Toni Negri (Picture: Parka Projects on Wikimedia Commons)

Toni Negri, who died this week aged 90, was the most influential Marxist thinker to emerge from Italy during the social and political explosion of the 1960s and 1970s.

The Portuguese Revolution aside, the struggles of those years reached their peak in Italy. A student revolt fed into a wave of wildcat strikes during the Hot Autumn of 1969. The radicalisation of workers and students gave rise to the largest far left in Europe.

Negri was among a group of young left intellectuals who anticipated this development. They sought to break out of what Mario Tronti, who died this summer, called “the petrified forest of vulgar Marxism” practised by the reformist Communist and Socialist parties.

Tronti in his seminal book Workers and Capital (1966) stated the fundamental thesis of what came to be called “workerism”. “We too saw capitalist development first and workers second,” he wrote. “This was a mistake. Now we have to turn the problem on its head, change orientation, and start again from first principles, which means starting from the struggle of the working class … capitalist development is subordinate to working class struggles.”

Though an academic, Negri pursued workerism around the chemical factories of Porto Marghera near Venice. He helped create several revolutionary organisations.

But in the second half of the 1970s the Italian ruling class started to stabilise the situation. They were helped by the “historic compromise” between dominant Christian Democracy and the Communist Party. Meanwhile, the far right and its allies in the police and intelligence services pursued a violent “strategy of tension”.

Negri was among those on the far left who reacted by seeing the organised working class as an obstacle to revolution. Others embraced terrorism. This culminated in the kidnapping and assassination of former prime minister Aldo Moro in 1978. Negri was framed for this and eventually sentenced to 34 years in jail. Between spells in prison, he spent 14 years in exile in France. He was finally released in 2003.

By then Negri had a global audience. From prison, together with the US critical theorist Michael Hardt, he wrote Empire. This offered a Marxist analysis of the neoliberal globalisation of capitalism during the 1990s. It appeared in 2000, soon after a new anti-capitalist movement emerged in the mass protests against the World Trade Organisation summit in Seattle in November 1999.

Empire had an enormous impact on the activists drawn into this rapidly expanding movement, whose high-point came with the huge global protests against the invasion of Iraq on 15 February 2003.

The book’s value lay in how it sought to frame these new struggles in a Marxism developed during the upturn of the 1960s and 1970s. It is also pervaded by a serene optimism expressed in the famous closing lines announcing “a revolution that no power will control …This is the irrepressible lightness and joy of being communist.”

All credit to Hardt and Negri for demonstrating the relevance of Marx’s thought at a time when he had been dismissed as a dead dog following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. But Empire and its sequels—Multitude (2004) and Commonwealth (2010)—suffered from two serious flaws.

First, Hardt and Negri argued that “imperialism is over.” Capitalism, they argued, had transcended the nation-state, becoming a “transnational network power”. They failed completely to anticipate that the globalisation of capital would lead to the new era of geopolitical competition between imperialist powers that we are now enduring.

Secondly, Hardt and Negri argued that the working class had been replaced by a more amorphous “multitude” of all those dominated by capital. They raised important questions about how the working class had changed in the neoliberal era, but they failed to see that capital continues to depend on the exploitation of wage-labour.

Toni and I debated this issue soon after his release in front of a large and excited audience at the European Social Forum in Paris in October 2003. He was a formidable orator, though mild and courteous in conversation. But this manner belied the political strength that carried him through prison to help ensure Marxism survived into the 21st century.

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