Five years ago, on the 12th of January 2010, Daniel Bensaïd died, aged 63. Bensaïd was a party man, having been a founder of the Revolutionary Communist Youth in 1966 (after having been excluded from the PCF (French Communist Party)), the Communist League in 1969 (to become the LCR (Revolutionary Communist League) in 1974), and one of the principle architects of what would become the NPA (New Anticapitalist Party) in 2009. From the beginning of the 1990s Bensaïd became an essential reference point for the French and European radical left. He was politically trained in an atmosphere of youth radicalization in the mid-1960s – which would lead to May ’68, of which he was a leading figure in his early twenties. As an active witness of the weakening of revolutionary hopes throughout the 1980s and 1990s he became a sort of ‘passeur’ (‘linkman’) of resistance, a passeur between two epochs, in particular between two generations of intellectuals and militants – maintaining a ‘left of the possible’. He passed on a heritage from ‘the last generation of October’ – those who had experienced the upsurge of struggle in the 1960s and 70s with the hope of another ‘1917’ – and the smashing of historical horizons and revolutionary aspirations as a result of the social defeats in the 1980s. In coming to grips with the downturn and paving the way forward for Marxism, he was the best of his age and the age at its best.
In the case of Daniel Bensaïd, this historical and political turn coincided with a personal turn, as if there was some kind of ‘objective hazard’ at work, as André Breton would say. In addition to the political and ideological defeats, which included the final decomposition of Stalinism squashing the very idea of socialism, he did not yield ‘to the equation of communism with the Stalinist totalitarian dictatorship’. This ‘would be to capitulate in the face of the temporary victors, to confuse the revolution with the bureaucratic counter-revolution, and thereby to foreclose the possibility of those forks in the road that alone kept hope alive’. It was that moment – dated 1990 – that he discovered his serious illness. He would go on to stubbornly fight this illness for the next twenty years. Partially removed from the daily political and organizational tasks of the LCR – but never aloof – Bensaïd focused himself on philosophical and intellectual reflection in order to confront the new challenges posed by a period where one frequently hears of the ‘death’ of Marx, Marxism and the ‘end of history’.
It is in this context, characterized by the weakening of an emancipatory historical horizon that Daniel Bensaïd proved his importance within Marxism and contemporary critical thought by becoming one of the principle ‘resistants’ to the new air of the (neoliberal) times. Bensaïd developed – on the threshold of the 1990s – quite an original new form of writing. He developed a style that combined the political pamphlet with a literary prose that would make Proust jealous. The principle objective of this style was to elaborate a ‘dialectic in action,’ to try to comprehend the world in full transformation.
With the social and political defeats, Bensaïd took a step back in order to return to the foundations of Marxism, not in order to wake up the ‘true’ or ‘authentic’ Marx beyond his historical and political deformations throughout the 20th century, but to breathe some life into Marx’s thought by interrogating it in light of the present. In doing this, Bensaïd aligned himself with the anti-positivist currents of French radical thought – August Blanqui, Georges Sorel and Charles Péguy. Without forgetting the orthodox criticisms of each figure, this political and intellectual culture opened another road to a creative and living Marx. This new road that he took could not be separated from his organizational and political concerns. As Stathis Kouvelakis wrote:
The originality of his reading of Marx and, of his theoretical work more generally, is not simply the fruit of a long and intense personal research. It is a theoretical proposal whose stakes are political. Whilst situating himself within a continuity on his political and organizational plane, he was able to provide a new ensemble of references, a kind of new grammar of theory that marked a considerable renovation and in many regards, even a rupture with the intellectual universe – the common sense of the revolutionary left in theoretical matters – including that of his own political curreny.
A philosopher outside of the norm, politics in Bensaïd becomes something more than an affaire of immediate action. To make politics an affaire of immediate action meant to give in to the fragmentation of political action without a universal horizon of emancipation. Radical politics needs a horizon through which all thought is directly or indirectly tied. His philosophical contribution is therefore that of an ‘ontology of the present’, more Benjaminian than Foucauldian, where theoretical reflection is not the immediate expression of politics, but a relatively autonomous moment of the consideration of a reality whose definition of meaning is inevitably – in the last instance – the result of relations of political force. When he cites Benjamin’s formula that ‘politics attains primacy over history’ it is precisely to underline that it is the present (as the time par excellence of politics) that redraws our comprehension of the past and assigns a perspective for the future. For Bensaïd, St Augustine captured the meaning of the present: ‘there are three tenses of times: the present of past things, the present of present things, the present of future things’. Revolutionary critique and action that isn’t concerned with the present can quickly become fossilized.
By taking revolutionary heritage as a critical tool to understand the challenges of the present – rather than as a monolithic bloc – Bensaïd contributed to rebuild a foundation for the renovation, or actualization, of Marxism (together with the ‘Trotskyist’ political tradition). It is a task whose outcome will be the work of new generations in light of new social and political struggles. From the past to the present, from philosophy to politics, we can find in Bensaïd a ‘footbridge’ between the traditions of ‘Classical Marxism’ (Lenin, Trotsky and Mandel), ‘Western Marxism,’ and a Marxism that can proudly call itself ‘open’. It is open to the extent that it is permanently re-elaborated in taking into account the challenges put forward by contemporary critical theory.
From the contemporary meaning of the French Revolution in Moi, la révolution (1989), passing through a re-reading of the Marxist legacy in Marx For Our Times and The Discordance of Times (published in 1995), through the revolutionary wager in Le Pari Mélancolique (1997), to the present significance of communism in La sourire du spectre (2000), up to and including a significant intervention into political strategy in Eloge de la politique profane (2008), Bensaïd covered a vast amount of ground. It is undeniable that this contribution has enriched revolutionary culture in Europe and beyond. One reflection that did indeed remain unfinished – but would be a great place to pick up after him – was his plan to write a serious work on Lenin. Unfortunately that project never eventuated.
In these many reflections, aside from the numerous intellectual and political references from the past and present, it is easy to see the central inspiration of Walter Benjamin. He an author whose critique of progress served as a ‘compass’ from which he searched to rethink the critique of capitalism in a context characterized by the definitive rupture between revolution and progress. Like Benjamin, rather than a science or a closed philosophical system, Marxism constitutes, for Bensaïd, a critical theory of social practice and the transformation of the world. A theory, therefore, whose actuality depends on its capacity to live up to the complexities of its subject: Capital itself, as well as the struggles and antagonisms of which it is responsible.
Neither a philosophy of history nor a philosophy (of the end) of history and neither an empirical sociology of classes announcing the ‘inevitable’ victory of the proletariat nor a universal science of the progress of Humanity, Marxist theory retains, after Bensaïd, an openness to the contingencies of social and political practice so that it cannot be locked into a pre-determined historical schema. Bensaïd was a thinker of singularity. However, this singularity maintained a horizon towards universal emancipation. Unprecedented and singular situations take place in history. They key is to understand how they are tied to former developments. Absolute novelty doesn’t exist. Grasping this relation was the essence of grasping a revolutionary event. As Bensaïd wrote:
To think politically, is to think historically (and reciprocally), and not… ‘to spit on history’. It is to conceive political time, as a broken time, discontinuous, punctured by crises. It is to think the singularity of conjunctures and situations. It is to think the event… as historically conditioned, as the articulation of the necessary and the contingent, as political singularity.
In his opinion, this theory is based primarily upon a conception of the present as the moment of a ‘selection of possibiles,’ the moment where, as Benjamin said, ‘politics attains primacy over history,’ and therefore allows us to ‘reopen’ both the meaning of the past and the perspectives for the future at the same time.
Across this heretical fidelity to Marxism and an anti-capitalist perspective, against what Benjamin called an ‘enemy who has not ceased to be victorious’ and striving to underline the importance of the relative autonomy of theoretical reflection in relation to political practice, Bensaïd has left us a fundamental inventory to update critical thought. Like the ‘specter,’ of communism that haunted Europe in the 19th century, Bensaïd has become, himself, a ‘specter’ of resistance. Without ever renouncing the hope for another possible world, which is becoming more and more necessary and despite the ‘objective’ difficulties of the epoch, Bensaïd has taught us that it is not too late to ‘set alight the sparks of hope in the past,’. We are convinced – like Benjamin long ago – that the dead (amongst whom both now belong) will not be safe if the enemy continues to be victorious. After all, as Paul Valery wrote, ‘it is the future of the past that is put into question’. His entire life was a wager – melancholic for sure – that was dedicated to formulating an answer to Marcuse’s question: is it possible to break the chains of commodity fetishism? Hard as nails he answered in the affirmative. After all, who can live with the shame of no longer wanting to be free? The point is to gamble and roll the dice.