-Marxist centre-left, and who responded to the 7 April case by writing a book in which he tore apart the prosecution claims about Toni Negri being the brains behind the BR and the principal organiser of terrorism in Italy during the 1970s, claims which Bocca mockingly described as "a global theory, an all-inclusive fresco, a Sistine chapel with its last judgement of subversion".27 Bocca, an expert on terrorism who interviewed many BR members,28 many of whom he saw as misguided idealists, had no liking for Negri, whom he subsequently described as "that little university Lucifer" and "a narcissus with a subtle brain", one of those who use "a powerful memory purely to assist their tricks", remarking that Negri "knew how to copy well from books that had not yet been translated in Italy". Bocca has no doubt that Negri, whom he sees as far more influenced by Nietzsche’s and D’Annunzio’s ideas about "the superman" than by Marx, lived out his fantasies, albeit by proxy.29

The two concrete instances he gives of Negri inciting others to commit criminal acts on his behalf have a definite ring of truth; they are precisely the sorts of crime one can imagine amoral academics engaging in. Firstly, when Negri lived in Milan, he used to send the young autonomi he regularly received in his house out to the nearest bookshop to steal all the books that interested him. Secondly, and rather more seriously, he asserted his power in Padua University by getting his "reactionary" colleagues kneecapped, and then used to theorise in his usual jargon-ridden style that "the levels of the use of force of counter-power have been exemplified by the punishment of teachers who are particularly zealous in anti-proletarian initiatives: Galante, Santo, etc".30

Somebody who behaved like this was not fit to hold a university post in Italy or any other country. Anybody who thinks that having your colleagues kneecapped by hit squads in balaclavas can be placed on a par with, for instance, Robin Blackburn offering verbal support to some students who tore down gates at the LSE in 1969, has lost contact with the real world. Autonomia may not have been a fully-fledged terrorist organisation like the BR or Primea Linea, but it was renowned for its systematic thuggery and intimidation. Professor Negri was far too busy writing to have ordered all the actions carried out by these half-educated young thugs whom he regarded as superior to the organised working class, but he dictated the general line.

Whilst the Centri Sociali (Social Centres seems a slightly misleading translation, even if these, often squatted, buildings are frequently used for musical and cultural as well as political and, occasionally, paramilitary purposes), the movement out of which Casarini and the White Overalls emerged, have, despite Rifondazione Comunista’s tireless efforts to steer them towards sanity, a measure of historical continuity with the remnants of Autonomia Operaia, the militarised hierarchical and semi-clandestine movement in which Negri – despite all his endless and utterly mendacious denials – was the leading figure, the recent Negri revival owes a lot more to Anglophone (principally US) phenomena than to his vestigial following within Italy itself.31

Without the extremely gifted academic entrepreneur and manic self-publicist Michael Hardt, who first acted as his translator (most famously of Negri’s work on Spinoza, The Savage Anomaly, published by the University of Minnesota Press in 1991, but written more than a decade earlier during Negri’s first imprisonment and published in Italy in 1981 and in France in 1982, in the latter instance presumably as a result of Giles Deleuze’s assistance) and then as his intellectual collaborator (on The Labor of Dionysius, published in 1994, and subsequently on Empire), Negri would never have made an impact on the American academic mainstream. Hardt was not Negri’s first translator or promoter in the English-speaking world, but most earlier translations of Negri into English were undertaken by often eccentric enthusiasts, inspired by autonomist politics but not noted for their technical competence as translators, and published by small political presses with a poor distribution network.

However, Hardt’s marketing skills,32 whilst a necessary condition for the Negri revival, were not in themselves sufficient to get Negri the kind of acclamation required to be published by Harvard, as opposed to the University of Minnesota Press (even if the latter was clearly a step up from the British publisher Red Notes or the New York-based Autonomedia). It was Negri’s growing engagement with all the French postmodernist theorists so fashionable in American academic circles that opened the way (even if Hardt’s role in introducing Negri to the work of the French theorists’ American acolytes probably put the icing on the cake in terms of securing favourable readers’ reports and advance publicity from figures like Fredric Jameson, Dipesh Chakrabarty and Saskia Sassen).33

I suspect that it is a bit simplistic to treat Negri’s adoption of the concept of "post-modernity" and much of the theoretical baggage of French post-structuralism including Foucauldian notions of "biopolitics" as a quantum leap in the way Alex Callinicos appeared to do in a talk on Negri at the SWP’s Marxism 2001.34 Negri’s years in France, between his flight from Italy that rapidly followed his election to the Italian parliament on the list of the petit-bourgeois Radical Party in 198335 and his return to Italy (on what can only have been negotiated terms, given the impossibility under French treaties with Italy of extraditing self-proclaimed "political suspects") to serve an almost nominal stretch in Rebibbia prison, must have played quite an important role in reorienting his thought towards Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, even if the process had begun in Marx Beyond Marx. Given Foucault’s idealisation not only of the prisoner in general, but even more of the criminal, especially the really deviant, violent or mad criminal, one can see how a certain French intellectual milieu might have been drawn to Negri like bluebottles to a dead dog.36 Of course, Negri’s own experience of imprisonment – although much shorter than that of his fellow defendants from Autonomia Operaia whom he callously abandoned to their fate in 1983 – may in itself have made him particularly susceptible to Foucauldian ideas about total institutions and surveillance, for as a professor in an Italian university he would have had very little previous experience of external constraints. For what it is worth, my own memory of the milieu in which remnants of Lotta Continua37 mingled with fragments of Autonomia Operaia in Pisa and Florence in 1979-80 is of one in which Marxism was under pressure from Foucauldianism. (However, we must add that the disorientation of the marginalised youths who had long hung on Negri’s every word does not prove that the Professor had gone the same way rapidly, for whilst Deleuze is frequently cited in the book on Spinoza, the magnum opus of Negri’s first imprisonment, Foucault is never mentioned, despite the centrality of "power" in this text.)

The strange world of Empire
Whilst it would not now be unduly cynical to suggest that "globalisation books" have become a distinct genre, initially an academic one centred on a debate between economists, but after Seattle a political one with wider appeal, Empire does not fit comfortably into this niche.38 It has a far less economic emphasis than any other text on the question of globalisation from a more strictly Marxist perspective, where economic issues have been at the very centre of the debate as to whether or not world capitalism is going through an entirely new phase. Nor does it offer a wide-ranging panoramic view of international relations in the current phase from a Marxist position in the manner of Peter Gowan.39 Moreover, it lacks the wealth of empirical detail to be found in many of the works by non-Marxist radical campaigners on globalisation issues, such as Naomi Klein, George Monbiot and Susan George, who have become known to wider layers of anti-capitalist activists.

Perhaps Empire’s failure to take as its starting point the economic trends of recent decades is not surprising given that in Marx Beyond Marx Negri had the arrogance to claim Marx’s Capital "served to reduce critique to economic theory, to annihilate subjectivity in objectivity, to subject the subversive capacity of the proletariat to the reorganising and repressive intelligence of capitalist power" (p.19). Arguably, an approach rooted in the decline of the nation state and the very notion of unlimited national sovereignty – serious issues which in however distorted a form inform real political debates, including British Conservative discussion of the European Union – might be a perfectly reasonable way of tackling the question of real or apparent globalisation. But an analysis of sovereignty that begins with Duns Scotus, Machiavelli, Hobbes and Spinoza is not at first sight the most obvious point of entry into a serious discussion of the real changes in the international system since 1945.

My scepticism increased when I read this: "In other words, the contemporary empirical situation resembles the theoretical description of imperial power as the supreme form of government that Polybius constructed for Rome and the European tradition handed down us" (p.314). Negri’s pompous classical references are a constant refrain – the best example is his assertion that "the name that we want to use to refer to the multitude in its political autonomy and its productive activity is the Latin term posse – power as a verb, as activity" (p.407). He is aware of the slightly different use of the term by rappers lacking a classical education of the kind he received in his liceo classico in 1940s Italy and haughtily remarks that "this American fantasy of vigilantes and outlaws, however, does not interest us very much" (p.408). Such is the quite comically fractured consciousness of a rather precious traditional intellectual who has been idealising the lumpenproletariat since he gave up on the traditional factory worker a quarter of a century ago.

Some of us might have more patience with Professor Negri if he had the same grasp of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, the General Agreement on Trade and Services and various other recent proposals emanating from the World Trade Organisation as he has, or appears to have, of Machiavelli, Descartes and Spinoza. Although the book claims to start from "the juridical perspective" (p.122), Negri’s interest in legal theory is always a very abstract one, and is of absolutely no assistance to those interested in practical questions such as patent law as it affects AIDS drugs for South Africa or Monsanto’s infamous Terminator seeds or the implications of international agreements for bananas, Roquefort cheese or cattle fed with hormones, to name but a few of the legal issues that have given rise to campaigns across the world, and even to some measure of dispute between the EU and the USA.

Let us turn to some of the more directly political issues raised by Empire. The authors believe that imperialism has been replaced by Empire, and that this latter phenomenon has no defined national territory or single centre. Their understanding of imperialism is fundamentally flawed in that they equate it with colonialism. Imperialism, as Lenin pointed out long ago, can take purely economic forms (such as the United Fruit Company and its equally vicious successor with its phoney politically-correct Latino name which launched a successful offensive against the Caribbean banana producers’ links to the EU), and imperialist intervention can make use of proxies (Unita in Angola, the Contras in Nicaragua, the Mujahedin and Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, the KLA in Kosovo and the NLA in Macedonia, to name but a few). Negri seems unaware that British imperialism was more economically dependent on exploiting the formally independent Argentina than on the exploitation of many an African country, and made effective use of political structures in Australia and Canada that do not conform to Negri’s rather restricted notion of what constitutes a colony.

The authors are well aware that many of their readers see the post-Cold War world as a unipolar one dominated by American imperialism. They take refuge in numerous sleights of hand in order to downplay the role of American economic, political and military institutions. Whilst it is perfectly true that the USA has a number of political junior partners (and/or potential rivals) and that not every multi-national is US-based, the nebulous conception of Empire is a blind alley and could well disorient the anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist forces, making it impossible for many newly-radicalised youngsters to identify the real enemy with any degree of accuracy.

Similar confusion about the real enemy is evident elsewhere in the text. Negri and Hardt venomously dismiss Amnesty International and Oxfam, saying "such humanitarian NGOs are in effect the charitable campaigns and mendicant orders of Empire" (p.36). Whilst a few NGOs associated with figures like Mary Kaldor have become apologists for "humanitarian imperialism", Oxfam has always been genuinely concerned with the wretched of the earth and although its critique of the dominant order is both pacific and non-Marxist, it has nonetheless been genuinely radical and willing to associate itself with the anti-globalisation movement (or the more respectable parts of it).40 As for Amnesty, for a former political prisoner like Negri to dismiss its thorough and impartial work against torture and in favour of prisoners of conscience is another example of the Professor’s appalling combination of chutzpah and gross ingratitude, not to mention failing memory, given the use that autonomi made of Amnesty’s 1986 report on the 7 April trial.

Whilst the field workers of Oxfam, eager to feed starving Afghans and critical of imperialist carpet-bombing of civilians, are set up as legitimate targets for "The Multitude" (or the balaclava-wearing hit squads that the Professor traditionally saw as its proxies), American postmodernist intellectuals are handled with kid gloves. Some gentle suggestions are made that their critique of Enlightenment values is losing its bite as "modernity" gives way to "post-modernity"; in short that they are allegedly fighting yesterday’s enemy. However, our intrepid authors then beat a headlong retreat: "We do not mean to suggest that postmodernist and/or post-colonialist theorists are somehow the lackeys of global capital and the world market. Anthony Appiah and Arif Dirlik are ungenerous when they cast these authors in the position of ’comprador intelligentsia’ and ’the intelligentsia of global capitalism’" (p.138). Those of us who for more than a decade have fought a rearguard action against the anti-Marxist witch-hunt by the British post-modernists (frequently tenured ex-68ers) are quite clear that they are "the intelligentsia of global capitalism" and a "comprador intelligentsia", usually Blairite to a woman.

Negri and Hardt still seem perilously close to the old mid-1970s hostility of the autonomi to the organised working class – indeed, Callinicos claims that Negri described trade unionists as "kulaks" in a telephone conversation in February 2001. They emphasise: "In a previous era the category of the proletariat centred on and was at times subsumed under the industrial working class, whose paradigmatic figure was the male mass factory worker. Today that working class has all but disappeared from view. It has not ceased to exist, but it has been displaced from its privileged position in the capitalist economy and its hegemonic position in the class composition of the proletariat. The proletariat is not what it used to be but that does not mean that it has vanished" (pp.52-53). The confusion is heightened by the fact that Negri and Hardt rarely use the word "proletariat", preferring the much more esoteric phrase "The Multitude". This label is apparently derived from Spinoza,41 but in practice seems to be equated with the proletariat conceived in the broadest possible sense, rather than given any rigorously "early modern" definition.

Negri and Hardt seem confident in the ultimate victory of "The Multitude" over "Empire" but give us very little idea of how it might come about. Mass migration is given a kind of mystical significance. They claim that "nomadism and miscegenation appear here as figures of virtue, as the first ethical practices on the terrain of Empire" (p.362). Whilst I share their hostility to immigration controls, it seems me that the bulk of the intensified mass migration over the last decade or so has been a result of poverty and war, that people have frequently left their homes out of despair, not hope, and their fate on arrival in the so-called "promised land" can be pretty grim – as the case of the 58 Chinese refugees dying in the back of a lorry due to lack of oxygen made clear in 2000. Apart from "the multitude’s ultimate demand for global citizenship" (p.400), the only concrete demand Negri and Hardt put forward is "a social wage and a guaranteed income for all" (p.403). This notion of a basic citizen’s income has on occasions been back up by right wing libertarians like Ferdinand Mount, and is the stock in trade of Greens, many of whom have a left-liberal rather than socialist outlook. This does not seem the kind of demand that would necessarily cause the imminent collapse of "Empire" and pave the way for communism. In the advanced countries, a basic citizen’s income might even be used as a way of lulling the masses into passivity.

In short, now as in the 1970s, the politics of autonomism are a complete dead end. After 11 September 2001, it is more important than ever to stress that the fight against imperialism and capitalism has to be waged by the mass action of the world working class – which, contrary to postmodernist mythology, is larger than it has ever been – and not through terrorism or any form of militaristic substitutionism. Luca Casarini, the leader of the White Overalls, seemed to be moving towards a strategic alliance with the radical sections of the Italian trade union movement in the autumn of 2001. It is to be hoped that those of the Professor’s misguided followers who genuinely want to change society for the better follow this path, not the suicidal road of marginalisation and militarisation that has always been implicit in Negri’s politics and is more openly advocated by the autonomi of the Black Block.


1. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire, Cambridge and London, 2000, paperback 2001. [See Mike Rooke’s review article, "A New Communist Manifesto?", in What Next? No.21 – ed.]

2. I am fully aware from the wall slogans painted in Pisa and Livorno in late July 2001 that the Italian anarchist movement claims him as a martyr, and that Anglophone anarchists, in the Weekly Worker for 23 August 2001 and doubtless elsewhere, are seeking to argue that he was a longstanding and committed anarchist activist. However, I am inclined to believe that in the marginal milieu in which he moved, the distinctions between anarchism and autonomism – of which Negri is the most famous exponent – are not clear-cut.

3. Once again, a lengthy quotation from Negri himself is necessary to demonstrate quite how appalling from any genuinely socialist, let alone Marxist, point of view Autonomia’s position was: "Some groups of workers, some sections of the working class, remain tied to the dimension of the wage, to its mystified terms. In other words, they are living off income as revenue. In as much, they are stealing and expropriating proletarian surplus value – they are participating in the social labour racket – on the same terms as their management. These positions – and particularly the trade union practices that foster them – are to be fought, with violence if necessary. It will not be the first time that a march of the unemployed has entered a large factory so that they can destroy the arrogance of salaried income!" See Negri in Red Notes (eds), Working Class Autonomy and the Crisis, London, 1979, p.110.

4. Broadly speaking, the Tute Bianche and Ya Basta! are two names for the same phenomenon, even if experts on the movement might detect minor differences of nuance.

5. This case has been written about in Carlo Ginzburg, The Judge and the Historian: Marginal Notes on a Late-Twentieth-Century Miscarriage of Justice, London, 1999, translated by Anthony Shugear from earlier Italian and French versions. Carlo Ginzburg has "known Adriano Sofri for more than 30 years. He is one of my closest friends". Whether these circumstances add to the weight of Ginzburg’s belief in Sofri’s innocence is of course debatable.

6. Sofri is in fact quite familiar with Negri’s ideas because Sofri’s Lotta Continua only split from Negri’s Potere Operaio in 1969, after the peak of purely student protest had passed.

7. Paolo Virno, "Do You Remember Counter-Revolution?", in Paolo Virno and Michael Hardt (eds), Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics, Minneapolis and London, 1996, p.243. Apropos "the future at our backs", I take it this is why a journal edited by a collective including Negri and Hardt in the 1990s was called Futur anterieur.

8. The SWP has done a great service to the movement in reprinting Jack Fuller, "The New Workerism: The Politics of the Italian Autonomists" in International Socialism, 92, Autumn 2001, pp.63-76. Fuller’s article first appeared in International Socialism, 8, Spring 1980.

9. Cited in Alex Callinicos, "Toni Negri in Perspective", International Socialism, 92, Autumn 2001, p.56.

10. For those who think this is polemical exaggeration, it is worth emphasising that the opening matches of the 2001-2 Italian football season were marked by banners in honour of Carlo Giuliani and the systematic chanting of "assassini" at the police.

11. Gopal Balakrishnan, "Virgilian Visions", New Left Review, 5 (Second Series), September-October 2000.

12. See La fabbrica della strategia: 33 lezioni su Lenin, Padua, 1976; Il dominio e il sabotaggio, Milan, 1978; Dall’ operaio massa all’ operaio sociale, Milan, 1979; Pipeline, Turin, 1983; Revolution Retrieved, London, 1988; The Politics of Subversion: A Manifesto for the Twenty-First Century, Oxford, 1989; Marx Beyond Marx, New York, 1991; Labor of Dionysius (with Michael Hardt), Minneapolis, 1991.

13. Here one must measure this in terms of pages rather than titles, since his longer works tend to be more conventionally academic ones, often dealing with the early modern period, whilst some of the more notorious polemics are mere pamphlets.

14. See Giorgio Bocca, Il provinciale: Settant’ anni di vita italiana, Milan, 1991, pp.288-90, which shrewdly relates Negri’s desire for conventional academic power with a desire for power in general, and his academic trickery to more conventional criminality.

15. Sunday Times, 15 July 2001.

16. Observer, 15 July 2001.

17. Hardt and Negri, Empire, p.63. This wonderfully euphemistic terminology about somebody confined to a psychiatric hospital for the rest of his life after a brutal domestic murder gives an acute insight into Professor Negri’s rather skewed sense of the elementary principles of human conduct. Needless to say, Negri praises Althusser’s "consistent anti-humanism" without any sense of irony whatsoever. Readers are invited to imagine what Edward Thompson might have said.

18. Antonio Negri, Il dominio e il sabotaggio, Milan, 1978, p.36, translated and quoted in deadpan fashion with apparent approval in Stephen Gundle, "Class Politics and the Italian Left", in Neville Woodhead (ed), Politics and Class, Ormskirk, 1985, p.99. Gundle, Head of the Italian Department at Royal Holloway College, University of London, has long been rather embarrassed about his autonomist phase, although, if he can keep his ferocious anti-Marxism in check, he may, as an extremely devout postmodernist, see virtues in Empire.

19. Franco Piperno in an article written in May 1978 and published in December 1978 in the autonomous journal Pre-print described the BR’s violence as "coherent" and "efficacious". Quotations taken from Richard Drake, The Aldo Moro Murder Case, Cambridge, 1995, p.158.

20 . This is not the place to discuss the real reason for Andreotti’s "sense of the state". Suffice it to say the DC was not consistent, and a few years later negotiated the release of a Neapolitan politician, paying a ransom to the BR.

21. Richard Drake, The Aldo Moro Murder Case, Cambridge, 1995, especially p.45 and pp.157-83.

22. Ibid, p.162.

23. I am inclined think that the BR leadership had been infiltrated by the Italian state by the time of the Moro kidnapping – otherwise the failure to make any public use of Moro’s confession makes no sense – so I would not want this to be interpreted as implying the BR of 1977-78 were (morally) superior to the autonomi. It should go without saying, but perhaps has to be reiterated after the events of 11 September 2001, that the BR strategy was always counter-productive from a working class point of view, even in the early days when it was led by men of the personal integrity of Curcio and Franceschini.

24. An English translation of "Do You Remember Revolution?" appeared in Antonio Negri, Revolution Retrieved, London, 1988, pp.229-43. Negri and/or Hardt clearly regarded this version as garbled, and Hardt, whilst going through the motions of thanking the politically loyal Red Notes collective, felt the necessity of doing a new translation for Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics, pp.225-38.

25. For an example of an Italian intellectual, who has done very good historical work on a number of other topics, swallowing this line, see Alessandro Portelli, "Oral Testimony, the Law and the Making of History: The 7 April Murder Trial", History Workshop Journal, 20, 1985.

26. Drake, pp.168-70.

27. Giorgio Bocca, Il caso 7 aprile: Toni Negri e la grande inquisizione, Milan, 1980, p.135.

28. Giorgio Bocca, Noi terroristi, Milan, 1985, was primarily based on interview material.

29. Giorgio Bocca, Il provinciale: Settant’ anni di vita italiana, Milan, 1991, pp.288-89.

30. Ibid, p.289. Bocca regards Negri’s failure even to give a full list of his injured colleagues as further evidence of his callousness and narcissism.

31. By the time an Italian edition of Empire very belatedly appeared in early 2002, the book had not only been reissued as a paperback in English but had also been translated into numerous foreign languages – whilst I am in no position to check the claim repeated by Vulliamy on 15 July 2001 that Empire has been translated into "10 languages", which presumably originated from Hardt, it seems quite plausible. Although it is very probable that the cost of translating such a lengthy work would have deterred the small left wing Italian publisher of Negri’s recent works, Manifestolibri, the tardiness with which a commercial publisher responded to the prospect of cashing in on the book’s international success does suggest that Negri is now taken less seriously in own country than he is abroad.

32. These are best exemplified by two feature articles appearing on 15 July 2001 in the Sunday Times and Observer, hardly a coincidence since Hardt had never previously been mentioned in the mainstream press in Britain, and more reminiscent of the launch of a Hollywood film starring an actress like Julia Roberts than the discussion of a hitherto obscure academic tome. Both articles clearly placed their emphasis on the younger American rather than the elderly Italian; both contained pictures of Hardt, not Negri – a photograph in the Sunday Times, a multi-coloured drawing in the Observer – and "The Observer Profile" was of Michael Hardt, whilst the Sunday Times headline "He Foresees a Great Future for the Workers" was a reference to Hardt, not Negri. Cynics might see Hardt playing Ralph Schoenmann’s role vis-à-vis Bertrand Russell, rather than being a loyal Engels to Negri’s Marx. Whilst bourgeois journalists are renowned for distortion and sensationalism, one feels that Hardt did not do as much as he could have to free Negri of the BR tag. Did Hardt see it as a unique selling point?

33. Hardt’s connection with the postmodernist academic mafia was recently illustrated by his invitation to give a well-attended lecture at Goldsmiths College in October 2001. Being persona non grata in such circles, I was unaware of this until after it had happened. The full significance of the event can only be understood by reference to the banning of the founding conference of Globalise Resistance, which was due to take place at Goldsmiths in February 2001 and had to be transferred to Hammersmith Town Hall at very short notice and considerable financial cost to the organisers. The logic by which such pacific anti-globalisers as George Monbiot and Jean Lambert MEP were judged to pose some sort of threat to college security whilst the sidekick of "the Professor in the balaclava" was a welcome guest beggars belief!

34. By the time Callinicos wrote the talk up as "Toni Negri in Perspective", he seemed to have changed his mind, tracing Foucauldian influences back to some lectures that Negri gave in Paris at Althusser’s invitation in 1978, which became the basis for Marx Beyond Marx.

35. The Radicals selected Negri because his case was one of the most spectacular instances of the widespread use of preventive detention for prisoners awaiting trial on terrorist charges. Negri seemed to have no interest in using his parliamentary immunity as a platform to argue in defence of civil liberties, either in general, or even for the large number of autonomi and other far leftists being held on remand for absurdly long periods.

36. Negri and Guattari are co-authors of a text called Communists Like Us, New York, 1990.

37. Lotta Continua was disavowed after 1976 by Sofri, who officially dissolved the organisation and allowed its daily paper to survive for a time as an adjunct to the Radical Party, and eventually became a very willing tool of Craxi against the PCI, encouraging his associates to accept PSI funding for the daily paper Reporter, and never imagining that his steady drift towards "respectability" would be rudely interrupted by the resurfacing of the Calabresi case in 1988.

38. The response of Professor John Gray of the LSE, who has intervened in the globalisation debate from a non-Marxist perspective, is worth recording, and should not be ascribed to purely political hostility. He said of Empire: "It looks to me more a response to the sorry condition of the humanities in the United States than a serious critique of globalisation. It is an exercise in literary theory. They seem to think history has ended" (Sunday Times, 15 July 2001).

39. Peter Gowan’s Isaac Deutscher Memorial Lecture on 20 November 2001 made no reference to Negri, but had plenty to say about both American imperialism and globalisation, a concept that he felt was somewhat overused given the replacement of the nation state by regional capitalist blocs rather than any genuine New World Order.

40. The hatred that Oxfam and some other NGOs have aroused in Clare "Bomber" Short, the unqualified advocate of globalisation and ranting sergeant-major of imperialist wars of intervention, who dismissed the perfectly legitimate demands of the inhabitants of the volcanic island of Monserrat for the right to settle in Britain with "they will be wanting golden elephants next", is a sure sign that Negri has got it completely wrong.

41. Callinicos ("Toni Negri in Perspective") cites Etienne Balibar, Spinoza and Politics, London, 1998, to suggest Negri has misinterpreted Spinoza’s concept of the multitude.