The book Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri has come as close to becoming an international best seller as a university press book dense with references to Spinoza, Marx, and Gilles Deleuze is likely to get. Translated into more than a dozen languages, it has become a cult book among the anti-globalization protest movement, praised by academics from Berkeley and Buenos Aires to London and Paris. When a major American university raised the possibility of hiring Negri, someone observed that this was impossible since he is still serving a lengthy prison term in Italy—although under a form of house arrest—for heading a “subversive organization” during the 1970s, the most violent years of Italian terrorism.
Negri’s current status as an intellectual superstar in many nations could not be in sharper contrast to his standing in Italy, where he has been regarded, almost universally, with opprobrium. Empire was published in Italy long after it appeared in Korea, for example, and although it sold an astonishing 40,000 copies, it was almost entirely ignored by Italian reviewers. In his homeland, Negri is the most notorious of what the Italians call i cattivi maestri, the bad professors who poisoned the minds of a generation, sending tens of thousands of young people to the barricades to destroy themselves for a Communist revolution that could never happen.
Outside Italy, Negri and his followers have been able to use his judicial struggles to increase his charismatic appeal; his often leaden prose is interpreted as intellectually daring. “Isn’t he in prison for being an intellectual?” Michel Foucault supposedly said in the early 1980s—a quotation that appears on an American Web site dedicated to Negri and his work. And indeed, this is how Negri has portrayed himself to foreign journalists. A profile in the magazine Lingua Franca accepted at face value Negri’s assertion that he had never advocated violence in his writing—a claim that would arouse astonished laughter from anyone who lived in Italy during the 1970s.
In Italy, Negri’s name is identified with what is called the Sette Aprile trial. On April 7, 1979, he and about eighty of his followers were arrested in a major crackdown on the movement he then headed, called Autonomia Operaia (Worker Autonomy). Negri was accused of being the behind-the-scenes strategist of the Red Brigades, Italy’s principal terrorist organization, and of having, among other things, been directly involved in the kidnapping of former prime minister Aldo Moro. Neither these nor most of the other serious charges against Negri held up in court; dozens of members of his political movement were held in prison for years awaiting trial, only to be totally absolved. Negri was convicted of the more nebulous charge of heading a “subversive organization.” “They convicted me entirely for crimes of opinion,” he told me when I talked with him last year in Rome at the apartment he stays in while required to report his movements to the police. Terrorist acts by …