Toni Negri (1933-2023)

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By MICHAEL LÖWY*

Toni Negri became illustrious thanks to his works, which proposed, through a philosophical approach inspired by Spinoza and Marx, to contribute to the emancipation of the “crowd”

1.

With the death of Antonio Negri – Toni to his friends – the communist cause lost a great thinker and a tireless fighter. Persecuted for his revolutionary ideas, imprisoned in Italy for many years, Toni Negri became illustrious thanks to his works, which proposed, through a philosophical approach inspired by Spinoza and Marx, to contribute to the emancipation of the “multitude”.

In the last message he sent me from the hospital, on October 7, Toni wrote: “Tell me about the Brazilian situation, and if we can once again imagine, with circumspection and tenacity, a new and happy idea of ​​communism!”

Toni Negri never stopped dreaming and hoping, until his last breath, for a renewal of communism.

The following lines are a summary of his biography, based on two autobiographical works published in Italy: Story of a communist, under the care of Girolamo de Michele, Milan, Ponte alle Grazie, 2015, 608 pages; It is From Genoa to Domani. Story of a communist, under the care of Girolamo de Michele, Milan, Ponte alle Grazie, 2020, 442 pages.

In these works, he recounts, with great sagacity and refinement, and not without a critical distance, his youth, his early work and his struggles in the autonomist movement, his years in prison and his intellectual and political battles.

2.

Politicized within the Italian Catholic Youth in the 1950s, Toni Negri would become a communist before discovering Marx. Passing very quickly “from radical secularism to virtuous atheism”, he joined – without any great illusions – the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), paralyzed by the division between social democratic temptation and submission to Stalinism. But, from 1961 onwards, he joined the “operaismo” of the magazine Notebooks Red (Raniero Panzieri, Mario Tronti), who proposed a return to the factories to build an anti-capitalist workers' policy based on local struggles.

The young Toni Negri was very interested in Kant, Hegel, Dilthey, Max Weber, Karl Mannheim – themes of his first philosophical works – but remained indifferent to Marx, still identified with the diamat Stalinist. Only during the 1960s would he discover, thanks to Lukács and his “operaist” friends, the Marx of the class struggle.

Close to Mario Tronti, whose work highlighted living work as a subversive worker subjectivity, he separated from him when Mario Tronti decided to join the PCI again in 1967. It was then that the communist Toni Negri, together with the radicalized factory committees, founded the newspaper Power Worker and, shortly afterwards (1969), a political organization with the same name, which opposed the reformism of the Italian PC and defined itself as “the party of insurrection”.

Toni Negri also pursued a brilliant academic career, becoming the youngest university professor in Italy, at the University of Padua. His teaching concerns the “Doctrines of the State”, based on the three great anti-state thinkers he refers to: Condorcet, Jefferson and Lenin!

The fascist attack in Piazza Fontana, in Bologna (1969), of which the anarchist Pinelli was falsely accused – and who allegedly “committed suicide” during a police interrogation – raised a wave of indignation in the country. One million copies of the pamphlet were sold State massacres (written by a collective in which Negri participated), denouncing the collision of state “services” with fascist circles.

Attempts to unite Power Worker com lotta continues failed, and those with The poster, by Rossana Rossanda, or with the “Guevarista” editor Giangiacomo Feltrinelli – tragically killed in a sabotage attempt – were ephemera (1970). While working with factory committees and writing incendiary pamphlets, the philosopher from Padua wrote a book about Descartes, defined as “the main ideologist of the capitalist revolution in continental Europe”, and, in a way, as the inspirer of the Italian CP, this “Cartesian party”.

Toni Negri was a supporter of the “mass illegalism” of social movements, which resulted in acts of sabotage and expropriations of supermarkets – one of which would be staged by Dario Fo – but he was opposed to the militarization of the movement. These divergences led to a split in the Power Worker and the creation, by Toni Negri and the factory committees, of a new political movement, Worker autonomy (1973), which would play an important role in the great strikes and mobilizations of 1977 – the Italian “May 68”.

Analyzing the divisions of Italian operaismo in the 1970s, Toni Negri distinguishes two main currents: the “Thomist scholastics” (Panzieri, Tronti, Cacciari), who insist on the “autonomy of politics” and the hegemonic role of the Party, and the “Augustinians” (Negri and his friends), who believe in worker autonomy, and oppose both capitalism and any attempt at hegemony by a Party or a Church. Interestingly, Antonio Gramsci was absent from his intellectual horizon at that time – incorrectly assimilated to the PCI – and would only be discovered, belatedly, during a stay in… Paris, in 1978!

A Worker autonomy he directly opposed the proposal by Enrico Berlinguer, general secretary of the PCI, for a “historic commitment” with Christian Democracy and, in a 1977 pamphlet, Toni Negri praised sabotage as “the fundamental key to the rationality of the working class”. But he was opposed to the amoral and verticalist militarism of Red Brigades (BR), who began their practices of “executing enemies” at that time.

Toni Negri categorically rejects political homicide: “We never kill. We leave the murder to the State.” In his writings, he begins to defend the thesis of the “social worker”, which is no longer limited to factories, but extends to all urban social life. During a stay in Paris in 1978, he taught at the Escola Normal on Rue d’Ulm – a seminar on Antonio Gramsci with Robert Paris – and met Félix Guattari, Gilles Delleuze, Jacques Rancière, Guy Hocquenghem and Alain Krivine (among others).

Apprehensive upon learning of Aldo Moro's kidnapping by Red Brigades, Toni Negri joins the attempts to pressure the “brigadistas” to release Moro. In vain, because, as we know, Aldo Moro would be murdered by his kidnappers. Shortly afterwards, the philosopher would be arrested (1979), under the absurd accusation of being “the intellectual brain of the Red Brigades” and, therefore, responsible for the murder of Aldo Moro.

This arrest would be the beginning of an endless judicial and prison ordeal for the philosopher. Convicted in a regrettable judicial farce, he would spend four and a half years in prison. While still in prison, he would be elected deputy; provisionally released but threatened with further arrest, Toni Negri chose exile in France, where he spent several years teaching at the University of Paris VIII.

3.

In 1997, Toni Negri decided to return to Italy, despite the prison sentence that awaited him in his country, in the hope that his return would spark a debate that would lead to a general amnesty for the (thousands of) Italian political prisoners. It was a rare act of courage and generosity... The philosopher was received at Fiumicino airport by “a fair of police officers, dogs and journalists” and immediately imprisoned in Rebbibia prison, in Rome.

The writer Erri de Luca paid him a moving public tribute on that occasion: “Dear Toni Negri, who preferred prison in Italy to universities halfway around the world (…) I want to thank you first of all for your sacrifice. You restore honor to a country whose only pride is an accounting exercise.”

The optimistic philosopher's dream of amnesty turned out to be an illusion, and Toni Negri was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison... But he didn't give up and ended up writing the book Empire behind bars, with his friend Michael Hardt. The main – and controversial – theses of this book are well known: the Empire is the global capitalist market, which no longer recognizes national borders; its main adversary is no longer the industrial mass worker, but the immaterial, cognitive and often precarious worker, who is destined to become hegemonic.

Toni Negri himself noticed the excessive optimism of this work and even thought about not publishing it... In fact, it was a huge success, transforming the imprisoned philosopher into an international “star”. After two years, he was granted provisional freedom, under constant police surveillance, with nightly searches of his home. It was during this period that Judith Revel, a brilliant French university student, became his companion for life.

4.

Prevented from exercising political activity, he observed with hope the events in Italy: the “white coats” movement and the huge alter-globalist demonstration in Genoa in 2001, bloodily repressed by a true state war against the social movement. It was only in 2003 that he would finally be released – it's finite guys! – after serving a total of eleven years in prison. Disillusioned with the retreat of the fighting in Italy and in conflict with his former disciples, he decided to return to Paris and settle, with his companion Judith, in France.

After finally recovering his passport, he could now travel, an old dream that came true. She traveled several times throughout Latin America, especially to Brazil and Venezuela, “more to learn than to talk about myself”. Hugo Chávez paid tribute to him as one of the inspirers of the Bolivarian Revolution, with his book on constituent power. He was also invited to visit China, where he had a (disappointing) meeting with representatives of the CPC Central Committee. Although he admires Shanghai's dazzling postmodernism, he believes that “the CCP's Thermidor developed capitalism before developing democracy”…

In 2004, his second book with Michael Hardt was published, Crowd, which also provoked many debates and controversies. Francis Fukuyama was quick to proclaim that the crowd that Negri speaks of is “a barbaric horde that wants to destroy the civilized world”... The meaning of the concept, of Spinozist origin, is not easy to define: now it is the only category of cognitive workers -precarious, now are all workers, material and immaterial, women and oppressed races. For Negri, the crowd is the new form of operaismo, the universalization of Italian theory of the 1960s-1970s.

Hostile to all forms of nationalism, Toni Negri proudly states: “I have never strayed from internationalism in my life as a communist”. This led him to place great hopes in Europe, to the point of supporting “Yes” in the French referendum on Europe's new (neoliberal) Constitution in 2005. It was in this context that he wrote a pamphlet, Good by, mister socialism (2006), which he himself later rejected as a “sad” book – the harshest criticism, in his Spinozist vocabulary…

But in 2009 an important new book appeared with Michael Hardt, Commonwealth, denounced by Wall Street Journal as a dark, evil book. For him, this theory of the commons is a “Marxian ontology of revolution”, and a first step towards a political program of the multitude. He sees the Italian movement for the defense of water as a common good as a notable example of this Commonwealth. Like its predecessors, this book would be a great success, but the year 2010 was a annus horribilis for Toni Negri: his Italian friends and disciples, organized in the movement Uninomad, decided to exclude him and tried an “opportunistic and cynical” approach with Danny Cohn-Bendit and the German Greens.

In August 2013, Toni Negri celebrates her 80th birthday. This stubborn optimist recognizes that communism has not yet won, but he hopes the younger generation will fulfill that mission and wishes them Good Luck!

5.

The last part of his 2020 autobiography is titled from senecute (From Old Age). It is a kind of philosophical reflection on his experience as a communist, inspired by Spinoza, Marx and the French post-structuralists (Deleuze-Guattari, Foucault) and hostile to Rousseau, Hegel and the Frankfurt School. Against the melancholy and pessimism of the latter – a kind of negative pole for Toni Negri – he proclaims, with Spinoza, the strength of hilarites, the liberating power of laughter and spontaneity, without which the revolution cannot breathe.

Advanced age does not stop Toni Negri from thinking and writing: her last book with M. Hardt, Assembly (2017), proclaims the superiority of social movements over parties and direct democracy over representative democracy. The organization par excellence of this form of democratic exercise is the assembly. To move from local organizations to the scale of a region, a country or a continent, Toni Negri and Michael Hardt propose federative structures and “assemblies of assemblies”.

Num Post Scriptum quite… melancholy, titled “Easter 2020”, Toni Negri concludes: we were defeated – il combustibile si esaurito. It observes that workers, as a class, are divided and relatively powerless. However, he does not renounce resistance and struggle: in the crisis, we have to put an end to the era of sectarianism and divisions. The watchword for this is: “All together”! With the Communist Workers' International as the horizon. These are the final words of this fascinating book, which can be seen as his political testament.

*Michae Lowy is director of research in sociology at Center nationale de la recherche scientifique (CNRS). Author, among other books, of Marx, that unknown (boitempo). [https://amzn.to/3FaMmEe]

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.


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