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Is this today’s Communist Manifesto?

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Issue 1760

Is this today’s Communist Manifesto?

By Sam Ashman

“NOTHING LESS than a rewriting of the Communist Manifesto for our time.” “The sharpest description of globalisation ever written.” “The hot, smart book of the moment.” These are just some of the comments about a new book about globalisation, the world system and how people fight back.

It is called Empire, and it is written by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. There is so much interest in the book that its publishers have just increased the print run for the paperback edition from 5,000 to 20,000 copies. Hardt, a lecturer in the US, was recently the subject of a big profile in the Observer newspaper and was interviewed on television about the protests in Genoa.

Negri is a political philosopher and activist who is currently serving a prison sentence in Italy connected to his association with the Italian left in the 1970s. Together Hardt and Negri wrote a response to the Genoa protests, published last week in the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. In it they said:

“The protests themselves have become global movements, and one of their clearest objectives is the democratisation of globalising processes. This should not be called an anti-globalisation movement. It is an alternative globalisation movement, one that seeks to eliminate inequalities between rich and poor and between the powerful and the powerless, and to expand the possibilities of self determination. If we understand one thing from the multitude of voices in Genoa, it should be that a better future is possible…the realistic course of action today is to demand what is seemingly impossible-that is, something new.”

Both Hardt and Negri clearly want a better world and identify with those demonstrating on the streets. What, then, does Empire actually say? Empire is a far cry from the grand claims that are made about it. It is a big book, lots of which is philosophical and historical, and draws on many obscure thinkers.

It is also quite tough to read-this is definitely not the place to start reading about capitalism and the world system. It may put you off for life! At the core of Empire is a reworking of Marxism. This reworking involves two central and mistaken ideas.

New global order

The first is the whole idea of “Empire” itself, both the title and the heart of the book. Hardt and Negri accept the widespread view that we are living in a new era of economic globalisation which has rendered the nation-state powerless.

There are lots of problems with this view. But Hardt and Negri don’t leave it there. They go even further and argue that the new era of “Empire” has also transcended imperialism and any conflict between nation-states. The world is now ruled by an impersonal structure of economic and political power that has no centre and cannot be identified with any particular state-not even the US.

We have entered into an era of the “universal rule of capital without a centre”. “Along with the global market and global circuits of production has emerged a global order, a new logic and structure of rule. Empire is the political subject that effectively regulates these global exchanges, the sovereign power that governs the world.”

The authors paint a very dramatic and dark image-a bit like something out of a science fiction novel. They are clearly describing a world that is oppressive and destructive. But the book is also frustrating because there is virtually no concrete analysis of the world today.

There is no analysis of the workings of the world economy, of multinational corporations and organisations like the WTO, or of nation-states. Empire ignores completely the very serious conflicts and rivalries that exist between nation-states, such as that between the US and China. There is no discussion of how George Bush’s “Son of Star Wars” plan has “transcended imperialism”.

Every argument is put at a very abstract and general level. There is no discussion of who rules, or how.


The second central idea of Empire is that of the “multitude” or the people at the bottom of society. It is the multitude, a vast and amorphous mass, which resists Empire at every point. The multitude is something different from the working class. Negri is hostile to the organised working class. Elsewhere he has referred to trade unionists as “kulaks”-the word for rich peasants in Russia who lived off the backs of poor peasants.

In Empire Hardt and Negri accept that “the composition of the proletariat has transformed”. Today the industrial working class “has all but disappeared from view. It has not ceased to exist but it has been displaced from its privileged position in the capitalist economy.”

But this is not so. The working class is not only a growing force. It is the one force with the power to disable the system Today there are 20,000 more auto workers’ jobs in the US than there were in 1979.

Globalisation has created a million new garment workers in Bangladesh, mainly women, who are fighting and building union organisation. Many workers battling against neo-liberalism and privatisation know that they are not alone.

But Hardt and Negri argue that events like the Palestinian intifada, the 1992 revolt in Los Angeles, the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, and strikes by workers in France and South Korea cannot be linked together.

“None of these events inspired a cycle of struggles, because the desires and needs they expressed could not be translated into different contexts.” This is ludicrous. The Zapatistas may not have provoked similar risings, but they have certainly provoked international inspiration and solidarity.

Who’s the enemy?

Hardt and Negri, having defined Empire as the “universal rule of capital without a centre”, argue there is no longer one clear enemy. So the capitalist class, the employers and the armed might of the state are no longer the enemy. As such, they also give up on any notion of political strategy. They do outline three general demands:

  • The right to global citizenship (free movement of all peoples across the globe).
  • The right to a social wage (and a guaranteed income for all, including the unemployed).
  • The right to reappropriation (control over language, communication and production).

There are also vague calls to be a “radical republican”, and at other times for “revolutionary political militancy” and the need to be “communist”. But what does this mean?

Their only guidance is to suggest “posing against the misery of power the joy of being”. Empire’s final paragraph even gives St Francis of Assisi as a possible role model for those who want to fight for a better world! Revolutionaries need to do a lot more.

We need to build the day to day struggles of workers against privatisation and job losses and link them with battles against neo-liberalism around the world, as well as the big demonstrations outside institutions like the G8 and the International Monetary Fund.

There is no doubt Hardt and Negri want a better world. But they do not understand the world we live in today, nor do they provide a guide for action to win a new one tomorrow.

  • Empire is published by Harvard University Press and is available from Bookmarks. The paperback edition, out soon, is 12.95. The hardback edition is 23.95.

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