From the Mass Worker to the Multitude: A Theoretical Contextualisation of Hardt and Negri's Empire

By Bowring, Finn | Capital & Class, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

From the Mass Worker to the Multitude: A Theoretical Contextualisation of Hardt and Negri's Empire


Bowring, Finn, Capital & Class


Italian Marxism and the New Left

The impact of Italian Marxism on Anglo-American thought has, since the English translation of the Prison Notebooks in 1971, been largely restricted to the study of Gramsci in the field of cultural studies. In Italy in the 1950S, the Prison Notebooks had already circulated widely amongst the intelligentsia of the Left. Coinciding with the political optimism engendered by the new democratic republic, Gramsci's theory of hegemony offered intellectual legitimacy to the decision of the major trade unions and working-class parties to accept the merits of parliamentary democracy, reject anarcho-syndicalism, and to treat the state as a potential mechanism for national solidarity and socialist reconstruction. This rapprochement was not permanent, however. Over a decade of unbroken political rule by the Christian Democrat Party, the preservation of repressive legislation, and the survival in office of many civil servants from the previous Fascist regime, undermined the political consensus. By the late 1960s, a non-Communist and extra-parliamentary Left had emerged in Italy which was sufficiently independent of party orthodoxy to advocate a militant re-reading of Marx. Its efforts in this regard were emboldened by the appearance of a number of previously unavailable texts by Marx--most notably, the 'Results of the immediate process of production', and the Grundrisse.

As the Italian New Left grew in size and influence, translations and interpretations of the work of theorists such as Raneiro Panzieri, Mario Tronti, Galvano Della Volpe, Guido Baldi, Sergio Bologna, Antonio Negri, Mariarosa Dalla Costa, and others, began to filter through to the English-speaking world. Their writings first appeared in Radical America and the short-lived us journal Zerowork (1975-77), and later in the journal of the Boston-based Midnight Notes Collective, Midnight Notes, the journal of the Edinburgh Conference of Socialist Economists, Common Sense (1987-99), and most recently in the web-magazine The Commoner. French readers also discovered their work in the journal, founded by Negri and Jean-Marie Vincent, Futur Anterieur (1990-97).

Today, the dedicated scholar of the Italian New Left, Harry Cleaver, maintains an extensive archive of its writings at the University of Texas at Austin, having consolidated them with a range of political literature defined as belonging to a tradition of 'autonomist Marxism' which stresses the 'self-activity of the working class'. (1) A parallel archive of material from the Italian revolutionary Left, much of it published or assembled by the Red Notes Collective and translated by Ed Emery, has also been lodged at the British Library of Political and Economic Science in London. (2)

With the recent publication of Steve Wright's (2002) detailed historical account of the origin and development of Italian 'workerism', Nick Dyer-Witheford's (1999) attempt to demonstrate the relevance of autonomist Marxism to post-Fordist, informational capitalism, and George Katsiaficas's (1997) study of radical European social movements, a wealth of literature now exists to facilitate a critical analysis of that tradition of autonomist Italian Marxism which led to Hardt and Negri's Empire (2001).

From formal to real subsumption

The text entitled 'Results of the immediate process of production' was originally planned by Marx to be 'Part Seven' of the first volume of Capital, but was discarded prior to its publication. (3) It was first published in Russian and German in 1933, but only became the subject of serious academic study in the 1960s, when it was published in French, Italian and other European languages, appearing as an Appendix to the English Penguin edition of Capital in 1976.

Much of what appears in this text reprises the contents of Part Four of Capital, which charts the historical transition from capitalist manufacture and simple cooperation to mechanisation and the emergence of large-scale industry. …

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