Multitude or working class?

European Social Forum: ‘Multitude or working class?’, Antonio Negri, co-author of Empire, was a star attraction

For the second time in as many days popular demand for a particular meeting overwhelmed the expectations of organisers. The previous evening, several hundred delegates were locked out of a plenary addressed by Rifondazione Comunista leader Fausto Bertinotti. For this meeting, ‘Multitude or working class?’, Antonio Negri, co-author of Empire, was a star attraction. Anybody could foresee that a meeting room with a mere 200 capacity would be insufficient, or so one would think. In fact these are only two high-profile examples. At numerous other meetings the same problem was repeated.

This debate between Antonio Negri and Alex Callinicos (SWP) left those outside exceeding those inside by a ratio of three to one. Chants began to go up: “Outside! Outside! Bring the meeting outside!” However, it was only when minor scuffles broke out between security staff and those at the front of the locked-out queue, that organisers consented to move the meeting into the open air.

Alex Callinicos spoke first. His opening was a largely uncontroversial, orthodox Marxist critique of Negri’s conception of the ‘multitude’ as the agent of social change. Whereas it was the working class, said comrade Callinicos, that “creates the profits that global capital depends on”, and it is the working class that “has the capacity to change, through its collective action, the existing social relations”.

Comrade Callinicos pointed to the popular uprising in Bolivia against its neoliberal president, an uprising encompassing both the rural and urban petty bourgeoisie that was held together and pushed forwards by the tin miners. It was the miners’ “tradition of collective action and solidarity - and their dynamite” - that was primarily responsible. Perfectly true, of course, but how can the comrade square this with his concluding call for the “fusion of the organised working class and the anti-capitalist movement”?

The Bolivian experience (as with every other great social movement of the previous century, from Russia 1917 to Paris 1968) proves that, if there is to be even the possibility of victory, what is needed is not “fusion” (which is to say tailism), but the leadership of the revolutionary workers over other radicalised sections of society.

Antonio Negri opened his speech by saying that “we all want to fight capitalism for a better world”. He then went on to outline his objections to the Marxian concept of the working class. “People,” he said, “are working in different ways. Value,” he continued, “is constructed by the putting into motion of the whole of society.” This, he said, was “the multitude”. In a word, Negri was simply repeating all the old ‘death of the working class’ nonsense previously spouted by Eurocommunists and others.

As if to underline his rupture with orthodox Marxism, the comrade castigated the left for “ignoring the peasantry”. We must, he said, “relate to them specifically as peasants” and not take “the aristocratic (?!) view that later they must simply become workers”.

Perhaps, here lies the heart of the matter: does Negri’s conception of the future imply the preservation of private property? If that is the case it leaves him a revolutionary radical, but one at odds with proletarian socialism.