Toni Negri: Prisoner of Conscience

By Genosko, Gary | Canadian Dimension, November-December 1998 | Go to article overview

Toni Negri: Prisoner of Conscience


Genosko, Gary, Canadian Dimension


Canada Day, 1998, marks one year since Italian intellectual Toni Negri was re-imprisoned for a 13-year sentence in Rome's high-security Rebibbia prison upon his voluntary return from exile in France. Negri had lived in exile since 1983, teaching at Universite de Paris VIII and the College international de philosophie. Negri's story is not well known in Canada, even among progressive thinkers and activists. But the path of the case's recent history crosses our national holiday, in addition to making us wonder about the state of human rights in Italy, which is not something our Liberal politicians would think of broaching while exploring their roots on a recent so-called "trade mission" to Italy for members of parliament of Italian ancestry. Let the red in the maple leaf be a reminder of the tribulations of the extra-parliamentary Left in Italy, since the crises that shook the country in the late 1970s.

Negri's story begins on April 7, 1979 with his arrest. The professor of political science at the University of Padua was accused of "armed insurrection against the powers of the State" and held, along with 22 other Italian militants and intellectuals. Almost the entire faculty of the Institute of Political Science at Padua was arrested! Everyone arrested on that day had one thing in common: some measure of participation in the militant group Worker's Power (Potere Operaio), which had been defunct since 1973, but had splintered into the groups, magazines and free or pirate radio stations of the heterogeneous Autonomy (Autonomia) movement. Negri was a founder and theoretician of one of many versions of Worker's Power that existed between 1969-1973. His long association with militant organizations and publications reaches back to 1961, and follows a circuitous route as groups splinter and numerous small publications are launched, mutate and collapse. Media simplifications led to references to Negri as a "leader" of the Autonomy movement, even though it was radically anti-vertical, multilateral and not at all a party with a programme, instead advocating a refusal of labour, workers' self-valorization, and an antagonistic separation from centralized ideology in the proliferation of margins of its own making. During the late 1970s, Negri

was involved in a diverse number of projects, both academic and activist.

It was claimed that Negri was the founder and "secret leader" of the strategic command of the Red Brigades, the group responsible for the kidnapping and assassination of Christian Democrat leader Aldo Moro in the spring of 1978. Indeed, Negri was presented as the hard-line leader, in contrast to the "soft line" of another "mysterious head," Red Brigade member Mario Moretti. The state was not interested in the history and filiation of militant worker's groups, and quickly erased the substantive differences between the disbanded groups and those active organizations that fed into the Red Brigades and were explicitly engaged in an armed war against the state. Although it was falsely claimed that the former members of Worker's Power constituted a subversive, conspiratorial group, Negri had neither seen nor spoken to many of his former colleagues for years. In fact, in its time, Worker's Power had been investigated on the grounds of being a "subversive organization," but was cleared of the charge.

Negri was arrested and charged primarily for his political ideas and writings, all of which were public. This is Italy's fascist inheritance: the putative anti-terrorist Reale Law of 1975 allows anyone to be held under "preventive detention" for up to four years (extandable for up to 12 years) before they are brought to trial, and can even be shot without legal consequences if public order is threatened. In Italy, the suspicion of a crime can land you in jail. In the mid-seventies many anti-fascist, labour and militant organizers were shot and killed by the Italian police. …

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