Toni Negri



Commentary on the autobiography of the Italian philosopher

The second volume of this celebrated philosopher's autobiography covers his years in prison (Guys) in Italy and exile in France (1979-1995). Written with the help of a friend (De Michele), it refers to “Toni” in the third person, yet we recognize his inimitable voice. It's a fascinating read: whether or not we share his philosophical and strategic choices, we can't help but admire his courage in the face of state injustice and his unswerving loyalty to the idea of ​​communism. His history as a radical philosopher imprisoned for his ideas made him a legendary figure worldwide.

Negri and several of his colleagues from the Worker autonomy were arrested on charges of “terrorism”. Negri himself is accused of gang armed insurrection and, above all, the murder (by the Red Brigades!) of Aldo Moro (the former prime minister), as well as a dozen other murders, robberies and kidnappings! Despite the absurd, ridiculous and grotesque nature of the accusation, it would be repeated in unison by the press and by the “authorities” of the State, highlighting the “scientific” comment of great depth by Pertini, the President of the Republic: “Lombroso would have classified Negri like a born delinquent”. Probably because of the too round shape of his skull? Gradually, over the years, the Italian courts would dismiss these first accusations, too stupid, to focus on the “crime” of revolutionary and insurrectionary aims against the regime.

During the four years he remained in prison, the philosopher would not, not even for a moment, stop reflecting, resisting and fighting along with his operaist comrades. It was during this period that he wrote one of his most important works, The wild anomaly. Saggio su potere e potenza in Baruch Spinoza (1981), a vibrant tribute to this rationalist, atheist, materialist and democratic thinker – a real “anomaly” in the seventeenth century –, in which he discovered not only the struggle of power against power, but also an “ontology of communist liberation”. ”! In fact, Spinoza is for Negri much more than a simple philosophical reference: he finds in his thought “an ethical weapon to resist arrest, overcome defeat and reestablish plans of struggle”

He would still write at that time, alone or with his companions, a series of political documents that represent the political dissociation between the social subversion desired by the Autonomia Operária and the homicidal militarism of the Red Brigades. In such statements, which would be published in the left-wing independent newspaper The poster, thanks to the faithful support of Rossana Rossanda – a rare person, who “combines intelligence and generosity” –, Negri condemns the political assassination systematically practiced by the BRs as being “the murder of the struggle”. As for the assassination of Aldo Moro, the pretext used for massive state repression of any radical opposition, it contributed substantially to the defeat of the great social movement of the 1970s. Needless to say, this “dissociation” had nothing to do with with the abject behavior of “repentants” (often ex-BRs) who denounced not only their former comrades, but also all those whom the police asked them to accuse.

During these years of “calvary”, the philosopher would still carry out many readings: from the Book of Job, on which he gives an admirable materialist interpretation, to the great Italian thinker of the 80th century Giacomo Leopardi. A notable absence from his readings (including later, in exile) was Antonio Gramsci… An absence all the more surprising, as there was an obvious similarity between the two, as communist prisoners who try, behind bars, to continue to think. and write: would the operaista of the XNUMXs still consider Gramsci the official thinker of the PCI? This second volume of the autobiography does not offer an explanation for this gap, except for a brief allusion to the “too historicist” character of the author’s thinking. Quaderni del Jail...

The trial of Negri and his companions – which he likens to “a game of cat and mouse” – began in March 1983, four years after their arrest. The philosopher's courageous attitude in court is illustrated by the beautiful photo on page 177, in which he points the accusing finger at his judges, following the great unsubmissive communist tradition: “The defense accuses”! In his magnificent and daring oral defense, Negri proclaims: “The charge of armed insurrection honors me”, referring to the joy of participating in the 1968 rebellion. “You accuse me of having been a captive maestro (a bad teacher, a bad example). You are right, I taught that revolution is not only possible but necessary.” His accusation, he concludes, is false, because it deliberately confuses social subversion with terrorism.

While the process went on indefinitely, a twist worthy of fiction took place in June 1983: candidate in the parliamentary elections for the Radical Party, Toni Negri was elected deputy with about 400.000 votes! The authorities are then forced to release him, and the new parliamentarian, after a few days of rest at the home of Claudia Cardinale and her husband, launches himself into the political struggle. The philosopher had an unflattering opinion of the institution that received him, to say the least: “the only clandestine gang I have ever joined is Parliament”. The same goes for Marco Panella, the leader of the Radical Party: a limited anti-communist.

Shortly after the election, the Italian Parliament begins to debate the status of the new deputy: the right proposes withdrawing his immunity and sending him back to prison, while the left is divided. Faced with uncertainty, friends of his advise him to go into exile in France, which he would end up doing. The vote takes place after his departure: 230 against Negri, 293 in favour, with the ten members of the Radical Party abstaining! Without this obscure maneuver by Marcos Panella – “a real stab in the back” – Negri could have returned to Italy immediately. A few months later, the first sentence against the philosopher would come out: 30 years in prison! The sentence would be generously reduced to 12 years by the Court of Appeal in 1987.

Exiled in France, Negri is the target of criticism from some of his companions: even though he vigorously rejects the accusations of “treason” for his escape – an act of revolt and refusal – he feels guilty for having left his friends in prison in Italy, as well like your family. Soon he would reestablish ties of deep friendship with Félix Guattari, but keeping his distance from French intellectual circles – the new philosophers, but also, in another register, Castoriadis – who had become dogmatic anti-communists. But would it also be necessary to accuse leftist, Trotskyist, Maoist and anarchist currents of anti-communism? Seems pretty questionable...

With Slow gymnast. Saggiosull'ontology by Giacomo Leopardi (1987), Negri resumes a shrewd and innovative analysis begun with his prison notes, highlighting Leopardi's fierce sarcasm against "the indecent reactionary ideology" and his enlightenment full of revolutionary hope. However, it is still Baruch Spinoza, as always, who is at the center of his philosophical-political reflection: in sovversive spinoza (1992), he defines the Jewish thinker from Amsterdam as the “potent and absolute” opponent of individualist modernity, as it was thought from Descartes and Hegel to Heidegger.

President Mitterand had refused, during the 1980s, the extradition of (many) Italian exiles – without, however, offering them political asylum or documents. With the election of Chirac as prime minister (1986), this practice threatened to be questioned. Members of the new government advise Negri, through his lawyers, to go to… Burundi! The philosopher considers leaving for Brazil, but Chirac finally aligns himself with “Mitterand's doctrine”: he remains in Paris.

Toni Negri still considers himself a Marxist – despite rejecting the dogmatic Marxism of the PCF –, but his relationship with Marx is curious: the only text he mentions, always with enthusiasm, is the “Fragment on machines” of the floorplans – about the general intellect –, which he considers to be “for a communist, the equivalent of Discourse on the Method for a bourgeois!” Marx's other writings do not seem to hold the same interest for him.

Always critical of the USSR, Negri sees the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) as an opportunity: “for us, it is the possibility of starting to talk about communism again”. One of his most important contributions to the renewal of the communist perspective is his book Il potere costituente. Saggio Salle Alternative del Moderno (1992), which traces the idea of ​​constituent revolutionary power from Machiavelli and Spinoza to the French and Russian revolutions.

That year also saw an important change in Negri's personal situation in France: after a decade of precarious and unstable jobs, he was admitted by Jean-Marie Vincent to the political science department of the University of Paris 8 (Saint-Denis). At the same time, with JM Vincent and Dénis Berger – a hero of the fight against the Algerian war who also became a professor in Saint-Denis – a new political-intellectual adventure begins for him: the magazine Future Anterieur (1989-1996), fifty volumes of very high quality, albeit with limited commercial success. Thanks to dedicated publishers and editors – such as Michele Riot-Sarcey, Helena Hirata, Marie-Edith Thevenin – and the collaboration of Maurício Lazzarato and Michael Hardt, the magazine produced a countercurrent thought, based on the autonomous production of subjectivity, closely following the of the class struggle, such as the experience of Chiapas, an example of alternative constituent power that provoked in Negri this exclamation of admiration: “Ben scavato, vecchia talpa!”. The magazine was also, for him, a pleasant experience of fraternal cooperation, which gave him the feeling of “reinventing his own life at the age of sixty”.

The last pages of the book are devoted to the great social movement of 1995, that immense “metropolitan strike” of a new type, whose subject is no longer the old working class in the factories, but a highly educated “crowd” (another Spinozian concept) of proletarians. , focused on public services and self-organized in grassroots assemblies. This “fiercely anti-capitalist” revolt reveals the ability of social movements to become constituent powers. It is a new form of operaismo that manifests itself here, under the aegis of cognitive, intellectual and cooperative work.

The experience of 1995 made Negri want to return to Italy, so that he could once again participate directly in the new experiences of class struggle that would necessarily arise. Here, as throughout this history of social struggles, arrests, escapes, exile and reflection, Toni Negri's incorrigible optimism is manifested, her “Spinozian faith in reason”, her obstinate refusal to renounce revolutionary hope.

*Michael Lowy is director of research at Scientific Research National Center (France); author, among other books, of Walter Benjamin: fire warning (Boitempo).

Translation: Ilan Lapyda


Tony NEGRI. Gallery and Esilio. Story of a communist, the cure di Girolamo De Michele. Milano, Adriano Salani Editore, “Ponte alle Grazie”, 443 pages.



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