Friday, September 23, 2005

Review: Practical resistance?

by Ray Jones

Resistance in practice: the philosophy of Antonio Negri. Eds Timothy S Murphy and Abdul-Karim Mustapha. Pluto Press, 07453 2337 5. Pb. 272pp. £17.99.

ANTONIO (Toni) Negri had a meteoric rise in Italian academia and at a young age he was a full professor at the University of Padua in the field of State Theory.
In the 1950’s he became involved in militant politics, at first in a Catholic organisation and later in Marxist groups on the far left – outside of the influence of the huge Italian Communist Party (PCI) which was even then on the road of revisionism.
In the late 1960’s Italy, as with other countries, was convulsed by a wave of militancy led, at least at first, by students. But in Italy, with its history of secret organisations and clubs, the experience of resistance during the years of fascism and its weak political structure and economy, this period lasted until the late 1970‘s.
In the confusion of the period and in the ideological vacuum left by the PCI – which was trying to gain a share of government with the Christian Democrats – many leftist groups and movements were spawned believing that the end of capitalism was nigh.
In 1969 Negri was one of the founders of Potere Operaio (Workers Power) and Operaismo (workerist communist movement).
It was a violent period and violence was a factor in the theory and practice of many left groups. It took many forms, from robust stewarding organisations that protected meetings from fascists and the police to the clandestine terror of the likes of the Red Brigades and Prima Linea.
Negri by no means rejected violence but believed that it should be used to further the goals of working class movements, a tool of the movement and not isolated from it, and so he rejected the tactics of the Red Brigades. These beliefs did not stop him being arrested in 1979 on charges which included leadership of the Red Brigades, the kidnapping and murder of prime minister Aldo Moro, plotting to over throw the Government and having “moral responsibility” for violence.
Many of these charges were dropped, no link was ever found between him and the Red Brigades or the murder of Moro, but he was still sentenced to 30 years. Negri contrived to go into exile in France where he stayed, protected from extradition by President Mitterand, for 14 years before returning to Italy to serve the remainder of a reduced sentence.
Negri has remained active and in 2000, along with Michael Hardt (who also contributes to Resistance in practice), published Empire, which puts forward a theory of globalisation that has attracted much interest in some quarters.
Resistance in practice attempts to give an introduction to Negri’s theoretical work and in particular an insight into his ideas on the state, labour, capital and revolution. It’s not an easy task. None of his philosophical work is easy to understand without being immersed in the genre (regretfully he is far from alone in this) and the fact that he has constantly changed his position over the years doesn’t help.
But some things are clear: Negri rejects Leninist ideas on organisation – although he never succeeds in putting forward a plausible alternative; he supports theories of “autonomy” in which workers attempt to separate themselves from the capitalist state and build alternatives and he approves of the “rejection of work”.
Kathi Weeks, chapter five, points to the “rejection of work” as a central concept in Negri’s thinking, but this is not just a matter of supporting strikes and the reduction of working hours but it rejects the whole practice of waged work.
This may be appealing to workers doing long hours on a mind numbing conveyor belt system but it has profoundly reactionary consequences. In withdrawing from paid labour, workers are separated from the immediate conflict with the boss and isolated from the ideological and organisational support of the labour movement.
And it has further implications: socialism needs wage workers too. In essence this concept rejects the first stage of communism and demands a direct leap to full communism. In doing so it rejects the socialist stage and all the socialist states.
The leftist movements in Italy were defeated in the late 1970s and the repression was heavy – countenanced, sadly, by the PCI. But judging by an article in le Monde in 1998 in which he looks back at the period, Negri is uncritical of his own role and there is a danger that the new generation of anti-globalisationists are looking to Negri for theoretical guidance.
It’s up to Marxist-Leninist forces to offer better.