A WORLD TO WIN    #32   (2006)

On Empire: Revolutionary Communism or “Communism” without Revolution?

By Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri
Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2000,

By Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri
Penguin Press, New York, 2004

Debating Empire
Edited by Gopal Balakrishnan
Verso, London, 2003

Rarely has the basic thesis of a book been so quickly and profoundly refuted by the developments of life itself as has been the case with Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s book Empire. After all, Negri and Hardt paint a description of a world in which imperialism has been surpassed by a new global system, which they refer to as “Empire”. But no sooner had Negri and Hardt baptised this new “imperial” order when the common features of imperialism, and US imperialism in particular, reasserted themselves so insistently and so brutally. War on terrorism, war on Iraq, war on the world, not from a stateless “imperial” entity but very much in the interests of, and under the direction of, US imperialism. After the Iraq war exploded so many of Empire’s premises, Negri and Hardt published a sequel, Multitude, which attempted to address some questions of the post-11 September world, but without really re-examining their central theses.

Why then the attraction of these books?1 Negri and Hardt claim to have discovered a fundamental transformation in society, and they draw on a wide range of examples of different aspects of social life and human society to make their case. This new stage, which they call “Empire”, is, they say, a society in transition away from the imperialist system. In particular, the authors examine the different aspects of what has come to be called “globalisation”, which they consider evidence of how the world is advancing to communism – toward the disappearance of nation-states, when humanity will be self-organising and self-administrating.

The authors give voice to the feelings of millions that conditions exist for humanity to go forward to somewhere different, where society need not be organised on the capitalist principles of greed and piracy. This is captured in the conclusion to Multitude: “We can already recognise that today time is split between a present that is already dead and a future that is already living – and the yawning abyss between them is becoming enormous.” The possibility of organising human society on a wholly different basis reasserts itself constantly, and this possibility is expressed not only in political aspirations and struggles but also in every sphere of social life (art and culture, methods of scientific inquiry, philosophy, and so forth). The striving for communism is real, although it can be more or less conscious. Lenin referred to this as communism springing from a thousand pores. It is no wonder that, because Negri and Hardt try to give expression to this tendency, their work will find a certain echo.

The problem with this picture is that society cannot just spontaneously transform from the class society of today to the communist society of tomorrow. Those who are currently on top of human society will do and do do everything in their power, including unleashing massive bloodshed, to maintain the existing capitalist system.

Empire fails to put centre stage the need for that which they say is “already dead” –imperialism, reaction and its ideological manifestations – to be definitively destroyed and buried. The authors end up far too often justifying and extolling the world, not as it can be, but as it is “already living” – which in reality is still shackled and scarred by private ownership, class divisions, the cleavage into oppressor and oppressed countries and all of the other horrors and injustices of the contemporary social order. In short, they want communism without the difficulties, sacrifices and uncertainties of revolution. We will see later that Negri and Hardt’s vision of communism doesn’t really go beyond the limits of the present system, which is perhaps why they are ready to cry victory when the battle has yet to be waged.

We will see that, in every sphere, the outlook of Negri and Hardt is the worship of spontaneity, the belief that social processes will by themselves lead to favourable results, thus downplaying the role of people as the conscious factor in reorienting social development. Indeed, the construction of Negri and Hardt’s theory is itself a lesson in spontaneity: it represents the tailing after intellectual currents of the last several decades. In particular, the authors embrace the writings of various postmodernists and borrow heavily from their concepts and vocabulary. Negri and Hardt continually refer to the contemporary world as “postmodern”, but they do not want to consider themselves “postmodernists”. The authors write that, “However confusedly or unconsciously, they [the postmodernists] indicate the passage toward the constitution of Empire.” Negri and Hardt take what they consider to be the confused or unconscious work of the postmodernists as the building blocks of their ideological system.

Marxism of the twenty-first century must be attentive to all of the discoveries and debates of contemporary society (just as Marx and Engels were in developing the ideology of the proletariat in the nineteenth). Marxism must engage, dissect, criticise what is wrong and absorb all aspects of what is correct from the most varied of sources. But what Negri and Hardt do is something quite different. They are making the “confusion” of postmodernism more conscious and systematic and they argue that this new ideology corresponds to the material changes in the way society is organised – to which they give the name “Empire”.

I. Imperialism or “Empire”?

In this review we will not try to comment on all the vast array of subjects touched on in Empire or follow the authors’ numerous and often thought-provoking detours. Rather we will try to focus on the essential theses of Empire. We will leave it to others to address the many philosophical and cultural arguments of Empire, and here we will deal with these only to the degree that they are unavoidable in discussing Negri and Hardt’s understanding of the contemporary world’s socio-economic system.

The main thesis of Empire is that capitalism has entered a new epoch, beyond imperialism, in which the basic analysis that Lenin made of the imperialist epoch no longer applies. In particular, the role of the nation-state has declined tremendously in importance. “Empire” is the world after imperialism has, in the authors’ view, completely imposed capitalist relations throughout the world, leaving no region or area untouched. The processes of production and communication have linked together the whole world in a way unimaginable previously. New forms of labour are emerging, which result in new class transformations. The countryside of the world has undergone dramatic changes.

Much of the above is, of course, true. The world has undergone tremendous transformation in the half century since the end of the Second World War and the three decades since the death of Mao Tsetung. Since the collapse of the USSR (which we should never forget had become an imperialist country no less subject to the laws of imperialism than all others), intra-capitalist rivalry, the push toward war, has given way to the tendency of the imperialists to form an “operating fraternity of thieves” (to borrow Marx’s description in Capital) in which their particular and contradictory interests are at the present time mainly subordinated to their common need to preserve and protect the conditions of this thievery.

The authors argue that “what used to be conflict or competition among several imperialist powers has, in important respects, been replaced by the idea of a single power that over-determines them all, structures them in a unitary way, and treats them under one common notion of right that is decidedly post-colonial and post-imperialist. This is really the point of departure for our study of Empire: a new notion of right, or rather, a new inscription of authority and a new design of production of norms and new instruments of coercion that guarantee contracts and resolve conflicts”,2 and “Empire is not a weak echo of modern imperialism but a fundamentally new form of rule.”3

The present imperialist system has no centre or centres, the authors argue. It is a system that is now engulfing the whole world “seamlessly” and obliterating all the distinctions in its way. In general, Empire is considered not only a higher form of capitalism beyond imperialism, but also a historical advance over the earlier imperialist epoch: “we judged Empire less bad or better than the previous paradigm from the standpoint of the multitude”.4

The authors maintain that sovereignty has been “deterritorialised”. By this they mean that the system of government and control is no longer linked to a specific national formation or state system. Here, as elsewhere, they take real phenomena, such as the increased migration of people, the fluidity of capital, the development of international institutions such as the United Nations, etc., but don’t recognise that these features are growing up within a world structure dominated by imperialist nation-states. “It might appear as if the United States were the new Rome…[but] Any such territorial conception of imperial space, however, is continually destabilised by the fundamental flexibility, mobility and deterritorialisation at the core of the imperial apparatus.”5 However, what “appears” is also, in this case at least, what exists. To quote one reviewer, “The actually existing United States constantly threatens to emerge from the pages of Empire like the face in the nightmare, and has to be perpetually repressed.”6

While the authors do not try to make the absurd argument that the US has been totally free from imperialism, they do argue that imperialism was an essentially European phenomenon, as opposed to Lenin’s view that it emerged mainly out of the process of the growth and concentration of capital into monopoly.7 Lenin, of course, always considered the US an imperialist country and never fell into the error of arguing that because the US possessed far fewer colonies it was any less “imperialist” than Britain or France, for example. Since the Second World War, the formerly colonial countries were granted formal independence but remained enslaved to the world imperialist system in the form of neo-colonialism. Millions of people around the world know very well that US imperialism is all too real.

The driving force behind the United States’ evolution is, in Negri and Hardt’s eyes, not the logic of capitalism, with its incessant compulsion to expand and reproduce on an ever-intensifying scale. Instead, they believe that its dynamics are explained by particular features of the US, linked to its history as it expanded westward across the North American continent from its origins on the Atlantic coast. They argue that this “democratic expansive tendency implicit in the notion of network power must be distinguished from other, purely expansionist and imperialist forms of expansion”.8

The authors go on to heap praise on Woodrow Wilson’s “internationalist ideology of peace as an expansion of the constitutional conception of network power” and specifically contrast him with the “imperialist” tendencies represented by Theodore Roosevelt.9 How much importance should we give to the particular coat of paint with which Wilson tried to beautify US imperialist interests in entering the First World War? In fact Negri and Hardt do a lot of fawning over the United States and attach great importance to what the US rulers say about themselves. It is perhaps worthwhile to remind Negri and Hardt that imperialist demagogic justification for their crimes is as old as imperialism itself. The Belgians tried to justify their brutal acquisition of the Congo in the late nineteenth century as a fight against Arab slavery! Japan sought to liberate Asia from the rule of Europeans under the banner of Asia for Asians, etc., etc. This reminds us of Marx’s statement that while “every shopkeeper is very well able to distinguish between what somebody professes to be and what he really is, our historians have not yet won even this trivial insight. They take every epoch at its word and believe that everything it imagines about itself is true.”10

To Negri and Hardt, the US’s long march to world hegemony is not something that is inherent in the capitalist system itself, and not essentially the same as what drove Britain, France, Germany or the USSR, as each of these states also strove to establish its own imperialist empire. The authors treat us to a never-never land in which US imperialism no longer exists, indeed never fully existed, where the Vietnam War was not the defining event of a whole period of world relations in the 1960s, but rather an aberration, a “last gasp” of European-style imperialism, in which somehow the US had become entangled “when it had strayed the farthest from its original constitutional project”.11

The conclusion is that “the coming Empire is not American and the United States is not its centre. The fundamental principle of Empire as we have described it throughout this book is that its power has no actual and localisable terrain or centre”.12 At the time of this review, in 2006, when the US has been on an accelerated world-wide rampage since 11 September 2001, such a description seems almost ridiculous. The world system indeed does have a centre, or actually several centres, but among which the US is overwhelmingly dominant. Certainly new international institutions have emerged that, to a certain extent, can provide a kind of “governance” to the world in which the various imperialist powers co-operate and to some degree “mediate” the conflicts between the imperialist states and the local ruling classes of the countries they feed upon and dominate. But first we should point out that these institutions in no way represent a passage to a stateless world, rather they serve to preserve and give order to the existing world system of states with all of the inequality and relations of dominance that we see around us. Furthermore, events have underscored the limitations of any of these institutions to transcend the sovereignty of the US itself.

The United Nations is given great attention by Negri and Hardt. Indeed they begin their argument with an analysis of the UN “not as an end in itself but rather as a real historical lever that pushed forward the transition to a properly global system”.13 Certainly it can be said that the world needs institutions that can take into account the needs of humanity as a whole. This can be seen in the need for a sensible management and protection of natural resources, such as fisheries, and of bio-diversity or the even more glaring need for the allocation of human resources on the basis of needs, such as in response to epidemics or the overcoming of the gross inequalities between different regions of the world. But we can see from countless examples that the world has become more lopsided and unequal, not less, and that the common resources of mankind are increasingly endangered, such as by the very real threat of global warming. And the UN’s self-proclaimed central mission of preventing armed conflicts between states has not slowed down imperialist aggression and war. Instead of representing “transitions to a properly global system” of the future, the UN and similar institutions are important pillars in maintaining the world as it is, and, in that sense, are not at all transitions to the future but rather obstacles to reaching it.

When we look at the concrete reality of the United Nations we see that it is not an institution sitting above the actually existing relations of power between states. When Negri and Hardt discuss the UN as an institution they leave out its bedrock element, that five countries have a veto in the Security Council, the only UN body able to authorise (or legitimise after the fact) the recourse to force and war. Further, we have seen that even among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, all vetoes are not equal. Even though three of these countries opposed the US war against Iraq, and even though the Secretary General of the UN Kofi Annan was to declare (albeit two years later) that the war against Iraq was “illegal” from the point of view of the UN Charter, France, China and the USSR could not, and did not, prevent the US and Britain from going to war essentially alone and against the will of the great majority of world states (not to mention the overwhelming opposition of the masses in Britain and a huge opposition movement in the US itself). The UN is both a vehicle for facilitating the “operating fraternity of thieves” as well as an arena for dispute among the thieves themselves. But, as the Iraq war proved, it can only reflect and cannot in any fundamental way over-rule or supersede the actual geo-political realities in the contemporary world.

Empire was written in the period between the first Gulf War (1991, when Bush senior was president of the US) and the Kosovo war that began in 1998, in other words, during the “Clinton” era. While the main trends of US imperialism, which would later form the basis of the Bush II programme, were already beginning to take form during the Clinton period, they had not yet made the “leap” that took place after 11 September 2001. Still, even in the rosy years of the 1990s there exists plenty of evidence (ex-Yugoslavia, Congo, etc.) to refute Negri and Hardt’s contention that, “the idea of peace is at the basis of the development and expansion of Empire.”14 Of course, these authors cannot be expected to predict the future, but any theory that claims to be scientific, which claims to actually reflect the world as it is and to understand the laws determining its motion, is obligated to interrogate itself based on how well the actual unfolding of events validate or call into question its underlying assumptions. So Negri and Hardt were obligated in their later work, Multitude, to revisit the thesis of Empire.

True, in Multitude, “a general global civil war”15 has replaced the authors’ earlier claim of peace as the basis of Empire. Unfortunately, Negri and Hardt avoid any real self-interrogation, especially on the founding principle of their theory, the surpassing of the imperialist epoch by something higher.

In Multitude the authors argue: “One could say at least since the early 1990s, US foreign policy and military engagement have straddled imperialist and imperial logics.… The United States acts as a national power along the lines of the modern European imperialist states. On the other hand, each US military engagement and the orientation of its foreign policy in general also carry simultaneously an imperial logic, which is cast in reference not to any limited national interest but to all the interests of humanity as a whole… We should not simply regard, in other words, the humanitarian and universalistic rhetoric of US diplomacy and military actions as facades designed to mask the fundamental logic of national interests. Instead we should also recognise them both as equally real: two competing logics that run through one single military political apparatus. In some conflicts, such as Kosovo, the imperial humanitarian logic may be dominant, and in others such as Afghanistan, the national, imperialist logic appears primary, while in still others, such as Iraq, the two are mixed almost indistinguishably. Both logics, in any case, in different doses and guises, run through all of these conflicts.”16

“We should not get caught up in the tired debates about globalisation and nation-states as if the two were necessarily incompatible. Our argument instead is that national ideologies, functionaries, and administrators increasingly find that in order to pursue their strategic objectives they cannot act and think strictly in national terms without consideration of the rest of the globe. The administration of Empire does not require the negation of national administrators. On the other hand, today imperial administration is conducted largely by the structures and personnel of the dominant nation-states.”17

Thus, we see Negri and Hardt’s concession to reality: the post-11 September war on the world by the US is at least partially powered by an “imperialist logic” even if other conflicts, such as Kosovo, are mainly a reflection of “imperial humanitarian logic”. “Imperial” administration will be conducted by “structures and personnel of the dominant nation-states”. And again we see the authors’ undue concern with the US ruling class’ explanation of their actions rather than really analysing the driving force behind them.

Negri and Hardt’s discovery of the common interests of the imperialist powers is really nothing new at all. Nor has it ever been true that any major imperialist power could act “without consideration of the rest of the globe”. They can and do consider the situation of the whole globe now and in the past, but they continue to do so through the prism of their own national (imperialist) interests and not from the abstract level of “Empire” that Negri and Hardt are postulating. To the extent that the imperialists do act in concert, for example the European imperialists through the vehicle of the European Union, they reflect not some global interest standing above states and classes but rather their common interests both in their competition with the US and lesser rivals (such as Japan) and as oppressor nations dominating much of the rest of the world (the “Third World”).

II. What is Capitalism? What Pushes Imperialism Forward?

In order to understand why Negri and Hardt can arrive at such a fundamentally wrong picture of today’s geo-politics, it is necessary to look more deeply at how they understand capitalism itself. While Negri and Hardt offer some useful observations concerning features of contemporary society, they fail to understand the actual material underpinnings of capitalism and are, thus, at a loss to explain how capitalism is developing and what is pushing it forward.

First of all, it needs to be reaffirmed that despite the still important differences that exist between different countries and regions, there is an imperialist world system, which is indeed capitalist and as such is still governed by the basic laws that Marx and Engels discovered. Certainly the world has undergone great changes since Marx laid out the workings of capitalism so systematically in Capital. Lenin, in particular, showed how capitalism had entered a new era of monopoly capitalism, or imperialism, and since Lenin’s time further great changes have occurred and will continue to occur. But Lenin’s achievement was to analyse the era of capitalism on the basis of the laws discovered by Marx. This was not out of some dogmatic loyalty to Marx’s teachings but rather because these laws, in a fundamental sense, continued to govern how capitalist society moves and develops.

It is an admirable undertaking to seek to comprehend the contemporary economic system and if, in the course of these efforts, previous understandings even by giants like Marx and Engels are proven to be incomplete or even wrong, those who are fighting to change the world should unhesitatingly recognise the truth. But we are not convinced that “the Marx and Engels of the internet age” (as Negri and Hardt are referred to on the back cover of Empire) have really succeeded in discovering a more correct explanation for capitalist society and its development. On the contrary, their departure from the fundamental framework established by Marx and Engels has led them into a morass of confusion.

Forces and Relations of Production

Hidden away in Empire is an observation that, were it true, would shake to its very foundation the Marxist understanding of political economy and, with it, our understanding of the revolutionary process through which one social system is replaced by another. Negri and Hardt write, “Postmodernisation and the passage to Empire involve a real convergence of the realms that used to be designated by base and superstructure.… In this context the distinctions that define the central categories of political economy tend to blur. Production becomes indistinguishable from reproduction; the productive forces merge with the relations of production….”18

To understand this we should briefly review what Marxists mean by the terms forces of production and relations of production. Forces of production include land, machinery, technology and, most importantly, the productive classes themselves and their ingenuity and creativity. The way in which human beings are organised to use these forces of production and distribute their product is referred to as the relations of production. Here we are speaking of the system of ownership of the means of production, the division of labour in society, and the way in which the products of society are distributed to its various members. In general, the relations of production correspond to the level of the forces of production and together constitute the economic base of society. For example, in medieval Europe the feudal system based on landlordism and serfdom corresponded more or less with the capacity to produce – the knowledge, techniques and instruments of production – which existed at that time. There was not yet a material basis and a corresponding social need for the existence of a large class of labourers who were “free” from a relation to the land and forced to sell their labour power to the capitalists.

Every economic base (that is, the forces and relations of production) gives rise to a “superstructure” – institutions, culture, ideas and a state – which corresponds to the given economic base and enables it to go forward. To return to the example of the European feudal system, we can see how it gave rise to institutions, such as the Catholic Church, which corresponded to the feudal economic base. Generally speaking, productive forces undergo development both gradually and through spurts, which bring them more and more sharply into contradiction with the relations of production. It is this basic contradiction that calls forth revolution. When tools need to speak, they do so through men, Mao Tsetung wrote. This revolution will take place necessarily in the superstructure, and notably through the seizure of political power, which will enable new relations of production to be developed and the economic base to leap forward. In very broad strokes this is what the bourgeois or capitalist revolutions accomplished in the past and what the communist revolution will do in the future.19

The brilliance of Marx and Engels was to have shown, even at a time when capitalism was at a considerably lower level of development, that the forces of production, the growth of modern industry, science and a proletariat, were being increasingly restrained or “fettered” by the private ownership of the means of production and the capitalist commodity system in which the ability of the labourer to produce is itself turned into a commodity to be bought and sold and “consumed” (that is, used to create commodities through capitalist production). Marx and Engels put it this way:

“Only then [with the communist revolution] will the separate individuals be liberated from the various national and local barriers, be brought into practical connections with the material and intellectual production of the whole world and be put in a position to acquire the capacity to enjoy this all-sided production of the whole world (the creations of man). All-round dependence, this natural form of the world-historical co-operation of individuals, will be transformed by the communist revolution into the control and conscious mastery of these powers, which, born of the action of men on one another, have till now overawed and governed men as powers completely alien to them.”20

Thus, we can see two fundamentally opposed visions of how ultimately a communist society will be achieved. For Marx and Engels the realisation of human potential can only come about by revolution, by the transformation of the existing social conditions.

Negri and Hardt argue otherwise, that the relations of production, far from being a fetter on the further development of the productive forces, are themselves “fusing” with the productive forces. (This is linked to the authors’ understanding of “immaterial labour”, which we return to later.) Negri and Hardt argue that, because the labour process requires the co-operation of individuals, there is no longer any useful distinction (or contradiction) between production itself and the way society is organised to carry out production. They argue that contemporary society, which they call “Empire”, is self-organising through networks large and small in particular countries and on a world scale. But the self-organisation of society can only exist under communism when humanity really is in a position to organise itself consciously and collectively. But there are obstacles to this today, in particular the very real capitalist relations of production, that production takes place within a framework of commodity exchange and specifically the exploitation of the labour power of the producers. Society is restrained, deformed, and crippled by the existing capitalist relations. Yes, the potential for a different kind of society is constantly expressing itself, but it is only potential as long as capitalism remains intact. While one could applaud Negri and Hardt for extolling the capacity of human beings, they seem willing to settle for only the pale shadow of that potential. The conflict between the tremendous forces of production, which we must remember includes most importantly the revolutionary class itself, and an antiquated system based on exploiting the international proletariat, has in no way disappeared. On the contrary, it is precisely this contradiction that is crying out to be resolved through proletarian revolution on a world scale.

There has been a phenomenal growth in productive capacities and scientific knowledge. Marx and Engels’ vision of being able to provide for the needs of all humanity is clearly vindicated. Yet, at the same time, the gap between wealth and poverty has increased to a degree never before seen in human history. If Marx and Engels were only able to postulate an era of commonly shared abundance, today the potential to realise it re-emerges from every corner. A shift of only a few per cent of the world’s food resources would effectively eliminate starvation and malnutrition. How simple it should be to put a stop to the deaths of fifty thousand children daily from preventable diseases, whose main cause is poor drinking water, or to solve the homelessness that is rampant in the very shadows of the skyscrapers in New York and London as well as Mumbai and São Paolo. The inability to solve even such relatively simple problems is due to the way humanity is organised. In light of the inability of society to organise itself to meet even these simple needs, talking about “society as subject” covers over the task of making revolution.

What Propels What?

Negri and Hardt’s rejection of Marxist political economy goes hand-in-hand with Empire’s inability to explain why capitalism is compelled forward to always produce on a greater and greater scale. In particular, it is the competition of different capitals that commands them all to “expand or die”, and this gives rise to a spiral process through which capital increases its value, concentrates by gobbling up or merging with its competitors and seeks ever greater sources of labour to exploit and markets to conquer. None of this occurs smoothly, of course, and the spiral process of accumulation takes place through the “anarchy of production” and leads to periodic disorder, crisis and upheaval. Imperialism or monopoly capitalism modifies but does not negate these fundamental processes. Indeed, it actually heightens the competition between capitals in the form of giant multi-national firms and imperialist powers and transforms the whole world into their sphere of competition and makes war, including world war, its ultimate vehicle for destroying its competitors and creating the conditions for expanded accumulation.22

It is this constant and relentless drive to maximise profit that drives capitalism to exploit more and more labour power (proletarians) more and more thoroughly, constantly transforming the whole productive process and socialising it on a massive scale, and it is this working of the capitalist system that pushes the proletarians to resistance and creates the material basis for revolution. This basic process has always been complex and multi-sided, and is even more so in the conditions of the twenty-first century. But Negri and Hardt reverse this dynamic. It is the struggle of the proletariat, in their view, that has “pushed” the capitalists to the transformation they call “Empire”.

Negri and Hardt argue that, “Theories of the passages to and beyond imperialism that privilege the pure critique of the dynamics of capital risk undervaluing the power of the real efficient motor that drives capitalist development from its deepest core: the movements and struggles of the proletariat.”23 In fact the danger is not whether to restrict our analysis to a “pure critique”, since genuine Marxists have always recognised the importance of studying and understanding diverse social phenomenon, and certainly the struggle of the proletariat and the oppressed peoples is most definitely an important factor in influencing how the dynamics of capital develop. But we do insist that it is the internal dynamic of capital itself that is the principal motor pushing it both to expand into new spheres and to intensify exploitation where it is already present. Negri and Hardt’s inverted theory even goes so far as to argue that the maintenance and strengthening of US hegemony in the period since 1970 “was actually sustained by the antagonistic power of the US proletariat…. capital had to confront and respond to the new production of subjectivity of the proletariat.”24

This kind of non-materialist understanding also reflects an inability to understand capitalist crisis. “Capitalist crisis, as Marx tells us, is a situation that requires capital to undergo a general devaluation and a profound rearrangement of the relations of production as a result of the downward pressure that the proletariat puts on the rate of profit. In other words, capitalist crisis is not simply a function of capital’s own dynamic but is caused directly by proletarian conflict.” In other words, according to Negri and Hardt, capitalist crisis is mainly a result of the struggles of the proletariat – which is not at all what Marx “tells us”, although it must be admitted that this is one misconception that is widely held among self-professed Marxists. In his great work Anti-Dühring, Engels went to considerable length to refute the “under-consumptionist” theory of crisis, pointing out that the under-consumption of the masses was a feature of all forms of class society, yet, it is only under capitalism that crisis appears. Engels described a “crisis of over-production”, in that production would expand at a faster rate than markets. Engels put it this way:

“The enormous expansive force of modern industry, compared with which that of gases is mere child’s play, appears to us now as a necessity for expansion, both qualitative and quantitative, that laughs at all resistance. Such resistance is offered by consumption, by sales, by the markets for the products of modern industry. But the capacity for extension, extensive and intensive, of the markets is primarily governed by quite different laws that work much less energetically. The extension of the markets cannot keep pace with the extension of production. The collision becomes inevitable, and this cannot produce any real solution so long as it does not break in pieces the capitalist mode of production…”25

It is true that capitalist crisis cannot be reduced to purely economic factors alone, and in the era of imperialism, when capitalism mainly is centred in imperialist states, many geo-political considerations also play their role in the accumulation process, including the rivalry between imperialist powers, the resistance struggles in the oppressed nations and the struggle of the proletariat in the imperialist citadels themselves – all of these factors interact on each other. But this does not negate the basic materialist understanding upon which Marx constructed his theory and the laws he discovered of capitalism, which push it toward over-production, as the citation from Engels so powerfully presents it.26 While the actual working out of the different tendencies is complex and mitigated by many factors, it still holds true today.27 Instead, Negri and Hardt are arguing in a convoluted way that the proletariat’s struggles are both the cause of crisis, and, paradoxically, rescue capitalism (or at least the present centre of the capitalist system, the US).

Luxemburg’s Theory Resuscitated

Negri and Hardt resuscitate the theses of Rosa Luxemburg on imperialism. Luxemburg argued that since the proletariat could never “buy back” the product of its own labour, the only way the capitalist system could prosper was through trade with (“outside”) non-capitalist regions or sectors, which alone could allow the capitalist system to realise the value (through sale) produced by the exploitation of the proletariat in the imperialist countries. She postulated that imperialism would reach an insurmountable crisis when capital had transformed the whole world.

Negri and Hardt are arguing that imperialism has indeed accomplished this world transformation and the result is a whole new stage of capitalism, beyond imperialism. They argue that, “Capital no longer looks outside but rather inside its domain, and its expansion is thus intensive rather than extensive.”28 And “postmodernisation is the economic process that emerges when mechanical and industrial technologies have expanded to invest the entire world, when the modernisation process is complete, and when the formal subsumption of the non-capitalist environment has reached its limit.”29 To this we say wrong, and wrong again.

Wrong because capitalism at every stage of its development has expanded both intensively and extensively, that is to say it continues to develop in its home base, to exploit the proletariat more completely, to accumulate more and more capital and it continues to seek new areas of domination. Further, what is “outside” to one capitalist (or imperialist power) may well be “inside” to another, such as when the US pushes into markets and territories in Africa previously dominated by European imperialist powers. Wrong again because while capitalism has indeed transformed more and more of the non-capitalist world in its image, this process is by no means complete.

Let’s look a little harder at the thesis of Negri and Hardt. They don’t literally argue that there are no longer any different states, but rather that their significance is dying out and that real sovereignty has passed to the amorphous and “seamless” Empire. The authors grant the US a special role in this world system, but they see it as if this is just the shell reflecting the old imperialist world while real sovereignty (or the capacity to govern) has shifted to the amorphous “Empire”, which is everywhere and nowhere in the whole world at once. Here also the descriptions of Negri and Hardt have some important aspects that “ring true” to the reader. Some functions previously the sole domain of specific states have been delegated to international organisations such as the World Trade Organisation. There is an ever-increasing degree of interconnection not only in circuits of capitalist production but also in all spheres of cultural and intellectual life. Certainly the international nature of the proletarian revolution, while always fundamental, now screams out more and more loudly and demands that the revolutionary process in given countries pay full heed to its imperatives. In these respects the internet world feels light-years beyond most of the twentieth century, to say nothing of Marx’s time. Is it possible that the world is now, or could become, a single feasting ground for a single, non-territorial capital?

No, such a world will not come about (and unlike Negri and Hardt we have a hard time seeing how such a nightmare would, if it were to come about, be “not as bad as” the present imperialist system). The same basic features of capital that push it to expand also mean that capital can exist only in competition and conflict with other capitals. As Marx put it, capital can exist only as many capitals. The tendency for capital to concentrate, to grow larger and larger and swallow up those capitals which “lose out” in competition does not eliminate this competition but actually intensifies it and places it on a higher level where huge capitalist groups compete with each other and muster whole states in their service. It is this never-ending war of capitals among themselves that makes capitalism unable to rest content with its current profits and drives it to exploit ever more proletarians more and more thoroughly. Even if by some quirk of history such a single world-wide capital could, for a moment, come into being, it would surely be flung apart into disparate pieces.30

A Single Sovereignty?

Sovereignty, or the capacity of a state to govern and rule free of external control, has always been linked to a specific territory and population. Certainly the imperialist powers continually trample on the sovereignty of other states and peoples. In the colonial period this was by brazen annexation and theft. In the more recent period it has taken many forms of direct and indirect aggression and interference. International institutions have granted themselves the right to dictate essential questions of policy that are normally the prerogative of a sovereign power. For example, the International Monetary Fund can tell many countries in Africa to drastically slash already meagre health and education services, the World Trade Organisation can insist that patent laws be brought into conformity with the US conception of intellectual property and, thus, outlaw the production of generic drugs, and a country can be told what kind of weapons it is allowed to develop.

As any observer can easily recognise, the “disappearance of sovereignty” is a decidedly uneven affair. It is certainly clear that the US has no intention of losing even one iota of its sovereignty, and it has consistently fought any and all measures that would restrict it. One example is its refusal to participate in the Hague’s International War Crimes Tribunal for fear that one day some of its own torturers could be tried there. The US has evenly brazenly opposed the Kyoto treaty aimed at reducing carbon gas emissions, partly because of US interests in remaining the world’s largest polluter but also because of the US allergy to anything that even smells like a restriction on its sovereignty. So while sovereignty of many countries has been impeded and eroded, this is not true for the most “sovereign” of all, the US.

When we look at the contemporary world what we actually see is not the disappearance of imperialism or the emergence of a single homogenous world empire free of conflict and rivalry among sovereign imperialist states. Rather we see the increased socialisation of production on a world scale, which is indeed knitting ever closer connections and ties between all of the different actors in the productive process and in human society generally. But this very socialisation stands in sharp and antagonistic conflict with the still existing capitalist relations of ownership, distribution and organisation of production, which is reflected by the still central role of states in enforcing these relations, and most importantly, that strongest of states, US imperialism.

III. National Liberation and the State

Negri and Hardt correctly stress the interconnectedness of today’s world, in the productive process, in the movement of peoples, and the communication of ideas. They argue against a frozen view of the world that would deny the transformative power of the capitalist system. While imperialism most certainly does retard the productive forces in the countries it dominates, it does so as part of constantly transforming each society that it touches.

World capitalism must continually expand its markets and transform more and more human labour into labour power – that specific form of commodity that can be purchased and sold. But capitalism cannot and does not do this evenly and certainly not equitably. Capital can and does make use of, incorporate and strengthen various backward features of pre-capitalist society, even as it continues its march to more extensively and more intensively exploit its markets.

Negri and Hardt correctly point out that, “relations of production, which were developed in the dominant countries, were never realised in the same form in the subordinated regions of the global economy”,31 but they still grossly under-estimate and even obliterate the fundamental divide in the world, between oppressor and oppressed nations. They write: “the classical theories of imperialism and anti-imperialism lost whatever explanatory powers they had”.32 In fact, Mao Tsetung showed very clearly in his analysis of pre-revolutionary China that the previous feudal system had been undermined and transformed by the penetration of imperialism into China, which is why he called the system “semi-feudal”. He argued, and it has been shown to be the case, that imperialism does not completely, thoroughly and “democratically” transform the countries it penetrates.

But what imperialism does do is, in a certain sense, become “internal” to the countries it dominates.33 They correctly note the tendency for the interpenetration of the first and third worlds where the latter “enters into the First, established itself at the heart as ghetto, favela, always again produced and reproduced. In turn, the First World is transferred to the Third in the form of stock exchanges and banks, transnational corporations and icy skyscrapers of money and command.”34 This reality of an interpenetrating world is often ignored and sometimes even denied by those who see imperialism only as an external force blocking the internal development of the nation. In fact, capital has extremely contradictory effects on the countries it penetrates – it can and must integrate them into the overall world circuits of production and exchange, and by incorporating more and more regions of the world into its dynamic of expand or die, imperialism does fuel growth and development in these countries. But again this occurs while it continues and, in fact, deepens the “divide” in the world between the oppressed and oppressor countries.

Negri and Hardt negate this fundamental truth when they declare, “Through the decentralisation of production and the consolidation of the world market, the international divisions and flows of labour and capital have fractured and multiplied so that it is no longer possible to demarcate large geographical zones as centre and periphery, North and South…. This is not to say that the United States and Brazil, Britain and India are now identical territories in terms of capitalist production and circulation but that that between them are no differences of nature, only differences of degree.”35 So here the authors’ correct observations of the interpenetration of different societies (“they clearly infuse one another”) are used to wipe out one of the most important “differences of nature” that exist, precisely the difference between oppressed and oppressor nations and states. Anticipating objections, the authors argue against “any nostalgia for the powers of the nation state or resurrect any politics that celebrates the nation.”36 But the limits of nation and nationalism must not be used to argue against the still very real task of liberating nations (and whose basis for exploding in struggle can be seen to be intensifying, not diminishing, in the contemporary world).37

Imperialism and Pre-capitalist Modes of Production

Negri and Hardt argue that it is impossible for the oppressed nations to “re-create the conditions of the past and develop as the dominant capitalist countries once did. Even the dominant countries are now dependent on the global system; and the interactions of the world market have resulted in a generalised disarticulation of all economies. Increasingly, any attempt at isolation or separation will mean only a more brutal kind of domination by the global system, a reduction to powerlessness and poverty.”38

Here again Negri and Hardt make some correct observations but then take them to some incorrect and decidedly non-revolutionary conclusions. Yes, it is a dangerous delusion (and a not very revolutionary one at that) to wish to “recreate” the conditions under which capitalism first developed in the West.39 However, this does not change the fact that a qualitative difference remains between the developed capitalist states and the countries of the neo-colonial world, not only in terms of their relative level of development40 but also specifically in the existence of a national market, linkages between industry and agriculture and various branches of what goes into a national economy. Overcoming this giant and growing gulf in the world between the small number of wealthy states and the bulk of the world population remains a tremendous task before human society as a whole.

In a world dominated by imperialism, any country or group of countries that make revolution must of necessity take up the difficult struggle to “de-link” the country from the world imperialist system. This is necessary for several reasons: in the case of the oppressed countries, their development has been stunted, perverted and channelled to the particular (subordinate) role that each has in the world imperialist system. The liberation of the people requires that this form of national bondage be decisively dug up. In this sense, national liberation does correspond to the interests of the great majority of the masses in the oppressed countries. Furthermore, the requirements of aiding the world revolution cannot be fulfilled if a country is at the mercy of the imperialist powers or their supranational institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the World Bank. It is sufficient to look at how the imperialists have bullied or overthrown even reactionary regimes that, for various reasons, have not gone along completely with the dominant imperialist programme to see what is in store for a genuine revolutionary regime. In the case of the imperialist countries as well, a genuine socialist revolution requires a “de-linking” if these countries are to withstand the sabotage and attack of remaining imperialist states and also since it is inconceivable that a genuine socialist society could be built on an edifice of exploitation and oppression of other nations.

Here Negri and Hardt are pointing to a real problem: it will be difficult, very difficult, for any country, especially one that has been dominated and oppressed by imperialism, to avoid being reduced to “powerlessness and poverty” if it embarks on a revolutionary path. Indeed, overcoming “powerlessness and poverty” will be one of the great tasks and challenges of the revolution. But what conclusion can we draw from Empire? Only that the current situation is inevitable, that it is better not to even attempt national liberation, and that if there is any future liberation to be had it can only come when the whole world capitalist system is transformed (the choice of the word “transformed” is deliberate since the authors don’t believe it can be or needs to be “overthrown”). Despite Negri and Hardt’s insistence that Empire can be attacked from “any point” on the globe, their whole thesis leads right back to a euro-centric conception in which any real social change can only take place first and decisively in the advanced countries, which, despite the authors’ objections, we will continue to call imperialist.

The struggle in the imperialist countries will play a very important role in the world-wide struggle to move from one epoch of human society to another. It is neither possible nor liberating to postulate a world revolutionary process in which revolution is limited to the Third World and the proletariat and the oppressed masses of the imperialist citadels are at best relatively passive supporters of a revolutionary process essentially alien to themselves.41 But the importance of stressing the truly international dimension of the struggle for world communism and the crucial role that must be played in both the oppressed and the oppressor countries must never be distorted to deny the possibility of revolutionary breakthrough in one or a group of countries, which in turn will call forward revolutionary struggle in both kinds of countries. If we are to make revolution it is very likely that that revolution will be made in one or several countries first. And wherever the proletarian revolution triumphs it will inevitably face hostility from that part of the world in which the old system of exploitation is still dominant.

What Negri and Hardt are correctly pointing to are the real limits of the process of building a parallel economic system in a capitalist world. The biological reality that human beings are a single species has, in our epoch, been joined by the social reality that humanity is a coherent whole even if, at present, it is divided into classes and nations. It is impossible that production, science and culture can in any fundamental sense be divided into different camps.42 If it is true that in our historical epoch the existence of socialist states surrounded by an imperialist world is likely to remain a feature, this can only be understood as one phase and one form of the struggle between the world proletariat and world imperialism. Peaceful coexistence has definite limits: it can never be a fundamental strategy, and one system will ultimately triumph over the other.43 This is not only because of the aggressive nature of the imperialists (and certainly not because of the will of the socialist countries), rather it is a reflection of this very indivisibility of humanity. If, in addition, this has always been true in a fundamental sense – and recognised by Marx and Engels with their call for workers of all countries to unite and fight for a whole new world – today this “commonness” of humanity is felt much more palpably by broader sections of the masses the world over. Modern communications, production methods and migratory flux do, as Empire argues, mean that, even in the most remote corners of the earth, people are far more interconnected in a thousand ways. And it is also true that the existence of modern means of production has created new needs – people in the remote areas also want access to the products of modern life, their share in the common product of humanity, and full access to the world community of men and women. Poverty, as Marx pointed out, is relative to the existence of socially and historically determined wants and needs. A revolutionary movement that is only able to feed the belly of the hungry will ultimately fail if it is not able to, step-by-step, help fill the desire of people to learn, communicate, and struggle to transform all aspects of social life. It is true that the poor peasantry and others, those most inclined to a revolutionary urge, are often also the section of the masses most excluded from this global process. But this exclusion cannot be made a principle, and still less can ignorance and exclusion be used as a building block of a new society. First, such an approach would immediately narrow the base of the supporters of the revolution and drive the middle classes and the intelligentsia, whose co-operation is needed, into the enemy camp. Furthermore, such an approach would make a mockery of the goal of fitting the proletariat to rule the earth and training the masses of people to increasingly master the affairs of state. Pol Pot’s Cambodia can serve as a frightening reminder of where this kind of nationalism leads.44

So there must be a determined fight to “de-link” the oppressed countries from the world imperialist system (through new-democratic revolution and socialism), and history has shown that it is possible for the result of this to be other than “powerlessness and poverty”, at least in the situation of a large socialist country (or a smaller country in relation to a larger socialist country or bloc). A triumphant socialist revolution in an advanced country will also face just as daunting problems in building an economic system without the exploitation of the oppressed countries and peoples and without the economic entanglements with its previous imperialist trading partners.45 However, the authors are pointing to the real limits of building a “parallel economy” in a world still dominated by capitalism. Socialist states must be, in all senses, real “base areas” of the world proletarian revolution, where the masses are already transforming society and working to build a communist future. But they must never lose sight of the fact that the communist future can exist only on a world scale and that the socialist states are locked in a fierce and protracted fight with world imperialism exactly over the future of humanity and the world. Like any base area in the course of a war, the survival and flourishing of socialist states is ultimately both dependent on, and subordinate to, the overall progress of the world-wide struggle against capital.46

The barrier of imperialist relations to progress and development has to be seen in relation to the potential of the productive forces that capitalism has brought into being – productive forces that grew up, it must be stressed, in connection with the plunder of the oppressed countries. The apologists for imperialism often argue that the people of the oppressed countries should be thankful to the West for its civilising and modernising mission. Some reactionary US political figures have even tried to justify slavery in the US by this standard! This is to be partly answered, of course, by pointing out how the development of capitalism in the West, from its earliest moments right down to today, has always had as a pillar the looting it could obtain from the less developed countries and regions of the world. But this is only half the answer, and the less important half at that. This same process of accumulation and development to which the oppressed countries have contributed so dearly, has also created the science, production techniques, and, increasingly, the proletarian class itself, which makes a different organisation of society possible and necessary on the whole planet. It is against this possibility, which is straining to come into being, that the barriers of capitalism must be examined.

National Liberation – Still a Task of the Proletariat

In one of the most insightful passages of Empire, perhaps in anticipation of the attacks that the negation of “nation” will surely solicit, the authors argue: “the nation is progressive strictly as a fortified line of defence against more powerful external forces. As much as these walls may appear progressive in their protective function against external domination, they can easily play an inverse role with respect to the interior they protect.”47

Their discussion of black nationalism in the US points to the positive role this struggle has played, while also correctly pointing out that “the progressive elements are accompanied inevitably by their reactionary shadows... (eclipsing class differences, for example) or when it designates one segment of the community (such as Afro-American men) as de facto representatives of the whole…”.48

“With national ‘liberation’ and the construction of the nation-state, all of the oppressive functions of modern sovereignty inevitably blossom in full force.” “The revolution (in the colonial countries) is thus offered up, hand and feet bound to the new bourgeoisie. It is a February revolution,49 one might say, that should be followed by an October. But the calendar has gone crazy: October never comes, the revolutionaries get bogged down in ‘realism’, and modernisation ends up lost in the hierarchies of the world market…the liberated countries find themselves subordinated in the international economic order.” Or, as they put it later, “the state is the poisoned gift of national liberation”.50

The above passage is accurate as a summation of the course that the great majority of “national liberation” struggles have travelled, especially if one is to (mis)understand “national liberation” to consist principally of the struggle for formal independence. In Africa, for example, the whole period of de-colonialisation beginning in the 1950s and really only ending with the replacement of the apartheid regime in South Africa in 1994, was accompanied by the ideology of nationalism. In many of these struggles a more radical current attempted to cast the struggle in Marxist-Leninist (and even sometimes Maoist) terms, sometimes presenting this kind of “national liberation” struggle as a prologue to a further socialist stage. In these countries what became consolidated was a bourgeois regime, oppressing the masses of people and bound hand-to-foot to the world imperialist system. Indeed, “October never comes”.

But here again we see the difference between what people may imagine themselves to be, whatever banner they raise to justify their action, and what class relations people actually represent. Indeed, a great problem with many of the variants of revolutionary nationalism is that they confound Marxism and nationalism and inevitably obscure the central question in every revolutionary process, specifically the question of which class is leading and what kind of society will be brought into being. The Maoist understanding of new-democratic revolution is of a bourgeois-democratic revolution of a new type, led by the proletariat and aiming not at the creation of a capitalist society led by the bourgeoisie but opening the way forward to a socialist society led by the proletariat. For no struggle for proletarian revolution can succeed without fighting against every aspect of inequality and domination. The proletariat takes up the task of freeing the nation, yet never sees its goal in such a limited light. Ironically, history has shown that those whose goal has been limited to the liberation of the nation and whose ideology has been nationalist are fundamentally unequal to fulfilling the real tasks of national liberation. For example, be it Cuba’s dependency first on sugar cane and now on tourism or Mozambique’s dependency on exporting migrant labour to South Africa, we see that the task of freeing these societies from the grip of world imperialism is far from accomplished. This is because any attempt to preside over a functioning capitalist economy must inevitably reach an accommodation (the “realism” Negri and Hardt refer to) with the world imperialist system. This economic dynamic will create a bourgeoisie even where one does not yet exist, as we have seen in country after country.

It is only when the task of the liberation of the nation and the subsequent reconstruction of the nation is clearly and decisively subordinated to the transformation of the whole world that the resolve and strength to travel a different path can be found. But this different path also requires a state, the leadership of society and the material strength to overcome external and internal opposition to this path. In fact, the liberation of nations, shattering the grip of imperialism, is just as necessary today as it was forty years ago. And this struggle will play a very important role, if and to the extent that it is subordinated to the ideology and programme of the proletariat and the latter’s world historic emancipatory task.

It is noteworthy that in this section of Empire the authors do not even mention the outstanding case where national liberation struggle did indeed lead to “October”, that is to the socialist revolution, and here we are speaking of the Chinese Revolution where Mao Tsetung conducted the long struggle against feudalism, imperialism and bureaucrat capitalism not as an end in itself but as a necessary prologue to the socialist revolution. The danger that the necessary task of national liberation will blind the revolutionaries to the goal of communism (assuming that such a goal was there in the first place51), that “October will never come”, is real indeed. But real danger cannot be used as an excuse for failing to undertake a necessary if perilous journey. The proletariat must dare to take up the task of leading national liberation, of uniting the great majority of the population, including the national bourgeois elements (open and disguised) whose programme is really only to set up an independent bourgeois system while refusing to relinquish the leadership of the revolution to such forces and taking the necessary measures to assure that the masses of people are more and more involved in carrying out a revolutionary process that does lead in the direction of socialism and ultimately communism.

Mao did take up the challenge of “de-linking” China from the hostile imperialist world and actually built a socialist society that was very much an “autonomous economic structure” not dependent on the imperialist system or the world market. Elsewhere Empire’s authors refer to Mao’s China as essentially a “modernisation” project.52 In reality, the communist revolutionaries in China were indeed building a whole different kind of society, quite the opposite of the capitalist system that had emerged in Europe and elsewhere. True, the Chinese revolution gave an important emphasis to uprooting the pre-capitalist remnants in the countryside and to building up an industrial base and other features of modern life. But Mao never lost sight of the goal of classless society and the dynamic role of people in the struggle to reach this society, unlike the revisionists, such as Deng Xiao-peng, in the Communist Party of China who did in fact see modernisation as an end in itself and who seized power from the revolutionaries following Mao’s death under the banner of accomplishing the “four modernisations”.53

The Continuing Importance of the Peasantry and the Agrarian Question

In Multitude Negri and Hardt take up the question of the transformation that capitalism has wrought in agriculture in the Third World. Their subtitle, “Twilight of the Peasant World”, reveals their basic thesis – the disappearance of the peasantry, which they define “as those who labour on their own land, produce primarily for their own consumption, are partially integrated and subordinated within a larger economic system and either own or have access to the necessary land and equipment”.54 Of course, with the peasantry defined in this narrow way, their conclusion is inescapable.

The authors correctly refer to the important analysis Mao made based on the differentiation of the peasantry, specifically into poor, middle and rich peasants. In the course of the polarisation of the peasantry between the poor and landless on one side and the rich peasants who employ others on the other, the middle peasants, who alone really meet Negri and Hardt’s definition of the peasantry as self-sufficient producers, “all but vanish in the process”.55 The authors point out that “Mao’s political focus turned toward the peasantry – not toward the peasants as they were but toward the peasants as they could be.”56

Mao had indeed analysed that the workings of imperialism had forever changed the Chinese countryside and, in particular, the class differentiation among the peasantry. But he also understood that this process was taking place within a context in which foreign imperialism was hampering China from emerging as a full-scale capitalist society, hence the need for China to undergo a bourgeois-democratic revolution, but of a new type, led by the proletariat and opening the pathway to socialism. Mao was certainly not a “peasant revolutionary”, as the modern Soviet revisionists or Enver Hoxha portrayed him. As Negri and Hardt correctly point out, “the final victory of the peasant revolution is the end of the peasantry”.57 Mao did, of course, embark on a process of collectivisation of agriculture in China with the long-term perspective of reducing step-by-step the differences between worker and peasant and town and countryside as part of the overall progression of the socialist revolution. But the authors lose sight of the extremely important – and revolutionary – step that was taken in China with the redistribution of the land. Yes, the goal was the socialist transformation of China’s countryside, but this would not be developed in a straight path out of the differentiation (or the partial proletarianisation) of large sections of the peasantry in the old society. To go forward to the socialist future, it was first necessary to resolve the “old” land problem in a revolutionary way by giving land title to the peasantry. In this way the enthusiasm of the peasantry was unleashed to tear up the reactionary system, which had been enslaving them for centuries, and so the old feudal relations in the countryside were decisively shattered. But this revolutionary measure was a doubled-edged sword, for it also opened the door for capitalism and the process of differentiation of the peasantry, into rich and poor, with the inevitable result of land becoming concentrated in the hands of a rich peasantry or capitalist farmers and the majority being reduced to landlessness. (And indeed in the first years after land reform it was possible to see such a capitalist or rich peasant economy rapidly developing in China.)

For Mao, giving “land to the tiller” was not an end in itself, rather it was the necessary step to lead to the voluntary co-operation of the peasantry. Only in this way could the enthusiasm of the masses for collectivisation be fully unleashed and could its voluntary nature be assured. This differed greatly, for example, from the revisionist model of Cuba in which the old sugar estates were simply transformed into new revisionist state capitalist farms where, while the conditions of the agricultural workers certainly improved, there was ultimately no fundamental change in their relations of wage slavery.

Negri and Hardt are correct when they say that the traditional peasantry is being transformed, but they are wrong when they write as if the need for agrarian revolution has disappeared in a great number of countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. It is certainly true that, in the period since Mao’s analysis of the Chinese countryside, the penetration of imperialism has continued to transform the rural class relations in many Third World countries.58 But it should be understood that this does not happen in a one-dimensional way: while capitalism is dissolving some aspects of pre-capitalist relations it can also incorporate and reinforce other aspects.

In India, for example, in some aspects the caste system is as strong in Punjab, one of the most capitalistically developed agricultural areas in the country, as in much more backward areas. And, in fact, modern capitalist agriculture can and does profit from medieval practices such as caste. The fact that capitalism tends toward the dissolution of the peasantry is not the same thing as saying that it has eliminated the peasantry or the striving of the poor and landless peasants (the “semi-proletarians”) for a bourgeois solution, that is, becoming small landholders. There are many tendencies of capitalism that are held in check by other, countervailing tendencies and geo-political realities. For example, capital also has a tendency to support and rely on existing reactionary authority, as we see in imperialism’s support for feudal sheikhs in the Gulf as long as oil flows freely, and this runs contrary to capitalism’s other tendencies to remake the world in its image. Generally speaking, in the Third World it is only on the basis of a bourgeois-democratic solution to the land question (“land to the tiller”) that it is possible to advance toward the truly proletarian-socialist future, which will, indeed, mean the gradual elimination of the peasantry as a class. But to act as if capitalism has already eliminated the peasantry and peasant aspirations would be to try to build a new society on a foundation of sand.

In Brazil, today, as few as 20 per cent of the people make their livelihood through agriculture. But it can also be seen that the movement of the landless is the most important struggle in that country against the reactionary regime and has drawn widespread support from the masses in the urban areas as well. Negri and Hardt explain this support by saying that the particularities of the peasantry have been dissolved into the general mass or “multitude” of the Brazilian producers. But there is another, more correct explanation: the agrarian question in Brazil still concentrates and typifies to a large degree the “new-democratic revolution” against imperialism and feudalism, which is still to be accomplished in that country, involving the vast majority of the population as well as the landless.

IV. Law of Value and “Immaterial Labour”

Central to the thesis of Empire, and a subject that is returned to in more length in Multitude, is the argument that “immaterial labour” is now the determining form of labour on the earth. The authors see this as a question of quality, not quantity, proposing a parallel to the role of industrial labour in the nineteenth century, which, although dwarfed quantitatively by agricultural labour, came to characterise the whole epoch and transform the way other forms of labour, such as agriculture and artisan labour, took place. They argue that today immaterial labour, in other words, labour that is not producing material objects, is dominating and colouring other forms of labour that continue to exist (industrial and agricultural).

Here again, there is a reason why the observations and arguments of Negri and Hardt “ring true” to many people. It is indeed a fact that an important, and rapidly increasing, sphere of production comprises various forms of “immaterial labour”, such as creating computer software. Not only is this sphere itself very important to contemporary capitalism (and we know that a number of the largest and most dynamic corporations today are in this sphere, Microsoft being the archetypical example), but the advance of computerisation does affect the quality of work in many spheres and the way in which people interact in the productive process. This also has an effect on class relations. For example, journalists generally turn in their stories on computer files, thus eliminating the need for traditional typesetters of a previous generation. The authors also argue that computerisation and the advance in communications (internet, etc.) have led to production being carried out in “networks” – relatively flexible and loose linkages between people that do not require a rigid hierarchical control.

The problem is that Negri and Hardt try to use their understanding of “immaterial labour” to argue that the very concept of “exchange value” no longer has any meaning. Marx and Engels formulated the “labour theory of value” to explain how different commodities are exchanged – why an ounce of gold is worth more than a litre of milk, for example. In brief, they demonstrated that, on the whole, the price for any given commodity will tend to revolve around its exchange value, which represents the “socially necessary labour time” that went into producing that commodity. Negri and Hardt argue that immaterial labour has eliminated the concept of exchange value as representing congealed labour time. Indeed, their understanding of immaterial labour leads them to cast out other pillars of Marxist political economy as well, which are vital to an understanding of capitalism today.

Negri and Hardt argue that many spheres of immaterial production can only take place as part of a collective process that cannot be reduced to simply the activity of exploiting labour power. Negri and Hardt argue that Marx’s conception of variable capital is outmoded, because the labour process does not require capital to “orchestrate production”: “Today productivity, wealth, and the creation of social surplus take the form of co-operative interactivity through linguistic, communicational, and affective networks. In the expression of its own creative energies, immaterial labour thus seems to provide the potential for a kind of spontaneous and elementary communism.”60 They go on to say, “The foundation of the classic modern conception of private property is thus to a certain extent dissolved in the postmodern mode of production.”61 Or as they state in Multitude, “Our innovative and creative capacities are always greater than our productive labour – productive, that is, of capital. At this point we can recognise that this bio-political production is on the one hand immeasurable, because it cannot be quantified in fixed units of time; and, on, the other hand, always excessive with respect to the value that capital can extract from it because capital can never capture all of life. This is why we have to revise Marx’s notion of the relation between labour and value in capitalist production.”62

Let’s look again at the question of language to shed light on what Negri and Hardt are arguing. It is true that the development of language involves all of society and that this cannot be reduced to a product that is a direct application of labour power purchased and organised by the capitalist class. For Negri and Hardt, “immaterial production”, such as the creation of language, is exploited by the capitalist class, not through the buying and selling of commodities and labour power, but by “the expropriation of the common”.63 Language itself is not a commodity, it has no “value” in a Marxist sense, or more precisely, it has no “exchange value”. Of course, language is one of the most important and constantly developing assets of society but, as these writers correctly recognise, it does not develop mainly through commodity relations, through the purchase and sale of commodities, including labour power itself. Language has existed as long as human beings have existed, and long after commodity production and exchange value are buried people will continue to develop language and literature. But when the development of language takes place within capitalist society, this central feature of human society cannot escape from the whole social environment of commodity production that permeates all of society. When language is transformed into a commodity – for example, when the ability to speak English raises the level of the exchange value of a person’s labour power (that is to say, their salary), when English medium schools thrive both as a source of profit and a means of class differentiation in many countries, when dictionaries or works of culture and art that codify the developments of language that the masses have produced are exchanged on the market place, these social products do indeed become commodities that are privately appropriated, that are bought and sold, and that are subject to the law of value. The mechanism through which capitalism exploits is none other than the system of commodity production; outside of this framework of buying and selling, to speak of capitalist exploitation has no real scientific meaning.

The great concern of the imperialists for “intellectual property rights” shows that the “shell” of bourgeois relations has to be shattered by the conscious and forceful act of the proletariat and that these relations will not just spontaneously dissolve into cyberspace. The absurdity of private ownership stands out all the more sharply in so far as the productive process itself, even restrained and channelled by capitalism, does require an ever increasing interaction of people and ideas in a given society and throughout the world, as Empire forcefully argues. This is why it is so important for the capitalists to appropriate, regulate, channel and “commodify” the understanding and development that does come forward from among the masses.

In software production it is true, as the authors point out, that the direct and indirect interaction of countless actors are the building blocks on which products are created. This is particularly evident in the “open source” movement, which refers to the efforts of computer engineers and others to fight so that all source code for software lies in the public domain and is not subject to copyright. Even, or perhaps especially, the wealth of experience of software users, their complaints, the solutions they find to bugs, and so forth, all become part of the collective process that goes into software production. Negri and Hardt consider this “spontaneous communism”, but what it mainly shows is that the shell of capitalism throttles the capacity of the people to produce, and that whatever spontaneous and creative channels and networks people create to carry out production and scientific experiment and investigation will generally be brought under the wing of the capitalists, or risk being suffocated altogether.

In the world today it is only the capitalist who is in a position to transform the products of people’s labour and initiative into a saleable product, and as long as capitalism does exist products that cannot be profitably sold will not be produced. For example, one of the great crimes of capitalism is how little of the world’s resources are directed toward the prevention and cure of malaria, a disease that kills millions every year, while billions of dollars have been spent researching and marketing Viagra, an expensive medication to increase sexual performance in men. As long as the profit system continues to dominate society these kinds of misallocations of human resources are inevitable, and promising avenues to fulfil real social needs will not be pursued.

Capitalism is certainly theft, but it is a particular kind of theft, a particular mode of production. This mode of production does mean, yes, hiring different kinds of people (“variable capital”) and organising their efforts and expropriating the product of the collective efforts. The “exchange value” of these commodities around which their actual sale price gravitates is indeed essentially determined by the law of value, by the amount of “socially necessary labour time” that goes into their production, or if we want to rephrase this, to take into account Negri and Hardt’s reasonable argument that much of what ends in the capitalist product is not a direct result of capital’s investment, we can say that the exchange value also includes that amount of socially necessary labour time that goes into appropriating, privatising, systematising, packaging and marketing the product that may well have been produced or exist outside of the capitalist relationship, construed in the strictest sense.

To give an example, drinking water in a mountain community is not a commodity, it is not bought and sold, it is just there to be consumed, it has no exchange value but only use value. If a capitalist enterprise sets up a factory to bottle this pure water and sell it to city dwellers, the exchange value of the water will be determined only by the costs involved in setting up the factory, the labour power employed in the bottling process, shipping and transportation and additional costs, such as administration and advertising. So pure drinking water with no exchange value is transformed into a commodity in accordance with the law of value. And why cannot city dwellers simply organise themselves and their mountain-dwelling sisters and brothers to deliver the pure water to those that need it? The simple answer is capitalism – the capitalists own and control the transportation and distribution facilities, they alone have the capital necessary to build the bottling plant, and they alone can mobilize and control the labour power necessary to carry out the whole process. So, even if everyone had an “equal right” to the mountain water, we can see that it is only the capitalist class that can avail itself of this right. And to carry this a step further, if some men and women of good will were to band together to form a kind of co-operative water supply, they could only succeed in this venture to the extent that they themselves became capitalists, and any efforts they made to ignore or violate the law of value, for example, by giving it away to the poor and needy, would be smashed by the infamous “invisible hand” of the capitalist market. Indeed, repeated co-operative efforts in country after country have shown that the only choice is to join the band or be crushed.

Let us look further at Negri and Hardt’s software producers and their argument that “value” is being produced and expropriated even though exchange value has been eliminated, since it is this alleged disappearance of exchange value that is at the heart of their re-definition of capitalist exploitation. But source code used in computer programming, however brilliant and however useful, can only make a profit for the capitalist if and when it is transformed into a marketable commodity, that is, something that will be exchanged for money, either by an enterprising venture capitalist or a software giant. And indeed this is something that happens every day. It is worth noting that even if Microsoft and some other software giants have ferociously opposed the “open source” movement (making the source code freely available to the public), other huge capitalist groups, such as Sun Computers, have found ways to make massive profits precisely through “appropriating” the creative work of others. These products cannot escape from the workings of capitalism and its market; generally speaking, if no firm finds a way to directly or indirectly profit from a product, even the most useful of applications is likely to be sidelined and forgotten.

Certainly Negri and Hardt are correct in calling attention to the fact that an increasingly important section of the world economy is selling services and not goods. But the important thing to stress is that services, also, do not escape from the law of value: they are exchanged (sold) at a price that reflects that amount of socially necessary labour time64 that has gone into producing them. Without the expertise and knowledge to use it (which is overwhelmingly monopolised and organised and sold by the capitalist class) source code is meaningless gibberish and is no more equally available to the masses than the “equal right” of all to spend their holidays on the French Riviera.

It is true that much creative collaboration takes place through informal “networks” (for example, discussion groups on the internet), but it is not true that these networks somehow escape from the social reality of private ownership and private appropriation, or the division of labour in capitalist society. Negri and Hardt are unable to see the hand of capital orchestrating the symphony even if some of the musicians believe that they are only following their spontaneous inclinations. The “centre” does indeed exist, and the autonomy of the actors is hemmed in and ultimately directed by a capitalist system and a capitalist class that very much functions according to the “law of value” that these writers would like to define out of existence.

The authors explicitly reject any continued distinction between use value65 and exchange value, but it is the law of value that still inexorably governs capitalist society, determining prices, wages, profits and investments, etc., through a complex mechanism that Marx devoted his three volumes of Capital to illuminating. In fact, this contradiction, which Marx discovered at the level of the commodity and which he then traces throughout his study of the capitalist economy, is very much at the heart of Marx’s whole world-view and approach, his materialism. One would have hoped that “discoveries” of such immense importance – the withering away of the distinction between use value and exchange value and between the forces and relations of production – would have been methodically presented and argued for and not just asserted. Negri and Hardt fail to offer an explanation of how the capitalist system functions without the regulation of the law of value and what gives the system its coherence and determines its motion.

In fact, while important features have arisen, the basic laws of capitalism that grow out of commodity production and the conversion of the labourer him or herself into a commodity have not been superseded. It is certainly not always the case that technical innovation is the direct result of the capitalist organisation of work and research. But it is the case that as long as capitalism is master over society, human creativity will be channelled and subordinated to the needs of capital and, to a great degree, suppressed when those needs are not served. Again, what we are seeing is consistent with and a further development of the basic situation that Lenin analysed in Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism: the material conditions for socialism and communism are being further created by the workings of capitalism itself, including and even especially as it grows into the stage of monopoly capitalism, imperialism, but the productive potential of society is coming ever more sharply into conflict with the way capitalism organises society, the relations of production, which act as a “fetter”, a brake, on the ability of mankind to produce and transform the world. For every ounce of “creative energy” revealed by contemporary capitalism, which Negri & Hardt would like to call Empire, far more such energy is stifled. The problem is not, as the authors argue, “to revise Marx’s notion of the relation between labour and value in capitalist production”. The task is for society to go beyond the era in which commodity production still dominates, in which the capacity of humanity to produce is itself reduced to a commodity (labour power).

A Muddled Class Analysis

At one point in Multitude Negri and Hardt spell out in a bit more detail who exactly they are talking about in the sphere of “immaterial production”: among others, “food servers, salespersons, computer engineers, teachers and health workers”.66 Two points come to mind here. First, the obvious, that they blur the distinction between the proletariat and the middle classes (McDonalds hamburger chain employees who work for minimum wage are put in the same category as computer engineers, who are a privileged strata in all countries). This kind of class analysis is not new. Factors such as income level and the role in the social division of labour are obliterated. For example, nothing is more stratified than a modern Western hospital. Not only are income levels vastly, unimaginably, different between cleaners and brain surgeons, the distinctions between mental and manual labour, between those who decide and those who carry out orders, are extremely pronounced. From the point of view of class analysis, there is little value to lumping all hospital employees together into the single category of “health workers”. If we are to have a clear idea who the motive forces of revolution are likely to be and what policies should be adopted to assure the support or neutrality of others, and to identify where we can expect stubborn resistance and opposition and what transformations are required in order to eliminate classes and reach a classless society, it is necessary to have an accurate class analysis.

Any class analysis must continue to give great importance to the division Lenin analysed between the mass of the proletariat and the labour aristocracy. (The labour aristocracy is that section of the proletariat which is “bribed” with the super-profits the imperialists are able to extract from the proletariat and the masses in the oppressed countries.) Negri and Hardt claim that in the period “of the decline of imperialisms” that they date from 1970, “the imperialist advantages of any national working class had begun to wither away”.67 Even a rudimentary study of contemporary imperialist society shows that such advantages do indeed exist, that this bribery affects whole sections of the population and not a mere handful, and that, taken as a whole, these strata serve as a social base for imperialism and reaction. As for teachers and doctors, their conditions of work and life (their role in the division of labour and their share in distribution) make them more a part of a diverse middle class or classes regardless of how many trade unions they may have. Negri and Hardt are correct to speak to a kind of “convergence” between the struggle of the proletariat in the West and those in the oppressed countries, which took place in the upsurges of the 1960s and 1970s, and to criticise “Third Worldist” theories, which said “the primary contradiction and antagonism of the international capitalist system is between the capital of the First world and the labour of the Third. The potential for revolution thus resides squarely and exclusively in the Third World.”68 But building the real international unity of the proletariat cannot be done by ignoring the great gap in the world between the oppressor and oppressed countries or refusing to see that this reality has influenced the class structure of the imperialist countries.

Rather than the “dematerialisation” of the proletariat – its conversion into the non-class “multitude” – it should be considered whether the actual phenomenon the authors are describing of the rise of immaterial labour reflects the proletarianisation or partial proletarianisation of the service industries and even some of the more privileged occupations. For example, the US restaurant chain McDonalds became a vast network of small factories producing hamburgers on an industrial scale with the most modern techniques, and in many Western countries the massive consumption of fast food is central to the survival of the work force or, to put it in economic terms, the reproduction of labour power (what the authors would prefer to call “bio-production”).69 Those people working in McDonalds have little in common with an accountant and far more in common with workers on a factory assembly line, including the tyranny of the foreman and the time clock.

The authors write, “The universality of human creativity, the synthesis of freedom, desire, and living labour, is that it takes place in the non-place of the postmodern relations of production. Empire is the non-place of world production where labour is exploited.”70 The “postmodern relations of production” thus take place everywhere and nowhere. To buttress their argument, they call attention to such labour practices as flexible hours and to the fact that many of those involved in “immaterial labour” take their work home with them, so to speak. For example, an advertising consultant might be thinking of a new slogan at any time of the day or night. Or consider how the growth of the internet has made it possible for much secretarial work to be outsourced to people working at home or even on the other side of the world.

The role of the individual in the division of labour of society and their share of the distribution of the social product (that is to say, their income) will have a great effect on the actual relations these kinds of situations really represent and how the person perceives these. There can be little doubt that a typist working hours a day inputting repetitive material into a computer will quite easily sense the difference between the time spent working for the capitalist and his or her hours of leisure, and will not share Negri and Hardt’s conclusion that “the temporal unity of labour as the basic measure of value today makes no sense.”71 To not sense the difference between the time of exploitation and life itself, unfortunately, is the privilege of a tiny stratum whose role in the social division of labour gives them the responsibility for creativity, working with ideas, developing culture and so forth. It is true that the material conditions have been created where Marx’s metaphor of the future communist person who will divide the day between productive labour, reading and fishing for pleasure may seem right at hand. However, this possibility, so alluringly dangled, can never be realised for the masses of people under capitalism, but only by digging up and destroying the laws of capitalism that Negri and Hardt have declared dysfunctional a bit too prematurely.

A Guaranteed Social Wage

The confusion of the authors and their ultimately non-revolutionary vision is shown in their discussion of the fight for a “social wage”. It is also true that large numbers of people in society contribute to the production of value without having a direct wage relationship with the capitalist. Progressive feminist theoreticians have long stressed that, for example, the rearing of children plays a central role in the reproduction of the labouring classes and is thus a form of unpaid labour. Similarly, in a number of countries small-scale, non-capitalist production provides the sustenance for the family (and hence the reproduction) of the labourer, making it possible for the capitalist employer to pay less than the actual value of the labour power he is purchasing.72 This very true reality does not negate the basic functioning of capitalism. Rather it shows that when capitalism dominates a society, other relations are subsumed and shaped by it. The solution to this can be none other than the abolition of capitalism itself.

Negri and Hardt polemicise with those who would reduce the proletariat to the industrial workers and who especially dismiss the poor and the unemployed. They argue that all of the masses are included in the process of production of value, whether or not they work (“the social division between the employed and the unemployed is becoming ever more blurred”73). There is a great deal of truth in the authors’ observations and their criticism of trade unionists (and the latters’ attitude toward the poor and also toward masses in the “global south”).

An interesting passage in Empire denounces what Negri and Hardt call “the dominant stream of the Marxist tradition, which has always hated the poor, precisely for their being ‘free as birds’, for being immune to the discipline of the factory and the discipline necessary for the construction of socialism.”74 It is in fact true that the revisionist and social-democratic currents in the “Marxist tradition” have had such deviations. William Z Foster, a leader of the Communist Party, USA for much of its early history, denounced the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) for being based on an “unstable” section of the workers.75 Although we do not share Negri and Hardt’s near worship of the IWW’s anarcho-syndicalism, it is a fact that the IWW played an important role in building up a revolutionary section of the proletariat in the US during the period around the First World War, and the organisation it built among garment workers, migrant farm workers and lumberjacks played a more revolutionary role than the narrow-minded trade unions that appealed so much to Foster. But the vision of the proletariat as having a stake in the stability of the capitalist system cannot be laid at the doorstep of Marx and Engels themselves, who described a proletariat uprooted from one industry or country and hurled into the capitalist profit machine for only as long as it was beneficial to the capitalist class. Marx and Engels stressed that the working class “had nothing to lose but its chains”. And Engel’s description of the working class in England has nothing in common with the labour aristocrat viewpoint that dominates the “labour movement” here.

Negri and Hardt’s political economy leads them to the programmatic demand that they find so revolutionary of a “guaranteed income for all”. Some feminists with logic similar to that of Negri and Hardt have raised demands for the remuneration of housework by the capitalist class. Actually, these kinds of demands are at once both profoundly utopian and reformist. Utopian because as long as the law of value is still in command of society, which is the case, however much Negri and Hardt deny it, it is impossible to guarantee a decent living wage outside the conditions of commodity production. Reformist because such demands do not challenge the capitalist system. In many European countries such a guaranteed income exists (albeit in poverty-stricken conditions) and everyone, with the important exception of “illegal” immigrants, is eligible. Capitalism can continue to function with the “guaranteed income”, and when the capitalists are faced with demographic decline they are even willing at times to provide significant financial incentives for women to return to their traditional role as “breeders”.76

Our authors fail to recognise that as long capitalism exists, as long as labour power itself is a commodity and these commodities are exchanged through the medium of money, that is, they are bought and sold, labour power itself will be determined by the law of value. This is why social democratic reformers, once at the helm of the capitalist system, can do little else other than “manage” the smooth functioning of capitalism. The dynamic of capitalism itself will punish any who deviates from its dictates, and its laws will reassert themselves independent of anyone’s will.77 The masses can never be free as long as capitalism exists. Rather than focus the energy of the people on the utopian and reformist goal of a “universal wage”, we must resurrect and hold high Marx’s stirring call for “the abolition of the wage system” itself instead of the reformist slogan of “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work”.78 Marx was calling for society to go beyond the whole capitalist era in which human beings can only interact through the buying and selling of commodities and in which the capacity of the masses to produce is itself reduced to a commodity to be purchased and used by the capitalists. Negri and Hardt are not alone – far too many “Marxists” themselves have often lost sight of what a revolutionary vision this really is and how radical a rupture it represents from the world we live in.

V. Democracy, Anarchy and Communism

Negri and Hardt declare that, “The task is to discover a way in common, involving men, women, workers, migrants, the poor, and all the elements of the multitude, to administer the legacy of humanity and direct the future production of food, material goods, knowledge, information, and all other forms of wealth.”79 True, and well put. We suspect, however, that many readers may find Negri and Hardt’s sweeping vision incongruous with the rather petty scale of the political solutions they propose. First and foremost, they eliminate the central vehicle for solving the problems of society, namely revolution. In our epoch, this can only mean revolution in the interests of the great majority, led by the proletariat, to seize the helm of society, establish its own state, and use it to step-by-step create the material and ideological conditions in which humanity as a whole will be able to “administer the legacy of humanity and direct the future production”.

The central political question in distinguishing revolutionary communism from different political programmes has always been the question of the state. It is not surprising that it is in the understanding of the state that the fundamentally non-revolutionary programme of Negri and Hardt stands out. The US “constitutional project” earns lyrical praise in both Empire and Multitude. And their suggestions for an international order are reflected in admiring the International Criminal Court “which more than any other institution indicates the possibility of a global system of justice that serves to protect the rights of all equally” or in the ode to the European Union, which is specifically considered a model for a “new global constitution”.80

Perhaps our readers will need little convincing of the non-revolutionary nature of Negri and Hardt’s political proposals. But in order to better understand why these authors seem unable to go beyond timid suggestions for readjusting existing international institutions it is necessary to look more closely at what their vision of “communism” really is.

Democracy and Class Rule

We saw in Empire’s treatment of “immaterial labour” that an interlocking existence of “networks” of individuals stretching all over the globe and touching all of the important domains of human activity reveals a “spontaneous tendency toward communism”. In other passages they refer to networks in which there are countless nodes but no centre.81 Their vision of the future communist society is that, somehow, the masses will be self-governing, without the intermediary of any central institutions. This is linked very much to their political conception developed in Empire and even more in Multitude that the goal is “democracy”, whose definition of “the rule of everyone by everyone” the authors borrow from eighteenth-century revolutionaries.

It is beyond the scope of this article to go into depth on the basic Marxist understanding of democracy and the state, which holds that any state is based on the rule (dictatorship) of one class over another and that, therefore, “the rule of everyone by everyone” is a deception that covers over the real class nature of the bourgeois-democratic state.82

In the passage of Multitude with the revealing subtitle “Back to the Eighteenth Century” (meaning the era of the original ideologues of the political system of democracy), the authors acknowledge that in the democracy promoted by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (key leaders of the American Revolution and founders of the US political system) “everyone” was restricted to white, male property owners. But Negri and Hardt see all “modern revolutions” as simply an extension of “everyone” to encompass broader and broader sections of the population. While it is true that bourgeois democracy has evolved so that today women and propertyless men have also been granted universal suffrage, the class reality of the bourgeois state remains essentially the same. Negri and Hardt confound the bourgeois and socialist revolution when they write, “One can read the history of modern revolutions as a halting and uneven but nonetheless real progression toward the realisation of the absolute concept of democracy.”83

There is a fundamental difference between the revolutions led by the bourgeoisie, such as the French and US revolutions, and those led by the proletariat – the Paris Commune, the Russian Revolution and the Chinese Revolution. In refusing to recognise this distinction Negri and Hardt are falling into the same error made by social-democrats and revisionists for 150 years. Marx stressed that all “previous revolutions” (meaning the bourgeois or “modern revolutions” to use Negri and Hardt’s terms) only perfected the state, while the necessity is to smash it. Engels specifically calls on his readers to look at the Paris Commune if they want to see the “dictatorship of the proletariat” in action. But revisionists and social-democrats have insisted on the continuity of the bourgeois and socialist revolution, obliterating their class content. The goal of the proletarian revolution is not the “extension” of democracy but rather the surpassing of democracy, that is, the withering away of the state itself.84

This “absolute concept of democracy” is linked to Negri and Hardt’s worship of the “spontaneous communism” in the networks of immaterial labour. “The vast majority of our political, economic, affective, linguistic, and productive interactions are always based on democratic relations…the civil processes of democratic exchange, communication and co-operation that we develop and transform each day.”85 This is really a muddle, but it does help reveal the underlying basis of their thinking. First, the “democratic exchange” referred to above, especially when we are talking about economic and “productive interactions”, really means nothing other than the free exchange of commodities. In other words, under capitalism goods and services are constantly and spontaneously bought and sold on the sacred “free market”. Negri and Hardt are unable to see beyond a society based on the principle of free exchange and instead idealise this “democratic exchange” as the highest social goal. This is undoubtedly why they approvingly cite Spinoza holding that “other forms of government are distortions or limitations of human society whereas democracy is its natural fulfilment.”86

In reality, Negri and Hardt’s political philosophy is better defined as anarchist or anarcho-communist. It does not really rupture with the idea of bourgeois economists and philosophers that if every individual pursues his or her own individual interests, through these competing and conflicting interests the collective interests of society will ultimately triumph. No doubt Negri and Hardt would strenuously object to any suggestion that the networks they describe are, in fact, being orchestrated by the “invisible hand” of the market, yet, as we have already seen, this is very much the case.

Negri and Hardt propose that human society should take hold of its own legacy and direct future production, but they are completely lost as to how this might be accomplished and on what basis such regulation could take place. To believe that society will organise itself spontaneously is to negate the tremendous transformation that is required if society is to go beyond the purchase and sale of commodities (and the central fact that under capitalism labour power itself becomes a commodity to be bought and sold). This is because the idealised “spontaneous communism” of Negri and Hardt really is just the theoretical projection of the class position of the small commodity producer (including the producers of “immaterial” commodities who are so central to Negri and Hardt’s analysis). In other words, it appears to the small producer, or petite bourgeoisie, that the problems of the world can be solved “if only” the restrictions and impediments to the “equal exchange of equal values” (such as monopoly or special privileges) are eliminated. The political expression of this is Negri and Hardt’s “absolute concept of democracy” referred to earlier. They have ruled exchange value to be an obsolete category, but the reality is that there is no other basis, no other regulatory mechanism, that can govern the exchanges between individuals, economic sectors, “networks”, and whole countries except exchange value as long as commodity production prevails. Ultimately their refusal to recognise the continuing regulatory role of the law of value in contemporary society means to bow down before it and to abandon the world historic task of transcending the law of value, which will come about, not through the spontaneous evolution of capitalism, but through the struggle to overthrow it.

Certainly a revolutionary transformation of the socio-economic system will require dethroning the law of value from its commanding heights and step-by-step transforming the material and social conditions that prevent it from being eliminated altogether. For example, in revolutionary China under Mao, use value and not exchange value fundamentally decided where state investments were to be allocated. Whether a factory would produce pharmaceuticals or cosmetics was not determined on the basis of return on investment as it is in capitalist society (and as in China today, for that matter). Even in those areas, such as the distribution of income, where the law of value dominated, important steps were made to limit this, for instance, keeping housing priced very cheaply, well below its actual exchange value. But the ability to restrain the law of value came precisely from the fact that a proletarian state existed that could and did consciously plan the economy, necessarily taking into account the law of value, but not allowing the law of value to dictate and reign supreme. Without such conscious control over the productive apparatus, if things are allowed to take their spontaneous course, then the “invisible hand” of the law of value will orchestrate the “networks” of producers and all the horrible features of capitalism would return – along with a bourgeois state to enforce these horrors. It is undoubtedly true that state control alone does not by any means assure that a society will truly be transformed in a socialist direction. The state can itself become the enforcer and organiser of the law of value, as we saw in the earlier example of the Cuban state’s role in maintaining sugar production as the centre of the national economy. Revisionist state capitalism in the USSR and other countries of the former East bloc proved in living colour that mere state ownership is not a guarantee of anything revolutionary. Nor can we agree with the social-democratic critics of Negri and Hardt, who berate them for failing to see the state as a necessary instrument of “reform”, by which these critics mean the existing, bourgeois state.87

Withering Away of the State... Under Capitalism!

Marxists have long held that the future communist society would come from the “withering away of the state” when the conditions that require the existence of such a state, that is class society, have been overcome. Negri and Hardt’s peculiar contribution is to suggest that the withering away of the state can take place….under capitalism! There is no longer any need or basis for the proletariat to wield state power.

In their discussion of the oppressed countries Negri and Hardt argue that the masses can, at best, hope for a modest reform in their conditions thanks to an alliance between progressive forces in the advanced countries and reform governments like Lula da Silva’s government in Brazil. Even when Negri and Hardt speak of revolutionary forces, their constant point of reference is the EZLN, better known as the “Zapatistas” of Mexico. The authors correctly sense the difference between the EZLN and the revolutionary projects led by Marxist-Leninist-Maoists now and in the past. They approvingly recall that for the Zapatistas, the “goal has never been to defeat the state and claim sovereign authority but rather to change the world without taking power.”88 It is interesting to note that while some Marxist-Leninist-Maoist forces have difficulty seeing the reformist nature of the EZLN and forces like them, Negri and Hardt are quick to draw the links between Lula and Subcommandante Marcos, recognising that whether the struggle is violent or non-violent, the essential point is that no seizure of political power should be attempted and that instead the world should be changed gradually and step-by-step.

Maoists have raised the slogan that “without state power, all is illusion”. Negri and Hardt’s idealism leads them to inverse this reality. Essentially they argue that no petty reform, no utopian pipe dream and no demagogy from the governors should be dismissed, everything should be taken at its face value. In their upside-down world-view, nothing is illusion, except the state power of the ruling classes, which will somehow magically dissolve as the multitude fights for “real democracy”. As for the state power of the proletariat, for Negri and Hardt it is best not even attempted. In this article we will not enter into the vital discussion of the experience of proletarian political revolution of the twentieth century, but we will reaffirm that despite the mistakes and shortcomings of this experience, some of which were serious or even tragic, these were mistakes and shortcomings in the process of tremendous and heroic efforts to bring into being a world without exploitation and oppression. The mistakes of the proletariat in exercising political power pale in comparison to the much greater mistake that would result from following Negri and Hardt, which is to negate the fight for political power.

Yes, human society is full of promise. The ability of the masses to produce, to create, to consciously master society is constantly reasserting itself in a thousand domains. But the conflict between the capacity of humanity and its current form of organisation, which is based upon capitalist exploitation, is growing sharper. The contradictions and developments of contemporary society push it in the direction of a communist future. But this transformation is neither inevitable nor automatic and will never take place without revolution. The guardians of the old and outmoded, the beneficiaries of human exploitation, control very real institutions – governments, armies and prisons among many others – which protect and enforce capitalist exploitation. To call for “communism” while arguing against a determined struggle to smash these existing reactionary institutions is worse than an illusion, it is a deception.

Communism is possible, necessary and indeed achieving it through world proletarian revolution is the pressing task of human society. The future is bright, but only if we seize it.


1. Perhaps this is partially to be explained by respect for Toni Negri as a victim of political repression in Italy (resulting from his role in the Italian extra-parliamentary left movement of the late 1960s and 1970s).

2. Empire, p. 9.

3. Empire, p. 146.

4. Empire, p. 354.

5. Empire, p. 347 (emphasis added).

6. Tom Mertes p. 147 in the collection Debating Empire.

7. See especially V.I. Lenin’s Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.

8. Empire, p. 166.

9. Empire, p. 174. US President Woodrow Wilson led the US into the First World War and called for the establishment of the League of Nations in its aftermath. US President Theodore Roosevelt fought Spain for possession of Cuba and the Philippines in 1898 and is associated generally with US “gunboat diplomacy” in Latin America.

10. Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, Part One, Lawrence and Wishart, 1970, p. 67.

11. Empire, p. 179.

12. Empire, p. 384.

13. Empire, p. 5.

14. Empire, p. 167.

15. Multitude, p. 5.

16. Multitude, pp. 59-60.

17. Multitude, p. 60.

18. Multitude, p. 385 (emphasis added). One point that we will only note in passing here is that Negri and Hardt also reject what they call the “dialectic”, which they usually attribute to Hegel. But materialist dialectics are the foundation of the Marxist understanding as well, and the contradictions dismissed with the wave of a pen between the base and superstructure and the forces and relations of production are central to this understanding.

19. We will see later in this article that Negri and Hardt forthrightly oppose the “seizure of power” by the masses. In denying the contradiction between the forces and relations of production they are developing their theoretical justification for this non-revolutionary conclusion.

20. The German Ideology, p. 55.

21. We will show later that Negri and Hardt’s vision of communist society is not at all the same as that of Marx and Engels and is really an anarchist version of bourgeois democracy.

22. See Raymond Lotta’s America in Decline, Banner Press, Chicago, 1984. Lotta provides a lucid exposition of how the laws of capitalism continue to operate in the epoch of imperialism. He demonstrates the centrality of the anarchy of capitalist production and shows how capital can exist only as many capitals and that this propels the whole process of capitalist accumulation forward.

23. Empire, p. 234.

24. Empire, p. 269.

25. “Anti-Dühring III”, Marx & Engels Reader, p. 630.

26. In fact, Negri and Hardt, like many in the communist movement, play fast and loose with the word “crisis” in a way that loses its particular meaning and instead refers to the permanent state of contemporary capitalism. Crisis flows from and is a particularly sharp expression of the fundamental contradiction of capitalism, between private appropriation and socialised production, but it is not equivalent to that contradiction. Even in a period of “non-crisis” (i.e. vigorous capitalist expansion) the injustices and irrationality of the capitalist mode of production are glaring.

27. In analysing imperialist crisis, it is Negri and Hardt who are slipping into “purely economic factors”. They analyse the capitalist crisis as beginning in the 1970s without any reference to the fact that the Soviet Union had become an imperialist superpower, and, at that time, was mounting a world-wide challenge against US imperialism.

28. Empire, p. 272.

29. Empire, p. 272.

30. To understand this better we only have to look at those countries that were socialist in name but capitalist in fact – the USSR under the rule of Khrushchev and Brezhnev, or the reversal of socialism in China since the death of Mao Tsetung. In both of these cases differing, competing capitalist interests emerged. Although the whole of the new bourgeoisie shared a common need to exploit the labour of the proletariat they could not and do not do so in a harmonious way. It is not as if a single undifferentiated “bureaucracy” can smoothly exploit the rest of society. The restoration of capitalism also means the restoration of intense competition, dislocation and crisis. Some sections of the new ruling class flourish at the expense of others. And when the final fig leaf of socialism was dropped altogether and the USSR was dissolved, it was not possible for the new bourgeoisie to rule as a single capitalist entity, but rather it divided into rival bands of legal and illegal (mafia) capitalists. And it cannot be otherwise.

31. Empire, p. 248.

32. Empire, p. 251.

33. Bob Avakian, in his discussion in the early 1980s of Mao’s conception of “principal contradiction”, argues that it is not correct to see imperialism as an external enemy in the oppressed countries as it has become “internal” to these countries. See Bob Avakian, On the Principal Contradiction and More on the Principal Contradiction, www.revcom.us.

34. Empire, p. 254.

35. Empire, p. 335.

36. Empire, p. 336.

37. Later we will see that Negri and Hardt wish to claim for themselves the banner of democracy, but when it comes to the liberation of the oppressed nations they are negating even the most elementary of democratic demands. In an earlier passage, the authors seem to refute themselves, arguing that this does not just involve a question of “development”: India or Nigeria are not in the position of France or England of the nineteenth century, “in radically different and even divergent situations – of domination and subordination” and “the economies of the so-called developed countries are defined not only by certain quantitative factors or by their internal structures, but also and more important by their dominant position in the global system.” (p. 282 italics in the original.)

38. Empire, p. 284, in examining “underdevelopment” theories of the 1970s.

39. Marx showed very vividly how the “rosy dawn of capitalism” was integrally bound up with the slave trade, the spoliation of the original inhabitants of the Americas and the economic destruction of much of Asia.

40. Singapore, for example, has a standard of living equal to the US or Europe. But it is a not an internally coherent, economically developed nation state. It has developed as an appendage to the imperialist powers, and profits from backwardness in the region.

41. This kind of understanding has been widespread in the international communist movement. It is particularly associated with Lin Piao’s work Long Live the Victory of People’s War in which he describes the world revolutionary process as one of encircling the “cities” of Europe, North America and Japan from the “countryside” of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

42. After the Second World War Stalin stressed the existence of two opposing camps, one socialist and the other imperialist, and the process of world revolution was looked at essentially as the triumph of one camp over the other. When modern revisionists took over in the Soviet Union this thesis served as a useful fig-leaf for their social-imperialist ambitions – revolution was no longer necessary and a “non-capitalist path of development” was possible by a country linking itself to the USSR. But even Mao and the revolutionary communists tended to adopt the “two camps” view to a certain extent, sometimes acting as if it were possible and desirable to hermetically seal off the socialist camp from the influences of the capitalist world.

43. Unfortunately the defeat of the first wave of proletarian revolution ending with the overthrow of socialism in China after the death of Mao proves that it is not at all “inevitable” that at any point in world history the socialist system will prevail over world imperialism.

44. See AWTW 1999/25. Philip Short’s biography, Pol Pot; Anatomy of a Nightmare, (Henry Hold and Co., Nez York, 2004). also provides valuable insights in this respect.

45. This is another reason why it is non-revolutionary to promise the masses in the advanced countries an immediate rise in their living standard in the event of proletarian revolution. Besides the obvious unlikelihood of seizing the productive forces completely intact, if an immediate increase in living standards became the yardstick by which the new regime measured its success it would be pushed to restore relations of domination with other countries.

46. See the discussion of socialist states as “base areas” in Bob Avakian’s Conquer the World and Advancing the World Proletarian Revolution, www.revcom.us.

47. Empire, p. 106 (italics in original).

48. Empire, p. 108.

49. This is referring to the revolution in February 1917 that replaced the Tsar and instituted a bourgeois republic, overthrown in turn by the Bolshevik revolution of October 1917.

50. Empire, pp. 133-34 (italics in original).

51. Mao and the revolutionaries grouped around him argued that the capitalist-roaders in China did not really share the goal of socialist and communist society and in reality were bourgeois-democrats seeking to liberate the country without uprooting the capitalist system and never ruptured with this ideology. Objectively the programme and outlook of Deng Xiao-ping were restricted to accomplishing the first democratic stage of the revolution, which Mao saw as only a first step. The same can be said of many others who professed to be communists, such as the leader of the Vietnamese revolution, Ho Chi-minh. The phenomenon of “bourgeois democrats becoming capitalist-roaders” is an objective one, reflecting the two different stages of the revolution and the radical rupture with bourgeois ideology that the communist revolution represents. While no one can say in advance what role any specific leader might play in the future, the fact that leaders will emerge who seek to limit the revolution to its bourgeois-democratic stage is inevitable.

52. Empire, p. 248.

53. “On the General Program of Work for the Whole Party and the Whole Nation” in And Mao Mao Makes 5, edited by Raymond Lotta, Banner Press, Chicago, 1978.

54. Multitude, p. 116.

55. Multitude, p. 117.

56. Multitude, p. 124.

57. Multitude, p. 124.

58. Ironically, the most rapid growth of capitalism in recent decades has taken place in China after the restoration of capitalism following the death of Mao and the coup d’état that took place against his successors. This shows that the Chinese revolution, especially digging up the semi-feudal system in agriculture, had indeed “cleared the way” of the obstacles that stood in the way of the rapid development of capitalism. It also explains why people like Deng Xiao-peng who overthrew socialism in China had been willing to unite with Mao and the genuine communists in the earlier democratic stage of the revolution.

59. Marxists consider “variable capital” to be the part of capital that is invested in the wages of workers, for the purchase of labour power, that is, the ability, measured in time, of the labourer to produce commodities.

60. Empire, p. 294.

61. Empire, p .302.

62. Multitude, p. 146.

63. Multitude, p. 150.

64. It is important not to understand this in a narrow sense. Marx stressed that the “socially necessary labour time” also involves “compound labour”, that is, the labour of other producers that goes into raising the value of a given producer. Hence, the value of the work of a software engineer includes the work of others who make it possible for that person to be trained and exercise that occupation, for example, the domestic servants of a software code writer in Bangalore, India or day care centres in San Jose, California.

65. Empire, p. 209.

66. Empire, p. 114.

67. Empire, p. 263.

68. Empire, p. 264.

69. It is estimated that half of all meals eaten in Los Angeles and London are not prepared in the home. A high percentage of these meals are purchased in “fast food” chains.

70. Empire, p. 210.

71. Multitude, p. 145.

72. Marxists hold that the value of labour power is equal to the “socially necessary labour time” that goes into producing the labourer and allowing the labourer to raise another generation. If the capitalist can take advantage of specific circumstances, such as a large pool of “surplus” labour, he will readily pay less wages, even if it means that the labourer cannot ensure the survival and well-being of his family.

73. Multitude, p. 131.

74. Empire, p. 158.

75. See Foster’s History of the Communist Party USA.

76. The reactionary character of these pro-natality measures (in France and Italy, for example) can be seen even more sharply when one considers that they are taking place at the same time that many imperialist countries are taking strong measures to stop immigration flows from the Third World.

77. Severe economic dislocations will result if the capitalist law of value is not adhered to. For example, a country that really tried to provide a generous “guaranteed social wage” would find its currency collapsing. The existence of the laws of capitalism gives force to the arguments of “realism” from ruling class spokesmen of both the right and the left.

78. Marx, Wages, Price and Profit, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, p. 55.

79. Multitude, p. 310.

80. Multitude, pp. 276 and 296.

81. Empire, p. 299. They also try to portray the Internet as an example of such a centreless network. But, in fact, the internet backbone is controlled by the US government (with the explicit agreement of the “international community”).

82. See Lenin, The State and Revolution.

83. Multitude, p. 241. Note their chapter heading, “The New Science of Democracy: Madison and Lenin”.

84. Bob Avakian has made an exhaustive and path-breaking study of the relation between democracy and communist revolution. See in particular Bob Avakian, Democracy: Can’t We do Better than That?”, Banner Press, Chicago, 1986; “Democracy: More than Ever We Can and Must Do Better than That” AWTW 1992/17; and his talk “Dictatorship and Democracy, and the Socialist Transition to Communism” www.revcom.us

85. Multitude, p. 311.

86. Multitude, p. 311. Baruch Spinoza was an important thinker of the early Enlightenment in Holland. It was quite understandable, even revolutionary in the seventeenth century, that Spinoza saw democracy as the natural human condition. It is quite another thing to repeat this contention now when humanity is poised to go beyond a socio-economic system based on the exchange of commodities.

87. A theme in several articles in the collection Debating Empire, edited by Gopal Balakrishnan, the most egregious example being the article by Timothy Brennan, “The Italian Ideology”.

88. Multitude, p. 85.