In Defense of the Dialectic: A Response to Antonio Negri

By Georgy Katsiaficas

Collective reinterpretation of Marxism is long overdue, especially after the end of what Paul Sweezy called the first wave of socialist experimentation. History has revealed the tragic miscalculations of Lenin, and verified Marx’s belief that world-historical transformation of capitalism must occur from within its core. Antonio Negri’s experiences in the 1970s Italian autonomous movement situate him to pose theoretical insights from the point of view of practical action. As the movement against capitalist globalization has gathered momentum, Negri and co-author Michael Hardt seek to theorize the global revolt against neoliberalism.

Complementing Marcella Bencivenni’s reading of their more recent work in this issue of Socialism and Democracy, the purpose of this essay is to review the genesis and background of their theories in works prior to Empire and Multitude in order to assess their usefulness in building liberatory movements. I hope to make apparent problems that inhibit these theorists’ efficacy: their rejection of dialectical thinking, Negri’s fetishization of production, and his failure to deal with patriarchal domination.

Although Negri has been enormously self-critical and changed many of his views from the 1970s and 1980s, he retains ideological categories and patterns of thinking that lead him in the same directions he now acknowledges as mistaken. Accordingly, just as his mentor Louis Althusser believed “history has no subject,” Negri and Hardt maintain that “empire” has no single hegemonic country. As with Althusser, the philosophical categories of the young Marx are rejected while the economic categories of the “mature Marx” are rigidly accepted. Rather than understanding Marx’s later work as an empirical fleshing out of the philosophical categories developed from Hegel’s dialectical method, Negri now tells us that dialectical thinking is wrong. Nowhere is Negri’s revision of Marx more apparent than in his current rooting of “communist” theory in Machiavelli and Spinoza and in his disavowal of dialectical thought in all its forms.

Using the “mature” Marx, especially the Grundrisse, as a master text, Hardt and Negri mould reality to fit Marx’s categories. Marx’s own insistence that he was “not a Marxist” was as much a rejection of such a system abstracted from historical specificity, as it was a distancing from Marxists’ claims of their infallibility. Marx’s last work contains major problems, as he himself acknowledged when he could not solve the problem of expanded reproduction in Volume 2 of Capital.1 Disregarding the problems Marx found in Volume 2, Negri and Hardt seek to reformulate his work in the context of the “postmodern state-form.” With typical modesty, they claim “finally to write those two chapters of Capital that were never written.”2On the same page, they go on to assert that the tradition of thought from Spinoza to Nietzsche, Foucault and Deleuze…constitutes an alternative to the dialectic and thus provides us with an open terrain for alternative political methodology. Against the negative movement of the dialectic, this tradition presents a positive process of constitution. The methodology of constitution thus shares with the methodology of the liberal philosophical tradition a critique of the dialectical conception of totality…

However much they profess to admire Marx and bring his analysis into the postmodern period, they revise his method in much the same way that the Third International did: emphasizing materialism, they jettison the dialectic.

Now that we have claimed the end of the concept of a socialist transition and the notion of a dialectical progression of historical development…we have to reconsider our methodological principles and reevaluate the stock of our theoretical arsenal. Is there, among our weapons, a method for constructing in separation? Is there a nondialectical theory of the constitution of collective subjectivity and social relations?3


In the above remarks, one of the authors’ central complaints about the dialectic is its conception of totality. Earlier in the same book, however, they assert:

In fact, in the postindustrial era, in the globalization of the capitalist system, of the factory-society, and in the phase of the triumph of computerized production, the presence of labor at the center of the life world and the extension of social cooperation across society becomes total.4 (my emphasis)

Such examples of anomaly and inconsistency within the same book are not uncommon in Negri’s writing. Another dimension of the vacillating character of his theory can be found in his writings from different periods of time (in the 1970s, he was flush with admiration for Lenin, the notion of base and superstructure, the dialectical method, and the vanguard party).

For decades, I have written about the shortcomings of Lenin, Soviet Marxism, and vanguards—but have done so from what I think of as a dialectical standpoint: from the perspective of the concrete negation of the existing system by millions of people in popular movements that contest power. The strikes of May 1968 in France and May 1970 in the US both consisted of the dialectical transcending of national allegiances through the enacted international solidarity of millions of people. Simultaneously people negated hierarchical authority through the lived experiences of self-management. In Italy in the 1970s and Central Europe in the 1980s, vibrant movements challenged patterns of authority in everyday life, seeking to overturn patriarchy and organizing spontaneously into squatted houses, insurrectionary groups, and communes, through an “eros effect” of mutually amplified uprisings.

Negri and Hardt’s history of these periods contains little or no empirical data, and they ignore such transcendental dynamics. They do not include feminist autonomy in their schema even though it was an early source of inspiration for the broader movements.5 Now they tell us not only that the dialectic is dead but also that Marx’s method was materialist and not dialectical. Insisting that Marxism is one stream in the current of revolutionary thinking, a proposition with which I am in full agreement, they postulate an undialectical Marxism (an oxymoron in my view) for the postmodern world.From the Fetishization of Production to the Production of FetishNegri developed the term “social factory” to include as “producers” women in the home and students in schools and a vast number of other people. For Negri, the “collective work experience” is more than primary; it is the only real activity of humans. He organizes his own theoretical schema according to his notion of production, and every arena of interaction is understood through that prism: “Production and society have become one and the same thing.”6 In contemporary societies, he understands an extension of the principles of production: “Work and life are no longer separate.” Negri’s mentor Althusser saw theory as a form of production; Deleuze and Guattari portray the unconscious as the producer of desire;7 and now Negri tells us that revolution is a production led by “machines of struggle.”8 Metaphors for revolutionary organizations have had interesting formulations: organs of dual power, vehicles for the propulsion of revolutionary consciousness, a transmission belt of revolutionary ideas to the working class, and now Negri’s “machines of struggle,” or better, his new formulation, “cyborg“:



The cyborg is now the only model available for theorizing subjectivity. Bodies without organs, humans without qualities, cyborgs: these are the subjective figures today capable of communism.9

His choice of words reveals a fetishization of the labor process also present in his idea that human beings can so easily be emptied by the social economy of qualities that differentiate us from machines. Negri can only think in terms of this one dimension, so even his political strategy is transformed into a type of production:

Instead of new political alliances, we could say just as well: new productive cooperation. One always returns to the same point, that of production—production of useful goods, production of communication and of social solidarity, production of aesthetic universes, production of freedom.

His attempt to analyze all reality from within the category of production is part of his systematic reduction of life to work, of the life-world to the system, of eros to production. This is precisely the reduction of human beings that is made by the existing system. It quite escapes him that if revolutionary movements in the future were to adopt his categories, they would be rendered incapable of going beyond the established system. In essence, Negri makes the whole world into a point of production. In a society overwhelmed with the fetishization of commodities, is it surprising that production, the central activity of capitalism, is itself fetishized?

Without a reworking of the psyche and reinvigoration of the spirit, can there even be talk of revolution? On the one side, the system colonizes eros, turning love into sex, and sex into pornography. Labor becomes production, production a job; free time has been turned into leisure, leisure into vacation; desire has been morphed into consumerism, fantasy into mediated spectacle. Autonomous movements respond by rescuing eros from its commodification, expanding its space, moving beyond patriarchal relationships, beyond conceptions of love solely as physical love. The politics of eros infuse everyday life with a content that subverts its would-be colonizers and preserves it as a reservoir of the life-force. In contrast to Negri’s cyborgs, my view of the role of movement participation is to preserve and expand the domain of the heart—of all that is uniquely human, all that stands opposed to machine culture.

At a time when working people want to escape the engulfment of their lives by the system, Negri’s ideas of revolution do little more than assert the omnipresent character of the system of production. His postulation of production as the central category from which to understand life reproduces the very ethos he claims to oppose. Soviet Marxism’s reduction of Marxism from a revolutionary philosophy to the science of the Party led to the labor metaphysic and the enshrining of production as the essential defining activity of the proletariat. Labor is just one of several species-constitutive activities (art, revolution and communication being others). If unchallenged, the fetishization of one dimension will lead to a practical inability to sustain a multifaceted movement. Negri and Hardt insist:

The world is labor. When Marx posed labor as the substance of human history, then he erred perhaps not by going too far, but rather by not going far enough.10Here their substitution of labor for revolution is significant. For Marx, class struggle was the motor force of history. For Negri and Hardt, “class-for-itself” is an irrelevant concept since the dialectic is dead.


The Centrality of Patriarchy

Negri’s fetishization of production reifies Marx’s notion of the working class as the transcendent subject-object of history. In the 1970s, workerism was an obstacle to the autonomous movement’s unity and progress. Negri’s interpretations of the struggles of 1968 and 1977 portray them solely as a workers’ movement, ignoring women’s struggles and the counterculture as other sources of autonomous politics. Although he has today disavowed his workerist politics of the 1970s, he still understands the vital post-Fordist forces of militant opposition solely as “workers.” If the cultural dimensions of this movement had been comprehended as potentially revolutionary in their own right, it might have been possible to root strategic energies in these counterinstitutional and autonomous formations.

In the late 1960s, Italian and German feminists were compelled by the self-righteous workerism of their male “comrades” to assert their autonomy from the Left. Following the lead of African-American activists, US feminists were the first to break with patriarchal dynamics within the movement, and their leading role is recognized in both Italy and Germany. The significance of feminism and, in the US, anti-racist praxis to the subsequent workers’ and youth movements is noteworthy and cannot possibly be ignored unless one’s categories of analysis obstruct one’s vision.11 Feminists spoke in the “I” mode, not on behalf of others (the “workers” or the “people”), and their ability to return continually to the reality of their own needs became an essential feature of autonomous movements. Feminism was exemplary, particularly in Italy, where, even before the consolidation of Autonomia, women articulated their need for autonomy.12Neo-Leninist Rectitude 

One of the needs of revolutionary theory today is to understand the centrality of patriarchy. By failing to incorporate an analysis of patriarchy that treats its forms of domination as significant alongside capitalist exploitation (and not reduced to the latter), Negri obviates the urgency of women’s liberation. Just as capital has various phases (primitive, industrial, post-Fordist), so patriarchy has its own history, which only recently fused with that of capital. Patriarchy has at least two different forms in history. Originally, the man owned his wife and children and was entitled to trade them or sell them. As Hegel reminded us, fathers in Rome had the right even to kill their children. In the second form, the wife and children are not legally owned but they reproduce the legal structure of domination within their own character structures.13

Workerism is a partial understanding of the universe of freedom. By positing revolution only in terms of categories of production, Negri constricts human beings and liberation within the process of production. His mechanical subsumption of all forms of oppression to the category of work negates the need to abolish patriarchy, racism and the domination of nature alongside capitalism. His politics are thus a suppression of universal liberation.

Negri’s fetishization of production is the theoretical equivalent of Soviet suppression of women’s issues as dividing the working class or as, at best, a “secondary contradiction.” His one-dimensionality magically obliterates issues of sexism within the ranks of the working class. At first glance, his notion of the “social factory” seems well taken: women, students and other constituencies have had their everyday lives penetrated by the commodity form and mechanization. As he recognized in 1990, he was long overdue in understanding them as a central part of the transformative project. But he understands feminism as having demonstrated the centrality of the issue of wages, not of questioning patriarchy. Patriarchy and race need to be understood in their own right, as autonomously existing, not simply as moments of capital. Negri’s abstract categories impose a false universality.

He collapses all categories of crisis into a single concept of exploitation, just as he understands all of society through the prism of production. But his facile incorporation of all life into that category is problematic. He subsumes the patriarchal domination of women into the phenomenological form of capital. Patriarchal oppression cannot be made equivalent to class exploitation, no matter how much the concept of the social factory is invoked. What occurs between men and women under the name of patriarchy is not the same as what happens between bosses/owners and workers. Women’s liberation from housework will not occur through the path of “wages for housework” but through the abolition of housework as women’s domain. This will require the creation of communal households as associations of cooperating equals who share necessary tasks, eroticize them, turn them into play.14


Exacerbating the above problems is many people’s elevation of Negri to an infallible status15 and Hardt and Negri’s own assertion of the absolute truth of their theories. Unable to make more than shallow theoretical responses to dialectical thought (particularly Marcuse and New Left thinking), Negri invokes his own rectitude in place of substantive discussion and debate. When referring to Marcuse, for example, Negri scoffs at “humanism” and calls for the “the exclusion of this insipid blubbering from theory.”16In this formulation of the “real enjoyment of power” we see the real Negri. In the same breath, he dismisses joyful participation in revolutionary struggle as opportunism. No doubt his fascination with power is one reason for his more recent uncritical incorporation of Machiavelli into “communist” theory.
In the 20th century, the New Left’s impetus to self-management and group autonomy represented the consolidation of the historical experience of autonomous social movements. Beginning with the spontaneous creation of soviets in 1905, the council communists and revolutions of 1917, and the Spanish revolution, the industrial working class expressed its autonomy in general strikes and insurrections. Later the nascent new working class contested control of entire cities (including factories) in 1968 and 1989, and through uprisings as in Gwangju [South Korea] in 1980, in which people’s movements autonomously reformulated the meaning of freedom. The capacity of millions of ordinary people to govern themselves with far more intelligence and justice than entrenched elites is evident in all these cases. For example, during the massive strike of May 1970 in the US, the largest single strike in American history to date,23 an assault was mounted both from within and outside the system that spontaneously generated what a high ranking US government official saw as constituting a potential “shadow government.”24 Modeled on SDS, Federal Employees for a Democratic Society appeared in Washington D.C., not created by any revolutionary control center, but by the movement’s spontaneity and what I call the “eros effect.”25Strategic Concerns

Negri’s system is not one in which a diversity of views is welcomed. Far from it, he continually insists on enunciating positions as though his correctness were a given, and many Negri supporters refuse to consider alternative perspectives. They have little use for a whole range of movement tactics, arrogantly asserting, “Nonviolent actions are thus almost completely useless when deprived of media exposure.”17 My own distance from such ways of thinking is great, since to me, they represent forces of the dogmatic Left that took over popular organizations like SDS in both Germany and the US, leading them to irrelevance and dissolution at the end of the 1960s.

In fairness to Negri, his workerist politics resolutely opposed the reformism of the Italian Communist Party in the 1970s. By 1989, while retaining his critique of reformism, he and Felix Guattari wrote that “It is clear that the discourses on workers’ centrality and hegemony are thoroughly defunct and that they cannot serve as a basis for the organization of new political and productive alliances, or even simply as a point of reference.”18 In a self-critical section of a postscript to this same text dated 1989, Negri acknowledged his failure to understand the “participation of the Soviet Union in integrated world capitalism.” He employs the concept of Gesamtkapital (capital as a whole) that Herbert Marcuse analyzed as subordinating the particular enterprises in all sectors of the economy to corporate globalization.19 Moving away from his former workerist politics, he also came to consider intellectual work to be at the “center of production.” Together with Felix Guattari, he thinks he “ought to have noted more clearly the central importance of the struggles within the schools, throughout the educational system, in the meanders of social mobility, in the places where the labor force is formed; and we ought to have developed a wider analysis of the processes of organization and revolt which were just beginning to surface in those areas.”20

In reviewing recent history, particularly the struggles of 1989, Negri concludes that it was not mainly the working class or the bureaucracy who revolted, but intellectuals, students, scientists, and workers linked to advanced technology. “Those who rebelled, in brief, were the new kinds of producers. A social producer, manager of his own means of production and capable of supplying both work and intellectual planning, both innovative activity and a cooperative socialization.”21 While he doesn’t say so in so many words, he essentially adopts the New Left idea of the “new working class” formulated by Serge Mallet and articulated more fully by André Gorz and Herbert Marcuse.
While Negri insists he has gone beyond Leninism, written a “black mark through the Third International,” he retains its syntax and grammar. His “politics of subversion” are still a politics that ends up worshiping power, not seeking to dissolve it:
After centuries of capitalist exploitation, it [the working class] is not prepared to sell itself for a bowl of lentils, or for hare-brained notions that it should free itself within the domination of capital. The enjoyment that the class seeks is the real enjoyment of power, not the gratification of an illusion.22


Rather than deal with any substantive histories of these movements, Negri locates his analysis in the categories he imposes. Looking back at 1968, his history becomes a history of “workers movements.” Indeed, he postulates the initial emergence of the “socialized worker” in 1968.26 Much like the various M-L groups that sought to appropriate popular New Left organizations like SDS into their parties, Negri seeks to appropriate the history of these popular upsurges into his theoretical schema. While postmodernists insist on the unique particularity of social action and insist there is no universal, Negri’s false universality destroys the particular history of the 1960s. Although workers participated in these struggles, they followed the lead of students. The revolt’s epicenter was in the universities, not the factories. While these struggles were not proletarian in appearance, their universality resided in the concrete demands that spontaneously emerged, in the New Left’s notion of self-management and international solidarity — the twin aspirations of popular movements of millions of people throughout the world in 1968.

Immediately after the events of May 1968 in France, Marcuse was one of the few theorists who recognized the newness of the subject and was able to connect it with a dialectical theory of history:

The location (or rather contraction) of the opposition in certain middle-class strata and in the ghetto population is caused by the internal development of the society. The displacement of the negating forces from their traditional base among the underlying population, rather than being a sign of the weakness of the opposition against the integrating power of advanced capitalism, may well be the slow formation of a new base, bringing to the fore the new historical Subject of change, responding to new objective conditions, with qualitatively different needs and aspirations.27


In 1985 and again in 1990, Negri defined the five tasks awaiting movements of the future:

— the concrete redefinition of the work force
— taking control over and liberating the time of the work day
— a permanent struggle against the repressive functions of the State
— constructing peace
— organizing machines of struggle capable of assuming these tasks.28

Where are concerns such as:

— developing interracial bonds capable of withstanding government manipulation
— creating post-patriarchal human beings with the capacity to live and love (and work) non-hierarchically
— protecting the environment
— building counter-institutions and liberating public space
— establishing communes to transform everyday life.

One reason these are insignificant to Negri is that he postulates the revolutionary as a cyborg. He has no notion of changing human beings or of cultural revolution; instead he appropriates “the social” into a schematic productionist model. For Negri, “There exists no consciousness apart from militancy and organization.”29

The system’s assault on autonomous time and space of the life-world intensifies. Negri’s fetishization of production renders him incapable of comprehending the significance of youth as non-production strata so vitally important to our future. As young people are drawn into violence and death drugs, Negri calmly remarks:

Let us be clear: violence is the normal state of relations between men; it is also the key to progress in the forces of production.30

How could Negri publish such a statement? In the first place, his use of the term “men” excludes women. Moreover he defames nature. Abundant anthropological evidence of cooperation and group life exists. Here is the crucial point: Bourgeois thought takes the categories of the present and projects them as valid for all time, a feat accomplished above by Negri, since it is primarily capitalist production and struggles for scarcity that pit humans against each other today.
The subversion of politics — the complete uprooting of authoritarianism in our everyday lives — begins by changing our assumptions and includes a restructuring of ideological categories that prefigure our praxis. Reducing humans’ capacity for life to categories of production effectively empties freedom of its sensuous content. If freedom is to mean anything, it begins with the subordination of production to human needs, not the subsumption of life under production.

1. Rosa Luxemburg noted that by adding the “third person” (those at the periphery of the world system) as well as the continual incorporation of domains of life outside the system of commodity production, Marx’s model could be completed.

2. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Labor of Dionysus: A Critique of the State-Form (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), p. 20.

3. Labor of Dionysus, p. 286. Further discussion of their rejection of dialectical thinking is readily available. See esp. pp. 217, 267-9, 284-6.

4. Labor of Dionysus, pp. 10-11.

5. See my Subversion of Politics: European Autonomous Movements and the Decolonization of Everyday Life (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1997; new edition forthcoming, AK Press, 2006), Chapter 2.

6. Felix Guattari and Toni Negri, Communists Like Us (New York: Semiotext, 1990), pp. 22, 119.

7. Mark Poster makes this point in his introduction to Jean Baudrillard’s The Mirror of Production (St. Louis: Telos Press, 1975) p. 3.

8. Communists Like Us, pp. 111, 120.
9. Labor of Dionysus, p. 13. In fairness, they are not alone in their advocating of the cheerful cyborg. See Donna J. Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991).

10. Labor of Dionysus, p. 11.

11. Michael Ryan’s introduction to Negri’s Marx Beyond Marx completely ignores feminism’s influence on Italian Autonomia. He does not even understand the meaning of autonomy to include the autonomous women’s movement.

12. “DEMAU (Demystifying Authority) Manifesto,” in Italian Feminist Thought: A Reader edited by Paola Bono and Sandra Kemp (London: Basil Blackwell, 1991) pp. 34-5.

13. Hegel, Philosophy of Right (Oxford University Press, 1952) p. 266. Max Horkheimer, Critical Theory (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972) pp. 105-6.

14. André Gorz, Farewell to the Working Class (Boston: South End Press, 1982), p.6.

15. Harry Cleaver, for example, asserted: “If Marx did not mean what Negri says he did, so much the worse for Marx.” Following Negri’s disdain for Marcuse, Cleaver uses a military analogy to stifle the thinking of the Frankfurt School: If Patton had read that book of his declared opponent [Rommel] the way Critical Theorists read bourgeois authors, he would still have been sitting in his quarters writing ‘critiques’ of this point or that when Rommel rolled over him with his army.” Cleaver, Reading Capital Politically (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979) p. 42. Cleaver’s reliance on the military analogy is a projection of his masculine identity onto the “working class” and perverts the revolutionary project, making it into a simple question of brute force. Precisely such reduction of the working class to brutes is part of the reason why autonomous workers’ movements appeared: Normal working-class people refused to tolerate their being treated as foot soldiers by self-appointed Leftist generals.

16. Negri, Marx Beyond Marx: Lessons on the Grundrisse (New York: Autonomedia, 1991) p. 154.

17. Labor of Dionysus, p. 291.

18. Communists Like Us, pp. 122-3.

19. Herbert Marcuse, Counterrevolution and Revolt (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972) p. 9.

20. Communists Like Us, pp. 153-4. He is referring to a text he published together with Felix Guattari in 1985. Long before that time, the Autonomen had consolidated themselves throughout central Europe (Holland, Switzerland and Germany). The autonomous women’s movement had also created counterinstitutions and campaigns against criminalization of abortion. Negri’s silence about these movements is predicated upon his failure to yet internalize an understanding of the importance of non-factory based movements.

21. Communists Like Us, p. 172.

22. Negri, Revolution Retrieved (London: Red Notes, 1988) p. 138.

23. Although this was not a workers’ strike in which wages were at stake, students risked loss of grades, careers, graduation and personal safety. In 16 states, the National Guard was called out to put down protesting students, and besides the four killed at Kent State and two at Jackson State, dozens more were wounded by gunfire from the forces of order.

24. Joseph A. Califano, Jr., The Student Revolution: A Global Confrontation (New York: W.W. Norton, 1970), p. 88.

25. To name just one area needing attention in our collective reevaluation of revolutionary thinking after the fall of the Soviet Union: the role of spontaneity should be reopened with a fresh sense of its importance. With their Leninist critique of spontaneity, Soviet Communists continually sought to impose correct ideas on popular movements. Whether in Russia, China or anywhere, their theories were assumed to be universally applicable. Seeking to impose on the “masses” their own particular version of the truth, they mobilized some of the fiercest programs of death of the twentieth century.

26. See Negri, The Politics of Subversion (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1989), p. 141, and Communists Like Us, p. 68.

27. Herbert Marcuse, Essay on Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969) p. 52.

28.Communists Like Us, pp. 146-7.

29. The Politics of Subversion, p. 148

30. Negri, Revolution Retrieved, p. 131.

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