Toni Negri: past still going unrevealed

Last hurrah of a psychopath

Toni Negri, 'Storia di un comunista', Milan, 2015, pp608, €18, reviewed by Toby Abse

Toni Negri’s 608-page autobiography is a predictably strange, and in places virtually unreadable, document.1 The 82-year-old author is rumoured to be in declining health and is certainly obsessed by death (particularly pp9-15). He seems to have been assisted in unspecified respects by a named editor - Girolamo De Michele, a 54-year-old philosopher and novelist, who, as far as I am aware, has no particular connection with Negri’s autonomist circles.

The publisher has inserted a preliminary note claiming to have numbered “some paragraphs that are most closely related to the philosophical formation of Antonio Negri: the encounter with his authors and the evolution of his theories” (p8). Since the entire book is full of numbered paragraphs, regardless of whether they deal with weighty theoretical or philosophical issues or with much more directly political or even personal matters, this cryptic and confusing explanation will leave any reader outside Negri’s inner circle totally baffled. Moreover, up until p316 there is a strange alternation between the predictable first person singular characteristic of conventional autobiography and the use of the somewhat pretentious third person (“Toni”) - presumably by the author himself, since this is not a book based on interviews. Whilst perhaps a closer reader, more imbued with Negri’s own world view, might detect some logic here, this too will puzzle the merely curious.

Given the vast number of both academic authors and political activists referred to in the course of this somewhat prolix text, it is a great pity that it has no index at all - not even the usual Italian Indice dei nomi (index of names). One would hope that, if an English-language edition ever appears, there might be some attempt to remedy this, in line with the editorial apparatus that seems to have been attached to the English-language versions of his earlier autobiographical works referred to below.

Whilst the overall structure of the work is conventional, leading from Negri’s birth in 1933 to his famous arrest on April 7 1979, with only very occasional and very brief references to the rest of his life, such as his friendly chats in prison with “the comrades of the Red Brigades” (pp476-77), the chronological flow is frequently interrupted by very lengthy summaries of the many books and articles that he wrote at various points in his first 45 years, including his tesi di laurea (final-year undergraduate dissertation).

Since his substantial work on Descartes,2 amongst other studies of the history of philosophy, had little obvious connection with his political career, the relevance of these interminable digressions to what Negri’s own summarisation as “a reading of the political destiny of my generation otherwise falsified by repression” (p6) escaped me, even if it reminded me that large chunks of Empire concentrated on early modern philosophy rather than concrete analysis of the world in the years leading up to 2000. Nor do Negri’s long-winded attempts to précis more directly political books and articles make the reader’s task any easier. Whether De Michele just saw his role as fitting pieces of a jigsaw together (indeed this seems a more plausible explanation of the numbered paragraphs than the one offered by the publisher) or curbed even greater verbosity on Negri’s part remains unclear, but the younger man certainly lacked the ruthlessness one would have expected of a professional editor.


Whilst Negri has written some more fragmentary autobiographical works about specific episodes in his life in previous years3, one assumes that the new book represents his last attempt at providing some sort of political testament for future generations - certainly its aggressively political title, Storia di un comunista, would suggest this.

Now that he has entered his ninth decade, one would not imagine that Negri runs any risk in telling the truth as he remembers it - he has long since served whatever prison time is likely to come his way.4 However, some aspects of his political evolution remain as mysterious as ever. Despite the title of the autobiography Negri was never a member of the Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI) or even of some dissident communist formation - whether Bordigist, Trotskyist or Maoist - that came out of the PCI.

Whether his father, who died when Negri was only two, ever had any socialist sympathies, as Negri asserts at various points in this book, is not something that at this distance in time can be easily proved or disproved, but it is absolutely certain that his elder brother, Enrico, volunteered to fight for Mussolini’s German-backed Republic of Salo in December 1943, before his 18th birthday: in other words, not in response to the coercion of conscription. Enrico died within weeks of volunteering, possibly killing himself after being wounded in combat in order to avoid falling into the hands of the “reds” (p13).

Negri himself first entered politics not as a socialist or a communist, which would have been the logical outcome of his family background as he chooses to present it, but in the Gioventu Italiana di Azione Cattolica and various Catholic youth and student organisations linked to the Christian Democracy (DC). Whilst the trauma of his brother’s death might have explained a totally apolitical turn towards detached scholarship, it does not account for Negri’s actual path of deep involvement with the DC - the overwhelmingly dominant political force in the Veneto during the 1950s - whose student affiliates, in which Negri played such a prominent role would generally have been stepping stones to a parliamentary career in the DC.

Negri now claims to have joined the Partito Socialista Italiano (PSI) in October 1956 (p128),5 although he does not claim to have been very active in the PSI until 1959, when he was elected to Padua’s municipal council, showing none of his later total abhorrence for any involvement in electoral politics. Negri claims that he lost his religious faith some time before abandoning Catholic student politics. He then sought, and succeeded in gaining a permanent university post at a very early age - as he puts it, “The Paduan chair is prestigious and Toni has conquered it early: he is the youngest Italian professor and he is good - friends and enemies recognise it” (p275). He consciously cultivated friendly relations with powerful academics and displayed no leftist inclinations whatsoever, so it seems reasonable to characterise the young Negri as an extremely ambitious opportunist and careerist rather than a ‘communist’ in any sense of that word.

Whilst Negri rapidly moved left after 1960, becoming involved with far-left journals - first Renato Panzieri’s Quaderni Rossi (Red Notebooks) and then Mario Tronti’s Class Operaia (Working Class) - even by his own accounts he seems always to have lived a strange double life right up to his arrest in 1979. He completely dominated the Institute of Political Science at Padua University, whose staff he filled with his own cronies in the manner of the classic Italian academic barone, whilst leading increasingly extreme political groups, which after 1969 were ever more deeply involved in illegal activities.

The contradictions of this double life have given rise to deep suspicion in some quarters - most notably on the part of the British journalist, Philip Willan, who suggests some link with both the Italian and American intelligence services.6 Willan infers that Negri’s intense hostility towards the PCI would have served the interests of the CIA during the 1970s. Negri’s book has very little to say about any American links - with the obvious exception of small groups that had emerged out of CLR James’s ‘Johnson-Forrest tendency’, whose ideological influence on early operaismo (workerism) has long been known.

Whilst one could put a sinister construction on Negri’s presence in autumn 1960 at an Italian conference organised by the Rockefeller Foundation, immediately after his return from a journey to the Soviet Union with some members of the PCI and PSI leftwingers, it seems much more likely this was pure academic careerism. However, there are a few oddities towards the end of the book. First:

An American journalist (who during my trial revealed himself to be a CIA agent) comes to find me in Milan; I explain him the difficulties of the situation in which we find ourselves. I accept his insistence to explore all possible channels to save Moro’s life - he, an expert in anti-terrorism, is even less convinced than I am (p579).


Then, when Negri is in New York in early autumn 1978:

One day this fake journalist who came to find me during the Moro kidnapping takes me to New York inside the ABC skyscraper in Washington Square. He leads me for an hour from one office to another, up to the television studios; here he has projected a film on the Symbionese7 that recounts the destruction of the group, up until the bombardment of the house where the last resisters had taken refuge. I do not know exactly what the agent of the CIA wanted to tell me … (p583).


One wonders why Negri does not choose to name the journalist/agent after all these years. Perhaps more significantly, one might ask why Negri, who had already spent a large part of 1977 abroad and on the run from the Italian police after magistrates had issued arrest warrants for him, had no difficulty in getting an American visa at a time when even the most pacific and respectable ‘official communists’ from the PCI were frequently banned from entering the US. One might have thought that in the immediate aftermath of the Moro kidnapping the American authorities would have been particularly suspicious of any Italian extreme leftist who had publicly glorified violence, as Negri had in his widely cited pamphlet Domination and sabotage, even if they may not have known of the involvement of former members of Negri’s old organisation, Potere Operaio, in the Roman column of the Red Brigades - which they may well have done if it was really the case that a CIA man was asking him to try and get Moro released, as he claims here.

It is not clear from Negri’s autobiography if Willan’s claim on p187 of his book Puppetmasters that Negri went to and fro between Italy and the US on a number of occasions in these years has any substance. Also interesting is the attempt in the mid-1960s to block the appointment of his colleague, Antonio Pigliaru, according to Negri as a manoeuvre directed mainly at Negri’s own simultaneous appointment to the chair of state doctrine in the political science faculty at Padua. Pigliaru (and thus Negri) had the support of Pigliaru’s fellow Sardinian, Francesco Cossiga. Negri writes: “Thus I know Cossiga: elegant, passionate and critical in the things he does and in discussion”, even if Negri has to admit he was “a strange personality” and “great friend of the American embassy” in the days when he was still “the young under-secretary for defence with special responsibility for the secret services” (p268). Given Cossiga’s later role as ‘minister of civil war’, as the Movement of 1977 branded him, not to mention his tenure at the interior ministry during the Moro affair, this friendship seems more than a little odd.


Although the best theoretical contributions to what became operaismo came not from Negri, but from Renato Panzieri, Mario Tronti and Roman Alquati, one must acknowledge that Negri played a very important role in maintaining a genuine connection between the theory of workerism and the practice of working class struggle in the large chemical factories of Porto Marghera, and to a lesser extent other industrial workplaces in the Veneto and Emilia, throughout the 1960s, long after Tronti and other Roman intellectuals associated with operaismo, who never really applied their theories to factory agitation, embarked on the dead-end strategy of re-entering the PCI. The chapters dealing with this period (pp196-380) that are clearly based in large part on a run of old journals, are from an historical perspective the most useful part of the book, shedding more light on the practice of operaismo than most previous accounts, which have tended to concentrate on theory.

However, whatever praise has to be accorded to Negri’s tireless activity in the 1960s, his political role in the 1970s as the main leader of, first, Potere Operaio (1969-73) and then Autonomia Operaia (1973-79) were completely destructive in terms of the far left, let alone the general interests of the working class as a whole. Neither group would ever engage in electoral work of any kind, whether at the municipal or parliamentary level, and they increasingly moved away from mass action, as it might be generally envisaged in terms of strikes, workplace occupations or peaceful demonstrations, towards the advocacy of some form of armed or insurrectionary action without anything approaching majority support in the working class. Potere Operaio resembled the Communist Workers Party of Germany (KAPD) or the more putschist elements of the early Communist Party of Germany (KPD) involved in episodes like the March Action of 1921, whilst Autonomia was much closer to Bakunin, with its cult of rather pointless, almost random violence and idolisation of the lumpenproletariat.

Given the way Negri, in the mid-1970s abandoned the somewhat obsessively factory-based politics of operaismo for nebulous rhetoric about the ‘social factory’ and the operaio sociale (a phrase that is best not translated as ‘social worker’, as some rather farcical Anglophone accounts have done in the past), the poisonous venom with which he still writes about the groups that rejected hard-line operaismo in favour of a more community-based approach and became Lotta Continua in 1969 is astonishing.8 Discussing Lotta Continua or its predecessors, first he writes of “a populist tendency of Catholic and socialist origin” (p357) and then he polemicises even more viciously: “I had undervalued the presence in the coalition around Sofri at Turin of a profoundly anti-Marxist animus that was descended from a still deeper anti-communist tension of Catholic or socialist origin” (p357). Given his own dubious Christian Democratic political past, the sheer chutzpah of this attack on Lotta Continua beggars belief.

Negri’s enduring narcissism and total lack of any self-awareness is best exemplified in his grandiose explanation of his own leadership role in Potere Operaio:

Why did I agree not only to construct Potere Operaio, but to be its secretary? I believe through a sort of ‘ethic of service’, through a strange lack of arrogance - very far distant from the presumed arrogance that they will attribute to me later on. I was 36, the others at most 25 … I had studied so much, the others who were much younger much less … I had studied a lot, always in an interdisciplinary manner, doing theory in the American manner - a little philosophy, much history, a fair amount of Marxism and political economy, a lot of political science, enough law. Moreover, I had behind me a university institute that could sustain a good part of the theoretical work that Potere Operaio required (p375).


One cannot imagine even the SWP’s ‘Red Professor’, Alex Callinicos - not a modest man by many accounts - making quite such hyperbolic claims.


Negri still grossly exaggerates the importance of the Movement of 1977, which was essentially confined to students and some young unemployed or precariously employed workers9, making the ridiculous assertion that “Probably the real Italian 68 was in 77, when everything in Europe seemed to be finished” (p355). He seems more honest about Autonomia Operaia and its aims than in the years when he, or at least his foreign apologists, claimed he was put on trial and imprisoned by the Italian state merely for his ideas.

The absurd pretence that Autonomia was not a hierarchical and militarised organisation, but some sort of vague current of ideas - which always reminded me of the unconvincing claim that Militant was just a newspaper - is finally abandoned. Negri quite clearly indicates how he created it as an organised faction in opposition to the Roman leadership of Potere Operaio and seems to date its foundation to a meeting on his 40th birthday - August 1 1973 (p463). He also discusses “expropriations that were instead organised inside Autonomia’s activities to sustain the costs of the press, of party offices and then, to an ever increasing extent, of the clandestinity to which many comrades were constrained” (p483).

He admits in relation to Autonomia:

As far as strategy was concerned, it was animated by a firm relationship between mass agitation and armed struggle; this label excludes any ‘terrorist’ action in the strict sense … The objective is always singular and transparent, possible to make propaganda about: nothing to do with the objectives of the fascist bands or of the state that theorise and practise terror. On the contrary, the strategic determination of the armed struggle in the working class groups of Autonomia is always understood to create ‘counter-power’ in preparation for and in expectation of the moment of crisis, in which mass insurrectional operations could be conceived (p501).


When he indulges yet again in his now habitual rant against his colleague at Padua, professor Angelo Ventura, for having assisted the prosecutor and the Digos (special branch) to build a case against him in 1979 (p589), he refuses to acknowledge the kneecapping inflicted upon Ventura by the Paduan autonomi - presumably his students wearing the balaclavas he found so entrancing10 - in 1979. It would be hard to dodge any responsibility for it, given the way he ruled the roost in the university - doubtless what was really meant by “the objective is always singular and transparent”.

Perhaps Negri’s utterly bankrupt Bakuninist conception of ‘revolution’ is most clearly indicated by his glowing reference to the New York blackout of July 13 1977:

an insurrection of a great part of the New York proletariat: Assaults on the supermarkets, generalised reappropriation of goods, defence in a military manner against the interventions of police repression: an entire night of metropolitan jacquerie (p584).


We have nothing whatever to learn from a man who still sees the usually apolitical and often totally anti-social armed robber as the best revolutionary. With any luck this rambling and frequently unreadable tome will make no more converts to autonomism.11

For an author who wrote a book called Goodbye, Mr Socialism in 200612 to claim his life is “The history of a communist” is, of course, profoundly irritating, but one suspects that this is the last hurrah of Italy’s most notorious academic psychopath - even if a fanatical fan like the tireless translator, Ed Emery, will probably inflict an English-language edition on us before very long.

Toby Abse


1  . None of his previous texts, either in the original Italian or in English translation, have been easy to follow; very few of those who have attempted to read him, other than autonomists or the worldwide academic coterie of Negri fans that has developed over the last couple of decades in the wake of his collaborations with Michael Hardt - Labour of Dionysus (1994), Empire (2000), Multitude (2004), Commonwealth (2009) and Declaration (2012) - would disagree with this assessment. It is worth remarking that Negri himself once described his own style as “unnecessarily convoluted”, “baroque” and “bombastic”; this brief moment of insight about a particular text could be applied to most of his writings.

2 . This is now available in English as Political Descartes: reason, ideology and the bourgeois project (London 2007). The first Italian edition was published as Descartes politico in 1970.

3 . Diary of an escape (the British edition was published in 2010, but the French edition came out in 1985 and the Italian in 1986) and Pipeline (Italian edition: 1983; English edition: 2014). The first is a diary of the period February-November 1983 and the latter was supposedly composed in 1981-82, taking the literary form of letters from prison to a fictitious correspondent, with the ‘letters’ being designed for publication from the very beginning. This was clearly a conscious attempt to appear to ape Gramsci’s genuine letters from prison - typical of Negri’s penchant for self-dramatisation. Pipeline is in effect a rather odd sort of autobiography covering various aspects of Negri’s life from adolescence until the third anniversary of his arrest - April 7 1982. Both of these texts were translated by Negri’s most committed British disciple, Ed Emery, who presumably would be the obvious candidate for the translation of Storia di un comunista.

4  . Whilst one has to acknowledge this was a significant episode in his life, particularly his first imprisonment awaiting trial from April 1979 to July 1983, since the precise nature of the deal he struck with the Italian state when he returned from France in 1997 to “serve out his sentence” (as Timothy S Murphy puts it in the introduction to Pipeline - p9) is rather murky, and there seems some doubt as to how much more time he actually served in a 24-hour jail.Even if his period of house arrest only ended in 2003, the attempts of his most ardent fans to compare his fate with that of Gramsci, whose early death in a room with bars on the windows was clearly hastened by his imprisonment, is rather extravagant. Negri managed to write not only Pipeline but his weighty book on Spinoza - L’anomalia selvaggia (1981), later published in English as The savage anomaly (Minneapolis 1991) - and various political essays while in jail and of course, what he suffered pales into insignificance compared with, say, the probably endless torment of Abdullah Öcalan by the Turkish state. One might also point out that thousands of other Italian far lefts were imprisoned at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s - a rather random mixture of genuine members of the Red Brigades and other terrorist groups, and activists who had no real connection with terrorism. In other words Negri’s fate, including years of preventive, pre-trial detention, was far from unique and by and large he was treated more mildly than many of his contemporaries, as should be evident from his prolific authorship in jail - even if he may have been beaten up by prison guards in the immediate aftermath of a prison revolt by BR members in the Trani prison in December 1980.

5 . This contradicts his earlier claim in Pipeline (p25 of the English language edition) that he joined the PSI in 1953, around the time of the Legge Truffa (Swindle Law) - a DC-inspired attempt to undermine proportional representation for the Italian parliament. As I have stated earlier, the Italian edition of Pipeline was published in 1983 and it seems to have been written in 1981-82. Either Negri’s memory is fading fast or more probably he was not being truthful in the 1980s.

6 . P Willan Puppetmasters: the political use of terrorism in Italy London 2002, particularly pp181-88. This is an American reprint - probably self-published - of a work first published in London by Constable in 1991.

7  . The Symbionese Liberation Army was a very minor American ultra-left terrorist group which enjoyed a certain amount of fame in the media because of the involvement of the kidnapped heiress, Patty Hearst, in some of their exploits.

8  . Negri’s attempts to expound and justify his mid-1970s theories are as incomprehensible in this book (for example on pp558-61) as they were at the time. It is probably true that Negri spotted the significance of the 1973 oil crisis as marking the end of the ‘thirty glorious years’ of the Long Boom, and the Keynesianism associated with it, long before most observers, and there is some rational core in his musings on post-Fordism and outsourcing, even if they exaggerate the rapidity of such shifts. The Bakuninist political conclusions he draws from this in terms of ‘mass illegality’ are as demented as ever.

9  . I have discussed the Movement of 1977 at much greater length, in ‘A Blind Alley or a New Beginning?: The Italian Autonomists and the Movement of 1977’, New Interventions, Vol 11, No 2, Summer 2003, pp21-29.

10 . See my article, ‘The professor in the balaclava: Toni Negri and autonomist politics’ What Next? No22, 2002. To my surprise, I discovered a few years ago that this old article in a now defunct, small-circulation periodical still has a certain notoriety in cyberspace, largely because autonomists hate it.

11  . Given Negri’s tirades against the more pacific and playful elements of the Movement of 1977 - the groupings known as the Metropolitan Indians - on p555 and p576, one suspects that the ‘soft’ autonomism of daft hand signals and phoney consensus that undermined the UK student movement of 2011 would not have met with the professor’s approval; probably even the occupation of Millbank would have been judged as far too mild in its violence against property - merely breaking a few windows, as opposed to the more authentically autonomist use of arson. Although perhaps Negri would have been delighted by the idiot who threw a fire extinguisher from a high building.

12  . This is the date of the publication of the Italian edition, which interestingly always had the English-language title; the English translation came out in 2008.