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Alex Callinicos

The mask of anarchy

(July 1985)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 78, July/August 1985, p. 32.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Marx Beyond Marx: Lessons on the Grundrisse
Antonio Negri
Bergin and Garvey. £13.15

THIS book is something of a curiosity. Antonio Negri is one of the chief theoreticians of the Italian ‘autonomist’ movement which sprang into prominence in the late 1970s.

Imprisoned without trial in 1978 for his alleged involvement in the kidnapping and assassination of ex-Prime Minister Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades. Negri was only released five years later after being elected to Parliament on the slate of the libertarian Radical Party. He has been on the run since the Chamber of Deputies removed his parliamentary immunity.

This book appeared in Italy after Negri’s imprisonment, but is based on seminars he gave at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris during the spring of 1978 at the invitation of Louis Althusser, of all people.

Negri first acquired any prominence as one of a group of intellectuals, some in the CP, some not, known as the ‘worker-ists’. They developed a version of Marxism which focussed upon workers’ resistance to capital within the process of production. Their approach was to some extent a generalisation of the strength and militancy of the Italian working class, especially during the ‘May in slow motion’—the great struggles of 1968/9.

Autonomism proper flourished first during the rapid expansion of the Italian revolutionary left in the first half of the 1970s. Its distinctive features were a suspicion of organisation and leadership (an attitude well captured by Lotta Continua’s slogan ‘We are all delegates’), and a stress on the virtues of those forms of shopfloor resistance which Negri and his co-thinkers saw as amounting to the ‘refusal of work’.

What gave Negri’s writings something of an intellectual edge was their ability apparently to cope with the collapse of industrial struggle in the later 1970s. Capital, he argues, is increasingly ‘social capital’, a unified subject and not a set of competing firms. The rise of Keynesianism is a sign of this transformation.

The result is that the contradictions between labour and capital within production has been displaced onto the whole of society.

The idea seems to be that the various ‘new social movements’ (youth, unemployed, feminists etc.) have, in late capitalism, assumed the role of the proletariat. There is also the (not unfamiliar) implication that their forms of organisation must prefigure those of communism.

This weird leap in which ‘workerism’ ends up anticipating Andre Gorz, is in fact perfectly intelligible. Negri and Co first erected a general theory out of the experience of what were indeed very advanced workers’ struggles, and then, when these struggles disappeared, sought refuge in the anarchist street-fighting and lifestyle politics which typified, forinstance, the student movement of 1977.

Hence the oddity of this book Negri tries to wrench a justification for his politics from the writings of Marx. He does so by setting up an opposition between the Grundrisse and Capital.

He claims to find in the former work a version of Marxism in which capital is seen as a ‘power relation’ dominated by workers’ resistance to their exploitation. Capital however, ‘served to annihilate subjectivity in objectivity’, by focussing less on surplus value and exploitation than on the labour theory of value, ‘a legacy of the classics and of the bourgeois mystification which we can easily do without in order to enter the field of revolution’.

Both dimensions

Now the Grundrisse is a far less finished, coherent and scientifically mature work than Capital. But it isn’t that unclear.

In it Marx distinguishes between ‘capital in general’ and ‘many capitals’. The former is the exploitative relation between labour and capital, the latter the competitive interaction of individual capitals. The theory of value is especially concerned with the relation between ‘many capitals’, since it is competition which compels firms to sell commodities at the socially necessary labour time required to produce them.

Both dimensions are essential to understanding capitalism. Competition imparts its dynamic to the system, compelling capitals to accumulate and thus to bring down the rate of profit. Without the ‘laws of motion’ inherent in the accumulation process the relation between labour and capital would be incomprehensible, as it is for Negri.

He treats workers’ resistance as constant, and is therefore unable to explain what allows the balance in forces to shift in capital’s favour, as it did in Italy (and more generally in the late 1970s with the onset of mass unemployment. The capitalist drive to exploit and to accumulate merely, for Negri, a will to power, lacking any context in capitalist relations of production.

Beyond this central failure to understand Marx are numerous other distortions. I shall mention just two. Negri grossly misrepresents Marx’s theory of wages, and, quite absurdly, attributes to him the view that communism is the abolition of work (in fact Marx in the Grundrisse is very rude about Fourier for thinking that communism wouldn’t involve hard work).

Negri writes with admirable passion and vigour, and one sympathises with him, persecuted by the Italian state with the CP complicity. But why dress up everyday anarchism as Marxism?

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