Daniel Bensaïd: militant, intellectual, friend

Daniel Bensaïd.

By François Sabado

International Viewpoint -- Daniel Bensaïd left us today, Tuesday, January 12, 2010. Born in 1946 he gave his life to the cause of defending revolutionary Marxist ideas right to the end. He was one of the founders of the Jeunesse Communiste Révolutionnaire (JCR -- Revolutionary Communist Youth) and the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR -- Revolutionary Communist League, French section of the Fourth International).

A leader of the May '68 movement, he was one of those people with a very sure feeling for political initiative. He had been one of the leaders of the 22nd March Movement. Grasping the dynamic of social movements, in particular the link between the student movement and workers’ general strike, he was also one of those who understood the necessity of building a political organisation, of accumulating the forces for building a revolutionary party.

The quality of Daniel’s intelligence was to combine theory and practice, intuition and political understanding, ideas and organisation. He could, at the same time, lead a stewarding force and write a theoretical text.

He was one of those who inspired a fight which combined principles and political boundaries with openness and a rejection of sectarianism. Daniel, his own political convictions deeply rooted in him, was always the first to want to discuss, to try to convince, to exchange opinions, and to renew his own thinking.

As a member of the daily leadership of the LCR from the end of the 1960s to the beginning of the 1990s, he played a decisive role in building a project, an orientation which combined daily activity with a revolutionary outlook. A good part of his theoretical and political work was focused on questions of strategy, and the lessons of the main historical revolutionary experiences.

Daniel was profoundly internationalist. He played a key role in the building of the LCR in the Spanish state in the period of the Franco dictatorship. In those years he played a major role within the Fourth International, in particular following closely developments in Latin America and Brazil. He contributed largely to renewing our vision of the world and to preparing us for the upheavals of the end of the 1980s.

From the 1990s until the end, while continuing his political fight he concentrated on theoretical work: the history of political ideas; Marx’s Capital; the balance sheet of the twentieth century and its revolutions, first of all the Russian Revolution; ecology; feminism; identities and the Jewish question; developing new policies for the revolutionary left faced with capitalist globalisation. He regularly attended and followed the World Social Forum and the global justice movement.

Daniel ensured the historical continuity of open, non-dogmatic, revolutionary Marxism and adaptation to the changes of the new era, with the perspective of revolutionary transformation of society always in his sights.

Although seriously ill he overcame it for years, thinking, writing, working on his ideas, never refusing to travel, to speak at rallies or attend simple meetings. Daniel set himself the task of checking the solidity of our foundations and to pass them on the young generation. He put his heart and all his strength into it. His contributions, at the International Institute in Amsterdam, in the summer universities of the LCR and then of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA), at the Fourth International youth camp, made an impact on thousands of comrades.

Transmitting the experience of the LCR to the NPA, Daniel decided to accompany the foundation of our new organisation with a relaunch of the review Contretemps and forming the “Louise Michel” society as a place for discussion and reflection of radical thought.

Daniel was all that. And in addition he was warm and convivial. He loved life.

Although many “68ers” turned their coats and abandoned the ideals of their youth, Daniel abandoned none of them; he didn’t change. He is still with us.

[Translated by Penelope Duggan. François Sabado is a member of the executive bureau of the Fourth International and an activist in the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) in France. He was a long-time member of the national leadership of the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR). This tribute first appeared in International Viewpoint, magazine of the Fourth International.]

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Thu, 01/14/2010 - 09:39


Author and socialist Gilbert Achcar pays tribute to his comrade Daniel Bensaïd.

THE FRENCH radical philosopher and political leader Daniel Bensaïd died Tuesday morning after fighting a painful cancer for several months at the end of close to 15 years of living with AIDS.

One of the key figures of the French student revolt of 1968, Bensaïd was a prominent founding member of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR), along with Alain Krivine. He remained in the leadership of this organization, an affiliate of the Trotskyist Fourth International, until he was struck by illness.

Bensaïd continued nevertheless to play a central role as a contributor to the political thinking of his movement, including in the creation of the 10,000-member Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA), represented by Olivier Besancenot, the well-known young postal worker and occasional presidential candidate.

Daniel Bensaïd was an embodiment of the French revolutionary tradition--one of his books published on the 200th anniversary of the 1789 French Revolution bore the title Moi la Révolution (I, the Revolution). He was fond of radicalized Jacobinism--the legacy of that revolution represented by Babeuf and Blanqui--which he combined with libertarian sympathies in reference to the 1871 Paris Commune.

Yet he was deeply internationalist. He was especially involved in developments within the radical left in Latin America through the Fourth International, thanks to his command of Spanish and Portuguese. He saw in Russian Bolshevism the heir of radical Jacobinism and defended Lenin's legacy against the sweeping critical reassessments that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

He was also a fierce representative of this very specific feature of French radicalism: thorough secularism. Two of his latest books bore titles referring to this aspect of his thinking: Fragments mécréants (An Unbeliever's Discourse) and Eloge de la politique profane (In Praise of Secular Politics).

His most important theoretical work, Marx l'intempestif, was published in 1995. The book was translated into English and published in 2002 under the title A Marx for Our Times: Adventures and Misadventures of a Critique. It offered an unconventional reading of Marx, clearing him of the accusation of determinism. The book signaled Bensaïd's recognition as a public intellectual, a frequent author of op-eds in Le Monde and Libération, and a regular guest of intellectual radio and TV talk shows.

Bensaïd's first book was published in 1968, co-authored with Henri Weber (afterward a Socialist Party member of Senate). Its title, Mai 68, une répétition générale (May 68: A Dress Rehearsal), spoke volumes about the spirit of the times. After his book for the bicentennial of the French Revolution, he published works on Walter Benjamin and on the figure of Joan of Arc, the latter work influenced by Charles Péguy's interpretation.

He took up this seemingly eclectic range of topics in the context of the melancholy created by the post-1989 international political shift, with the ideological assault on Marxism and the triumphalism of the global neoliberal drive. One of Bensaïd's later books will indeed be titled Le Pari mélancolique (The Melancholic Wager).

Ever since he contracted AIDS, believing that his days were numbered, Bensaïd set out to write and publish at an impressive speed: close to 20 books of various sizes and on various topics in 15 years, from his 1995 book on Marx until his death.

At the same time, he confronted death most bravely: a revolutionary who fought steadfastly to his very last breath.

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Sat, 01/16/2010 - 17:58



Daniel Bensaïd obituary

French philosopher and leading figure in the events of 1968

The French philosopher Daniel Bensaïd, who has died aged 63 of cancer, was
one of the most gifted Marxist intellectuals of his generation. In 1968,
together with Daniel Cohn-Bendit, he helped to form the Mouvement du 22 Mars
(the 22 March Movement), the organisation that helped to detonate the
uprising that shook France in May and June of that year. Bensaïd was at his
best explaining ideas to large crowds of students and workers. He could hold
an audience spellbound, as I witnessed in his native Toulouse in 1969, when
we shared a platform at a rally of 10,000 people to support Alain Krivine,
one of the leaders of the uprising, in his presidential campaign, standing
for the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR).

Bensaïd's penetrating analysis was never presented in a patronising way,
whatever the composition of the audience. His ideas derived from classical
Marxism – Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, as was typical in those days
– but his way of looking at and presenting them was his own. His
philosophical and political writings have a lyrical ring – at particularly
tedious central committee meetings, he could often be seen immersed in
Proust – and resist easy translation into English.

As a leader of the LCR and the Fourth International, to which it was
affiliated, Bensaïd travelled a great deal to South America, especially
Brazil, and played an important part in helping to organise the Workers
party (PT) currently in power there under President Luiz Inácio Lula da
Silva. An imprudent sexual encounter shortened Bensaïd's life. He contracted
Aids and, for the last 16 years, was dependent on the drugs that kept him
going, with fatal side-effects: a cancer that finally killed him.

Physically, he became a shadow of his former self, but the intellect was not
affected and he produced more than a dozen books on politics and philosophy.
He wrote of his Jewishness and that of many other comrades and how this had
never led him, or most of them, to follow the path of a blind and unthinking
Zionism. He disliked identity politics and his last two books – Fragments
Mécréants (An Unbeliever's Discourse, 2005) and Eloge de la Politique
Profane (In Praise of Secular Politics, 2008) – explained how this had
become a substitute for serious critical thought.

He was France's leading Marxist public intellectual, much in demand on
talkshows and writing essays and reviews in Le Monde and Libération. At a
time when a large section of the French intelligentsia had shifted its
terrain and embraced neoliberalism, Bensaïd remained steadfast, but without
a trace of dogma. Even in the 1960s he had avoided leftwing cliches and
thought creatively, often questioning the verities of the far left.

He was schooled at the lycées Bellevue and Fermat in Toulouse, but the
formative influence was that of his parents and their milieu. His father,
Haim Bensaïd, was a Sephardic Jew from a poor family in Algeria and moved
from Mascara to Oran, where he got a job as a waiter in a cafe, but soon
discovered his real vocation. He trained as a boxer, becoming the
welterweight champion of north Africa.

Daniel's mother, Marthe Starck, was a strong and energetic Frenchwoman from
a working-class family in Blois, central France. At 18 she moved to Oran.
She met the boxer and fell in love. The French colons were shocked and tried
hard to persuade her not to marry a Jew. She was bound to get VD and have
abnormal children, they said.

With France occupied by the Germans and a bulk of the country's elite in
collaborationist mode with its capital at Vichy, the French colonial
administration fell into line. As a Jew, Daniel's father was arrested, but
he managed to escape from the PoW camp, and rashly decided to go to
Toulouse, where Marthe helped him obtain false papers. Armed with a new
identity, he bought a bistro, Le Bar des Amis. Unlike his two brothers, who
were killed during the occupation, he survived, thanks largely to his wife,
who had an official Vichy certificate stating her "non-membership of the
Jewish race".

In his affecting memoir, Une Lente Impatience (2004), Daniel noted that
these barbarities had taken place on French soil only a few decades prior to
1968. Le Bar des Amis, he wrote, was a cosmopolitan location frequented by
Spanish refugees, Italian antifascists, former resistance fighters and a
variety of workers, with the local Communist party branch holding its
meetings there too. Given his mother's fierce republican and Jacobin views
(when a relative, after a French television programme on the British
monarchy, expressed doubts about the guillotining of Louis XVI and Marie
Antoinette, Marthe did not speak to her for 10 years), it would have been
odd if young Bensaïd had become a monarchist.

Angered by the massacre of Algerians at the Métro Charonne in 1961 (ordered
by Maurice Papon, chief of police and a former Nazi collaborator), he joined
the Union of Communist Students, but soon became irritated by party
orthodoxy and joined a left opposition within the union organised by Henri
Weber (currently a Socialist party senator in the upper house) and Alain
Krivine. The Cuban revolution and Che Guevara's odyssey did the rest. The
dissidents were expelled from the party in 1966.

That same year, Bensaïd was admitted to the Ecole Normale Supérieure in
Saint-Cloud and moved to Paris. Here he helped found the Jeunesse Communiste
Révolutionnaire (JCR), young dissidents inspired by Guevara and Trotsky,
which later morphed into the LCR.

The last time I met him, a few years ago, in his favourite cafe in Paris's
Latin Quarter, he was in full flow. The disease had not sapped his will to
live or to think. Politics was his lifeblood. We talked about social unrest
in France and whether it would be enough to bring about serious change. He
shrugged his shoulders. "Perhaps not in our lifetimes, but we carry on
fighting. What else is there to do?"

• Daniel Bensaïd, philosopher, born 25 March 1946; died 12 January 2010