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ESF: Another Venue is Possible: Negri vs Callinicos

J_walker | 16.11.2003 22:57 | European Social Forum | Analysis | Globalisation | Social Struggles

It’s certainly possible to level a critique of the social forum process as elevating certain individuals to movement stars, something the radical edge of the movement has always rejected for a variety of reasons. The Negri/Calliniocs debate was billed as exactly that however, a battle between two movement stars perhaps broadly representing the two major ideological tendencies within the anti-capitalist movement currently in contestation. The title of the debate was “Multitude or Working Class”.

Alex Callinicos is the head of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain and it’s chief theorist in interpreting Trotskyism. Toni Negri was a major theorist of the movement of autonomy in Italy during the 60s and 70s, long time exiled in France and prisoner of the Italian state until this year, he was co-author of Empire with Michael Hardt and host of other books than make up the archipelago of what some call autonomist Marxism.

To begin with it could easily be suggested that the debate gave far more status to Callinicos that he really deserved. Negri is far more well known and a far more rigorous thinker though this account is certainly not a defense of all of Negri’s work, there are a thousand critiques to be leveled against him, the best of which surpass him rather than bring one back into the 50s style ideology and analysis of most Trotsykism. So this account is obviously biased in favour of Negri, but certainly doesn’t see him as the limit of the possibilities of the area of analysis he is part of.

The original space for the debate had a seating capacity of around 200 hundred. I arrived around 20 minutes early thinking I should be able to get it in, no chance, the space was quickly filled and there must have been at least another 1000 people waiting outside so a spontaneous protest began demanding the meeting be held outside, attempts were made to close the doors but they were kept open by the frothing crowd. After 20 minutes of chanting the organisers finally reneged and set up a PA system outside. The rock star approach was certainly slightly disturbing but also gave the space a quite amazing energy.

The debate began with Callinicos. The chief point of contention was obviously that of multitude or working class. Callinicos seemed to interpret multitude as excluding the working class in preference for a constellation of marginalities; students, migrants, intellectual workers, precarious workers (ie unemployed/part-time/low-wage) etc. citing a list from a pamphlet produced by the disobedienti. His counter point was “where is greviste (striker) in that list?”

Instead Callinicos cited the postal worker wild-cat strikes in England as a counter example, presuming that Negri was opposed to this kind of thing. Aren’t these exactly the communication workers Negri often elevates as the future of work. Ie the point that much work is now becoming more about relations than about specific material products, that is immaterial labour; call centres, services, hospitality, media, tourism, transport, communication, etc.

Negri’s speech was of course long and somewhat complicated but made essentially those points that work is no longer confined to the official working day but extends itself into all of life; going to and from work, consuming etc. “The factory is no longer the sole producer of value.” He also attacked the traditional Marxist conceptions of the relation of agricultural workers as being outside the working class and their analysis of women etc. Essentially the Trotskyist fetishisation of the factory and the blue collar, full time worker etc., as being the main agent of social transformation. The multitude was a “multiplicity of singularities”, that realized that value is produced across society and not just “at work”.

In fact Callinicos was so outclassed that in his rebuttal he had to make things up. He said “Negri thinks the history of the working class is horrible” which enraged Negri to which he responded saying he had said “the history of the working class has been both horrible and heroic” or something to that effect. Callinicos also stated that Negri thought the working day had been reduced to fierce stares from Negri. I don’t know what talk Callinicos was listening too because no-one had heard Negri say that. In fact Negri rebutted angrily saying that he thought exactly the opposite, that the working day had been extended beyond the hours spent at work, ie in communiting, shopping, consuming media etc. Anyone with a basic grasp of Negri’s concept of the “social factory” would know he says no such thing. Other SWPers asked questions, one saying “you said the peasantry are not part of the multitude”, to which Negri replied “no”.

So the question is are the SWP just stupid or conniving? Callinicos came off looking stupid by continually putting words in Negri’s mouth and by trying to find contradictions between multitude and working class that just didn’t exist. In fact it might be suggested that Negri would agree with much of what was said by Callinicos, Negri has just added a whole lot more. Callinicos has only managed to analyse one section of life for people these days. And this is perhaps why the ideology of the SWP has long been surpassed.

What Negri was saying are not new ideas, in fact he’s been saying a lot of it for the last 20 years. The problem remains that Trotskyism is completely unable to provide the necessary tools for analyzing how contemporary society is presently composed.

But is this the only block in the understanding that the concept of the multitude doesn’t exclude working people? Why did people keep thinking this when asking many of their questions? Perhaps there is some lack in how the ideas are being presented and maybe an over-emphasis on those new workers, those in the sectors of communication etc.

In the end it could easily be noted the tapering off of the applause for Callinicos and a definite appreciation for negri from a perhaps slightly over adoring crowd which i found a little disturbing.

The one question that might remain for the both of them is why they feel the need to create hegemonic categories such as “working class” or “multitude”. Perhaps it is necessary in order to bring together singularities in concert, or perhaps these categories have always been imposed more by intellectuals than those struggling at the base.


Short video below .One section of the video is not translated. Sorry have run out of time and computer access.



Hide the following 18 comments


16.11.2003 23:16

if the video doesn't open automatically you may need to save it and open in quicktime or some such programme.


doesn like mpeg4

16.11.2003 23:18

doesn't seem to like mpeg4 for uploading video, try here.


pictures from the debate

16.11.2003 23:44



negri and callinicos
negri and callinicos

the crowd
the crowd

pictures from the callinicos/negri debate at the european social forum.


try pictures here

17.11.2003 09:04

if the pictures don't appear (as they don't appear to be at the moment)
try here
sorry, not my fault this post has become so messy.
uk coders, where are you?


Typical SWP debating style

17.11.2003 10:37

Great report :-)

The images do take time to come through it is something that probably needs tweaking.

Lying is a typical debating style of the SWP, so no suprise there...


bunch of authoritarian lefties

17.11.2003 10:41

This sounds worse than I would have thought - why ask two old Marxists to have a debate? Negri is co-author of the dodgy Empire which looks favourably on globalisation, cyber technology and the whole industrial complex.

why bother

Rumble in the Jungle, or a Pantomime?

18.11.2003 08:16

What made the Negri/Callinicos encounter enjoyable (tho' slightly disturbing in the way J.Walker describes) was the sense of theatre, pantomime, even). Amongst ourselves, we were only half-jokingly expecting something akin to with Muhammad Ali’s Rumble in the Jungle with George Foreman, with Negri (of course) assuming the Muhammad Ali role. We weren't disappointed. Inside the venue (we were amongst the few who got it), before the meeting started, Callinicos was there, up at the front, waiting, but Negri wasn't, and his absence clearly irritated the SWP heavyweight. Was Negri purposely psyching Callinicos out; was he waiting to make a dramatic entrance?

Once were got outside, the theatrical element only increased. None of the "official" interpreters were willing to translate directly in front of the thousand-strong audience and so this task fell to volunteers... but when one such volunteer mistranslated a word, listeners weren't shy to express their disapproval and demanded the removal of several. At each such change there was massive applause --- the participation of listeners and translators was obvious.

In terms of the speakers themselves, it's true Callinicos misheard/misrepresented much of what Negri said. Whenever this happened Negri would glare at the Trotskyist, shake his head, waggle his finger, throw up his hands or make some other gesture, almost inviting further audience participation: "oh yes he did", "oh no he didn't", etc, or "He's behind you!" I wouldn’t have been that surprised had Negri snuck up and kicked Callinicos up the backside…

Finally, worth noting that sympathy to Negri's and Callinicos's positions seemed to be split largely along language lines, which reinforced our impression that there were relatively few non-SWP Brits in Paris (or in Florence in 2002). Each of Callinicos's original contributions (in English) tended to be greeted by much applause, with only a smattering following translations. The situation was exactly reversed with Negri.

All good entertainment, but as J.Walker suggests, very little real debate.

David Harvie
mail e-mail:

Where is the 'greviste' ?

18.11.2003 08:32

I've just read the report of the Negri/Callinicos debate - thanks to those who were there.

If the SWP want to 'talk up' the recent 'wildcats' in the Post Office they will have to do more work on their 'composition' - where I am in the North West [traditionally very militant at Copperas Hill in Liverpool] there was not a peep - out in the 'sticks' , where there was activity it was directed as much amongst against the union as the management.

Now I doubt that a public meeting of 1000 or so could go into that kind of detail - so I am kind of wondering what was the point of the exercise - unless it was just pure 'spectacle', which the report rather suggests with its parallels with 'rumble in the jngele?


PS I really liked the description of the SWP as locked in the 50s

dave graham
mail e-mail:

one sided

18.11.2003 09:52

well it's good to see the comments here being as 'balanced' as usual - many movement people may look to Negri as a source of inspiration but if you actually look at the reality of what his political outlook and misreading/misunderstanding of some basic Marxist concepts did in Italy in the 70's it was a total disaster for the movement there, for a detailed critique of which look at the web link attached.

oh and by the way Alex is not the 'head' of the SWP, he is one of the leadership, ho hum....

- Homepage:

no but don't you see?

18.11.2003 16:09

Negri disagrees with the SWP, therefore everything he says is right!


Criticism of Negri and the article

21.11.2003 17:24

Comments on the SWP and Callinicos's position it it were childish, inaccurate and superficial. Negri is purposely vague and complex about what he sees as the body which can bring about the revolution. Read his stuff, it is like trying to walk through quicksand. Callinicos and the SWP are not "Trotskyist". We accept much of what he said but have very serious criticism of his view of Russia as a degenerated workers' state in the '30's. We are a revolutionary party who believes that the working class is the only group in society that can bring about socialist revolution. Does Negri agree? If he does then why doesn't he say so?
The SWP is more accurately described as a Marxist/Leninist party. Perhaps you should read some of our publications then you would not be so fascile with your comments, The response to Callinicos was every bit as enthusiastic as it was for Negri and I was at the meeting too.

Mick Calvert
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You gave a partial view based on ideological intellectualism

30.11.2003 18:01

It has a become a common habit of so called libertarians to mount critiques which really have no depth or offer any development of action. While personally i ignore Negri because he over intellectualises and fails to really understand, your group actually just wants to masterbate without avhieving anything.
It's a good job groups like socialist worker do exist because at least they do something and generally they do not lie.
But then your lot wouldn't understand what truth is if it got up and hit you on the nose.

Mark Drybrough
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More Eye witness report from Negri Callinicos 'rumble in the jungel'

03.12.2003 16:30

This is from 'Keir' and was posted to the Autopsy list. It might make for more interesting reading than the stuff that has appeared lately

I said I'd write a report on the debate between Callinicos and Negri
at the European Social Forum and after some helpful badgering off
Steve I finally got around to it.
First I'll set the scene. The debate called by Globalised Resistance
(in this context read SWP) was scheduled to be in a small hall
holding 200. Thousands turned up and when they couldn't get in
started banging on the walls and doors demanding the debate be held
outside. So out we trooped forgoing simultaneous translation for
consecutive translation and that nostalgic mass meeting ambiance.
People were crowded all around, sat on the floor or standing at the
back, on a walkway above, on the stairs leading down, there were even
two or three hanging in trees to get a better view.
Callinicos spoke first reading from a prepared text he sounded like
leninoid university lecturer , which he is. Crap speaker, very dry at
one point he talked about the excitement of the movement in the same
flat unexcited drone that he used for the rest of his speech.
Callinicos opposed multitude to working class. He said Hardt had
called multitude a poetic concept; but poetry is different from
analysis. He said that he understood Multitude as all those who are
oppressed and that oppression was different from exploitation. That
the power to change society resides where we work because we are
organised at work. He got out a copy of a flier for global magazine
and said that the problem with the concept of multitude was the way
it was sometimes used. He read out a list of categories from the back
of the flier precarious workers, students, migrants, brain workers...
he said where 's striker on that list. He then lost the "people
sometimes use" section of his statement and treated that like the
definition of multitude. He also ignored that the list was just a
list of categories on a flier and was no where linked to a definition
of multitude. He started to talk of the multitude as the movement of
movements, you know all those peripheral struggles; and that we need
to take energy of the movement of movements and fuse it with the
transformative power of the organised working class. To which we all
thought, hmm I wonder what organisation could articulate that fusion.
How would it work? perhaps an alliance between globalise resistance
and a couple of newly elected left wing union leaders. Both of them
delivering their massed ranks and weilding them like generals.

During all this Negri was getting more and more agitated pacing up
and down. The Trots clapped Callinicos in a ritual fashion, including
embarrassingly after he'd said nothing in particular but was pausing
for breath. A couple of times when this happened Negri would join in
the clapping in a piss taking exaggerated fashion as if he was saying
"yes, yes all hail the dear leader." He was constantly shaking his
head and once after a particularly preposterous misrepresentation he
wafted his nose as if to get rid of a bad smell.

When he came to speak he was very animated. He would speak in
Italian, winding himself up gesticulating wildly building to a
crescendo and then stop and hold his hands stretched forwards, palms
up with a look on his face which said "Come on, how could you not
agree with that." Then he would translate himself into French
getting just as agitated this time around. It was truly hilarious but
seemed very human.

He started off by declaring the Multitude not a poetic concept but a
class concept. The thing is the way work is organised, the way people
work has changed since 1968. Production has spread through the whole
of society and so has exploitation. In fact exploitation was the
thing that the multitude had in common.

He also said that exploitation can no longer be measured through work
time because we produce through the whole of the day. He then
mentioned Affective labour and made the hilarious statement that
women's work was "Knowing where the socks are." This remark brought
huge boos to which Negri laughed and wagged his finger saying "no, no
just wait". Then explained that "where's the socks?" is the title of
a book on affective labour by Christian Marrazi on how work has
become more feminised.

Another thing I remember he said was about Immaterial labour and how
when Marx wrote Capital there were only 3-400 factories in the world
but Marx realised that whole rest of production was being organised
in their image.

All this was to oppose this class concept of Multitude to a
monolithic concept of the working class, which he called a big
mistake. He said the working class has never produced as a mass but
as a multiplicity of singularities. He said you can't have alliances
between the factory working class and other sections, Stalin made
alliances. Instead you have to find what's in common. He then came
out with this remarkable anecdote of organising at Alfa Romeo in the
70's. he said something like, the Unions had agreed to work longer
hours or on Saturday for no extra pay and that an organisation of the
unemployed he was involved in went to the factory to argue with the
workers. There was two ways to deal with the conflict. He said what
we did was blow up the electricity substation and shut down the
factory; but this was a mistake. Now we try a different approach and
try to find what is in common. At this point I turned to a friend and
said "he's just showboating now."

In the question and answer session all question were for Negri. All
question on theoretical issues such as the importance of Delueze or
Foucualt were ignored to move on to the political nitty gritty.

Other points I remember was someone asking Negri where the points of
attack are and Negri saying I don't know.

Someone stood up very self important, I got the impression he was
head of a minor leninoid sect determined to have it out with this
Negri fellow. I must have this question answered: "Negri can you
abolish capitalism without seizing the means of production?" Negri
gave the one word answer "No." and turned away for the next question.

The most remarkable thing was that every comment by Callinicos and
nearly every Trot question ignored or misunderstood everything Negri
had said and referred back to the straw man Callinicos had set up at
the start. It reached such ridiculous proportions that the audience
was shouting at them "that's not what he said" or "try listening to
what's being said."

I thought that most were being disingenuous at the time but still it
goes on. there was a report and a bit of a debate on Indymedia uk . I
looked the other day and the last comment is from some arse in
Workers power who says "Negri is purposely vague and complex about
what he sees as the body which can bring about the revolution... We
are a revolutionary party who believes that the working class is the
only group in society that can bring about socialist revolution. Does
Negri agree? If he does then why doesn't he say so?". This joker
claims to have been at the debate and has presumably read the couple
of pages of debate and reportage above. It is as if there are these
huge blinkers on and that anything said that doesn't fit with their
ideology just doesn't register.

Anyway enough of that. What did we all learn that day? Well I never
realised Negri was such a good speaker. Obviously he's been through
the mill a few times and you're bound to pick up stuff. His Leninist
years presumably demanded oratory skills, but it didn't come across
as demagogic. He was very human when he spoke. He also didn't speak
as an academic, a secret reformer or whatever. There was no break in
his life he talked about the 70's as a time when they made some
mistakes (Alfa romeo) but they were still trying to achieve the same
thing. In a way that was the advantage of seeing him speak live. It
was also important because Callinicos got such an arse kicking.
Completely stuck in the 1950's he was reduced to lying or mouthing
platitudes. This matters because in Britain there a couple of events
coming up where the hardcore SWP hacks are probably going to be at
their worst and these arguments will go on.

That's all folks


dave graham
mail e-mail:

negri shows his reformist colours

29.06.2004 10:07

go here to see Negri call for the capitalist institutions to reform capitalism to get the US off the hook!
some radical!

the key parts...

snip> "The primary challenge facing these global aristocracies is to reorganize the global system in the interest of renewing and expanding the productive forces that are today thwarted by poverty and marginalization. To do this, a new agreement is needed – a Magna Carta contract for the age, that today’s aristocracies are in the position to demand of the monarch. –This is the moment of the Magna Carta. Remember from English history that in the early 13th century King John could no longer pay for his foreign military adventures and could no longer maintain social peace.
When he appealed to the aristocracy for funds and support, they demanded in return that the monarch submit to the rule of law and provide constitutional guarantees, and thus they drafted the Magna Carta.
The monarch, in other words, agreed to abandon a strictly unilateralist position and collaborate actively with the aristocracy. Our global “monarch” is faced with a comparable crisis today – unable to pay for its wars, maintain peaceful order and, moreover, provide the adequate means for economic production.
Our “aristocracies” are thus in the position, in return for their support, to demand a new social, political, and economic arrangement – a new global order. "



08.10.2004 08:32

"Callinicos gets an arse kicking by Negri".

This is just one of many a-a-anarchist daydreams you can read about on Indymedia :-)


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