On the Greatness of Marx

I think Felix Guattari and I have remained Marxists, in our two different ways, perhaps, but both of us.

Control and Becoming
Gilles Deleuze in conversation with Antonio Negri

The final book Deleuze was working on before his untimely death, ‘Grandeur de Marx’, has an almost mythical status among followers and readers of Deleuze’s philosophy. Marx occupies a relatively privileged place in Deleuze’s work (perhaps just behind Spinoza, Bergson, and Nietzsche), especially in his two works with Felix Guattari: Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus, but which can be found even earlier in his discussion of Marx and revolution in Difference & Repetition. But the exact relationship between Deleuze, and the system of thought he developed, and Marx or Marxism, has remained somewhat ambiguous. I don’t think I’m going to be able to solve that here, but I wanted to collect together some pieces of information which I have managed to draw together to try and give us a picture of what Deleuze was writing in the Greatness of Marx.

What’s interesting is that we have – as far as I can tell – only three significant references to this book. The first is a footnote in the 1994 English edition of ‘What Is Philosophy?’. The book was originally published in French in 1991, and later translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell. On p. X of the translator’s introduction, Tomlinson and Burchell write the following:

Deleuze’s own production shows no sign of diminishing after forty years of writing. His latest work, Critique et Clinique (Paris: Minuit, 1993) was published on September 8, 1993. He is at present writing a work on ‘The greatness of Marx.”

The second reference is provided by Deleuze himself. In an interview with Didier Eribon for Le Nouvel Observateur published in 1995 (but conducted in 1993), he says that his next, and final, book will be titled ‘Grandeur de Marx’ (“Mon prochain livre – et ce sera le dernier – s’appelera ‘Grandeur de Marx’”). So we know that between 1993 (the publication of Critique et Clinique and the year the Le Nouvel Observateur interview was conducted) and 1994 (the publication of the English translation of What Is Philosophy?) Deleuze was working on a book of that title. He died just over a year later, on November 4, 1995. Hugh Tomlinson knew Deleuze personally, translating eight of his works into English, and travelled to Paris to study under him, so we can assume that he had been informed by Deleuze about this project. That makes sense – they would have been in contact as Tomlinson worked on the English translation of What Is Philosophy? anyway, so perhaps Deleuze mentioned it or even discussed it. But we don’t have any indication of the content of the book – and this is the great mystery. What would Deleuze have had to say about Marx, in a book dedicated to his ‘greatness’?

I think we might actually have an indication of this. Here’s the fascinating thing: Antonio Negri has already explained what he took to be Deleuze’s position in ‘Grandeur de Marx’. A little background, first. Antonio Negri, Italian activist-philosopher of Autonomia and ‘Empire’, was a personal friend of both Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, and spent a great deal of time with them both. After bogus charges were raised against him by the Italian government in 1979, he sought refuge in France under laws which were often used by Italian leftists persecuted by the Italian state; Guattari was the one who organised the boat to take him from Italy. Deleuze also wrote an open letter to the Italian judges presiding over Negri’s case in which he offers a staunch defense of his comrade (“an extremely important Marxist theoretician, both profound and original”), and accuses both the Italian government and the media of engaging in “a veritable ‘witch hunt’ against people who are in prison on the basis of proof that is at the very least vague or yet to be produced.” (p. 172, Two Regimes of Madness) Deleuze offered a further defense in an essay titled ‘This Book is Literal Proof of Innocence’ in which he argues that Negri’s famous book Marx Beyond Marx itself constitutes proof of Negri’s innocence, arguing that “At no time, however, have the kind of practical struggles which Negri analyzes and applies been allied to terrorism; nor can they be confused with the methods favored by the Red Brigades.” (p. 174, Two Regimes of Madness) While in Paris, Negri became close to both Deleuze and Guattari, but especially the latter, who housed him and generally looked after him, making him welcome in Paris, making introductions and so on. Negri attended seminars and lectures by Deleuze at the Univeristy of Paris VIII, including his lectures on Spinoza; corresponded regularly with Deleuze; and participated in many private discussion groups and roundtables with both Deleuze and Guattari, as well as other intellectuals such as Paul Virilio.

This brings us to the matter at hand. In 1997, after arranging a plea bargain with the Italian government, he returned to Italy to serve out his sentence, and was released in 2003. In “the days leading up to his return” in 1997, he participated in a video interview titled Retour vers le futur (PDF here). This was transcribed and translated into English in 1998 by Michael Hardt, his future collaborator on Empire and other works, and with whom he’d already written Labor of Dionysus: A Critique of the State-Form in 1994. And, while in prison, Negri would go on to write a book with Guattari titled either ‘Communists Like Us’ or ‘New Lines of Alliance, New Spaces of Liberty’ depending on the edition you have. But what does Negri say in this video interview? Let me quote this passage in full, just for clarity’s sake. Under a section on ‘Minorities in Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plataus‘, he writes:

“Deleuze and Guattari wrote this book at the beginning of the 1980s. They had the great foresight to recognize the crisis of the mass-worker. They recognized the becoming minoritarian, the incipient phenomena that we called in the context of Italian workerism, in Autonomia, the social worker and the marginal forms of labor in revolt. The sociopolitical definition given in “A Thousand Plateaus” does not really go much further than this, from the point of view of phenomenological analysis. Therefore I believe in effect that they were thinking of this genesis, of this genealogy of the multitude in the terms we have been using today. They contributed through their subtle analysis of the constitution of minorities to the construction of this new concept of the majority that makes sense because it is a plural set of productive capacities, of capacities of cooperation.

What they signaled is a moment of resistance and passage that I think is extremely important. I have to point out that precisely in this section of their book they cite Italian workerists as the practical reference point of this type of experience. I believe that Gilles’s and Felix’s thinking always tended in this direction. And, on the other hand, in Deleuze’s final book, “Grandeur de Marx,” we find an extraordinary argument, an argument that translates an epistemological claim, which involves the definition of “common names” as the set of perceptions that constitute concepts, as the linguistic construction of an epistemological community, an argument that translates this process into an ontological process. Communism is the multitude that becomes common. That does not mean that there is something presupposed there, that there is an idea, something ontologically or metaphysically hidden. This does not mean that there is a unity.
The common is what is opposed to the one, it is anti-Platonism pushed to the extreme. It is also the inversion of the idea of communism proposed in that tradition where utopia necessarily constituted a unity and resolved the problem of unity and the sovereignty of power.
Here there is the multitude that constitutes the common. And this is the concept of communism that, from what I have understood, was constructed in the “Grandeur de Marx,” Deleuze’s unfinished book.”

Now, I think I will leave anything I have to say about the ideas at work here for another article, but first let’s tackle the historiographical question here: is this a correct claim about what Deleuze was arguing in ‘Grandeur de Marx’? Well, Negri did know both Deleuze and Guattari personally, and was a friend of theirs. He had met, worked with, learned from, and discussed philosophy with both of them, even co-writing a book on Communism with Guattari. Deleuze accorded Negri’s work on Marx quite a good deal of esteem; in his lectures on A Thousand Plateaus, there are a number of references to Negri (one example) – particularly his breakthrough work Marx Beyond Marx: Lessons on the Grundrisse – all in positive terms, as well as the Italian workerist movement in general. His lecture on Foucault on 20 May 1986 (link) also has repeated and positive engagements with Negri’s book, which Deleuze calls a “beautiful text”. Negri is also correct that the politics of A Thousand Plateaus certainly leans in the direction of Italian workerism, and Guattari was personally very much inclined in that direction. There is also, of course, the famous mutual interview they both took part in, often titled ‘Control and Becoming’ (which took place in Spring 1990, later published in Negotiations in 1995), where they discussed capitalism, communism, philosophy, and political action. Productive differences do emerge in that interview, but they’re hardly worlds apart.

So, is it possible that Negri could have had knowledge of what Deleuze was writing? Certainly. We should also note in passing that Negri describes the book as “unfinished” – the implication being that something was written. We will return to this in a moment. They were friends, corresponded regularly, moved in the same intellectual circles in Paris, and each influenced the other’s philosophy and politics. We cannot know for certain how this might have happened, but here is one plausible hypothetical: Deleuze has written, say, a first chapter of the book, but he wants some feedback, ideas, and criticism from his friend Toni, whose opinions he respects on Marxist philosophy. So perhaps he sends him a rough draft of the chapter for that purpose, Negri replies, and so on. It might have even just been a handful of snippets, passages, ideas or problematics, either written or communicated in person or over a telephone call. That’s an entirely plausible situation, and we know that Deleuze and Guattari both relied on feedback, ideas, and suggestions from numerous other people in their writing, especially A Thousand Plateaus.

But could Deleuze have sent Negri such a chapter? After all, given we appear not to have any drafts, notes, or copies of it, what if it was just a project he had intended to work on, but tragically never found the time to put pen to paper before his health began to fail, and his death in 1995? Two rebuttals: First, it is highly unlikely – and indeed one would need quite certain proof to accuse him of this – that Negri simply made up, invented from scratch, what Deleuze was arguing in that book. Deleuze was a friend, colleague, and comrade of his. So we should assume good faith in this respect: he either read something or at least talked to Deleuze or someone close to Deleuze about it, and thereby had some idea about what Deleuze had written or was intending to write.

But more convincing is this: Jean-Clet Martin, a French philosopher born in 1958, who specialises in Deleuze’s philosophy and the concept of multiplicities, wrote a letter entitled ‘Pourquoi Deleuze abandonne le projet de son livre “Grandeur de Marx”.‘ His analysis is interesting in its own right (and could help to explain the reason why the book was never completed or published), but Martin claims “Deleuze leaves no page, no trace (he told me on the phone, however, that the first chapter was completed).” Martin has published numerous books and papers on Deleuze, and – according to one of them, Variations – is “a student, a reader and a fellow philosopher with whom Deleuze himself corresponded about his work.” That book contains a letter-preface written by Deleuze as well, which can also be found in Two Regimes of Madness. So he seems to be a trustworthy source.

So it appears both possible and plausible that at least a draft of the first chapter of Deleuze’s ‘Grandeur de Marx’ was in fact completed. And it therefore seems reasonable that Negri might have been able to see what it said, perhaps being asked by Deleuze to offer feedback or criticism, or perhaps just discussing the ideas and arguments Deleuze was playing around with over a glass of wine together. There was a chapter, and it is both possible and plausible that Negri would have had knowledge of what that chapter said.

The last problem I want to address is one raised by Nicholas Thoburn in his book ‘Deleuze, Marx and Politics’, an excellent book which I take to be essential for an analysis of the political implications of Deleuze’s philosophy. Thoburn mentions this ‘lost work’ in a footnote where he seems to agree that it is plausible that Negri did have some knowledge of it, but that “Whatever access Negri had to Deleuze’s ideas in progress, he presents Deleuze’s argument, I think problematically, in terms very similar to his own”. (p. 155n3) This is, I think, the only remaining serious worry about Negri’s claim, and it is a serious one. So let’s talk about that for a moment.

Negri made this claim, as stated earlier, in a video interview recorded in the days leading up to his return to Italy on July 1, 1997 to serve out his sentence. Just a few days prior, on June 28, 1997, he gave an interview to the German newspaper ‘Die Tageszeitung’ (PDF here). In it we find none of the kind of conceptual vocabulary Negri would later develop in his work, especially with Michael Hardt; no mentions of ‘Empire’ (the book being published three years later, in 2000), ‘multitude’, and so on. As far as I can tell, it was in 1994 with his first work with Michael Hardt, Labor of Dionysus: A Critique of the State-Form, that a conceptual vocabulary of ‘multitude’ and so on first appears, and clearly a few years later he felt content not to even reference these concepts in perhaps his final interview before prison; it therefore seems unlikely to me that he felt the same attachment to these terms as he later did in 2000 with Empire, and it would be surprising if he therefore engaged in such a radical process of conceptual translation here.

Negri made these claims about ‘Grandeur de Marx’ well over two years before Empire, probably in late 1996 or early 1997. While it is therefore possible that Negri has translated some of Deleuze’s ideas into his own conceptual vocabulary, I want to make two final points. First, the common ground which Negri and Deleuze both share is that they are both fundamentally Spinozists. Negri was already a Spinozist before he met Deleuze, but attending the latter’s lectures convinced him more deeply. Deleuze respected Negri’s major work on Spinoza, The Savage Anomaly, to a sufficient extent that he chose to write the preface to the French edition of that book. In it, he writes that it is “a major book that in many ways renews our understanding of Spinozism”, and that “What Negri did so profoundly for Marx in terms of the Grundrisse, he now does for Spinoza”, concluding that “our first task should be to appreciate the scope of these arguments and to understand what Negri found in Spinoza, how he is authentically and profoundly Spinozist.” (pp. 191-193, Two Regimes of Madness)

Now it is true to say that Deleuze does depart from Spinoza in several respects (especially taking a detour through Bergson for a more open conception of actuality/virtuality), and that Deleuze and Negri differ in their respective interpretations of Spinoza, but it is clear that they are both Spinozists and respected each other’s readings of Spinoza. It wouldn’t therefore be entirely unsurprising if Deleuze did, in fact, use some of Spinoza’s concepts in his book, or even just its first chapter. We could also note that he had been in correspondence with his colleague Louis Althusser regarding Deleuze’s essay ‘How Do We Recognise Structuralism?’ (which can be found in Desert Islands and Other Texts 1953-1974, 2004), and who was himself an enormously important figure in French Spinozism through his own work on Marx. So for Deleuze to bring a Spinozist ‘angle’ to a book on Marx would also not have been entirely unprecedented given the intellectual currents in his milieu either.

And, in point of fact, it seems to me that it is really only the concept of the ‘multitude’ (derived from many sources but primarily from Spinoza in Negri’s work) that one could really challenge in this manner. Perhaps instead of multitude Deleuze might have preferred or used ‘multiplicity’ (or perhaps some new concept he was still developing!), but given how Negri tends towards thinking of the multitude as a multiplicity of singularities, none of this appears to be too far a radical departure from Deleuze’s system of thought. Perhaps we then simply put a question mark next to ‘multitude’. There is also, of course, a reference to ‘the commons’, but if the broad strokes of Negri’s interpretation is correct, then it would seem to be a natural consequence of Deleuze attempting to write a book on Marx and communism which pivots on Spinoza’s concept of common notions.1

It is entirely plausible that Deleuze might have found in Spinoza, in his later years, the ideas and concepts necessary to arrive at certain determinate political conclusions which reconfigure our understanding of Marxism today. We can see from the Postscript to the Societies of Control (written May 1990, later published in Negotiations in 1995) the extent to which politics and power concerned him in the twilight of his life, and in his interview with Negri (Spring of that same year) his own anxieties about the relation between the emerging neoliberal world order and rhizomatic structures. So perhaps we should take another look at exactly what Negri claims, put a question mark over whether he might have used another word instead of ‘multitude’ (perhaps ‘multiplicity’ or minorities instead – or create a new concept!), and really consider whether this would be truly unexpected for perhaps the greatest Spinozist philosopher of the 20th century in a rapproachment with Marx. Of course, we can’t entirely rule out the possibility: philosophy is always an act of interpretation, and Negri might have seen commonalities or intentions that were not there for Deleuze, but this is a problem inherent to any act of interpretation. I don’t see any good reason to assume that he was changing it wholesale.

To summarise: according to one of Deleuze’s long-time translators, he was in fact working on a book called ‘Grandeur de Marx’ in around 1993-1994; according to another colleague of his, with whom he discussed his own work, Deleuze confirmed that a first chapter was completed (perhaps in draft form); and Antonio Negri, who was a friend and colleague of both Deleuze and Guattari in Paris at the time, has laid out quite explicitly what Deleuze was arguing in that book, or perhaps at least in that chapter. Negri could very plausibly have had access to it (it would not have been surprising if Deleuze had sent a draft to his Italian Marxist friend for feedback and criticism of the draft, or at least discussed his ideas for the book over a dinner or glass of wine in a more abridged form); he made the claims only a few years after he would have learned about it, so it is unlikely he forgot or misremembered it in any significant way; and though it is possible he translated some of Deleuze’s arguments into his own conceptual vocabulary, that conceptual vocabulary is a Spinozist one, which Deleuze largely shared.

We might, therefore, put a question mark over the two instances of the term ‘multitude’ and substitute in something else, or at least remain open to new concepts or ideas, and keep an eye on ‘the commons’; but on the whole, it seems to me that we have good reason to take Negri’s claims at face value, or, in other words: that what he claims is basically accurate, at least in the broad strokes.

I’m going to be digging even deeper into this in the near future. I don’t want to discuss here, immediately, what a fleshed out version of the claims Negri makes might have looked like – though I will be fascinated to attempt it – but I am a little surprised that there’s relatively little work on this almost mythical book by Deleuze, and hope to have done something somewhat useful in our understanding of Deleuze’s last, lost work. I have some more leads to follow up on with this, so expect more in the future! Perhaps I will also attempt to expand upon Negri’s claims, in order to try and see what such an essay or book might have looked like, what the arguments might turn on and what consequences follow for our understanding of Deleuze and Marx. I hope this has been interesting for now.

The common is what is opposed to the one, it is anti-Platonism pushed to the extreme. It is also the inversion of the idea of communism proposed in that tradition where utopia necessarily constituted a unity and resolved the problem of unity and the sovereignty of power.

  1. This is in fact a complicated point. Negri, in his discussion with Cesare Casarino, claims that his concept of the common is one that distinguishes his thought from Deleuze and Guattari’s. This may be correct, and certainly to my knowledge the notion of ‘the commons’ does not appear in any of Deleuze and Guattari’s work. It remains an open question whether this might have been what Deleuze intended to develop in ‘Grandeur de Marx’, however, especially given Negri’s claim that the whole argument of the book would hinge upon Spinoza’s concept of ‘common notions’ and the passage from epistemology to ontology in a common becoming. See: In Praise of the Common: A Conversation on Philosophy and Politics (University of Minnesota Press, 2008), pp. 119-120


  • ‘Back to the Future’ by Toni Negri, trans. Michael Hardt (1998); transcript of video interview from 1997 ‘Retour vers le futur’. PDF.
  • ‘JUNE 28, 1997: Interview with Antonio Negri’, trans. Jamie Owen Daniel (1997). PDF.
  • What Is Philosophy? by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (European Perspectives, 1994).
  • Two Regimes of Madness by Gilles Deleuze (Semiotexte, 2001), trans. Ames Hodges and Mike Taormina.
  • Desert Islands and Other Texts 1953-1974 by Gilles Deleuze (Semiotexte, 2004), trans. Michael Taormina.
  • “Foucault: Lecture 24, 20 May 1986” by Gilles Deleuze, URL here.
  • “A Thousand Plateaus V: The State Apparatus and War-Machines II, Lecture 12, 18 March 1980” by Gilles Deleuze, URL here.
  • ‘Control and Becoming: Gilles Deleuze in Conversation with Antonio Negri’, URL here.
  • Didier Eribon, “Le ‘Je me souviens’ de Gilles Deleuze”. Le Nouvel Observateur (16–22 November 1995), pp. 114–115. Photos of article available here and here.
  • Negotiations by Gilles Deleuze (Columbia University Press, 1995), trans. Martin Joughin.
  • In Praise of the Common: A Conversation on Philosophy and Politics by Antonio Negri and Cesare Casarino (University of Minnesota Press, 2008)
  • Pourquoi Deleuze abandonne le projet de son livre “Grandeur de Marx” by Jean-Clet Martin (2013), trans. Christopher Satoorian.
  • Deleuze, Marx and Politics by Nicholas Thoburn (Routledge, 2003).

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