A critical engagement with the young Bensaïd

This piece was first presented by Jonas Liston at the recent Historical Materialism Conference in London.

Left to right: Henri Weber, Alain Krivine, Daniel Bensaïd,  Charles Micheloux (1971)
Left to right: Henri Weber, Alain Krivine, Daniel Bensaïd,
Charles Micheloux (1971)

On first reading Daniel Bensaïd’s memoirs, An Impatient Life, two things stood out to me: a heterodox politics with an absolute confidence in the key tenets of revolutionary Marxism, combined with a willingness to engage with new and old ideas and modes of thought to complement one’s own emancipatory politics.

It was a brilliant document of struggle, which gave me an increased confidence in the doctrine revolutionary Marxism, but also helped me think through the contours of its renewal.

Politically, the left as a whole is in a major crisis. A confrontation with that crisis requires an analysis of both the subjective and objective factors that have caused it. In my view, Bensaïd is important because he confronted his own generation’s crisis, particularly where he and his comrades failed and succeeded in the past.

There is a mass of material dedicated to the debates of the Marxist left in the revolutionary wave that threatened capitalism from 1917-1923. There are far fewer pages written about the revolutionary wave of Bensaïd’s time – a wave of mass radicalisation that had a defining effect on the organisational forms the Marxist left has taken into the 21st Century, and even the transformations some of those forms have taken.

By looking at Bensaïd, as many others are at the moment, I hope to be a part of recovering a small, but lost part of the puzzle that is our movement’s history.

“To the left, to the left…”                 

A young Algerian-Sephardic Jew from Toulouse, Bensaïd’s politicisation began with the massacres of pro-Algerian demonstrators in the early 1960s. He immediately entered the French Communist Party (PCF) and set up a branch of communist youth at his school. This reflected a process of further radicalisation for Bensaïd and many of his comrades that would culminate in the expulsion of many youth from the PCF and the formation of the Trotskyist-Guevarist Jeunesse Communiste Révolutionnaire (JCR) in 1967.

These cracks in the Stalinist monolith were contextualized by the anti-bureaucratic revolts against Stalinism in the East, the wave of national liberation struggles from Vietnam to Algeria, and the increasing struggles of students and oppressed groups. And crucially, also by the orthodox communist movement’s response, which was one of massive repression in the satellite states, timidity in the face of liberal democratic states and scapegoating and red-baiting of those to their left.

Bensaïd characterized their Marxism as:

A glacial Marxism, without style or passion, reduced to a scientific objectivism without critical subversion, gradually shrunk to a skeleton to be fleshed out in the livery of new dogmatisms. The inertia of structures ended up legitimising strange compromises between an intransigent radicalism of theory and a resigned realism in practice.

The brilliant thing about following these events through Daniel Bensaïd is that even prior to the French May, there is an explosion that puts “socialism from below” and a genuine revolutionary Marxism to the fore, which was a part of a global renewal of Marxism, revolutionary politics and debates within the left, that encompassed questions such as strategy, anti-imperialism and philosophy. The theoretical works of Guevara, Fanon, Sartre, Poulantzas and Althusser also took a prominent place in the movement, with the former taking a particularly strong place in Bensaïd’s theory and practice.

When Babylon burns

One of the founding members of the March 22nd movement, which would spark off May ’68, Bensaïd found himself running back to Paris on that same month, to be a part of the struggle, having gone on a break to complete his Master’s dissertation, Lenin’s notion of revolutionary crisis.

This dissertation, written around the French May, is in some ways the theoretical expression of where Bensaïd and the JCR found themselves in the middle of such explosive times. Although he came to be very critical of it in his later writing, it was the first of many texts in a lifetime of theoretical grappling with the politics and relevance of Lenin. When I first read it, it told me that however crucial Lenin’s politics are on the question of organisation, they can’t simply be reduced to that alone. The latent theories of crisis threaded throughout his work are just as important.

Bensaïd’s dissertation rests on Lenin’s three conditions in The Collapse of the Second International:

(1) For a revolution to take place, it is usually insufficient for “the lower classes not to want” to live in the old way; it is also necessary that “the upper classes should be unable” to live in the old way; (2) when the suffering and want of the oppressed classes have grown more acute than usual; (3) when, as a consequence of the above causes, there is a considerable increase in the activity of the masses…

Starting from this basis, Bensaïd rediscovers Lenin’s process of specifying why the class and its vanguard component are the theoretical and political subject capable of transforming crises into a revolutionary situation. Shaped by the voluntaristic currents at the time, such as Guevarism, and a certain ultra-Bolshevik reading of Lukacs, Bensaïd locates the revolutionary crisis as the ultimate test of truth and revolutionary revelation for the working-class vanguard, but in the process falls into the trap of confusing the working-class as simply a theoretical subject, in comparison with the organised revolutionary vanguard.

Another useful insight is how revolutionary crisis reduces the state formation to a mode of production in the eyes of the popular classes. A notion that shares a lot in common with recent “anti-politics” theorists who acknowledge that the “crisis of representation” has always existed, except people now see through it.

The real strength of this piece is the realisation that, similar to Mike Kidron’s comment on early International Socialist theory, a few insights don’t make a theory. In this context, Bensaïd takes a number of Lenin’s insights on the objective expressions of crisis and the role of the subject in relation to crisis and attempts to rigorously and creatively demystify the dialectical relationship between the two.

Although May ’68 was initially a struggle on the streets between students and the repressive forces of the state, these struggles quickly translated into solidarity from workers and the development of the world’s biggest general strike up until that point in history. Mass demonstrations, late-night street battles, rank-and-file worker organisation and solidarity from all sectors of society emerged, only to fizzle out through the capitulationist tactics of the PCF, the manoeuvring of the Gaullist state, and the weaknesses of the workers’ movement and the revolutionary left.

Despite this, not only would ’68 double the membership of the JCR and make it the most significant organisation on the far left, it would also mark a turning point in the revolutionary struggle, as a year of great crisis and opportunities and the reemergence of workers on the forefront of the struggle across Europe.

While putting the finishing touches on his dissertation, Bensaïd also co-wrote May 1968: the Dress Rehearsal, alongside his former comrade Henri Weber. An assessment of the French May, the basic premise of this text is that the general strike was a rehearsal, the February of their 1917 if you like. And that France was to experience deeper, more generalised, more militant revolts in the future and what was needed was the development of a revolutionary workers’ party capable of leading the movement.

Although this is partly indicative of the type of immediate voluntarism implicit in Bensaïd’s early theoretical development and the practice of the JCR, this sort of impending-catastrophe perspective wasn’t unique to the JCR, and is easy to condemn in hindsight.

The previous year had witnessed, in the wake of MLK’s assassination, an explosion of riots across the USA, the assassination of Che, anti-war movements popping up across the world and on campuses in the States, to Japan and Germany exploding in revolt. Not to mention the Czech uprising and the Tet Offensive.

These events signified the emergence of a revolutionary wave that would sweep away dictatorships in Southern Europe, renew working class struggle from Italy to Britain and result in the toppling of more than a few governments across the globe. It would also propel forward the revolutionary left. In his definitive book on the French May, Daniel Singer calls it “the prelude to revolution”, and spends the majority of the book addressing the different strategic and tactical questions the Marxist left and the workers’ movement were confronted with in May, and will be confronted with, at the next point in the “revolution”. Even in a similarly sharp assessment made by Tony Cliff and Ian Birchall at the time, there is this notion that in 1968, if there had been a mass revolutionary party, the events of the French May would have gone beyond a simple “prelude to revolution”. However, as Peter Sedgwick puts it:

Unfortunately, they do not give enough emphasis on the specifically political, ideological dimensions of the strike, as located within the traditions of French labour. The entire gap between militant strike-consciousness and revolution is termed ‘the political vacuum’ which is attributable to the absence of the organisational prerequisite for co-ordinating action… [Yet] how ‘a centralised and disciplined combat organisation of the proletariat’ (Cliff and Birchall p.77) is to be built under the conditions of this massive ideological distortion of worker-consciousness is most unclear.

When I was a member of the SWP, I remember having an honest and reflective conversation with an older comrade who, like most Marxists in the late seventies and early sixties, genuinely thought they would be living under a socialist society within ten years’ time. Taking into account what I would consider, the International Socialists’ quite sober assessment of reality in this period, and their ability to locate the ebb in the struggle when few else on the left did, this anecdote speaks volumes about how revolutionaries from different currents were swept away by the sheer rise in mass struggle.

There are several interesting examples in practice that this translates into, directly related to Daniel Bensaïd. The first one is his own organisation. A weekly newspaper, Rouge, was initiated on the premise of the “dress rehearsal” that was May. The JCR fused with the Trotskyist Internationalist Communist Party (PCI) from the “implacable logic” sarcastically described by Daniel Bensaïd for the need to strengthen the French section of the revolutionary party of the world proletariat. Alain Krivine was put forward as a candidate for the French presidential elections winning only 1 per cent of the vote. Another consequence, shaped by other factors one will discuss later, is the increasing militarisation of what was by 1974 called the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR), the creation of their own military defence squad, the impact of Maoist militant, Pierre Overney’s death, and a big clash with the far right which turned into an all-out riot against the state.

Bensaïd terms this conjuncture, and his and and his comrades’ relation to it, “hasty Leninism”. As Chris Harman writes, “by the mid-1970s much of the cadre of the revolutionary organisations had been involved in non-stop activity for seven, eight or even ten years. They had come to politics on the barricades in 1968-9 and had hardly stopped moving since. Day after day, week after week, year after year they sold papers, produced bulletins, stood outside factories [and] argued over minor programmatic points.”

Fire extinguished

However, this hasty Leninism did not bode well for the LCR, along with most of the far left, come the ebb in mass revolutionary struggle in the context of what Charlie Post describes as:

the collapse of worker militancy… the restabilization of capitalist politics, the resurgence of reformist politics… the stultifying effects of adapting post-1923 ‘Leninist organizational norms’ which promoted splits over tactical issues, and their own unrealistic expectations…

In this atmosphere there was a mood developing of frustration and disillusionment amongst much of the far left’s cadres with “the mood creating, in some cases, a sort of ‘rebellion’ among the members against the demands of the organisations. In France there was even an example in 1977 of one branch of the LCR going on strike (i.e. refusing to pay subs, attend meetings, sell the paper or read the internal bulletin) until the leadership allowed shorter hours of activity!”

This frustration is witnessed at its worst when one looks at what Daniel Bensaïd calls the left’s “rhetoric of innocent liberatory violence”. Amongst the European left, as the cycles of mass struggle were receding, the armed struggle emerged across the continent in a number of typically minority forms, such as the Red Brigades and the Red Army Faction.

Even in relation to the LCR, Bensaïd sees the temptation and the possibility of drifting into a “fetishism of violence”, such as storming banks and shooting paintball guns at state ministers, but also sees it counterbalanced by the inoculation of the anti-colonial struggles and the tragedies of the armed struggle in Latin America; the structural and political-cultural conditions imposed by the LCR’s political leadership on it’s physical-force wing; an immersion in the “history of the workers’ movement”; all the historical controversies from the March Action to the Asturias insurrection; the realization that “armed violence, is not simply the continuation of politics by other means, no matter how well intentioned. It starts something obscure that no-one can ever be sure of controlling, and whose beginnings are perceptible in little everyday things”, such as the “increasing number of militants [who] are socially uprooted and professionalised. Instead of melting into a social milieu like fish in water, their existence depends ever more on an expending apparatus”. And finally and crucially, the realization that “weapons did not draw an unbridgeable border between reform and revolution, and that there could be an armed reformism.”

The LCR, unlike much of the far-left in this period, had a much more mixed balance sheet, deciding to push towards a policy of industrialisation when the workers’ struggle was ebbing, unifying with tenuous sections of the far left, overestimating the possibilities presented by events such as the Polish and Nicaraguan revolutions and falling into brutal internal conflicts over questions of imperialism and the Middle East, were all negative consequences of a changing world. However, it was also one of the few organisations on the revolutionary Marxist left to exist beyond a simple sect and maintain some degree of profile and implantation.

It is a testament to Bensaïd that he was one of the few Marxists able to draw an adequate balance sheet of the successes and failures of the revolutionary left in this period, from the substituting for the class to the overestimation of possibilities, to the underlying dynamics of the struggles he was immersed in.


The original version of this paper first appeared on Jonas Liston’s website, Head-Fixin’.


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