Daniel Bensaïd Was One of Marxism’s Great Renovators

Daniel Bensaïd rejected the idea of historical inevitability, seeing history as a series of crossroads, not a single path. For Bensaïd, class struggle will remain central as long as capitalism exists, but the outcome is always unpredictable.

French Marxist philosopher Daniel Bensaïd in 1976. (Edoardo Fornaciari / Getty Images)

Daniel Bensaïd was one of the most creative, elegant, and daring militants postwar Marxism has had at its side. He combined a literary style rich in imagery with an acute grasp of political struggle. Bensaïd was a prolific writer, yet his contribution remains relatively unknown or underappreciated in the English-speaking world.

In the interval between the release of his autobiography and death, he published some sixteen works. Of the many works he left behind, only a few have been translated into English. Some of his key works like Walter Benjamin, sentinelle messianique (1990), La discordance des temps (1995), and Le pari mélancolique (1997) are yet to appear in English.

Bensaïd often referred to Ernst Bloch’s claim that there were “cold” and “warm” currents of Marxism. These were “not simply different readings or interpretations, but, rather, theoretical constructions that sometimes underpin antagonistic politics.” The contents of Marxism are not owned by any single authority or tradition; dogmatic relations to Marx and Marxism need to be overturned.

Bensaïd’s renovation of Marxism took place against the backdrop of Fourth International Trotskyism and the weight of Stalinism in France. Internationally, it was in the context of crisis on the revolutionary left and the ascendency of neoliberalism. The Eastern Bloc collapsed, and the ideological legitimacy of an emancipatory project was buried under its rubble.

In this conjuncture, Bensaïd reflected deeply on the tragic wager to act within the divorce between the necessary and the possible — the necessity of changing the world is more pressing than ever, but its concrete possibility is too often out of reach. When the necessary and the possible stand opposed, the wager becomes tragic and melancholic.

Bensaïd asked us not to give way to despondency in the face of defeat, to preserve our strength and flexibility, to begin anew over and over again in approaching an extremely difficult task of changing the world, because the path is longer than we imagine, and its destination is quite uncertain.

Crisis and Collapse

If the events of May–June 1968 in France seemed to put the actuality of revolution onto the agenda for the advanced capitalist countries, the late 1970s reversed the prospects. This led to the so-called crisis of Marxism. The crisis transpired in a historical-political situation in which the three sectors of the global revolution, symbolized by the world capitals of the process — Paris in the advanced West, Da Nang in the anti-colonial South, and Prague in the bureaucratically controlled East — failed to combine in an internationalist encounter.

Bensaïd recollected, in his work Une lente impatience, how the crisis was threefold: a theoretical crisis of Marxism, a strategic crisis of the revolutionary project, and a crisis of the social subject capable of winning universal emancipation. These three elements combined with an ideological offensive against Marxism.

In the 1980s, Bensaïd made the case that the ideological offensive, despite its trite, banal, and hollow nature, would not simply be overcome when the next wave of social struggle emerged. He operated under the assumption that struggles and liberatory practices would inevitably emerge, conditioning the ideological struggle. However, the depth of the traumas was such that the mere contextual reemergence of class struggles would not alone be enough to rectify the traumas.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Bensaïd stressed that his political tradition had

never confused the emancipatory movements of people in the world with military successes and the expansion of the so-called “socialist camp” . . . from Budapest to Berlin, from Prague to Warsaw, we have always taken the side of the workers and peoples against those of State interests and its bureaucratic priesthood.

Yet how should Bensaïd and his comrades respond to the collapse of the Eastern European bureaucratic regimes? Did it mean that a popular, revolutionary workers’ movement would take off where the Stalinist reaction left off?

Bensaïd dismissed the optimistic scenario that foresaw the reemergence of “the soviet culture or the culture of the German workers’ councils” after “a long parenthesis, a historical parenthesis.” Opposition to the Soviet system no longer drew on the ideas of Marxist dissidents such as Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky, or Nikolai Bukharin: “This memory has been broken, there is a discontinuity.”

For Bensaïd, the collapse of Stalinism was necessary, opening up a new field of political possibilities for the class struggle. But, at the same time, the effacement of the Stalinist regimes did not automatically lead to a renewed politics of working-class self-emancipation, while it deconstructed whole sectors of the Left. This twofold understanding of the crisis of the Stalinist states was the basis for the argument that a bifurcation had taken place and a new cycle of political struggles was needed to renew a revolutionary tradition in the workers’ movement.

Bensaïd insisted that “the brutal crisis” of the East European regimes which culminated in 1989 had been “inscribed for a long time in the logic of their contradictions.” However, “we thought that their fall would lead to an open struggle between two options: either capitalist restoration or a new popular revolution resuming its origins.” The latter option would rekindle the socialist revolution in the East.

Yet the fall of the bureaucratic regimes made clear that the hope for such a dynamic had been broken by repression and social and political regression, in turn breaking up memory and atomizing the working class, with words like socialism being emptied of any meaning:

In these conditions, the overthrow of the dictators of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union signify a liberation from a tyrannical yoke and the end of a historical cycle opened by the October Revolution. The reported failure of Stalinism rebounds on the socialist project itself and throws its viability into doubt. It will be necessary to accumulate new experiences and reinvent a language. This is a long apprenticeship.

For Bensaïd, this was possible because class struggles and resistance emerge due to vital necessities of life, against injustice and humiliation. As he argued in 1991:

There is no less reason to revolt than there was a century or twenty years ago. To transform revolt into creative revolution, project and will are needed. There are many who remain convinced that actually existing capitalism is driving to new disasters. Many also, after the debacle of really inexistent socialism, are those who doubt that another world will be possible. Time is necessary to learn again to imagine, not a perfect world . . . but simply projects for a society worth living in.

Pervasive Corpses

Bensaïd’s response to the situation produced another reading of history, away from the normative notion of historical development, instead attuned to the bifurcations making up the materiality of historical change. Contrary to certain Trotskyist beliefs, he argued, “history doesn’t know parentheses. It moves through bifurcations.”

To claim otherwise is to suggest that Stalinism was a temporary interlude that strayed from history’s normative development. Hence, once Stalinism was over, history would develop where it left off, setting a rendezvous with the program of the Fourth International, where history would deliver justice to the most intransigent opponents of Stalinism. According to Bensaïd, in the absence of a substantial socialist force, “able to revive in the short term with the revolutionary tradition,” this normative hypothesis had to be set as null.

There was, as a result, a deeper dimension to the problem of Stalinism:

One cannot undo the pervasive corpse of Stalinism, close the episode, and set off again on good footing. Before and after, words and ideas will no longer be the same. The dead continue to weigh on the living.

Bensaïd insisted on the fact that the “bureaucratic counterfeits never constituted for us a model of society.” However, he argued, there were elements of further theoretical elaboration that needed attending to:

To rebuild a revolutionary project, the effects of the past seventy years require rethinking without taboos, but without a tabula rasa, the relationships between the plan and commodity mechanisms, between the plan and self-management, between political democracy and social democracy, the transformation of work and production, the social relations between the sexes, the relations of society to nature, the condition of the individual and the status of law. Such a project is a guide for action and a permanent construction site.

The demands for liberation aren’t born in theories or the dreams of some few people, but from the everyday struggle. Our communism isn’t the chimera of an ideal city or the end of history, but the movement always recommenced of human emancipation, the battle for the end of exploitation and oppression, for the end of forced labour, to overcome the mutilating division between producer and citizen, for the disappearance of the authoritarian state and for the abolition of the domination of one sex over another. It combines the development of individual abundance with collective practice.

What about strategies to change the world? How could an exploited majority of workers — and women who are doubly exploited and excluded from the public sphere — radically break free of their condition of subordination to seize political and economic power, without delegating this power to an enlightened minority or bureaucratic elite? How could the majority begin a process of social and cultural transformation?

Answers to these questions could come only from new historical experiences. No doubt, on Bensaïd’s argument, any novelty would continue to combine the heritage of the Russian and German Revolutions, the Italian workers’ councils, and the Spanish Civil War with the struggles of the postwar period, from the French May to the Portuguese Revolution. To reiterate the argument in Bensaïd’s own words:

With the disappearance of the bureaucratic dictatorships, our struggle against Stalinism changes its objective. It maintains a function, that of taking the lessons from this experience for future and daily practice. In the international workers’ movement and its revolutionary currents, quarrels are overcome and others lose their importance. The lines of division, yesterday, insurmountable, fade away. Others will appear. . . . We remain for our part more than ever convinced that the capitalist system cannot be transformed gradually, that the consequent struggle for radical reforms drives to a point of rupture, and that there will be no socialism without revolution. But we will be ready to go through the experience loyal to a common and democratic party with all those who — not sharing these conclusions — will be determined to struggle for an intransigent defence of the exploited and oppressed.

A Permanent Construction Site

For Bensaïd, class consciousness had been weakened as a result of past defeats and betrayals, yet the class struggle remained, as did the exploited classes. However,

The effects of the new organization of labor, the privatization of everyday life, cultural atomization, impede the capacity of the exploited to act collectively and to develop a consciousness of their historical interests. It is time to definitively let go of the religious representations that make the Proletariat the grand subject of the great narrative of History. A class organizes itself from its struggles and foundational experiences around the trade unions, its mutual societies, its associations, its parties, the women’s liberation movement. The class is not a homogenous subject.

Bensaïd’s argument attacked historical fetishes, which essentially were ideological and idealist, having no place in a materialist reconstruction of Marxism based on class struggles. Key to the critique of fetish was the role of class struggles, in their plurality, which shapes and develops class consciousness through mobilization and solidarity, challenging the submission and despotism of the workplace and the relatively autonomous state machine.

As Bensaïd wrote, the unification of the working class across its “stubborn differences” was “a permanent construction site, a strategic task that dictates tactics and alliances.” Furthermore, in relation to the dynamism of the capitalist mode of production, “social classes change, differentiate themselves and transform. They are in permanent movement. They don’t stop for a fixed image that symbolized them yesterday.” The working class was still in constant development, a decisive factor of the social whole:

The weight of the industrial working class has declined in relative terms in relation to the total active population. But it still represents the most important social group. And above all, one part of a waged proletariat is still growing (in transport, commerce, and services) representing two-thirds of the active population. Only a restrictive and workerist vision of the proletariat can today conclude on its decline, if not its disappearance.