A Communist Life

‘The free person thinks least of all of death, and his wisdom is a meditation not on death but on life.’ Toni Negri, who died in Paris at the age of 90 on 16 December, turned this dictum of Spinoza into an ethical and political lodestar. The conclusion of the third and final instalment of his intellectual autobiography, Storia di un comunista, features a moving reflection on aging as a rejoicing in life and a paring down of action. Negri offers the overcoming of death – a resolutely atheist and collective idea of eternity – as the substance of his thought, politics, and life. He writes: ‘And yet the possibility of overcoming the presence of death is not a dream of youth, but a practice of old age; always keeping in mind that organising life to overcome the presence of death is a duty of humanity, a duty as important as that of eliminating the exploitation and disease that are death’s cause.’

Drawing perhaps on the distant memory of his own youthful Catholic activism, Negri extracts the materialist and humanist kernel of the resurrection of the flesh against all the miserable cults of finitude and being-towards-death. Negri’s lifelong war on the palaces was founded on the conviction that power, potestas, is nourished by a hatred of bodies and fixed in the threefold fetish of patriarchy-property-sovereignty. Its apparatchiks and administrators love that empty syllogism ‘every man is mortal’, which, Negri contends, is at the root ‘of the hatred of humanity, of that hatred that every authority, every power produces in order to affirm and consolidate itself: power’s hatred for its subjects. Power is founded on the introduction of death as an everyday possibility into life – without the threat of death, the idea and practice of power could not obtain. … Power is the continual effort to make death present for life.’

For Negri, freedom was a collective struggle against this lethal power, a fight against the fear of death, against terror, power’s currency. As the communist poet Franco Fortini had it in his rendering of the Internationale, chi ha compagni non morirà: those who have comrades will not die. Beyond the scholarly mastery of the history and theory of philosophy, law and the state, beyond the interminable yet urgent search for the revolutionary subject, beyond the hugely influential phenomenologies of capital’s power – from planner-state to crisis-state to Empire – at the core of Negri’s life and work was the idea that philosophy is inseparable from a practice of collective liberation, or from communism understood as a ‘joyous ethical and political collective passion that fights against the trinity of property, borders and capital’. This passion was something that Toni radiated. If anything marked him out among both militants and scholars, it was a kind of boundless curiosity, a generous desire to learn, in detail, from anyone genuinely involved in a struggle for liberation, which he always saw in the most capacious terms. His was not the cliché of a pacified wisdom – he could be combative, convoluted, contrary. But an irrepressible enthusiasm for liberation granted him a rare unruly youthfulness, even in old age. If wisdom entailed a joyful scorn for the powerful, what Spinoza called indignation, ‘a Hate toward someone who has done evil to another’, then Toni was wise indeed. That joy and that indignation saw him through a decade of captivity and fourteen years of exile, caricature and calumny, as too many from his generation turned state’s witness, literally and figuratively.

Both in print and in person, Toni had a reputation for optimism verging on fancy, especially when it came to his vision of the multitude – forged with his close friend and co-author Michael Hardt in a quartet of books that marked a season in the global left’s intellectual life. Many devotees of the party-form neglected that for Hardt and Negri the multitude is a new name both for mass organisation and for the working class beyond the assembly line. Accusations of naivety also overlooked that Toni – unsurprisingly for someone who experienced the ravages of war as a child and the brutalities of prison as an adult – nursed a deep belief in the need to confront the realities of spiritual and bodily suffering. His essay on the Book of Job and his study of Giacomo Leopardi were both aimed at thinking through poetry’s materialist ability to confront tragedy, pain, nihilism, and to make worlds from the experience of meaninglessness, failure, defeat. While Toni’s Marx was above all the one of the Grundrisse – of ‘real subsumption’ and the ‘General Intellect’ – there is a line from the Paris Manuscripts of 1844 that resonates with this materialist poetics of the body, when Marx writes that man is ‘a suffering being, and because he feels his suffering, he is a passionate being’.

This passion for a common freedom, lived through suffering but oriented towards a joy defying death, is the point where communism and philosophy, liberation, and ethics, met for Negri – in his writing as in his life. It is no accident that he devoted the very last pages of his autobiography, his parting words, to the fight against the far right that engulfed his own childhood and now threatens to return. The multitude’s weakness and fear, he tells us, is once again making room for a terror that wants the apotheosis of property, patriarchy and sovereignty, that wishes all expressions of joy prohibited. ‘Fascism’, Negri tells us, ‘rests on fear, produces fear, constitutes and constrains the people in fear’. Against fascism’s watchword, ‘long live death’, Toni built a life of thought, comradeship, love and struggle. I can’t think of a better way of honouring it than transcribing the final paragraph of his autobiography:

In the resistance to fascism, in the effort to break its domination, in the certainty of doing so, I have written this book. All that is left, my friends, is to leave you. With a smile, with tenderness, dedicating these pages to the virtuous men and women who preceded me in the art of subversion and liberation, and to those who will follow. We have said that they are ‘eternal’ – may eternity embrace us.

Read on: Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri, ‘Empire, Twenty Years On’, NLR 120.