Communism as Critique

Michael Negri and Antonio Hardt

A fragment from Communism as Critique, Chapter 1 of Negri and Hardt’s, Labour of Dionysus. A Critique of the State-Form. Minneapolis-London: University of Minnesota Press, 1994 (pp. 3-7).


In the following pages -- perhaps to the surprise or dismay of some of our readers -- we will speak not only of labor, exploitation, and capitalism, but also of class conflict, proletarian struggles, and even communist futures. Do dinosaurs still walk the earth?! We cast our discussions in these terms not from obstinacy or any obscure orthodoxy, but simply because we believe that, when submitted to a continual process of reconsideration so as to be in line with our desires and our interpretation of the contemporary world, these are the most useful categories for political and social analysis.

These terminological problems are not completely new. Many years ago when one of the authors of this book, then an active Marxist militant, engaged in a debate with an important European proponent of liberal democracy over the question of whether or not there is a Marxist theory of the State, the polemic quickly degenerated (1) [Text of the end note: «(1) See Norberto Bobbio, Which Socialims?, which includes a reply by Antonio Negri, 'Is There a Marxist Doctrine of the State?'»]. The problem was that the object of discussion was not the same, neither for the two participants, nor for the spectators, nor for the supporters of the two sides. For Norberto Bobbio, a Marxist theory of the State could only be what one could eventually derive from careful reading of Marx’s own work, and he found nothing. For the radical Marxist author, however, a Marxist theory of the State was the practical critique of law and State institutions from the perspective of the revolutionary movement -- a practice that had little to do with Marxist philology, but pertained rather to the Marxist hermeneutic of the construction of a revolutionary subject and the expression of its power. For the first author, therefore, there was no Marxist theory of law and the State, and what was passed off under this banner was only an eclectic and vulgar construction, produced by 'real socialism', that is, by the Soviet Union and the other socialist countries of Eastern Europe. The second author found in Marx the basis of a very radical critique of law and the State, which had over the years been developed by the workers’ movement in the course of the revolutionary process and which had in fact been repressed in the codifications and the constitutions of the Soviet Union and 'real socialism'.

If fifteen years ago that confusion blocked the discussion from being productive, and if the quarrel over the very terms of the debate became utterly impossible, the reader and we ourselves should have no difficulty understanding how today confronting the theme of law and the State from the perspective of communism might appear an impossible task. Today, in fact, Marxism, socialism, and communism are terms that are so compromised in dark historical developments it seems that they cannot be rescued from their polemical reductions and that any attempt to repropose a significant usage, rediscover the pregnancy of the terms, or develop a new theory appears perfectly delirious. It is certainly not the first time in history, nor even in recent history, however, that research beyond the shadows of the propaganda and nightmares of a specific period can produce important results. In the final analysis, if there was something in common between Bobbio and his interlocutor it was that both considered real socialism as a development largely external to Marxism thought: the reduction of Marxism to the history of real socialism makes no sense whatsoever. It does not make sense either to reduce to the history and the semantics of real socialism the set of struggles for leberation that the proletarians have developed against capitalist work, its law, and ist State in the long historical season that stretches from the Parisian uprising in 1789 to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

These presuppositions and this desire to investigate beyond the idols of knowledge are at the basis of this book, a series of texts oriented toward a theory of juridical communism. This attempt has nothing to do with the juridical socialism of the former Soviet world, but very much to do with Marx and the critique of capitalism he developed, and moreover with the communist desire that has been expressed through more than two centuries of struggles against the capitalist exploitation of the working class and all humans. This communism is perhaps a dinosaur in the sense of the term’s Greek etymology, a fearful beast -- but this monster was never extinct and continues to express its power throughout our modern and postmodern history.


A theory of juridical communism takes communism as both the point of departure and the end point of the critique of the State-form. Many have pointed out, along with Bobbio, that a Marxist analysis of the State-form, that is, of the complex of legal and economic apparatuses that support and constitute the State, is virtually impossible because Marx focused little attention on the State as such and really developed no theory of the State. It is true, in fact, that Marx presented no positive theory of the State and its law. This does not mean, however, that a Marxist analysis has nothing to say about the State; it means rather that the point of departure for a Marxist critique of the State is, properly speaking, negative. 'Communism', Marx wrote, 'is the real movement that destroys the present state of things'. This is the sense in which we take communism as our point of departure.

There are two closely related elements of the communist theoretical practice proposed by this quote from Marx. First is the analysis of 'the present state of things', or in our case, the analysis of the theories of law and the State that are effectively existent. These are the theories of rule that adequately correspond with the disciplinary figures of the organization of labor and the coercive forms of the social division of labor, be they capitalist or socialist, that serve to steal away the brains and bodies of the citizens and workers for the despotism these forms imply. To this end, then, we will examine the work of authors such as John Maynard Keynes, Hans Kelsen, John Rawls, Richard Rorty, and Niklas Luhmann to discern how they adequately theorize the contemporary practices and figures of rule. We take up these authors in the same spirit that Marx in his time took up Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Henry Carey -- namely, because we think that in certain aspects their work has grasped and pertains to the present state of rule.

The second element of this Marxist method, along with recognizing the present state of things, is grasping what Marx calls 'the real movement that destroys' that present state. The Marxist critique of the State, in other words, must grasp the real social forces in motion that sabotage and subvert the structures and mechanism of rule. At the base of this critique, we assume, as Marx did, the idea and the experience of living labor, always subjugated but always liberating itself. Living labor inheres in capital; it is closed in the very institutions where it is born, but continually it manages to destroy them. The critique must thus reach the level of antagonism and revolutionary subjectivities, defining and redefining their changing figures, showing how their movement and their progressive transformations continually conflict with and destroy the new arrangements of law and the State. These are the two faces of a critique of the State-form that takes communism, 'the real movement that destroys the present state of things', as its point of departure. As a first hypothesis, then, we could pose juridical communism as a method of thought outside of any dimension of the instrumental rationality of law and the State, a method that destroys that rationality.

A negative method, however, is not enough. The critique must also pose a project. Communism must be conceived as a total critique in the Nietzschean sense: not only a destruction of the present values, but also a creation of new values; not only a negation of what exists, but also an affirmation of what springs forth. Critique of the State-form thus means also proposing an effective alternative. This positive aspect of a Marxist critique must also assume as its basis the idea and experience of living labor. Living labor is the internal force that constantly poses not only the subversion of the capitalist process of production but also the construction of an alternative. In other words, living labor not only refuses its abstraction in the process of capitalist valorization and the production of surplus value, but also poses an alternative schema of valorization, the self-valorization of labor. Living labor is thus an active force, not only of negation but also of affirmation. The subjectivities produced in the processes of the self-valorization of living labor are the agents that create an alternative sociality. (In chater 7 we will examine what we call 'prerequisites of communism' already existing in contemporary society). The expression and affirmation of the power of the collectivity, the multitude, as an unstoppable movement of the material transformation of the social organization of labor and the norms that guarantee its effectiveness are the animating force in the transcendental schema of juridical communism. This schema is transcendental in the strong sense. In other words, it is not formal but ontological, not teleological but pragmatic; it does not point toward any necessity nor trust in any transition, but rather presupposes always new processes of struggle, always new configurations of productivity, and new expressions of constituent power. As we said, in its negative aspect the critique of the State-form takes communism as its point of departure, but now in its affirmative aspect, the critique realizes communism as its end point.

As juridical communism is cast as a total critique, it should also be recognized as an immanent critique. This destructive and creative machine that we hope to grasp with a Marxist critical method is the very same one that is defined by the real level of social struggles and the quality of the composition of revolutionary subjectivities. We mean by that, first of all, that law and the State can only be defined as a relationship, a constantly open horizon, that can certainly be overdetermined but the essence of which can always be, and is, brought back to the dynamic and the phenomenology of the relationship of force between social subjects. In the second place, we mean that there is nothing in the realm of law and the State that can be pulled away from the plane of the most absolute immanence -- neither a first foundation, nor a table of natural rights, nor an ideological schema, nor even a constitutional paradigm. Just like money, law (which repeats in the capitalist system many of the figures assumed by money) carries no values that are proper to it, but only those that social conflicts and the necessities of the reproduction of capitalist society, its division of labor, and exploitation produce every day. The invariable element of the ideological function of law and the State is always less real than the variable elements that constitute its present consistency, its continual contingency. In this sense, it is completely unreal. The task of the communist critique is to demonstrate this unreality and clarify the affirmative, productive figures that continually emerge from the struggles between the two classes, between domination and the desire for liberation, on the border of this void.

little site banner