Toby Abse on Toni Negri, ‘Storia di un comunista’, Milan, 2015.
Comrade Toby Abse and myself has a long discussion about Tony Negri and this book recently.
We went through issues about his political background such as Negri’s unwillingness to accept political responsibility for the violent side of Potere Operaio and Autonomia Operaia.
The resemblance between these two organisations’ refusal (and possible Bordigist influence) and the French Socialisme ou Barbarie (SouB) group’s refusal to participate in any form of election (including voting in French works committees, comités d’enterprises) also came up. I mentioned that SouB had integrated a significant slice of the French ‘Bordgist’ (ultra-left anti-parliamentarian anti-Stalinist communists) movement, the Fraction Française de la Gauche Communiste Internationale. In Toby’s review another group, the Johnson–Forest Tendency appears to have influenced Negri – as indeed it did SouB.
We turned to the thorny issue of actual real violence.
It is worth citing this section from Toby’s earlier What Next Article, The Professor in the Balaclava: Toni Negri and Autonomist Politics. (2002)
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.
Then there is this:
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.
Now it’s worth noting, and we discussed this, that I personally was involved with a year-long (circa 1985) study group in Paris of about 7 people in which Negri was an important member. This circle, Dissensus, debated the new forms of market ideology that were gripping Europe and turning social democracy rightwards in the 1980s. was a spin-off from a larger club formed by Negri’s close friend, Félix Guattari , under the name of Papageno, itself part of the body with the title of a joint Gauttari-Negri book, Les Nouveaux espaces de liberté.
In my experience Negri was open-minded, wore his status lightly, was interested in serious discussion of left theory and practice in the wake of the rise of neo-liberalism and the failures of post-68 lefts. In post-meeting cheap meals and drinks in the Quartier Latin he would chat with others as equals. The only thing that stood out was his absolute undying hatred of the Italian magistratura (the magistrates), which was not exactly surprising.
Having read a number of Negri’s books, beginning with the one cited above, and continuing with (in French) Marx au-delà de Marx, to Empire, and the debate on this joint work with Michael Hardt), and beyond (see Wikipedia for more), right up to the writings and discussion in the on-line journal Multitudes, I dissent from Toby’s considered judgement that they are, with a few exceptions in his earlier autonomist attempts to reach out with some kind of practice to working class movements, utterly worthless tripe.
The Tendance does, nevertheless, adhere to Negrism, nor, in particular to spiritual babble, which in our discussion I considered to result from Negri’s debt to Christian phrase-mongering, about the ‘lightness’ of being a communist.
As I hope everybody else is, I am disgusted by academics’ efforts (which would include other academics, notably Alain Badiou) to refuse to own up to the violent consequences of their rhetoric.
Toni Negri, ‘Storia di un comunista’, Milan, 2015, pp 608, €18, reviewed by Toby Abse.
Toni Negri’s 608-page autobiography is a predictably strange, and in places virtually unreadable, document.1 The 82-year-old author is rumoured to be in declining health and is certainly obsessed by death (particularly pp9-15). He seems to have been assisted in unspecified respects by a named editor – Girolamo De Michele, a 54-year-old philosopher and novelist, who, as far as I am aware, has no particular connection with Negri’s autonomist circles.
This summarises the editing faults of the present work.
Given the vast number of both academic authors and political activists referred to in the course of this somewhat prolix text, it is a great pity that it has no index at all – not even the usual Italian Indice dei nomi (index of names). One would hope that, if an English-language edition ever appears, there might be some attempt to remedy this, in line with the editorial apparatus that seems to have been attached to the English-language versions of his earlier autobiographical works referred to below.
Whilst the overall structure of the work is conventional, leading from Negri’s birth in 1933 to his famous arrest on April 7 1979, with only very occasional and very brief references to the rest of his life, such as his friendly chats in prison with “the comrades of the Red Brigades” (pp476-77), the chronological flow is frequently interrupted by very lengthy summaries of the many books and articles that he wrote at various points in his first 45 years, including his tesi di laurea (final-year undergraduate dissertation).
I am not familiar with Italian publishing but I can say that this kind of sloppy editing is far from unknown in French books of a similar genre.
This is particularly important,
Negri himself first entered politics not as a socialist or a communist, which would have been the logical outcome of his family background as he chooses to present it, but in the Gioventu Italiana di Azione Cattolica and various Catholic youth and student organisations linked to the Christian Democracy (DC). Whilst the trauma of his brother’s death might have explained a totally apolitical turn towards detached scholarship, it does not account for Negri’s actual path of deep involvement with the DC – the overwhelmingly dominant political force in the Veneto during the 1950s – whose student affiliates, in which Negri played such a prominent role would generally have been stepping stones to a parliamentary career in the DC.
Negri now claims to have joined the Partito Socialista Italiano (PSI) in October 1956 (p128),5 although he does not claim to have been very active in the PSI until 1959, when he was elected to Padua’s municipal council, showing none of his later total abhorrence for any involvement in electoral politics. Negri claims that he lost his religious faith some time before abandoning Catholic student politics. He then sought, and succeeded in gaining a permanent university post at a very early age – as he puts it, “The Paduan chair is prestigious and Toni has conquered it early: he is the youngest Italian professor and he is good – friends and enemies recognise it” (p275). He consciously cultivated friendly relations with powerful academics and displayed no leftist inclinations whatsoever, so it seems reasonable to characterise the young Negri as an extremely ambitious opportunist and careerist rather than a ‘communist’ in any sense of that word.
Whilst Negri rapidly moved left after 1960, becoming involved with far-left journals – first Renato Panzieri’s Quaderni Rossi(Red Notebooks) and then Mario Tronti’s Class Operaia(Working Class) – even by his own accounts he seems always to have lived a strange double life right up to his arrest in 1979. He completely dominated the Institute of Political Science at Padua University, whose staff he filled with his own cronies in the manner of the classic Italian academic barone, whilst leading increasingly extreme political groups, which after 1969 were ever more deeply involved in illegal activities.
The contradictions of this double life have given rise to deep suspicion in some quarters – most notably on the part of the British journalist, Philip Willan, who suggests some link with both the Italian and American intelligence services.6 Willan infers that Negri’s intense hostility towards the PCI would have served the interests of the CIA during the 1970s. Negri’s book has very little to say about any American links – with the obvious exception of small groups that had emerged out of CLR James’s ‘Johnson-Forrest tendency’, whose ideological influence on early operaismo (workerism) has long been known.
Whilst one could put a sinister construction on Negri’s presence in autumn 1960 at an Italian conference organised by the Rockefeller Foundation, immediately after his return from a journey to the Soviet Union with some members of the PCI and PSI leftwingers, it seems much more likely this was pure academic careerism.
Whether there were links or not is unlikely ever to be clarified, and like so many murky features of Italian political life remains an intriguing though fruitless speculation.
This is of wider more directly political interest,
However, whatever praise has to be accorded to Negri’s tireless activity in the 1960s, his political role in the 1970s as the main leader of, first, Potere Operaio (1969-73) and then Autonomia Operaia (1973-79) were completely destructive in terms of the far left, let alone the general interests of the working class as a whole. Neither group would ever engage in electoral work of any kind, whether at the municipal or parliamentary level, and they increasingly moved away from mass action, as it might be generally envisaged in terms of strikes, workplace occupations or peaceful demonstrations, towards the advocacy of some form of armed or insurrectionary action without anything approaching majority support in the working class. Potere Operaio resembled the Communist Workers Party of Germany (KAPD) or the more putschist elements of the early Communist Party of Germany (KPD) involved in episodes like the March Action of 1921, whilst Autonomia was much closer to Bakunin, with its cult of rather pointless, almost random violence and idolisation of the lumpenproletariat.
Given the way Negri, in the mid-1970s abandoned the somewhat obsessively factory-based politics of operaismo for nebulous rhetoric about the ‘social factory’ and the operaio sociale (a phrase that is best not translated as ‘social worker’, as some rather farcical Anglophone accounts have done in the past), the poisonous venom with which he still writes about the groups that rejected hard-line operaismo in favour of a more community-based approach and became Lotta Continua in 1969 is astonishing.8 Discussing Lotta Continua or its predecessors, first he writes of “a populist tendency of Catholic and socialist origin” (p357) and then he polemicises even more viciously: “I had undervalued the presence in the coalition around Sofri at Turin of a profoundly anti-Marxist animus that was descended from a still deeper anti-communist tension of Catholic or socialist origin” (p357). Given his own dubious Christian Democratic political past, the sheer chutzpah of this attack on Lotta Continua beggars belief.
This religious legacy may rankle with some Negri’s supporters.But as somebody all too familiar with Catholic references – not just from the French left (which has its social catholic wing) but from direct acquaintance with Italian leftists from the very background just mentioned, it is a clear as day in Negri’s own writings.
Perhaps it is why he attacks Lotta Continua with some vigour. His own debt to this way of thought, studing his writings with its imagery, is hard to ignore. And not just through the references to Saint Francis. Me, I liked Roberto Rossellini’s Francesco, giullare di Dio, though find it rather fey. Fey is the right word for a lot of Negri’s slogans, which tend to disguise and distract from an otherwise serious analysis.
A critical balance-sheet of the Autonomist movement and those years – and there are many, and of these politics and theories, and there are many – has tended to be submerged in an uncritical celebration which began with the ‘anti-globalisation’ movement, and no doubt continues in those quarters now in need of inspiration as their own ‘moment’ fades into historical obscurity.
Negri’s enduring narcissism and total lack of any self-awareness is best exemplified in his grandiose explanation of his own leadership role in Potere Operaio:
Why did I agree not only to construct Potere Operaio, but to be its secretary? I believe through a sort of ‘ethic of service’, through a strange lack of arrogance – very far distant from the presumed arrogance that they will attribute to me later on. I was 36, the others at most 25 … I had studied so much, the others who were much younger much less … I had studied a lot, always in an interdisciplinary manner, doing theory in the American manner – a little philosophy, much history, a fair amount of Marxism and political economy, a lot of political science, enough law. Moreover, I had behind me a university institute that could sustain a good part of the theoretical work that Potere Operaio required (p375).
One cannot imagine even the SWP’s ‘Red Professor’, Alex Callinicos – not a modest man by many accounts – making quite such hyperbolic claims.
Then again there is this,
When he indulges yet again in his now habitual rant against his colleague at Padua, professor Angelo Ventura, for having assisted the prosecutor and the Digos (special branch) to build a case against him in 1979 (p589), he refuses to acknowledge the kneecapping inflicted upon Ventura by the Paduan autonomi – presumably his students wearing the balaclavas he found so entrancing10 – in 1979. It would be hard to dodge any responsibility for it, given the way he ruled the roost in the university – doubtless what was really meant by “the objective is always singular and transparent”.
The article – which has to be read in full – in the Weekly Worker, written by an activist and intellectual who knows the subject inside out, comes highly recommended
See again here.
Further Note: a failure to acknowledge responsibility for the thuggery of your own thuggish student followers are also a feature of Alain Badiou’s career, ”
Revisionists!Pre-Fascists! During the 1970s these words did not just hang in the air in the Vincennes campus where both Badiou and Deleuze taught. Tendance Coatesy has already recorded the history of the oh-so-sage Professor’s Maoist troops during that period. Their efforts to imitate the Shanghai Commune included their assaults on another ‘revisionist’, Maria Antonitta Macciocchi. In this instance a colleague ran the intimidation from the same department of philosophy.
At the beginning the hostile M-L claque’s presence ensured that the lectures ended early. Later they would try to disrupt Deleuze’s lectures by claiming that a student union meeting to back a workers’ struggle was being held; other times the more erudite mentioned the bogey-name of Nietzsche (Deleuze’s 1963 study on whom no doubt proving by its title alone proof of serious pre-fascism). The admirers of the Little Red Book also assailed others, Jean-François Lyotard, and François Châtelet.
The stunts of the little band of Badiou’s Marxist-Leninists petered out as the decade proceeded. That has its own history, one which awaits Badiou to tell with anything resembling the truth.
Negri, in contrast to Badiou, has never been a supporter of the Khmer Rouge and an uncritical admirer of the Great Cultural Revolution as one of the Communist Invariants.