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Autonomy with Big A

Storia di un communista.
The philosopher Toni Negri defends his earlier views in a thorough chronicle of Italian political history.


Toni Negri was born in 1933. In his words in the midst of the "Second Thirty Years War" (1914 – 45): Where the first was fought against the Protestants and peasants, the second was fought against the socialists and the workers. That's what it says early in this book, which clearly falls under the "memoirs" category. We read about how Negri, as a nine-year-old, loses his 18 year-old brother, an alleged suicide under unclear circumstances, and how shortly afterwards he experiences having a Jewish friend deported.

Also less dramatic information is gained, such as how Negri was an active athlete as a youngster. At the age of 15 he is still completely apolitical. But soon his grandfather, born 1870, will introduce him to communism – "not as an ideology, or as a tool of struggle, but as a way of life." Later, Negri says that early in his intellectual life he began to look truth "Not as an object, but as a way of life".

For Negri, democracy should also be the name of a "way of life" – instead of building a "democratic state", "democracy" becomes the name of a project to make the state less oppressive. This phrase, "life form" (mold the whites), has also been given a current political significance by Giorgio Agamben, in his attempt to think of renewed forms of resistance to the control and surveillance community (see Marit Grøtta's article "Life at stake" in AGORA's issue number on Agamben, no. 4 / 2011).

"Democracy" becomes a "way of life" – instead of building a "democratic state", "democracy" becomes a project to make the state less oppressive.

Least evil. Negri's book is intellectual memoirs. The tone is consistently oral and easy to follow. The book is characterized by being dictated to a shadow printer. Otherwise, the switch between mentioning "Toni" in third person and talking directly in first person is striking. It is as if Negri wants to distinguish between a youthful, overbearing version of himself, and an ego he will still admit.

In the mid-1950s, Negri was skeptical of the authoritarian and Stalinist of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) – he was approaching the alliance-free movement. In October 1956, in his hometown of Padova, he joined the Socialist Party PSI, which he understood to be "the least evil."

At first, Negri represents the left side of the PSI, but he is increasingly concerned about the struggle of the workers. To this day, Negri argues that worker-controlled companies are "the key to the political organization of the working class". There are many such claims in the Italian left-radical tradition, and one might think that it appears more as an incantation than as an analysis. To understand how such general thoughts could be perceived as liberating, we must know the role of the Italian Communist Party.

Working Hinduism. The Communist Party PCI, despite being long excluded from political cooperation at national level, was a kind of Italian edition of the Norwegian Labor Party (DNA), albeit with marked opposition to NATO membership. We can compare PCI with both DNA and LO in Norway – mass organizations that over time helped to maintain political status quo. LO is still an organization that fights for the interests of employees, but is not at all a tool for a truly different society. It is in the face of a similar Communist Party and affiliated unions that the Italian operism pops up – the "workerism" that pays tribute to the organizational structure of each worker group autonomous.

At the heart of the autonomy movement is the notion that the existing large unions are part of a class compromise. For Negri, "developing the autonomy of the working class" is the crucial prerequisite for party building. According to him, PCI representatives thought completely the opposite: This was the party that was going to lead the masses. PCI also turned against the student revolt in 1968, while the autonomous movement put forth slogans like "Workers and students united in the fight!"

PCI's party structure was in fact a "corporate, social democratic structure," Negri claims, and according to him, opposition to the party had nothing to do with anarchism, third world or Maoism – rather it was a reconstruction of Leninism. For Negri and his comrades, PCI was an endangered dinosaur, while their own communism was young and creative. He says, in fact.

The insurgency. By 1962, Negri had become part of the environment around the journal Quaderni Rossi. According to him, laborism was born with Mario Troni's article "La fabbrica e la società" (Quaderni Rossi no. 2/1962). In 1964, Renato Solmi translates "The Fragment of the Machines" from Marx ' floorplans, which then becomes a basic text of laborism. But Negri insists that he himself "became a communist before he became a Marxist". Another key work in operismmovement was EP Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class.

Like Nanni Balestrini (who is also featured in this issue of New Age), Negri became active in the Potere Operaio in the late 1960s, where the chorus was: "Rebellion comes before organization." In the 1970s he was active in the group Lotta Continua.

Autonomy with a small a was born in the 1960s; with a big A in 1973, says Negri. He also claims that by 1973 he and his comrades had understood that society was exposed to neoliberal power – which they were unfortunately alone in fighting at the time.

One question many will ask is whether Negri becomes somewhat elusive in discussing whether the radical movements should arm themselves in the early 1970s and the relationship with the Red Brigades.

To this day, Negri claims that worker-controlled companies are "the key to the political organization of the working class".

Sequel? Toni Negri has won numerous followers with his modern works, not least the tetralogy with Michael Hardt. I myself find that the very general theories of Negri may at times appear pretentious. In this book, however, he comes through in a different way, with a human voice. Then one might wonder how interesting it is to read about Negri's love life, his children, his heavy life as an asthmatic, that he loves theater and music, drinks wine, and so on. But it refreshes the general fabrication, which is predominantly characterized by a political chronicle where no discussion is too small to be mentioned, as well as by many purely philosophical passages.

Remarkably, the memoirs end abruptly in 1979, when Negri is arrested, suspected of complicity in the kidnapping of Prime Minister Aldo Moro. The arrest is mentioned initially, and on the very last page of the book: It is then presented as something completely incomprehensible.

In a few places Negri refers to his later philosophical positions, but otherwise little or nothing is said about the time since then. At the same time, there is nothing to suggest that this book is the first of two. But maybe there will be a sequel? It seems more natural to see the delimitation as a claim that in 1979 a substantial blow was lost.

Negri still has something to contribute as a theoretician, but in this production he appears as a retrospective – contributing to the increasingly well-documented history of Italian left-wing radicalism in the 1960s and 1970s. But by all means: A very important and educational story!

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