Great thinkers of our time - Antonio Negri

Katharine Ainger on Antonio Negri

Antonio Negri is not just one of the most significant figures of current political thought, but one of the few contemporary western intellectuals to have been imprisoned for his ideas. In 1980, Michel Foucault asked: "Is it not true that Negri is in prison simply for being an intellectual?"

The history of this Italian dissident is remarkable. He has been a revolutionary, a convict, a professor, an exile and a politician. Today he is celebrated as the co-author, with Michael Hardt, of Empire (2000), a powerful and original analysis of the political formulation of globalisation.

In the early 1960s, the University of Padua made Negri a professor of state theory at an extraordinarily young age. He was then, and continues to call himself, a communist, but in terms that most communists would not recognise. Rejecting the Communist Party, he criticised not just capital but the state; a major life project has been to rescue Marx from historical Marxism. Central to his thinking was a departure from the traditional communist and socialist celebration of labour. For Negri, it was not enough to control the means of production: workers needed to liberate themselves from the disciplinary regime of work itself.

Refusal of work became central to his thought and to the group Potere Operaio ("worker power"), a loose association of student and worker movements that rejected not just capital but political parties and unions. In 1973, Potere Operaio dissolved and Negri joined a movement known as Autonomia Operaia, a decentralised network of local organisations throughout Italy. Autonomia Operaia rejected the idea of vanguards as elitist and believed that centralised leadership suppressed the organisational powers of the "base". In its loose, informal structure it was a clear antecedent of the anti-capitalist movements of today.

Political violence on right and left grew in Italy throughout the 1970s. On the left were the Red Brigades, whose violent tactics Negri believed were mistaken. But some of the violence attributed to them was, in fact, part of the Italian state's "strategy of tension", planting bombs as a pretext for repression. In 1978, Aldo Moro, president of the Christian Democratic Party, was kidnapped and murdered. The government called a state of emergency, using its extended powers to crack down on terrorist and non-terrorist activity alike.

On 7 April 1979, more than 1,500 people, including Negri, were arrested. Negri was accused of being the secret leader of a web of clandestine terrorist organisations; he was held for four years before being tried. By then, the charges of masterminding terrorist activity had been dropped, but he was still held "morally" and "objectively" responsible for the violence. He used his time in prison to complete an important study of Spinoza.

In 1983, as his trial continued, he was elected to parliament on the ticket of the Radical Party, and consequently released from prison. When, a few months later, parliament rescinded his immunity, Negri, rather than go back to jail, escaped in a sailing boat to France. He was convicted in absentia.

He ended up in Paris where he became part of the French intellectual circle that included Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari. He stayed in academia in France for 14 years, where he taught his future American collaborator, Michael Hardt, and played a key role in the journal Futur Anterieur, around which a broad coalition of the French left amalgamated. During these years, he evolved his theory of "constituent power", the notion that capital and central authority, far from being all-powerful, have to respond to the power of the democratic forces of revolutionary innovation - the workers, the rebels, the poor.

Negri returned to Italy in 1997. There he attempted to persuade the government to find a political solution to the hundreds who remained prisoners and exiles because of their affiliations of the 1970s. He failed, and was instead himself sentenced to 13 years in prison. It was in prison that he completed work on what was to become one of the most celebrated books of the new century. Empire broke with the pessimism of the established left in its view that globalisation held new possibilities for resistance. It offered a vision of a world awash with insurgent energy from below.

Perhaps the most successful work to have come from the left for a generation, Empire describes a new, global form of sovereignty, and recognises that there can be no return to national sovereignty. Negri supports the free movement of migrants across the world and believes that globalisation has helped to break open the "infernal cage" of the nation state. "Empire" is not imperialism; in traditional imperialism there is a centre of power and there are borders, but empires have no outside, nor a centre. Despite the global reach of capitalism, empire recognises innumerable new opportunities for resistance.

No one who seeks to comment on global capitalism or the movements opposing it can afford to ignore Negri. He remains one of Europe's few truly public intellectuals. In April, he was released from confinement to enter, once again, the cauldron of Italian politics.

Antonio Negri Born 1933 in Padua, Italy. Postmodern Marxist philosopher, politically active in the Italian left in the 1960s and 1970s. Rejected violent revolutionary movements but was convicted in absentia of terrorist involvements after fleeing to France. Returned to Italy in 1997, where he was kept in prison by night, though allowed freedom during the day. Released in 1999 but kept under curfew, and finally freed in April 2003. Most recently co-author of Empire (2000), a bestselling manifesto against globalisation