He became famous twice: first in 1979, for his imprisonment related to the murder of a former Italian premier, and then 20 years later, for his influential book “Empire.”
Antonio Negri, an Italian philosopher whose essays and activism calling for a new workers’ revolution landed him in prison in 1979, and who two decades later became a global intellectual celebrity for writing “Empire,” a book hailed as the new “Communist Manifesto,” died on Saturday in Paris. He was 90.
The philosopher Judith Revel, his wife, confirmed his death, in a hospital.
Throughout his career, Mr. Negri was among the few academic thinkers who had the talent and charisma to make their ideas accessible to a broad audience.
As a leading figure of the Potere Operaio (Workers’ Power) movement of the 1960s and ’70s, he inspired followers not just with his forceful essays but also with his willingness to go out to the streets and factories of northern Italian cities, organizing workers and calling for revolution.
“Empire” (2000), which he wrote with Michael Hardt, a literature professor at Duke University, did something similar for a new generation of the left, offering what many found a compelling Marxist interpretation of globalization after the Cold War.
Though it was written in dense academic prose and clocked in at nearly 500 pages, it was an immediate hit. It was translated into a dozen languages, made the best-seller lists at The Washington Post and other newspapers and secured Mr. Negri a permanent slot among the global progressive intelligentsia, alongside figures like Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Zizek.
Mr. Negri emerged as a leading intellectual figure in Italy in the late 1960s, when he was a philosophy professor at the University of Padua. The postwar generation was coming of age, and many on the left were looking for new answers beyond the traditional socialism and communism of their parents.
Not content to remain in the classroom, he helped organize Potere Operaio, a movement that in its ideology went beyond the labor politics of traditional communism to call for an end to wage labor itself.
“We would stand in front of the factories at 5 in the morning,” he said in an interview for “Antonio Negri: A Revolt That Never Ends,” a 2004 documentary about his career, directed by Andreas Pichler and Alexandra Weltz. “Afterward I would take the car back to Padua, tie my tie and live my academic life.”
The movement picked up speed, and in 1969 it exploded into a series of sometimes violent strikes at factories in industrial cities like Turin, as well as into street battles in Rome and Milan. Mr. Negri cheered it all on, speaking of an imminent “revolutionary horizon” when groups like his would synchronize with social movements, like feminism, to bring about dramatic change.
The Italian government, sometimes in alliance with neo-fascist organizations, fought back, setting off a decade-long quasi-civil war known in Italy as the Years of Lead. The police cracked down on protesters, beating and arresting them, while paramilitary groups staged attacks to make it appear that the far left was responsible, including a 1969 bombing in Milan that killed 16 people.
The left’s violence, which Mr. Negri neither condemned nor condoned, continued in response. In 1978, a splinter faction, the Red Brigades, kidnapped Aldo Moro, a former prime minister who was the chairman of the centrist Christian Democratic Party. Nearly two months later, he was found murdered.
The police rounded up scores of left-wing activists, including, in 1979, Mr. Negri, who was taken to a maximum-security prison in Rome. Originally charged with leading the Red Brigades and helping to organize the kidnapping, he was held for nearly four years without trial.
During that time he returned to writing, turning out several long essays on the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. He also began rethinking some of his basic assumptions about Marxism.
In 1983, he was elected to Parliament on the slate of the Radical Party, a result that gave him immunity from prosecution. But after Parliament voted to waive that immunity, prosecutors charged him with two murders unrelated to the Moro case, as well as with writing incendiary material. The charges specifically related to the Moro case were dropped for lack of evidence.
He also met Mr. Hardt, who was living in Paris at the time. They both believed that the end of the Cold War called for a new Marxist framework of analysis, one that accounted for what they saw as the weakening of the nation-state in the face of global capital.
Their proposal was what they called empire — not a single entity or place but a fluid, controlled form of power structures that moved easily among governments, corporations and international institutions, like the World Bank.
Empire, they wrote in their book of the same name, was not simply a result of capitalist oppression; it was, rather, the structure in which capitalist oppression takes place — and in which new forms of resistance can also arise.
“Empire creates a greater potential for revolution than did the modern regimes of power,” they wrote, “because it presents us, alongside the machine of command, with an alternative: the set of all the exploited and the subjugated, a multitude that is directly opposed to Empire, with no mediation between them.”
Mr. Negri returned to Italy in 1997, believing that he would receive amnesty. Instead, he was sent to prison, having been found guilty in absentia. He and Mr. Hardt completed the book while he was behind bars and published it in 2000.
“Empire” appeared at the perfect moment, when people were trying to make sense of the worldwide upsurge in protests against central banks, the World Trade Organization and the Group of 8. For a time, it seemed, any self-respecting graduate student in the humanities had a dog-eared copy on the shelf alongside books like “Das Kapital” and “The Judith Butler Reader.”
“What Hardt and Negri offer is nothing less than a rewriting of ‘The Communist Manifesto’ for our time,” Mr. Zizek wrote in a blurb for the book.
Antonio Negri, known as Toni, was born on Aug. 1, 1933, in Padua. His mother, Aldina Malvezzi, was a teacher. His father, Nerio Negri, was a union leader and a founder of the Italian Communist Party. Nerio Negri died when Toni was just 3 years old, most likely from sepsis after being imprisoned by Fascists and forced to drink castor oil.
Mr. Negri studied philosophy at the University of Padua and began teaching there soon after receiving his doctorate in 1956. He remained on the faculty until his arrest in 1979.
His first marriage, to Paola Meo, ended in divorce. He met Ms. Revel in 1996, and they married in 2016. Along with her, he is survived by two children from his first marriage, Anna and Francesco Negri; a daughter from a separate relationship, Nina Negri; and three grandchildren. He lived in Paris.
Mr. Negri was released from prison in 2003. He and Mr. Hardt went on to write two sequels to “Empire” — “Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire” (2004) and “Commonwealth” (2009), both of which attempted to outline means of resistance against globalized capital.
He did not return to the University of Padua but instead became an independent intellectual, speaking at conferences and writing for both academic and general audiences. He was hailed in the leftist press as the leading theorist of the new millennium, the first person to describe the emergence of a new form of society.
Mr. Negri was rarely without critics, even on the far left. Many claimed that he and Mr. Hardt underestimated the continuing relevance of the nation-state — for example in the Russia-Ukraine war or trade tensions between the United States and China.
But, his supporters say, his work can also be seen as part of an evolving understanding of the complexities of 21st-century society, in which both corporations and governments have the power to shift geopolitics, while global grass-roots movements can emerge seemingly overnight and change the world.
“‘Empire’ was written at a juncture that was completely different than you find today,” Sandro Mezzadra, a professor of political theory at the University of Bologna, said by phone. “But there are many ideas in ‘Empire’ that remain inspiring and challenge us to adapt them to the new conditions of globalization.”