Magazine article Artforum International

A Revolutionary Process Never Ends: Sylvere Lotringer Talks with Antonio Negri

Magazine article Artforum International

A Revolutionary Process Never Ends: Sylvere Lotringer Talks with Antonio Negri

Article excerpt

SYLVERE LOTRINGER: In the years that preceded May 1968, the Situationists had an uprising in mind, but it had happened one century before. It was the Paris Commune of 1871, in which Marx saw the dawn of communism. The historical situations, of course, were widely different. The Paris Commune surged in reaction to the Prussian invasion and the betrayal of the Versailles government, which surrendered France to the enemy. The Versaillais surrounded the capital and starved the Communards to death, eventually gunning down those who survived. But it wasn't this grim story that Henri Lefebvre heatedly debated with Guy Debord in the dead of night. They were trying to bring out the festive energy that had driven the Paris Commune and outlasted its fate. "Proletarian revolutions will be festivals or nothing," they proclaimed. (1) The Parisian May was a festival. Whether crowding the Theatre de l'Odeon or erecting barricades all over the Latin Quarter, the insurgents experienced anew the fever and euphoria of revolution. Unlike the Paris Commune, however, the '68 revolt wasn't brutally crushed. It dissipated as miraculously as it had started, and it is still impossible to figure out for sure whether it was the last poetic revolution of the nineteenth century or "the beginning of an era," as Debord maintained in a report he wrote in 1969, just a few months after the events:

  The largest general strike that ever stopped the economy of an
  advanced industrial country, and the first wildcat general strike in
  history; revolutionary occupations and the beginnings of direct
  democracy; the increasingly complete collapse of state power for
  nearly two weeks; the resounding verification of the revolutionary
  theory of our time and even here and there the first steps toward
  putting it into practice; the most important experience of the modern
  proletarian movement that is in the process of constituting itself in
  its fully developed form in all countries, and the example it must now
  go beyond--this is what the French May 1968 movement was essentially,
  and this in itself already constitutes its essential victory. (2)

Today, nearly twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the sudden collapse of "real socialism," as the Soviet regime used to be called, you're arguing that "communism" once again has become a festive idea. The concept of multitude that you have elaborated with Michael Hardt, Paolo Virno, and others was a first step in this direction. Is there anything in the events of May '68, as Debord summarized them, that could illuminate this aspect of the "common" inaugurated by the Commune?

ANTONIO NEGRI: Debord's text is extremely interesting, but it also finds its limits in the immediate exaltation that was the French May, the Parisian May. The events of May '68 certainly were a sign anticipating the crisis of the socialist bureaucratic system. They allowed for the possibility of overcoming "real socialism," of recovering freedom.

SL: What did you make of those events?

AN: My own relationship to May '68 is, in fact, rather complicated. The Parisian revolutionary process was concentrated into a mere two, three weeks, maybe two months at most, and it completely disrupted power in France. In Italy, that process lasted ten years, and we were able to experience it through all its phases and in all its movements: from the factories, where it originated, to universities, schools, the powerful feminist movement, and daily life.

SL: Could May '68 have happened again in 1977 in Italy, when it seemed ready to sweep away the entire country? (3)

AN: Who knows? From there, the sky was the limit.

SL: And you didn't want it.

AN: No, we didn't. The Autonomia movement was different from the French May, which was still about toppling the State. Our problem was how to push toward an extreme modernization. That's when the new history started. …

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