Daniel Bensaïd Breathed New Life Into Marxism for the 21st Century

The French Marxist thinker Daniel Bensaïd grappled with the history of socialist defeats to supply us with a road map for the present. The result was a brilliant reformulation of Marxism that can guide today’s left-wing movements in their struggles.

French secretary general of Revolutionary Communist Youth, Alain Krivine (in the center with glasses), flanked by Daniel Bensaïd (on his right) and Henri Weber (on his left), holds a press conference on May 16, 1969 in Paris. (AFP via Getty Images)

Daniel Bensaïd once remarked that the age of the “master thinker” in European Marxism, represented by figures such as Jean-Paul Sartre or Georg Lukács, had passed: “And this is rather a good thing — a sign of the democratization of intellectual life and theoretical debate.” Yet Bensaïd himself clearly stands out as one of the most important Marxist thinkers of the past generation.

Before his death in 2010, Bensaïd published an extraordinary sequence of books and essays exploring the main political and theoretical questions facing Marxism today. He did so in a French intellectual context where bitter hostility to Marxist ideas had become the norm, often expressed by veterans of 1968 who, unlike Bensaïd, had reneged on their previous commitments.

Some of Bensaïd’s work has been translated into English, notably Marx for Our Times: Adventures and Misadventures of a Critique and his memoir, An Impatient Life. However, most of his writings remain inaccessible to those who cannot read French. This essay gives a brief overview of the main themes articulated by Bensaïd as he sought to renovate Marxist theory so that it could process the defeats and disappointments of the last century and supply us with an intellectual road map for the present.

A Political Life

Born in 1946, Bensaïd spent his formative years in his mother’s café, Le Bar des Amis, in Toulouse, just north of Barcelona, if one had crossed the Pyrenees. Veterans of the Spanish Civil War, French Communists, blue-collar workers, and Italian anti-fascists frequented the café. It was a place for working-class radicals from different places and traditions to meet.

At Le Bar des Amis, Bensaïd learned the culture of conversation among radicals, but also the political stands his mother took, such as going on strike when Francisco Franco’s government murdered the Spanish Communist leader Julián Grimau. In his memoir, he contrasted his own perspective on the working class with that of French intellectuals from elite social backgrounds who started off by idealizing the working class from afar before renouncing their left-wing convictions when its members couldn’t live up to their unrealistic expectations. Bensaïd captured his real-life relation to the working class in the following way:

My years of apprenticeship at the bar served to vaccinate me against certain mythologies that flourished around 1968. I did not recognize myself in the religious cult of the red proletarian, in the genuflections of the Maoist novitiates and their hymns to Mao Zedong Thought (no more, indeed, than in the edifying life of Saint Maurice Thorez or Saint Jacques Duclos). The people of my childhood were not imaginary but flesh and blood. They were capable of both the best and the worst, the most noble dignity as well as the most abject servility. Pierrot, the Communist résistant sharpshooter, was so much under the thumb of his employer that on Sundays he would drive his horses to the racecourse for nothing! The same individuals, according to circumstances, were capable of the most surprising courage or the most desolating cowardice. They were not heroes, but rather tragi-comic characters full of wrinkles and contradictions, naïvety and trickery. But they were “my people.” I had taken their side.

During Bensaïd’s youth, France was engaged in its brutal onslaught against the Algerian struggle for independence. Bensaïd set up a Jeunesse Communiste group at his lycée the day after the Parisian police beat and suffocated nine communists to death in February 1962 at the Charonne Metro station. Police inflicted the violence at a demonstration against the terrorist bombing campaign orchestrated by the fascist thugs of the Organisation armée secrète (OAS).

Bensaïd’s membership of the French Communist Party (PCF) only lasted until 1965. He was expelled along with several other students, and went on to found a small group called the Jeunesse communiste révolutionnaire (JCR), along with figures such as Henri Weber and Alain Krivine. The JCR played a pivotal role in the events of May 1968 and the subsequent trajectories of the French radical left.

May ’68 had an electrifying impact in France and across the globe. A convergence of students and workers brought the country to a standstill with the biggest general strike in French history. Bensaïd cut his teeth on these events, going underground with Weber to evade arrest, staying at the apartment of novelist Marguerite Duras. Coincidentally, Bensaïd was writing a dissertation about Lenin’s notion of revolutionary crisis under the supervision of Henri Lefebvre, the great Marxist philosopher of the interwar years.

Theory in a Cold Climate

Bensaïd and the JCR did their best to build out of the radicalizing student movement and sought to forge links with working-class radicals. They went into the 1970s with a sense that the times were changing and that revolution was back on the agenda. In 1974, they launched the Ligue communiste révolutionnaire (LCR) after the French authorities had banned its predecessor. The LCR went on to become one of the main forces on the French radical left.

With the general strike of 1968 followed by key struggles like the 1973 occupation by watchmakers of the LIP factory in Besançon, it was clear that workers had the potential to transform society. Ideas that the industrial working class of the advanced capitalist countries had somehow been paid off and was now quiescent were collapsing.

However, the potential of the working class was not realized in France during the 1970s and after. The Socialist Party (PS) became the dominant force on the Left within a few years of May ’68. François Mitterrand came to power in 1981, initially promising radical reform before quickly imposing a turn to austerity. Bensaïd had to think through the meaning of the defeats suffered by the workers’ movement and the Left outside of the PS and the PCF.

On the international stage, he took a keen interest in the construction of the Brazilian Workers’ Party in opposition to the military dictatorship, traveling to Latin America to take part in discussions with Brazilian comrades of the LCR in the Fourth International. Toward the late 1980s, however, Bensaïd contracted AIDS and was no longer able to travel as he had before. With the encouragement of the journalist Edwy Plenel, Bensaïd began a turn to literary and theoretical work, having previously concentrated on party publications.

This turn resulted in a qualitative leap of theoretical illumination. Bensaïd’s creativity changed the terrain of Marxist theory, uncovering many possibilities for a newer generation that was encountering Marxism for the first time. Bensaïd’s renovation traversed three paths: history and memory, Marxist theory, and an articulation of profane politics. Each of these paths crossed over in Bensaïd’s effort to bring a philosophical interpretation of Marxism into dialogue with political strategies to overthrow capitalism.

The Benjamin Trail

On the memorial field of history and recollection, Bensaïd’s most significant works were his study of Walter Benjamin, his book on the French Revolution (narrated in the first-person singular — the Revolution’s voice), and his moving book about Joan of Arc, which is a testament to the efforts of honoring youthful revolutionary convictions with fidelity in a context of neoliberal triumph.

Throughout these books, we can see a central thread in the determination to represent history in a manner distinct from the ways a previous generation of Marxists had conceived of it. Bensaïd’s writings on history and memory were important, especially in the context of Perry Anderson’s observation, in the afterword to his Considerations on Western Marxism, that the very idea of history had not been properly elucidated, deliberated upon, and explored in the Marxist tradition.

Though he did not frame his work as a direct response to Anderson, Bensaïd developed the notion of historical bifurcation — the branching out of history. In doing so, he departed from the idea of history that was current in much of the Trotskyist tradition, which had inadequately conjoined science and the laws of history by suggesting that somehow history was working toward communism as a predestined outcome. Bensaïd broke with this illusion by insisting that history knows no one-way streets.

In this context, he criticized “a certain kind of sociological optimism” that had been prevalent among Marxists — “the idea that capitalist development almost mechanically brings about the growth of an ever-growing, ever-more concentrated, ever-more organized and evermore conscious working class.” For Bensaïd, this bypassed the hard work of political organization, which had no predetermined outcomes:

A century of experiences has made plain the scale of divisions and differentiations in the ranks of the proletariat. The unity of the exploited classes is not a natural given, but something that is fought for and built.

His approach to history took what he called the “Benjamin trail,” through which he tried to salvage the primacy of political action against Stalinist deformations of Marxism. Bensaïd captured this move in his autobiography, recalling how the Benjamin trail had revealed a “landscape of thought” that was “disconcerting for an orthodox Marxist,” populated by figures such as Auguste Blanqui, Charles Péguy, Georges Sorel, and Marcel Proust:

For Péguy, a militant socialist, the supposed meaning of history could only serve as a diversion from an imperious responsibility here and now. It could not release us, in the name of abstract historical laws, from the appointment of the present. No one can escape the fearsome duty of deciding fallibly, humanly, in the flesh. At the risk of losing oneself. Socialism is not a promised land, a last judgement, a final and enclosed goal of humanity. It remains “before the threshold,” leaning on the unknown, in the inquietude of the present and the “power of historical dissent.”

The “power of historical dissent” was a basic feature of Bensaïd’s Benjamin trail, involving the memory of traditions of the oppressed. Fidelity to such pasts occupied Bensaïd, from the anti-colonial resistance of indigenous struggles to the Left Opposition against Stalinism and the victims of the Nazi Holocaust, Franco’s terror, or the dictatorial repression throughout much of Latin America that wiped out a generation. This led him to center his work around a form of remembrance that was able to weave together the traditions of the oppressed, formulating a terrain of memory that imposes a duty in the present.

A Plural Marx

Bensaïd’s reconfiguration of historical thought and memory took shape at the level of metaphor, illuminating expressions of Marxist theory that could identify and overcome the fragile points of Marxism. He spent much of the 1980s teaching at the University of Paris 8, working through Marx’s unfinished critique of political economy with his students. The most notable outcomes of this work were the book translated into English as Marx for Our Times, along with La discordance des temps: Essais sur les crises, les classes, l’histoire.

In a certain way, the metaphoric reexpression of “historical materialism” that Bensaïd undertook on the Benjamin trail flowed into a presentation of Marx’s key works that was of a theoretical nature. He drew together the elements, primarily focused on time, for another way of interpreting historical materialism.

Bensaïd’s interpretation appeared alongside other efforts to broaden the understanding of Marx beyond the homogeneous image of Marxism as a closed system of thought. It is now common, at least on the Continental and Anglophone left, to reject the idea of Marxism as a unified doctrine. This makes it possible for us today to take the paths opened by Marx’s critique seriously and without dogmatic resistance.

As Bensaïd put it in a 2006 interview when he was asked what remained valid in the “Marxist heritage”:

There isn’t one heritage, but many: an “orthodox” (Party or State) Marxism and “heterodox” Marxisms; a scientistic (or positivist) Marxism and a critical (or dialectical) Marxism; and also what the philosopher Ernst Bloch called the “cold currents” and “warm currents” of Marxism. These are not simply different readings or interpretations, but rather theoretical constructions that sometimes underpin antagonistic politics. As Jacques Derrida often repeated, heritage is not a thing that can be handed down or preserved. What matters is what its inheritors do with it — now and in the future.

Of course, the plurality of descriptions and stories that one could tell about Marxist theory have the effect of reviving and developing the theory. However, this wasn’t an “anything goes” pluralism, in the sense that fidelity to the texts of Marx himself remained crucial. Moreover, political arguments and practice still remained an extra-theoretical test for thinking.


When we look at Bensaïd’s signature theoretical interventions, the notion of contretemps comes to the fore. This involves thinking about the antagonistic organization of time. For Bensaïd, this meant interpreting Capital so as to expose the complex multiplicity of times as they are organized by capitalism.

Reading Marx from the vantage point of temporality led to an encounter with an untimely theory that was not in perfect synchronicity with Marx’s own time. This non-synchronicity meant that one could continue following Marx’s work, finding in it a unique scientific way of thinking about capitalism, class struggles, and the complexities of the modern world if one wanted to fight for socialism.

The following passage gives a sense of the argument Bensaïd wanted to convey about the organization of time and Capital:

Volume 1 pierces the secret of surplus value. Volume 2 reveals the manner in which this is realized through alienation. Its transfiguration into profit forms the centre of Volume 3, on “the process of capitalist production as a whole,” or the process of reproduction. It is only here that the concrete forms appear that are generated by “the movement of capital considered as a whole.” The critique of political economy thereby turns out to be both a logic and an aesthetic of the concept, going “right to the internal unease of everything that exists.” In its overall architecture, Capital presents itself as a contradictory organization of social times. Marx did pioneering work here.

The temporalities of capitalism are also shaped by classes in struggle. Bensaïd’s orientation toward Marx focused on understanding classes in terms of their struggles, not as sociological datums to be manipulated by bourgeois sociology.

Significantly for Bensaïd, Marx’s pioneering work on the capitalist organization of time required a deconstruction of the idea that Marx was a philosopher of history. Much of twentieth-century Marxism had remained confused about this point, which Bensaïd clarified by showing that Marx’s approach to history, based on materialism and the critique of political economy, was not a philosophy.

Instead, he insisted on the way in which the crises of capitalism arise in history, which must be addressed by political action without the consolation of a philosophical tale about history. This went in hand with Bensaïd’s notion of bifurcation mentioned above. The deconstruction of Marx as a philosopher of history implied discarding the belief that history was governed by general laws that would allow it to arrive, finally, at a socialist destination.

Profane Politics

We can understand Bensaïd’s specificity as a Marxist if we compare him to Perry Anderson’s characterization of Western Marxism. In Anderson’s schema, the defining feature of Western Marxism was a retreat from revolutionary politics, strategic deliberation, and the critique of political economy, with a flight into philosophy and aesthetics instead. The price for this concentration on philosophical thought was the abandonment of political thinking and the requisite analyses of the conjunctures in which Marxists were operating.

Bensaïd does not fit Anderson’s outline of Western Marxism, partly because much of his work was dedicated to a praise of profane politics underpinned by the critique of political economy and diagnostics of the historical present in which he operated. Unevenly produced, Bensaïd’s major writings on this terrain included La Révolution et le pouvoir, Le Pari mélancolique: Métamorphoses de la politique, politique des metamorphoses, and Éloge de la politique profane.

Each of these books has the merit of combining political and strategic debates, diagnoses of the capitalist conjuncture, and the trends in contemporary theoretical and philosophical reflection. The arc of each work essentially develops toward politics and revolutionary transformation.

Bensaïd’s metaphorical and theoretical paths led him toward the primacy of what he called “profane politics.” This is a term that was dear to Bensaïd, precisely because it was a form of politics without illusions about history as an automatic process, where political action and responsibility remained vital and certainly gained in substance.

By accepting the unforeseeable consequences of political action and defending a revolutionary need to transform the world, Bensaïd’s work contributed the idea of a melancholic wager to Marxism. Essentially, this was a development on the famous wager of the seventeenth-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal, who argued that a rational person should act on the assumption that God exists. If they wagered correctly, they would receive eternal life; if, on the other hand, they wagered on God’s nonexistence and got it wrong, the price would be eternal damnation.

Reformulated in materialist terms, Bensaïd’s wager was as follows. If we wager that socialism is possible, then we can make the abolition of classes a reality. If we wager that socialism is impossible, and do not fight for it, then class domination will continue, with capitalism destroying human lives and the planet on which they depend.

For Bensaïd, this way of expressing our dilemma enabled us to retain hope in a socialist transformation of society while also recognizing the possibilities of failure. It meant establishing a reciprocal relationship between hope and failure that political experience might resolve in the direction of a socialist future.