Negri, democracy and the legacy of Stalinism

Submitted by Anon on 22 January, 2004 - 4:11

By Alan Johnson

Hardt and Negri's best-selling book, Empire (and Negri's Insurgencies) are systematically hostile to democratic politics and to democratic authority, both in the capitalist present and the post-Empire future. They are typical of a far left that, though not Stalinist, still lacks a certain structure of feeling and response concerning liberty and democracy that the Stalinist experience should have given it.
After Stalinism we should know that attempted transitions beyond capitalism can produce non-democratic non-capitalisms - reactionary anti-capitalisms - that are worse than the capitalist democracies they replace. We should know that these tragic outcomes are not reducible to economic backwardness or war but involve political and theoretical failures about the relation of democracy and liberty to any process of self-emancipation. When I speak of "tragic outcomes" I do not refer only to the brute fact of defeat also to its manner, to the literally crazed frenzy of the violence and the torture, to the Gulags, the cultural collapse, the politically created "famines", the sheer barbarism.

After Stalinism we should know (but often do not) that talk of "real" democracy or "higher" democracy or "absolute democracy" that lacks the institutional forms and procedures of a democratic republic (universal suffrage, freedom of speech and organisation, wide civic freedoms, a constitution, the rule of law, an independent judiciary, a plurality of parties, guaranteed minority rights) is worse than a cruel joke. Stalinism was, to use the jargon of Hardt and Negri, our very own "constituted power", the congealed form of elite power we produced out of our own hopes and dreams and our failures, and which made impossible the "constituent power" of "the multitude" (or what we would call the self-emancipation).

Nor should we react against the very idea that "we" could have had anything to do with Stalinism. We do.

Anyway, we should know that we might produce it again. The danger will never go away. It will always be there. That is the lesson of Stalinism. Collectivism without Democracy Equals Totalitarianism. We should be more scarred by it than we are. They would be useful scars to have.

Absolute Democracy: huh?

Hardt and Negri stand for "absolute democracy". This they define, in a typically obscure way, as "an organisation of production and political power as a biopolitical unit managed by the multitude, organised by the multitude, directed by the multitude". Isn't that democratic enough? I remain uneasy.

If we had a sensibility properly shaped by the Stalinist experience, then immediately we would object to the agglomeration of every human being (or are some human beings excluded from the managing, organising and directing?) into one blob - "the multitude" (a term they insist on differentiating from "the people" by the way). Moreover, calling "production" and "politics" a single "unit" should also worry us. And alarm bells should start ringing at the idea that this "unit" is not a realm of political debate and contest but is rather something to be "managed", "organised" and "directed". We might start to ask just democratic this "absolute democracy" really is. We might begin by asking looking into Negri's anti-democratic past.

Negri versus Democracy

Negri debated the question of democracy with the liberal socialist Noberto Bobbio in the 1970s. Rejecting Bobbio's idea that socialism could only emerge as an extension of existing democratic forms, Negri went on to dismiss democracy as "a played-out term with a purely obscurantist function", a "left-over from an earlier historical phase". The political system, he said, is nothing but "the guise assumed... by capitalism as an economic system". Democracy is "quite simply the external form adopted by the capitalist negation of the working class as a political force". For Negri the democratic institutions of capitalism are nothing but the functional reflection of the needs of capital.

Ignoring most of the history of the creation of most democratic institutions - think only of the Levellers of 1640s, the Chartists of the 1840s, the Suffragettes of the 1910s or the great popular 18th century democratic revolutions - Negri argues that the working class has a relation of absolute externality to the institutions of democracy. In fact, wrote Negri, long before the Stalinist states imploded: "The question of whether people are now more free in the west or in the eastern bloc is as empty as the one that a slave puts to his shadow."

You have to read that sentence three or four times to establish just how awful it is. Negri argued the gulags of the east were essentially no different to the "gulags" of the advanced capitalist democracies. In fact he thought that what was emerging in the west was "a gulag of a different sort". He thought the differences so marginal that he could say "So what if Pravda is more or less free than Il Corriere or La Stampa?". To attend to these marginal differences was to "lose our revolutionary impetus".

I think these are some of the most despicable lines in recent socialist literature. They echo Sartre's shameful refusal to acknowledge the Stalinist labour camps lest the French proletariat be demoralised (can you hear that hollow laughter of the imprisoned socialists?) When Negri wrote those lines, anyone who wanted to know the facts knew that the gulag was alive. The use of psychiatric hospitals to repress political dissidents had been well documented. The hunger strikes of the heroic prisoners of Perm-35 in 1974 and Perm-35 in 1977 were happening as Negri pooh-poohed the idea of that the west was freer than the east.

Negri counterposed to "representative democracy" the idea of the "dictatorship of the proletariat". But to counterpose these two is, as Hal Draper has shown, to fundamentally misunderstand what Marx meant by that sorry term. Marx and Engels were for the democratic republic, plain and simple.

Having already dismissed representative democracy, Negri then dismissed direct democracy:

"'Direct democracy' is a term that, among its ambiguous connotations, contains an individualistic component, something utterly foreign to the mature logic of a communist movement (...) . Thus while others play with words discussing the choice between democracy without socialism or socialism without democracy, we talk simply of communism, meaning by this a mature class structure which, according to Marx's predictions, synthesises the need for communism with the conditions brought about by technological progress, the shift away from manual labour and the breakdown of the law of surplus value (...) We have even less sympathy for the great synthesis of Monsieur le capital, 'Liberty, Equality, Fraternity'."

We should shudder at these words of Negri's on instinct, just like we pull our hand away from fire. If we knew the name of Kolyma as well as we know the name of Auschwitz we would. However, many found them quite attractive. Daring. Radical sounding. Definitive. No "ambiguity" there. No "playing with words". Only tough talk of "utterly" this and "simply" that. And all guaranteed by "[St] Marx's predictions". As for "Monsieur le Capital" and his talk of liberty and equality and fraternity, well, we communists can see through all that nonsense, can't we?

This is exactly what I mean by the lack of a tragic sensibility. For we should know, in our bones, that this bumptious talk of crushing of "individualism" beneath the "mature logic of communism" always ends with real individuals being crushed by something more material than mature logic. And today Negri invites us to feel the "irrepressible joy and lightness" at being a "communist". There is something awry about a grown man writing those lines after that century.

The communists, according to Anne Applebee's great study The Gulag, created 28.7 million forced labourers and killed at least (this is the very conservative estimate) 2,749,163 in the camps of the Gulag and in the exile villages between 1929 and 1953 alone. After Kalama we do not need "joy at being a communist". We need a sober, disillusioned, dis-enchanted, and vigilant socialism brave enough to build the fact of the gulag, and the fact of the tragic, into its sensibility and its politics. To invert a phrase of Freud, we are going to have to learn to make do with normal happiness and give up hysterical joy. We really have no right to speak or act like children anymore.

Not Really Anti-Stalinists

Actually, it is not clear that Hardt and Negri are "anti-Stalinists" in any meaningful sense. Yes, Negri opposed the reformism of the PCI (though in the name of no coherent alternative). But what about the Stalinist societies? In 1994 they wrote the sentence "'Real Socialism' - that is, the socialism that existed in the Soviet Union and the other countries of Eastern Europe - did not constitute a form of government substantially different from the form invented by capitalism in the course of its development.". The gulag was not really very different to the traumas caused by primitive accumulation of capital in many other countries. And real socialism, don't you know, was extremely progressive economically, ("a real terrific success... one that capitalist economists and politicians must admire"). This is all so much bloody rubbish, of course.

Hardt and Negri are hostile to any use of the term "totalitarian" to describe the Stalinist societies. This is "cold war propaganda". The Stalinist societies, or the "socialist societies" as they would have it, were "criss-crossed by extremely strong instances of creativity and freedom, just as strong as the rhythms of economic development and cultural modernisation". But they are quite at ease in using the term "totalitarian" to describe the capitalist democracies of the west. And of course they remain ignorant of the fact that it was the anti-Stalinist left that invented the term "totalitarian".

Hey presto! Democracy without democracy is absolute democracy

Hardt has said, in interview, that "absolute democracy is incompatible with sovereignty". He means absolute democracy is incompatible with authority, including, presumably, democratic authority. This is another fantasy of a "post-political" society and should be rejected as such. Any society - especially post-capitalist societies - will need democratic authority and the institutions, laws, practices, norms and roles that go with it.

What kind of political set up does Negri stand for? In his book Insurgencies Negri counterposes what he calls "constituent power" to each and every feature of a democratic polity. He counterposes his "absolute democracy" to representation ("one of the fundamental juridical-constutionalist instruments for controlling and segmenting constituent power"), to institutions ("when strength is institutionalised, it is necessarily negated"), to constitutions, to law, to checks and balances, and, even, to "the rules and relative extension of suffrage". He argues that "closing constituent power within representation [is] nothing but the negation of the reality of constituent power".

So what exactly is this "constituent power", you ask? Well, forgive the sentences that follow. Negri defines it as "a force that bursts apart, breaks, interrupts, unhinges any pre-existing equilibrium... a violent and expansive force", "an absolute will determining its own temporality", "an absolute process - all-powerful and expansive, unlimited and unfinalised". Law will be suspended in a positive act and a "continuous relationship" is established "between constituent power and revolution".

In fact, says Negri, we can say that "where there is constituent power there is also revolution". It is "the ceaseless breathing of praxis" and "the passion of the multitude, a passion that organises force by soliciting its social expression". The political form of constituent power "has neither principle nor foundation outside the strength of the multitude". This is a "real democracy" defined by "right and appropriation, equal distribution of wealth, and equal participation in production". In it "structure and subject, strength and the multitude become identical" a "totality without closure, a constituent power without limitations". Democracy is "the omnilateral expression of the multitude... the opposite of constitutionalism".

OK, enough. All this is what the analytical Marxists call "Bullshit Marxism". As Gerry Cohen says, it sounds impressive when you read it quickly. The trick is to read it more slowly. To compare this sort of utter rubbish to the discussion among the giants of pre-war international social democrats - Kautsky, Bernstein, Luxemburg. Trotsky, Adler, Martov, Bauer, Pannekoek, Lenin - is painful. It is to come face to face with the degeneration of an intellectual culture.

Negri, of course, misrepresents Marx utterly. Negri tells his readers that Marx thought that "political emancipation is nothing but the attempt to displace the meaning of the impulse to revolt, the juridical hypostasis of the social status quo". Read that last sentence again: that little "nothing but" is nothing but the philosophical rationale for the nihilistic "actions" of an anti-democratic left. Negri was and remains more a Maoist than a Marxist. And Maoism was a totalitarianism responsible for millions of deaths.

Socialism will not be post-political

In Empire Hardt and Negri replace the idea of res publica, a democratic polity, with the notion of "the posse" (I am not making this up, the book really is that bad). They prefer the term "posse" because the struggles of the multitude are, they say, "incapable of being corralled" by "any object (res)" (they mean struggle is uncontainable by any polity, and if the struggle is, like you know man, contained then it can't be a real struggle can it? Yes, this is 1960s vintage half-baked "Marxism" at its crudest).

When did the Marxist left stop thinking like Marxists and start thinking like anarchists? When did we start believing that politics and political institutions as a "corrall" in which the multitude is trapped, tamed, and castrated, like a wild horse? Res Publica - a democratic, open and plural polity - is also what Hannah Arendt called a "space of appearances", a means to enable the expression of the full scope of what she called our "virtuosity" - that playful, artistic, life-affirming human activity by which we know not only political freedom, but know and enjoy ourselves. And we can't have socialism without one. Yes, we leftists do know an important truth - the dull compulsion capital exerts must be removed before any polity can really be a free "space of appearances" - but our dispute with liberalism does not (or at least, says me, should not) concern liberty. Our dispute with liberalism concerns the relationship between liberty and capitalism.

And why does the left think "politics" is exhausted by the conflicts specific to class society? This is an impoverished view. Politics is a necessary part of human flourishing. It is an expression of, and a means to work through, what is intractable about the human condition. Politics is also "about" the transhistorical tensions that no form of social organisation will ever eradicate (between our selves and our condition - including the shadow of our inevitable death - our selves and our unconscious, our selves and our sociality, our selves and our natural environment). Throw in the fact that the kind of "abundance" upon which (some) Marxists used to ground the idea of a post-political society is not an option (it would exhaust the planet) and socialism cannot be a realm beyond politics. The belief that it could surely contributed (no more, but equally no less) to the enormities which the revolutions of the 20th century produced because it nurtured a silence about political forms, norms, procedures, and institutions, a silence into which other voices (always talking about "simply" this and "absolutely" that and "necessity" the other) stepped.

Sexing Up Fundamentalism

Today, perhaps more than ever before, there are tremendous political dangers in adopting a Manichean view of politics as an unmediated clash between "the multitude" and "imperial power". In Hardt and Negri's simplistic tale of two cities, you get, in the red corner, the immanent "earthly city of the multitude" (hurrah!) resisting, from the blue corner, the "transcendental City of God" (booh!). Again, this is so much bloody rubbish.

Where, for instance, would we place the crimes against humanity committed by the Jihadic fascists on September 11th 2001? Reading Empire one might draw some dubious conclusions, ones surely unintended by the authors. But after those atrocities should we not re-read those pages of Empire which looked forward with glee to the prospect that "A new nomad horde, a new race of barbarians, will arise to invade or evacuate Empire"? Hardt and Negri told us with enthusiasm that "The new barbarians destroy with an affirmative violence and trace new paths of life through their own material existence". Of this new barbarian they claimed, "What exists he reduces to rubble, not for the sake of the rubble, but for that of the way leading through it". We should see with more harshly critical eyes Hardt and Negri's judgement that "the contemporary resurgence of fundamentalism is...the refusal of the powers that are emerging in the new [postmodern] imperial order".

They claim that contemporary Islamic "radicalism" (a word they use interchangeably with "fundamentalism", hiding the fact that this so-called radicalism is utterly, in-its-bones, reactionary) is based on "ijtihad" or original thought, and that "original values and practices" are being discovered. This is to force Islamic fundamentalism into their own neat philosophical binary oppositions, hiding its political character in the process. And their understanding of "ijthad" is way off. The term only means "original thought" in the most limited sense. It means an original interpretation of some aspect of Islamic law or the Koran. Actually the worst of the jihadists are often anti-clerical, choosing their own interpretation over those of the ulema/mullahs with more learned credentials. Ijtihad hardly means, you know, let's question the Koran and study Foucault instead.

Philosophising Pro-tyrantism

Does critique of abstract philosophy matter? Yes. Painting up reactionary fundamentalism as a "resistance" acts as a "philosophical" foundation for a pro-tyrant left. And we do now have a large and growing pro-tyrant left. Think back to the day Saddam Hussein was captured. Any decent human being, let alone left-winger, should have exulted at the capture of the Bahgdad Hitler. But over in Cairo, at the second, ahem, "Anti-Zionist and Anti-Imperialist Conference" the news broke during the final press conference. With what words of celebration did the assembled leftists greet the demise of the tyrant?

The report in the Al-Ahram Weekly tells us that "Galloway had taken the microphone. 'The prisoner is Saddam,' he said, 'he's been paraded on the TV screens and he's been virtually humiliated. His enemies are having a good laugh but it won't be the last laugh,' at which point applause filled the hall".

Sitting on the platform applauding Galloway, expressing identical sentiments, were Tony Benn, Ramsey Clarke, John Rees and Azzam Tamimi.

Tony Benn is the man who sat deferentially before the monster who invaded Iran and Kuwait, massacred the Kurds, and killed his opponents by stuffing their living bodies into people shredders, and politely asked for his help to see the road to peace ("I come for one reason only - to see whether in a talk we can explore, or you can help me to see, what the paths to peace may be"). But when confronted by the brave Iraqi opposition that Saddam had tormented, Benn's politeness failed him. He denounced them as "CIA stooges".

George Galloway is, of course, a full-blown supporter of Saddam Hussein and Tariq Aziz.

Ramsey Clarke is a defender of Radovan Karadzic and a member of the International Committee To Defend Slobodan Milosovic.

Loiuse Ellman, Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside, speaking in the House of Commons, has alleged that Dr Azzam Tamimi, a leader of the Muslim Association of Britain, is a Hamas advisor. She alleges that Tamimi said "they [the Israelis] have guns. We have the human bombs. We love death, they love life". She also alleges that at a conference in Vienna Tamimi said that following the destruction of Israel and the creation of an Islamic state, the Jews should "sail on the sea in ships back to where they came from or drown in it" (Jewish Chronicle, 26 December 2003). Tamimi disputes these claims.

Oh, and there was John Rees, Marxist, revolutionary socialist, leader of the British Socialist Workers Party and author of The Algebra of Revolution: Classical Marxism and the Dialectic (can one imagine any of the classical Marxists in such happy camaraderie with such company?)

This kind of incoherent negativism is capitalised and philosophically dressed up by Hardt and Negri as "Being Against". They urge this on a young and ill-educated movement as a political programme. But it is a recipe for political idiocy and worse for it translates as "my enemies enemy is my friend" or, "one no, many yeses". And where does that lead?

The late Joe Strummer sang, "If Adolf Hitler flew in today, they'd send a limousine anyway". If the organisers at Cairo had been told Saddam had escaped from Iraq and was at Cairo airport, what do you think they would have done?

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