The irrepressible lightness and joy of being communist

Mark Bahnisch publishes a letter from neo-communist Italian intellectual Antonio Negri, which seems fairly convincingly to debunk most if not all of Keith Windschuttle’s attacks on him. The failure of basic research/fact-checking in Windschuttle’s Negri letter appears considerably greater than any of the sins of which the former accused Henry Reynolds.

I don’t see any reason why Negri shouldn’t be permitted to visit Australia, any more than I thought obnoxious Holocaust Denier David Irving ought to have been banned. As long as Negri isn’t a dangerous criminal or terrorist leader (and it seems fairly clear he’s not and never was), we shouldn’t be afraid of exposure to his ideas, however silly.

And in fact there are some interesting and even challenging ideas in Empire (full text online), the work he co-authored a few years ago with American academic Michael Hardt, although ultimately I found it incoherent and lacking in any sensible conception of either how the Global Capitalist Empire could be brought to an end by the “Multitude”, or what sort of society would replace it, or how that society in turn would come about (and not turn into an oppressive dictatorship even worse than the recently departed and unlamented communist regimes).

But, despite Negri’s convincing denials of personal criminality, I can’t help noting a very disturbing lyrical idealisation of political violence inherent in Empire, especially its closing passage, which I reproduce over the fold. Apart from anything else, there’s something quite bizarre about authors who finish a work with the immortal line “This is the irrepressible lightness and joy of being communist.” It’s a joy that the millions of victims of Stalin, Mao and Castro don’t share, although most have certainly experienced the unbearable lightness of non-being.

MILITANT

In the postmodern era, as the figure of the people dissolves, the militant is the one who best expresses the life of the multitude: the agent of biopolitical production and resistance against Empire. When we speak of the militant, we are not thinking of anything like the sad, ascetic agent of the Third International whose soul was deeply permeated by Soviet state reason, the same way the will of the pope was embedded in the hearts of the knights of the Society of Jesus.

We are thinking of nothing like that and of no one who acts on the basis of duty and discipline, who pretends his or her actions are deduced from an ideal plan. We are referring, on the contrary, to something more like the communist and liberatory combatants of the twentieth-century revolutions, the intellectuals who were persecuted and exiled in the course of anti-fascist struggles, the republicans of the Spanish civil war and the European resistance movements, and the freedom fighters of all the anticolonial and anti-imperialist wars. A prototypical example of this revolutionary figure is the militant agitator of the Industrial Workers of the World. The Wobbly constructed associations among working people from below, through continuous agitation, and while organizing them gave rise to utopian thought and revolutionary knowledge. The militant was the fundamental actor of the “long march” of the emancipation of labor from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries, the creative singularity of that gigantic collective movement that was working-class struggle.

Across this long period, the activity of the militant consisted, first of all, in practices of resistance in the factory and in society against capitalist exploitation. It consisted also, through and beyond resistance, in the collective construction and exercise of a counterpower capable of destructuring the power of capitalism and opposing it with an alternative program of government. In opposition to the cynicism of the bourgeoisie, to monetary alienation, to the expropriation of life, to the exploitation of labor, to the colonization of the affects, and so on, the militant organized the struggle.

Insurrection was the proud emblem of the militant. This militant was repeatedly martyred in the tragic history of communist struggles. Sometimes, but not often, the normal structures of the rights state were sufficient for the repressive tasks required to destroy the counterpower. When they were not sufficient, however, the fascists and the white guards of state terror, or rather the black mafias in the service of “democratic” capitalisms, were invited to lend a hand to reinforce the legal repressive structures.

Today, after so many capitalist victories, after socialist hopes have withered in disillusionment, and after capitalist violence against labor has been solidified under the name of ultra-liberalism, why is it that instances of militancy still arise, why have resistances deepened, and why does struggle continually reemerge with new vigor? We should say right away that this new militancy does not simply repeat the organizational formulas of the old revolutionary working class. Today the militant cannot even pretend to be a representative, even of the fundamental human needs of the exploited. Revolutionary political militancy today, on the contrary, must rediscover what has always been its proper form: not representational but constituent activity. Militancy today is a positive, constructive, and innovative activity. This is the form in which we and all those who revolt against the rule of capital recognize ourselves as militants today. Militants resist imperial command in a creative way. In other words, resistance is linked immediately with a constitutive investment in the biopolitical realm and to the formation of cooperative apparatuses of production and community. Here is the strong novelty of militancy today: it repeats the virtues of insurrectional action of two hundred years of subversive experience, but at the same time it is linked to a new world, a world that knows no outside. It knows only an inside, a vital and ineluctable participation in the set of social structures, with no possibility of transcending them. This inside is the productive cooperation of mass intellectuality and affective networks, the productivity of postmodern biopolitics. This militancy makes resistance into counterpower and makes rebellion into a project of love.

There is an ancient legend that might serve to illuminate the future life of communist militancy: that of Saint Francis of Assisi. Consider his work. To denounce the poverty of the multitude he adopted that common condition and discovered there the ontological power of a new society. The communist militant does the same, identifying in the common condition of the multitude its enormous wealth. Francis in opposition to nascent capitalism refused every instrumental discipline, and in opposition to the mortification of the flesh (in poverty and in the constituted order) he posed a joyous life, including all of being and nature, the animals, sister moon, brother sun, the birds of the field, the poor and exploited humans, together against the will of power and corruption. Once again in postmodernity we find ourselves in Francis’s situation, posing against the misery of power the joy of being. This is a revolution that no power will control-because biopower and communism, cooperation and revolution remain together, in love, simplicity, and also innocence. This is the irrepressible lightness and joy of being communist.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Evil Pundit
2022 years ago

It’s all fun and games until someone’s population gets exterminated.

Dave Ricardo
Dave Ricardo
2022 years ago

I wonder if that ever vigilant seeker of the Truth, Keith Windschuttle, will apologise to Negri.

Indeed, I wonder if Negri will sue Windschuttle.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Negri was an opponent of “actually existing socialism”, Ken.

The St Francis parable is a bit odd, I’d grant you!

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Dave, Negri does refer in the letter I posted to his desire in the past to sue people for defamation when he felt that untruths were being published about his character.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

But there’s something even more bizarre about idealising the violent revolutionary struggles of unsuccessful communists, while professing to deprecate the communist state dictatorships which actually existed. The only reason the former didn’t descend into the horrific institutional violence and oppression of the latter is that their revolutionary struggles failed to achieve seizure of control of the apparatus of state oppression. This sort of nimble-footed dishonesty is inherent in Hardt and Negri’s work IMO.

Robert
2022 years ago

Ken, in what circumstance is political violence acceptable?

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

I wonder if it’s more confusion than dishonesty, Ken. Having read some of Negri’s earlier work, I also suspect that a lot of the less conceptually tight and crazier aspects of Empire might be Hardt’s contribution.

After all, it’s Hardt & Negri not the other way round and that often indicates priority in the contribution.

Negri’s earlier stuff on Marxist economics and the sociology of labour has much with which I disagree, but it makes more sense.

You’ve nailed the key problem with Empire IMO – both the notion of Empire and that of Multitude are incoherent.

Some of the stuff on international law – ie the discussion of Kelsen is interesting though and that’s the primary use I’ve made of the book in my work.

I don’t think much of it as a contribution to political philosophy.

To give Toni his due, though, perhaps years of trials, imprisonment and exile and imprisonment again have taken their toll on a 71 year old man.

Glen
2022 years ago

Negri’s take on what was happening in Italy during the ‘long 1970s’:
http://mondediplo.com/1998/09/11negri?

The discussion of democracy is similar in _Multitude_.

Couple of Negri’s works:
http://geocities.com/cordobakaf/

Glen
2022 years ago
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

It now seems as if the cancellation of the Negri conference was a result of self-censorship by the Director of the relevant Research Institute at Sydney Uni:

http://larvatusprodeo.redrag.net/2005/03/30/self-censorship-in-academe/

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

On the evidence of the passages Ken cites, I find it difficult to believe that anyone takes Negri seriously. It’s like listening to the Moonies, only funnier. Put down your cudgels, Keith, and welcome him in. We could do with the laugh.

This statement is absolutely risible:

“…Saint Francis of Assisi. Consider his work. To denounce the poverty of the multitude he adopted that common condition and discovered there the ontological power of a new society.”

Francis sought to demonstrate the practical truth of an unimpeachable Catholic dogma: that Christ and the disicples had and sought ownership of nothing; that Christ was poor; and that the closest the religious could come to Christ was to do likewise. This was called the doctrine of evangelical poverty. His action in renouncing his material wealth had nothing to do with politics or the poverty of the multitude, and everything to do with personal spiritual faith.

And Francis was not ‘an ancient legend’ but a historical character with a huge body of literature dedicated to him and those who followed him.

Mark, you”ll be aware of this because you are familiar with The Name of the Rose.

If this is the best Negri can do he’s a nitwit. And haven’t I read all the stuff about the nobility of militancy before in Sartre and Fanon?

Rafe
2022 years ago

In response to Robert on the acceptable use of violence, there is a tradition of “justified
tyrannicide”, like justifiable wars, in a situation where there appears to be no other way to get rid of a dictatorship.

The important rider is the requirement that the revolution has to establish democracy, not just in name or something as empty as ‘the rule of the people’ or ‘the rule of the majority’, but a set of institutions, especially but not only general elections, that place controls on the leadership and enable it to be changed without another revolution.

Another legitimate use of violence, based on the same principles, is in defence of democracy from people outside or inside who would destroy those institutions that permit the people to change governments in a non-violent manner.

Unfortunately the common conception of democracy is too “thin”, focussed on elections and political leadership, without enough attention to the institutions of civil society that actually make western democracies work in the way that most others don’t, even after the masses get to put voting slips into ballot boxes.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

I should also have responded specifically to Robert’s question. I would accept the legitimacy of political violence in opposing an undemocratic and tyrannical regime, as long as the aim is to substitute a democratic, peaceful polity in its place, which respects basic norms of human rights. By contrast, where the aim is to establish a marxist “dictatorship of the proletariat”, however (given the invariable murderous trajectory of such regimes), then promoting, glorifying or idealising revolutionary struggle for that purpose (as Hardt and Negri do) should be condemned and rejected. And even more so when they’re not in fact promoting any clearly articulated alternative anyway, nor a strategy for achieving it.

It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that Hardt and Negri seem to just feel that violent revolutionary struggle is really really kewl, and that the evils of capitalism are a sufficient basis for opposing it both violently and blindly. That’s why I compared them to the Indymedia mob on Sophie’s thread. I still think the analogy is a valid one, despite Glen Fuller’s objection to it.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Yeah, I’m a bit of a St Francis fan, Rob.

Ken, I think the Hardt and Negri thesis (such as it is) is a subset of the genus “The Working Class didn’t make revolution so academics have to fantasise about a Multitude”. It’s comparable to Marcuse in the 60s claiming that students were the new revolutionary subject – though some of Marcuse’s social insights make him worth reading still for other reasons.

harry
harry
2022 years ago

Rob,
I agree that Negri has simply hijacked Francis.
Similarly the lyric end of the passage that Ken alluded to earlier is neo-paganism by another name.

wen
wen
2022 years ago

Ken,

sorry to break into comments, but has your e-mail address changed? Can you e-mail me?

David Tiley
2022 years ago

“I would accept the legitimacy of political violence in opposing an undemocratic and tyrannical regime as long as the aim is to substitute a democratic, peaceful polity in its place, which respects basic norms of human rights” is a neat formulation, which I too would go to the barricades for.

The trouble is, most real people taking up political violence are either defending their cultural identity on a deep level as in reactions to colonialism, or just defending themselves against a prior breakdown of the State.

They probably don’t want democracy in any way which has previously been visualised or sold to them because the society had imprisoned them as exploited human cattle. So they want something new. “Dictatorship of the proletariat” sounds good. Out the end of the process – the killing of all those bad people who created this mess in the first place – is the sunny upland of genuine community democracy, after the State has withered away and Marx’s imagination turns into a porridgy version of Mahler.

I don’t think there is much value in idealising anyone. But it is possible to respect the struggles of many communists and decry the system they promoted without being bizarre or risible.

Standing in the ruins of the Weimar Republic, Jews humiliated in the streets, the Nazis on the rise, social democracy powerless to act, I don’t know what I would have done. Maybe I too would have thought revolutionary cleansing/vague sunlit uplands was better than anything else; I might even have fled to Russia to fall into Stalin’s maw.

I defer to those who read political science to tell me whether Negri is coherent. He takes the special responsibility of a political intellectual and theorist, which is to provide a workable direction for people engaged in the dirty fights of real life.

But he seems to be trying to imagine alternatives to real problems which are systemic and destructive, and he did go to prison for living out his beliefs. I think that is worthy of some respect.

Speaking strictly for myself, one reason why I am ultimately comfortable with capitalism, and able to take refuge in its huge suppleness and creativity, is that I simply don’t have the imagination to really put myself in the shoes of some poor campesino who owns nothing more than a machete and a second hand cast-off first world tee shirt.

In that way, I think Negri might be closer to reality.

bongpsumera
bongpsumera
2022 years ago

Evil pundit: if we’re talking about ‘It’s all fun and games until someone’s population gets exterminated.’ – maybe you should say it to windschuttle who with his state apologetics (more whitewashed historical revisionism) in ‘Fabrications of Aboriginal History’ justified the annihilation of Indigenous Australians.