The following tribute to Daniel Bensaïd appeared on the website of the New Anticapitalist Party on Tuesday 12th January, 2010.
Gravely ill for some months, our comrade Daniel Bensaïd died this morning. A revolutionary militant since his adolescence, he had been one of the founders of the JCR (Revolutionary Communist Youth) in 1966 and then one of the organisers of the Movement of the 22nd of March and and actor in the movement of May 1968 before participating in the creation of the Communist League in April 1969.
Daniel Bensaïd spent a long time as a member of the leadership of the LCR. Engaged in all the international battles, he was also one of the principal leaders of the Fourth International. He had actively participated in the creation of the New Anticapitalist Party.
As a philosopher, teaching at the University of Paris VIII, he published many works of philosophy and political debate, organised the reviews Critique Communiste and ContreTemps, participated actively in the creation of the Louise Michel Foundation and led the struggle of ideas incessantly, inspired by the defense of an open, non-dogmatic Marxism.
A private funeral will take place.
The NPA will organise a memorial evening on Saturday 23rd January in Paris.
Martin Thomas writes:
Daniel Bensaid, the leading writer of the LCR (Revolutionary Communist League) and then NPA (New Anti-Capitalist Party) died on 12 January, aged 63, after a long illness.
I met him only in his last years, at congresses of the LCR. He worked as an academic, not as an organiser or journalist at the LCR office.
Yet he was without pomposity. At the congresses he spoke rarely but lucidly. He was always willing to consider questions and explain: an interview he did with AWL members Ed Maltby and Vicki Morris at the February 2009 LCR congress is an example.
He was a fine and sometimes brilliant writer. Only one of his books is in English: Marx l'intempestif (1995), rather clunkily translated as Marx for our times (2002).
Alan Johnson reviewed Marx for our times for Solidarity 3/40 as "the most important book to have been produced by revolutionary Marxism in recent times". Alan Johnson himself was to renounce Marxism a few years later, and at the time I offered a more critical assessment of the book.
But the book, which like others by Bensaid draws heavily on the writings of the 1930s dissident-communist Walter Benjamin, has much of value in its main themes:
- The centrality of political initiative in the fight for working-class liberation: a rejection of shallow economistic or "movement-ist" agitationalism. There, he was criticising the LCR's ultra-left "triumphalism" of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
- That history is uneven, criss-crossing, crisis-torn, full of uncertain branching-points and overlapping patterns with different tempos, not a linear process. There, he was criticising the "evolutionism" of the international "Mandelite" "orthodox Trotskyist" current of which the LCR was part, which from 1951 through to the 1980s lived on successive reports of a supposed ever-ascending "rise of the world revolution". (In fact, advance of Stalinism).
- That the Stalinist states were "bureaucratic societies", or "bureaucratic collectivist", and that Marxists should take an independent stance rather than rallying to the supposedly progressive "camp" represented by those states. There, he was explicitly rejecting the old "Mandelite" or "orthodox Trotskyist" idea that those had been "degenerated and deformed workers' states", or "post-capitalist".
I thought Bensaid allowed too many old "Mandelite" ideas to subsist alongside his critique, and did not push it through to rigorous conclusions such as would have, for example, scotched the LCR's still-strong weakness for "Guevarism".
Bensaid came from an Algerian Jewish family of Communist Party sympathies which moved from Oran to Toulouse, where after Bensaid's father's early death his mother kept a cafe. He joined the Communist Party youth movement in 1962, at the age of 15, in response to a police massacre (of maybe as many as 200 people) on a October 1961 demonstration in Paris in support of the Algerian independence struggle.
In the mid-60s, a student in Paris, he was drawn to the Trotskyist opposition within the Communist Party student movement, led by Alain Krivine and others. In and after 1968 he became one of the chief leaders of the Jeunesses Communistes Revolutionnaires (JCR), forerunner of the LCR.
Bensaid was part of a "young Turk" current in the JCR, somewhat impatient with the older Trotskyism, which toyed briefly with the idea of organising for Guevara-type revolutionary guerrilla warfare in France.
His chief comrade in arms then, co-author with him of a book on May 1968, was Henri Weber. Weber too was Jewish, and unlike Bensaid had a background in Jewish politics, in the left-Zionist group Hashomer Hatzair. To what if any degree Bensaid and Weber were responsible for the LCR generally steering away from the root-and-branch Israelophobia of other "orthodox Trotskyist" currents, I don't know.
Weber is still alive, but, alas! as a routine figure in the French Socialist Party hierarchy. Bensaid lived and died a revolutionary; and one capable of learning from mistakes and explaining the lessons in fine and clear prose. In a "ceremonial" article to commemorate the 30th anniversary of May 1968, for example, you can find him writing straightforwardly that the LCR's failure unequivocally to oppose the USSR's attempt to conquer and annex Afghanistan, from December 1979, had been a great and grievous mistake.
Our condolences go to Bensaid's comrades in the NPA, and our hope that they will continue his combination of unflinching commitment with critical thinking.
A little excerpt from a contribution by Bensaid to the second edition (1999) of the book Contre Althusser (first published by the LCR in 1974) gives a slice of Bensaid's intellectual journey.
Louis Althusser was the best-known intellectual of the Communist Party, a philosopher who by the mid-60s was considered slightly heterodox and came to influence a wide range of revolutionary leftists, including the Maoist faction in the Communist Party student organisation, and the contemporary Left Faction in the Communist Party of Australia.
Antoine Artous [another LCR/NPA intellectual] and I studied [Louis Althusser's] For Marx and Reading Capital passionately during the winter holidays of 1965-6, in the little schoolhouse of Gages, in the Aveyron region, where Antoine's mother was the teacher.
Besieged by the rigours of the winter, seeking refuge around the old stove, we discussed step by step these ideas which had come down from the sanctuary of the rue d'Ulm [the posh college where Althusser was a professor], while at the same time following on the radio the news about the massacre of the Indonesian communists.
We were already involved in the left opposition inside the Communist student organisation, in favour of more active support for the Vietnamese liberation struggle and against support for Mitterrand on the first round of the presidential election of December 1965. We were more attracted by the emblematic figure of Che than by the Maoist liturgy.
Our conclusions were definitive: we would definitely not be Althusserians...
We had reasons of a theoretical order. Seized by a will to get into battle which was not far from voluntarism, we saw in Althusser a horrible burying of the subject in the structure...
The website of the British section of the Fourth International (to which the LCR was linked) carries an article from the FI's International Viewpoint. Note there will be a memorial event in London in February.
As François Sabado explains below, our comrade Daniel Bensaïd, who had been seriously ill for several months, died this morning. After a private funeral, the NPA will organise a public tribute in Paris on the evening of January 23. The following month (perhaps on February 10th or 11th) a memorial meeting will be held in London for those who knew Bensaïd and admired his work. For more information about these meetings, or to send messages to them, please email email@example.com.
Daniel left us today, Tuesday the 12th of January 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 Franco period. 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 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 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).