Daniel Bensaïd: The Power of Indignation

Against the Current, No. 145, March/April 2010

Michael Löwy

DANIEL BENSAÏD, THE lively and inspired French Marxist thinker and activist, has left us. This is a great loss, not only for us, his friends, his comrades of struggle, but for revolutionary culture. With his irreverence, his humor, his generosity, his imagination, he was a rare example of a militant intellectual, in the meaning of these words.

We didn’t always agree, far from it, but how could one not like him, not admire his charm, his remarkable creativity and his spirit of resistance, against all the odds, to the infamy of the established order?

Daniel was one of the founders of the JCR, Revolutionary Communist Youth, a group of young rebels, inspired by Trotsky and Che Guevara, in 1966. In 1968 he launched the March 22 Movement, together with Daniel Cohn-Bendit and other radical students, and soon became one of the main leaders of the May ‘68 rebellion.

In 1969 he organized, with Alain Krivine, Janette Habel and others, the LCR, Revolutionary Communist League, the French section of the Fourth International. Finally, in 2009 he took part, with Olivier Besancenot — with whom he wrote one of his last books, Prendre Parti — in the founding conference of the NPA, the New Anticapitalist Party. Unlike many other figures from ‘68, he remained obstinately faithful to his youthful dreams and struggles.

If Daniel Bensaid’s books — one of which has been translated into English, Marx in Our Time (2002) — are read with such pleasure it is because they are written with the sharp pen of a true writer. That pen could be murderous, ironical, enraged or poetical, but always went straight to its aim. This literary style, specific to the author and impossible to imitate, was not gratuitous but at the service of an idea, of a message, of an appeal: Refuse compliance, refuse resignation, refuse reconciliation with the winners.

If he refused with all his energy the attempt of the neoliberal reaction to dissolve Communism in Stalinism, he nevertheless acknowledged that one cannot avoid a critical balance of the mistakes that disarmed the revolutionaries of October 1917: the confusion between people, Party and State, blindness to the bureaucratic danger.

Toward a Marxist Renewal

Fidelity to Marx did not prevent Daniel Bensaïd from arguing for a profound renewal of Marxist thinking, particularly in two areas where the tradition had been particularly deficient : Feminism and Ecology. Feminists — like Christine Delphy — were right in criticizing Engels, who considered domestic oppression as merely a pre-capitalist archaism doomed to disappear with the rise of women’s wage work. The necessary alliance between gender consciousness and class consciousness cannot take place without a critical assessment, by Marxists, of their theory and practice.

The same applies to the issue of the environment: attached to the Fordist compromise and to the productivist logic of capitalism, the labor movement has too often been indifferent or hostile to ecology. On the other hand, the Green Parties tend to satisfy themselves with a market ecology. However, the anti-productivism of our times must be also an anti-capitalism: the ecological struggle inseparable from the social one.

Confronted with the catastrophic destructions produced in the environment by the logic of commodity value, one must raise the need for a change in the model of production and consumption, of civilization and life; for this alternative, Bensaïd invented a new term: eco-communism.

His philosophical thought was not an academic exercise: from one end to the other, it was filled with the burning current of indignation — a current, as he wrote, which cannot be dissolved into the tepid waters of consensual resignation. This was expressed in Daniel’s scorn for those he called “Homo resignatus.” For him, “indignation is a beginning. A way to stand up and start moving. First comes indignation, then rebellion, then we shall see.”

Among all of Bensaïd’s contributions to the renewal of Marxism, the most important, in my eyes, is his radical break with the positivist, determinist and fatalist ideology of inevitable Progress that so heavily weighed on “orthodox” Marxism, particularly in France. His re-reading of Marx, with the help of the 19th-century revolutionary Auguste Blanqui and 20th-century philosopher Walter Benjamin, led him to understand history as a series of crossroads and bifurcations; a field of possibilities whose issue is unpredictable. Class struggle is central in the historical process, but its result is uncertain, and implies a part of contingency.

In Le pari melancolique (The melancholic wager, 1997), which may be his most beautiful book, he seizes a concept of 17th-century philosopher Blaise Pascal to argue that the emancipatory action is “a work for the uncertain,” implying a wager on the future. Re-discovering the Marxist interpretation of Pascal by Lucien Goldmann, he defines socialist commitment as a “rational wager on the historical process,” a wager on which one’s whole existence is grounded, “running the risk of losing everything.”

Revolution ceases to be considered as the necessary product of the laws of history, or of the economic contradictions of capital, in order to become a strategic hypothesis, and an ethical horizon, “without which the will renounces, the spirit of resistance gives up, fidelity is broken, and tradition is lost.”

The revolutionary is therefore a human being who doubts, an individual who puts an absolute energy at the service of relative certainties — in other terms, someone who tries, obstinately, to practice that imperative requirement called for by Walter Benjamin in his last writing, the Theses “On the concept of history” (1940): to brush history against the grain.

ATC 145, March-April 2010