Antonio Negri: Marx Beyond Marx

To sum up Negri’s exposition of Marx’s line of argument in the Grundrisse: capitalism is a social system with two subjectivities, in which one subject (capital) controls the other subject (working class) through the imposition of work and surplus work. The logic of this control is the dialectic which constrains human development within the limits of capitalist valorization. Therefore, the central struggle of the working class as independent subject is to break capitalist control through the refusal of work. The logic of this refusal is the logic of antagonistic separation and its realization undermines and destroys capital’s dialectic. In the space gained by this destruction the revolutionary class builds its own independent projects – its own self-valorization. Revolution then is the simultaneous overthrow of capital and the constitution of a new society: Communism. The refusal of work becomes the planned abolition of work as the basis of the constitution of a new mode of producing a new multidimensional society.

Harry Cleaver, “Introduction: Part One” to Antonio Negri’s Marx Beyond Marx

Antonio Negri’s written corpus is extensive in time and scope and we cannot do justice to it in any short post, such as this. And whatever differences there are between his thought and our own views, Negri’s intellectual contribution cannot be dismissed.

In this spirit, we share below Harry Cleaver’s written introduction to the English language publication of Antonio Negri’s autonomist classic, Marx Beyond Marx.

First and foremost, Antonio Negri’s Marx Beyond Marx is a book for revolutionary militants. Formally, the book is a reading of Marx’s Grundrisse – a sweeping reinterpretation of the central thrust and particular developments of Marx’s 1857 notebooks. But it is more than that. Marx Beyond Marx is above all a passionately political work designed to present an alternative to orthodox interpretations of Marx by demonstrating how the Grundrisse contains a Marxist science of class struggle and revolution in action. To accomplish this demonstration, Negri weaves together a fierce polemic and a detailed examination and reinterpretation of the text itself. Marx Beyond Marx is a difficult book, and its difficulty creates the danger that its study will be limited to academic Marxists. This would be tragic. We have edited and translated this book, not to contribute another volume to the shelves of English-speaking Marxists, but to put a new and exciting weapon into the hands of working-class militants. However difficult Marx Beyond Marx may be – and its difficulty stems both from the raw complexities of the Grundrisse itself and from Negri’s own theoretical language – its study is more than worth the effort to any militant seeking new ways to understand and use Marxism to come to grips with working class struggle in the present crisis.

For Negri, the Grundrisse represents the “summit of Marx’s revolutionary thought”-a summit that can provide a powerful foundation for revolutionary political practice. He contrasts the Grundrisse to Capital, which, he correctly points out, has often been interpreted in an objectivist and determinist fashion to justify reactionary politics. Negri argues that it is harder to do this with the Grundrisse. In these notebooks, we discover a less polished but more passionate Marx, writing feverishly far into the nights of the crisis of 1857. The Grundrisse is no prelude to Capital, no rough draft of a later, more mature work.

Rather it is the Grundrisse that is the broader, more sweeping work, and it is here that we can find the richest, most complete working through of Marx’s understanding of the class struggle that both constitutes and ultimately explodes capitalism. In this, Negri differs from many previous interpreters of the Grundrisse, such as E. Hobsbawm or Roman Rosdolsky, many of whose positions he takes to task in the course of the book.

Negri begins his commentary on the Grundrisse noting how Marx’s dissection of Alfred Darimon’s theory of money was partly a pretext for Marx to explore the relationship between money and crisis, between money and the class struggle. Many who will read Negri on Marx may object that his interpretation of the Grundrisse is, sometimes, also a pretext to lay out his own analysis of the class struggle. He has, they may protest, taken from Marx only what suits him. As he works through Marx’s notebooks, spurning a bit of analysis here (of productive labor), lamenting the absence of analysis there (the lack of a special chapter on the wage and working class subjectivity), dismissing other pieces as philosophical lapses (the general law of historical development) and marking many instances of ambiguity and of limitations to the analysis, it does become obvious that Negri has pieced together an interpretation of the major lines of Marx’s argument through his own selective process. But we should not be afraid to pick and choose among Marx’s ideas. This is what Marxists have always done, whether they are honest about it or not. Traditional Marxists have always focused on the objectivist elements of Marx because that fit their political proclivities. Critical theory seems to have ignored Marx’s theory of the working class as subject because of a deep – seated pessimism acquired in a period of crisis. For those of us who share Negri’s commitment to the constant renewal of revolutionary practice, we can focus on those elements of Marx that inform the analysis of our own struggles. Several generations of Marxists have given us the habit of perceiving the mechanisms of domination. What we need now is to use Marx to help us discover the mechanisms of liberation. We can leave to Marxologists the debate as to whether Negri is right about what Marx really meant. We can read Negri for Negri, and judge the insightfulness of his comments on their own merits. When, at the end of chapter 5, Negri questions the correctness of his interpretation, we are tempted to say it doesn’t matter. If Marx did not mean what Negri says he did, so much the worse for Marx. This, it seems to me, is the only spirit that can take us along Marx’s path in such a way that we can indeed go “beyond Marx.”

Negri’s reading of the Grundrisse is what I call a political reading in the sense that his work tries to show how each category and relationship examined by Marx, “relates to and clarifies the antagonistic nature of the class struggle.” At the same time – and here is the domain of his polemic – he examines the meaning of the analysis for the political strategy of the working class. From the earliest chapters of Marx Beyond Marx, in his examination of Marx’s analysis of money as a critique of power, we recognize that for Negri there is no separate “political” sphere in Marx. Understood as the domain of class struggle, politics is omnipresent; all of the categories are political. There is no need to riffle Marx Beyond Marx looking for the “political” passages. Every line is a political moment. There is a political excitement here that carries the reader forward, through the more difficult passages, toward ever more concrete analyses of the class struggle.

This approach is radically different from traditional Marxism, which has always treated politics as one subject among others, especially distinct from economics, and often carefully tucked away in the attic of the superstructure. Over the years Marxism has been all but sterilized by being reduced to a critique of capitalist hegemony and its “laws of motion.” The fascination of Marxists with capitalist mechanisms of despotism in the factory, of cultural domination and of the instrumentalization of working-class struggle has blinded them to the presence of a truly antagonistic subject. The capitalist class is the only subject they recognize. When they do see working-class struggle, it is almost always treated as a derivative of capital’s own development. The true dynamic of capitalist development is invariably located in such “internal” contradictions among capitalists as competition.

Negri’s reading of the Grundrisse is designed to teach – or to remind – that there have always been not one, but two subjects in the history of capitalism. His political reading follows the chronological development of the notebooks on two interconnected levels; he simultaneously carries out an analysis of the political content of the categories and examines Marx’s method at work in their development. On both levels he argues that what we observe is a growing tension between capital’s dialectic and an antagonistic working-class logic of separation. The dialectic is not some metaphysical law of cosmological development. It is rather the form within which capital seeks to bind working class struggle. In other words, when capital succeeds in harnessing working class subjectivity to the yoke of capitalist development, it has imposed the contradictory unity of a dialectical relation. But to bind working class struggle, to impose a unity, means that capital must overcome this other subject – the working class – that moves and develops with its own separate logic. This logic, Negri argues, is a non-dialectical one. It is a logic of antagonism, of separation, that characterizes a class seeking not to control another, but to destroy it in order to free itself. Two different logics for two different and opposed classes.

Negri shows that Marx saw clearly how the historical development of capitalist society has always involved the development of the working class as a separate and antagonistic subject – a subject which develops the power to throw the system into crisis and to destroy it. He points out how, in the Grundrisse, Marx is able to trace the simultaneous development of both subjects. At the same time that Marx tracks capital from its formal domination of production via money, through its direct domination of both production and circulation, to the level of the world market and crisis, he also simultaneously brings to light the growth of the working class from dominated living labor power, through its stage as industrial proletariat, to its full development as revolutionary class at the level of social reproduction. Two subjects, locked together by the power of the one to dominate the other, but never the less two historical subjects, each with the power to act, to seize the initiative in the class struggle.

What has happened to capitalist hegemony? To the objectivity of capital’s laws of motion? To the location of the sources of capitalist growth in the competitive interaction of capitalists? From the point of view of the developing working-class subject, capitalist hegemony is at best a tenuous, momentary control that is broken again and again by workers’ struggle. We should not confuse the fact that capitalists have, so far, been able to regain control with the concept of an unchallengeable hegemony. In a world of two antagonistic subjects, the only objectivity is the outcome of their conflicts. As in physics, where two vector forces create a resultant force whose direction and magnitude is distinct from either of the two, so too in the class struggle that constitutes the development of capital the “laws of motion” are the unplanned outcomes of confrontation. However, in the development of this clash of subjectivities the continual development of the working class from dominated labor power to revolutionary class (a growth in the relative strength of the working class vector) increasingly undermines capitalist control and imposes its own directions on social development. Because of this, competition among capitalists is less a driving force and more what Negri calls “sordid family quarrels” over which managers are at best imposing discipline on the working class.

It is this analysis of working class subjectivity that infuses Negri’s work with immediate relevance to those in struggle. In this period when capital is trying to wield fiscal and monetary policy as weapons against the working class, Negri’s analysis helps us see that capitalist crisis is always a crisis in its ability to control the working class. A global crisis, such as the present one, Negri argues, can only be produced by the combined and complementary struggles of the world’s working classes operating simultaneously in production and reproduction – at the highest level of socialization. In Negri’s reading we discover all of this at that abstract and general level Marx could reach writing in the midst of crisis in 1857. But we can also examine these abstractions within the concrete determinations of our own situation and struggles within capitalism. Negri’s work is clearly conceived with such a project in mind. And isn’t this, always, the most exciting aspect of Marxism: its usefulness for exploring our own transformative power as living subjects?

The reading begins with Marx’s own first notes: on money, money in the crisis, and ultimately money as power. Within and behind money Marx discovers value, and the social relations of production. At the social level money is (above all) capitalist power over labor. But capitalist power over labor is the ability to force people into the labor market, to force people to work for capital in production, and to coerce surplus labor in the labor process. What could be more relevant today, when capital is using monetary policy at both the national and international levels as a weapon against working class consumption? Moreover, that monetary attack on consumption is aimed directly at forcing people to work, and at controlling the exchange between labor and capital so that profits (surplus labor) are increased.

Even at this stage Marx’s arguments – and Negri’s analysis of Marx surprise us with their topicality, their ability to inform the present. Yet if Marx had stopped here, he would have been just one more Marxist peering deeply into the nature of capitalist exploitation. He doesn’t.

As Negri points out, Marx is keenly aware that capital’s power to extort surplus labor is a power exerted over an “other” whose own active subjectivity must be harnessed to capital’s designs. Marx explored this subjectivity and saw that it fought the primitive accumulation of the classes: the forced creation of the labor market and the forced submission of people to the lives of workers. He explored this subjectivity and saw that it struggles against being forced to work.

Although he paints a true horror story of living labor being dominated by capitalist-controlled dead labor, Marx also makes clear that living labor cannot be killed off totally or capital itself would die. The irony of capitalist reproduction is that it must assure the continued reproduction of the living subject. The antagonism is recreated on higher and higher levels as capital develops. What begins as the horror of zombie-like dead labor being summoned against living labor, becomes, over time, an increasingly desperate attempt by capital to protect its own existence against an ever-more-powerful-and-hostile working class. Capital can never win, totally, once and forever. It must tolerate the continued existence of an alien subjectivity which constantly threatens to destroy it. What a vision: capital, living in everlasting fear of losing control over the hostile class it has brought into existence! This is the peacefully placid capitalist hegemony of traditional Marxism turned inside out, become a nightmare for the ruling class.

When surplus labor (value) takes on its monetary form of profit, it becomes a socialized surplus value at the level of social capital. It becomes both a pole and a measure of the antagonistic development of capital. At this point the law of capitalist crisis emerges in the Grundrisse as the continuing contradiction between the working class as necessary labor and capital as surplus labor. The most fundamental dynamic of that law produces the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. This tendency, which has been for so long mystified by Marxists, becomes in Negri’s interpretation of Marx an easily understood manifestation of the way working class struggle blocks capitalist development. Although we can critique part of Negri’s formulation (it is not necessary to argue that working-class struggle raises necessary labor as long as that struggle forces capital to raise the organic composition of capital through its relative surplus-value strategy), the basic thrust is keen and revealing. It is the continued working-class pressure on capital that accentuates the contradictions and creates crisis. Every time capital responds to workers’ demands by expanding fixed capital and reorganizing the labor process, the working class politically recomposes itself in a new cycle of struggle. The full implications of this process become clear in Negri’s reading of Marx’s fragment on machines. We see how the frantic accumulation of fixed capital leaves less and less scope for capital to impose work and to extract surplus work, thus undermining the very basis of capitalist command. The more value capital sets in motion, the smaller the proportion of surplus value it is able to extort. Today, as capital proceeds to substitute ever more robot machines for increasingly threatened and threatening industrial workers, it faces the very problem Marx foresaw in the Grundrisse: a growing difficulty in finding new ways of putting people to work in order to control them socially.

This analysis of the working class subject at the point of production is then displaced in Marx’s analysis to the sphere of circulation. Here Negri carefully brings out Marx’s argument that circulation is the sinew which organizes and ties together not only all of the separate moments of production, but also all of the social conditions of reproduction. Circulation involves the socialization of capital – its emergence as social capital. But again, we are not left with simply an ode to the comprehensiveness of capitalist hegemony. By exploring Marx’s analysis of the two-sided character of the wage, Negri is able to bring out how the wage functions for the working class. This is the domain of small-scale circulation: of the exchange of labor power for the wage and the subsequent exchange of the wage for use-values ­ those products of necessary labor which satisfy working-class needs. The wage here appears as working-class power to impose its needs, and the extent of that power is only determined by the class struggle itself.

Once more we can study that unusual but inspiring vision of capital striving desperately to contain an autonomously developing working-class subject, hell-bent on the continuous extension and diversification of its own projects and needs at the same time that it increasingly refuses capitalist control via the imposition of surplus labor. Are we not, once again, at a most contemporary moment of the analysis? What were the 1960s and 1970s, if not a simultaneous explosion of both autonomous needs and of the refusal of capitalist work? What are the 1980s, if not a renewed capitalist offensive to contain the explosion of needs, to roll them back through a vicious attack on consumption, on the wage?

Negri argues that the analysis reaches its highest development in Marx at the level of the world market, where capitalist imperialism, fleeing the obstacles created by class struggle at home, spreads its class antagonisms across the globe. This is the moment of the world market, but also of the global factory and the international working class. From this point on, capital can only respond to working class attack by reorganizing its modern industrial apparatus internationally and by attempting to reorganize the global reproduction of labor and the labor market. Is this not the present project of capital in the crisis? Is not what is called “reindustrialization” actually capitalist restructuration designed to decompose that working-class power which created the crisis, and to create new conditions for development? Certainly it is trying to do this, in many ways, in many countries.

But the crisis continues because so far capital has failed to achieve this decomposition. And that failure is simultaneously a measure of the power of the working class to protect the ground it has gained, and even, in places, to push forward its offensive. To listen to the droning litanies of traditional Marxist hymns to capitalist power is to be overwhelmed and exhausted by doomsaying. To read Negri – and through him, Marx – is to be invigorated with the sense of working-class movement and dynamism. It is to see the tenuousness of capitalist control and the real, tangible possibilities of its destruction!

At the end of this book Negri takes up directly the central issue raised by the emergence of working class subjectivity: revolution, the end of capitalism, and the creation of a new society. The bulk of his discussion of these issues is reminiscent of the Communist Manifesto, as he outlines the implications of his reading of the Grundrisse for the emergence of the new society ­Communism (he retains Marx’s word for it)­ and rejects other contemporary positions.

In the language of traditional Marxism, revolution and the emergence of a new society has always been addressed as the question of the “transition”: of the passage through socialism to communism. Negri argues forcibly that this is totally inconsistent with Marx’s analysis in the Grundrisse. The only “transition” in that work is the reversal and overthrow of all of capital’s determinations by the revolutionary subject. Because capital’s central means of social domination is the imposition of work and surplus work, the subordination of necessary labor to surplus labor, Negri sees that one of the two most fundamental aspects of working class struggle is the struggle against work. Where profit is the measure of capitalist development and control, Negri argues that the refusal of work measures the transition out of capital. The refusal of work appears as a constituting praxis that produces a new mode of production, in which the capitalist relation is reversed and surplus labor is totally subordinated to working-class need.

The second, positive side to revolutionary struggle is the elaboration of the self-determined multiple projects of the working class in the time set free from work and in the transformation of work itself. This self-determined project Negri calls self-valorization. Communism is thus constituted both by the refusal of work that destroys capital’s imposed unity and by the self-valorization that builds diversity and “rich, independent multilaterality.”

By this time it should be clear that Negri rejects “socialism” as, at best, an advanced form of capitalism. His major objection is that while socialism is understood as the planned redistribution of income and property, it invariably retains the planned imposition of work, and thus fails to escape the dynamic of capitalist extortion of surplus work and the subordination of needs to accumulation. Any existing socialist regime or socialist party program could be taken as an example. But the point is more than a critique of the Italian Communist Party’s participation in the imposition of austerity, or of the Soviet labor camps. It is an affirmation that the concept of socialism has never grasped the real issue: the abolition of work or the liberation of society from narrow production fetishism. Socialism can only constitute a repressive alternative to the collapse of market capitalism – a more advanced level of capitalist planning at the level of the state. Today, when there is a growing “socialist” movement in the United States calling for national planning, the nationalization of industry, and “more jobs,” Negri’s arguments deserve the closest attention.

Negri also rejects all utopian approaches to the conceptualization of the end of capitalism. Very much in the tradition of Marx’s own denunciation of utopianism, Negri refuses to think of the transition in terms of the achievement of some preconceived goal, however laudable. At this point scientific Marxism not only demands that the present movement be followed forward into the future, but, Negri argues, we must also recognize that this movement occurs without determinacy or teleology. In this interpretation of Marx we are simultaneously freed from the blinding romanticism of utopia and the paralysing weight of determinism. The central present movement that will constitute the future is that of the revolutionary subject as it reverses capital’s determinations and constitutes its own self-valorization. The antagonistic logic of working class separation reaches its conclusion as it explodes and destroys capital’s dialectic. It explodes all binary formulae, as Negri says, bursting the dialectical integument and liberating a multidimensional and ever-changing set of human needs and projects.

As we discover the revolutionary subject to be both self-constituting and rich in multilaterality, we are also implicitly freed of the traditional organizational formula of the party. There is no place here for any narrow formulation of “class interest” to be interpreted by a revolutionary elite. There is only the multiplicity of autonomously determined needs and projects. Although Negri does not take up the issue of revolutionary organization here – it is not his project at this point – he does strongly reject one variant on the party theme: a voluntarist violence that only negates capitalist violence, which by not being organized on the material basis of revolutionary self-valorization falls into terrorism. This is one of the many points in his work that shows his distance from and antagonism toward those armed vanguards” with which the Italian state has sought to associate him as an excuse for imprisoning him.

To sum up Negri’s exposition of Marx’s line of argument in the Grundrisse: capitalism is a social system with two subjectivities, in which one subject (capital) controls the other subject (working class) through the imposition of work and surplus work. The logic of this control is the dialectic which constrains human development within the limits of capitalist valorization. Therefore, the central struggle of the working class as independent subject is to break capitalist control through the refusal of work. The logic of this refusal is the logic of antagonistic separation and its realization undermines and destroys capital’s dialectic. In the space gained by this destruction the revolutionary class builds its own independent projects – its own self-valorization. Revolution then is the simultaneous overthrow of capital and the constitution of a new society: Communism. The refusal of work becomes the planned abolition of work as the basis of the constitution of a new mode of producing a new multidimensional society.

What are the implications of learning to read the categories of Marx’s analysis politically? For one thing we can now readdress the question of Capital. Negri is absolutely correct when he points out that Capital has often been interpreted in an objectivist fashion. But it should now be clear that there is an alternative. Once we have learned to recognize and avoid the traps of objectivism and to carry out a political or class analysis of Marx’s categories, we can read Capital (or any of Marx’s writings) in this manner. There are many aspects of Marx’s analysis in the Grundrisse which are more carefully and fully explored in Capital. Certainly we can gain from the study of this material. When we do read Capital politically, as I have tried to do elsewhere, we generate an interpretation that is not only largely consistent with the main lines of Negri’s book, but which sharpens and enriches the analysis – the fruit of the ten years of Marx’s work from 1857 to 1867, when the first volume of Capital appeared.

We follow Marx’s path “beyond Marx” when we read Marx politically, from within the class struggle, and when we critique Marx from the vantage point of our own needs. It is precisely this kind of reading and critique that Negri has carried out. It is this that makes his work valuable and exciting.


Suggested Readings for English Readers (a very short list!):

Antonio Negri, Marx Beyond Marx: Lessons on the Grundrisse [1979], Autonomedia/Pluto, 1991. (

Antonio Negri, “Starting Again From Marx”, 2018 (Radical Philosophy)

“From Sociological to Ontological Inquiry: An Interview with Antonio Negri”, 2005 (Italian Culture)

Raewyn Connel, “The Poet of Autonomy: Antonio Negri as a Social Theorist”, 2012 (Sociologica)

Steve Wright’s Storming heaven: class composition and struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism remains a fundamental text on Italian operaista tradition, of which Negri was a central figure. (See

The website holds a collection of essays by and about Antonio Negri that is worth exploring.

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