• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Italy: Behind the Ski Mask

While comprehensive and instructive, Acquaviva’s presentation of the social and religious causes of Autonomia is too schematic to do more than map out the field in the most general way. These are popular rather than scientific works, synthetic rather than analytic, hurriedly composed, one feels, to provide a puzzled public with a basic guide through the confusion. Apart from selective surveys on religious practice, the books are short on statistics about either Autonomia or the Red Brigades and sparser still on the biographical data of people in the radical left, even though this information is readily available. From a book like The Religious Seed of Revolt we might reasonably expect a discussion of the millenarian motifs that run, for example, through Negri’s more popular tracts, but instead we get only a review (even if a correct one) of religious life in Italy since the war.

Perhaps the greatest drawback of Guerrilla Warfare is the lack of a thorough analysis of the possible connection between the Red Brigades and Autonomia. Although Acquaviva recognizes a difference over theory between these two (Leninist centralism vs. mass support), he nonetheless links them in a simplistic and prejudicial homology when he calls the Brigades “the armed Party” and Negri’s Organized Autonomy “the armed Movement.” In that way I think he tends to give support to the prosecution’s as yet unproven and perhaps unprovable hypothesis in Italy v. Negri.

Finally, he seems unaware of what even Negri’s accusers acknowledge: that a divisive debate has been raging for some time within the Red Brigades between “hawks” who want to continue the tactics of terrorism and “doves” who favor attempts to reforge their links with the masses. Analysis of this debate, which is manifest in the Brigadists’ communiqués over the last fifteen months, seems a prerequisite to any predictions of the future of terrorism in Italy.

Whereas Acquaviva is the detached sociologist who charts the radical left from without, Toni Negri is the engagé philosopher who carries us to its theoretical and tactical core. He is unquestionably one of the most creative and passionate Marxists writing today, and without his densely argued works the Autonomia movement in Italy would probably dissolve, as did the counterculture in America, into vague and apolitical social protest.

The appeal of Negri’s new Marxism, for all his thick argumentation and hermetic jargon, lies in its utter simplicity. It is to his credit that he squarely faces the major embarrassment of Marxism in this century: the fact that the theory which foresaw the extinction of the state and the abolition of alienated labor has in fact spawned regimes that enforce both state and labor much more repressively than under capitalism. For Negri, the socalled “real socialism” of Russia and Eastern Europe is merely the “teleology of capitalism,” that is, the continuation of the law of surplus value under conditions which, at least theoretically, are supposed to be egalitarian. But alienated labor remains alienated even if, under socialism, it be rewarded with a just wage. Negri all but repeats the well-known quip: Capitalism is the exploitation of man by man whereas socialism is the exact opposite. The first and negative thesis of his own brand of Marxism is that communism has as little to do with socialism as it does with capitalism. If the Soviet Union represents Marxism, Negri writes, “we would be happy to do without Marx.”

As for the positive side of his theory, Negri asserts, frankly and somewhat ingenuously, what he calls the “true content” of communism.

Communism is the destruction of exploitation and the liberation of living labor, in fact, of non-labor. Simply this and nothing more…. The liberation of labor is liberation from labor. There is no question of exaggerating. Marx himself says this tens and hundreds of times. The only amusing thing about it is the embarrassment that almost all Marxist theoreticians feel when they read these passages.

The appeal of these positions to the large numbers of young people who resent and reject the work ethic should be clear. Negri argues for these ideas in two recent works which he styles “reinventions” of Marx and Lenin, that is, attempts to rescue them from Third Internationalist orthodoxy. Negri is at his best in the classroom, and both books come from university seminars. The Factory of Strategy: 33 Lectures on Lenin is a course he taught at Padua in 1972-1973 but published only in 1977, whereas Marx Beyond Marx: A Workbook on the “Grundrisse” is the seminar he held at the Ecole Normale last year—in fact during the captivity of Moro—and that has been published since Negri was arrested. The theoretical interest of both books has been overshadowed by the prosecution’s efforts to extract sentences which speak of sabotage and violence (not a difficult task in any case), but beyond this legal issue the works contain a vision of society and revolution that must be judged on its own merits.

Negri’s neo-Marxism is based on his interpretations of the Grundrisse, the notebooks which Marx wrote between 1857 and 1859 but which remained unedited until 1939 and virtually unstudied until the 1950s. Whereas many interpreters have tended to see the Grundrisse as only a step toward Capital (Roman Rosdolsky is a notable exception),7 Negri reads the work as “the highest point of Marx’s revolutionary imagination and will.” The Grundrisse, he says, gives us a “Marx beyond Marx,” one who transcends the objectivist categories of the commodity that he worked out in Capital and who instead focuses on the subjective side of the revolution: the alienated worker victimized by surplus value and salary. Coming midway between the so-called humanism of the early Paris Manuscripts and the dull objectivism of Capital, the Grundrisse resolves the old debate about the young vs. the old Marx by delivering all the humanistic passion of the Manuscripts with no less conceptual rigor than is found in the later writings. “The discovery of the Grundrisse,” Negri writes, “has restored Marx to us,” not as a utopian but as the scientist of the abolition of alienation and the liberation of the human subject.

At the center of the Grundrisse is Marx’s formulation of the mechanism of surplus value, the greatest discovery, Negri claims, in the history of economic science. Marx held that the historical role of capitalism was to push the productive process beyond the labor time necessary for simply producing the means of human subsistence. Whether that extra work time be “stolen” by capitalism or paid for by socialism, Negri argues, it is the basis of surplus value and profit and therefore remains the measure of the worker’s exploitation. Here is where Negri breaks with orthodox Marxism. The point of true communism must not be to continue the law of capitalism in a socialist form (in any case, he asserts, Keynesian capitalism has already done this in an effort to save its skin) but rather to abolish surplus value entirely.

In order to construct a nonsocialist Marxism, Negri has to confront the classical Marxist dilemma of the transition to true communism. Marx had envisioned two stages after the revolution. The first, which he called “crude communism” and which the Third International entitled “socialism,” would still be “stamped with the birth marks of the old society from which it emerges” in so far as it merely socializes the means of production and rewards each laborer according to his work. In this phase, surplus labor—and therefore alienation—inevitably continues under a kind of state capitalism (what Marx called “the community as universal capitalist”). Only much later, in the second stage, would the residual laws of bourgeois society be entirely suppressed and the principle “from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs” be realized.

But Negri claims that in practice Marxist regimes have become prisoners of crude communism with no hope of escape. Since 1917 Marxists have come to power in countries with either feudalistic or underdeveloped capitalist economies. Thus the theory which originally envisioned a transition from advanced capitalism to pure communism has been reduced in fact to a force for pushing underdeveloped economies toward state capitalism. Under the exigency of a vast increase in productivity, Marxist states, even if they be called the dictatorship of the proletariat, have become rigid and oppressive, and the iron law of surplus value, even if enforced socialistically, has continued to destroy “creativity.”

If Marx and Lenin can and must be “reinvented” today, Negri argues, it is because the West has now reached the point which was predicted in the Grundrisse. In spite of itself and as the very condition of its mode of production, advanced capitalism has created a kind of “crude communism” in the form of a socialized humanity, armed with an immense capacity for creative work but enslaved by an alienated mode of production. Therefore, when the revolution comes, it will not need to make a transition through socialism but can proceed immediately to the institution of pure communism and the abolition of the state.

At this crucial point in the theory everything becomes vague, and Negri absolves himself from both concrete analysis of actual productivity in Italy and concrete suggestions about how the future society might function. The one thing he is clear on is the need for an absolute rupture with any system of surplus value. “The creativity of communist labor has no relation to the organization of capitalist labor. The overthrow is complete, and there is no homology between the two.” To enforce this rupture the decrees to be issued after the revolution will be simple and direct: “Drastic reduction of labor time. Equal social salary for everyone. End of the division of labor. Obligation to do productive work. Liberation of the force of imagination.”8 Beyond that, “no one can tell us, from outside the way we advance and struggle, what the conclusion might be. The communist future can only be constructed.”

We are to believe that somehow this state of affairs (Negri refuses to call it utopian) will not lead to chaos, even though Negri insists that the post-revolutionary period will be an uninterrupted cultural revolution aimed at destroying all points of reference provided by bourgeois society. “A difficult and dramatic path,” he guilelessly admits, one that will lead through ongoing class conflicts that no longer will have to do with property relations but rather with power relations wherever they be found. How long this cisalpine Götterdämmerung will last, we are not told, but we are assured that throughout it revolutionary humanity will be “new, rich, and joyful.”

All of this might remain an interesting pipe dream were it not for the fact that Negri has articulated the concrete strategy and tactics for realizing it and incarnated them in Organized Autonomy. His widely distributed tract Domination and Sabotage: On the Marxist Method of Social Transformation is a call for violence in the name of the classless society. The book frequently rises to quasi-religious fervor and occasionally descends to sinistes poetry. The secularized religious motif that inspires Negri’s Marxism slips out when he speaks of a revolutionary “logic of collective separation,” the conviction that communists are “another race,” born of a “virgin mother” and dedicated to “the battle between the true and the false,” led by Organized Autonomy which is compared to a “combatant religious order.” As the Marxist philosopher Massimo Cacciari has suggested, here one can sense the “culture of the apocalypse” that inspired revolutionary movements in late nineteenth-century Russia. On the other hand, when one reflects on the violent events of 1977 (the year this book was written), it is distressing to come upon such “poetic” passages as the following, even if they read better in Italian than in English.

This solitude of mine is creative, this separateness is the only real collectivity I know. The resultant happiness is clear: Every act of sabotage and destruction redounds to me as a sign of class collegiality. The possibility of risk, far from bothering me, fills me with the feverish emotion of one who awaits his beloved. Nor does the pain of the enemy affect me. Proletarian justice has the same productive force as self-realization [autovalorizzazione] and the same power as logical conviction.

I immediately feel the warmth of the worker-proletarian community every time I pull the ski mask over my face [tutti le volte che mi calo il passamontagna].

For all his castigation of the Red Brigades Negri himself insists on violence as “a necessary, central ingredient of the communist program.” His justification is that capitalist society is already violent and that the proletarian is simply defending himself. And this apparently means guns, with no apparent thought for the actual lives, feelings, and families of the people who are wounded and killed. In an earlier essay he wrote, “The struggle of the mass avant-garde and of its Party against the capitalist command means armed struggle, yes, that above all.”9 On the one hand he condemns the Red Brigades for “shooting in vain,” while on the other he publicly recognizes them as a “proletarian movement,” but without accepting their strategy. The distinction appears very thin. His message to the Red Brigades seems to be “Yes, but not yet.”

Whether Negri’s advocacy of sabotage and violence is punishable by law, and whether he is the century’s Scarlet Pimpernel and in fact a murderer, will be decided by the Italian courts. But jurisprudence aside, in the present situation of killings and kneecappings, when the walls of the University of Padua are smeared with slogans like Mitra è bello (“The machine gun is beautiful”), it is particularly specious and perverse for leftist intellectuals like Maria Antonietta Macciocchi to invoke the examples of Marat and Blangui, Brecht and Sartre, in defense of Negri’s language.10 Surely the professor himself should have weighed the possibly bloody consequences when he ended a lecture course in 1973 by saying, “It is your task as students and workers, the task of all of us who march under the banner of communism, to solve the problem of insurrection and liberation in subversive practice”—and when, a year later, he published an article that proclaims in italics, “Today only armed struggle speaks of communism.”11 Perhaps, as his lawyers claim, Negri has now abandoned that position. But the professor cannot put the blood back.

Marxist practice finds its roots in theory, and on that side Negri’s infantilization of society and history by his millenarian theory of revolution is all the more pathetic for the brilliance he brings to his task. These are harsh words to say of a man who, for whatever reason, languishes in jail while I walk free in a society that I know to be unjust. Negri’s sincerity and dedication have never been in doubt. But the pity is that what he offers sounds like a secularized inversion of eschatology (“Our sabotage organizes the proletarian assault on heaven so that finally that damned heaven may be no more!”) when the justice we require is so much more concrete and complex. Perhaps, as Acquaviva suggests, Negri has merely exchanged a Christian totality for a Marxist one. In any case, the Marxism he offers us does not go “beyond Marx,” but simply substitutes an earlier Marx for a later one. It remains a palace revolution in a closed system of concepts, but all the more questionable for its affinities with the terror that continues in the Italian streets.

July 10

  1. 7

    The Making of Marx’s “Capital” (Urizen, 1977) does link Grundrisse and Capital, but without reducing the former to the latter in some kind of linear progression.

  2. 8

    Proletari e Stato (Milan: Feltrinelli, 3rd ed., 1979), p. 57.

  3. 9

    Partito operaio contro il lavoro,” in Sergio Bologna, Paolo Carpignano, and Antonio Negri, Crisi e organizzazaione operaia (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1974), p. 135.

  4. 10

    In principio fu Marat…,” L’Europeo, May 10, 1979, p. 17.

  5. 11

    Partito operaio control il lavoro,” p. 136.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print