French revolutionary and intellectual Daniel Bensaïd died last month. Gilbert Achcar pays tribute to his life and work
Current Marxist thinking has been greatly impoverished since last June. With the untimely death of thinkers like Peter Gowan, Giovanni Arrighi, Chris Harman and now Daniel Bensaïd, we are sadly deprived of what each one of these regretted friends and comrades could have contributed, at a time when their intellectual production was in full swing.
Daniel Bensaïd died on 12 January, after fighting a painful cancer for months at the end of close to 15 years of living with Aids. The impressive international tribute he received - most French media and several newspapers all over the world devoted long tributes to him - is a testimony to the fact that he was rightly perceived as a prominent French intellectual and political leader, as well as a key intellectual figure of global stature.
Daniel was regarded as the main theoretician of the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste founded last year and had been a central figure of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire for decades before that.
Engels noted once that France is the country where class struggle has always taken its sharpest forms - an observation that has not been belied by posterity. In many ways Daniel Bensaïd fully embodied this French revolutionary tradition. To be sure, he belonged through his father to Arab-Jewish Algerian roots, and this dimension informed his intensive interest in the fate of both the Jews and the Palestinians, as a foremost fighter against both anti-semitism and Israeli oppression.
However, he was above all a French revolutionary. Not in any narrow provincial sense needless to say: on the contrary, he was an internationalist through and through, in theory and in practice. Aided by his command of Spanish and Portuguese and through his membership of the central leadership of the Fourth International, he became deeply involved in developments within the radical left in Latin America, from Mexico to Brazil, as well as in the Iberian peninsula closer to home.
The French revolutionary tradition that Daniel upheld was itself a very internationalist one, as he emphasised in the book he published on the 200th anniversary of 1789. It bore the revealing title I, the Revolution: Daniel chose to write it in the first person, as if the Revolution was the narrator.
He indeed identified with the 1793 Jacobin movement, and more so with its radical wing - the revolutionary legacy represented by Gracchus Babeuf and continued by Louis Auguste Blanqui in the 19th century, a legacy that became a key component of the range of currents represented in the 1871 Paris Commune. To the latter, Daniel was in some way "physically" connected on his mother's side, as he liked to stress proudly: his grandfather had been a Communard.
He prolonged his defence of the 1793 movement against the anti-Jacobin fury displayed on the occasion of the bicentenary of 1789 into a defence of Russian Bolshevism, upholding Lenin's legacy against the sweeping critical reassessments that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. In doing so, he tended to downplay the problematic dimensions of both revolutions, not because he was unaware of problems, but because he had the temperament of a fighter - a political boxer, one could say, thinking of his father who had been an actual one. Nothing expresses this aspect of his personality better than the title of one of his books: In Praise of Resistance to the Spirit of the Time.
For all that, Bensaïd never cultivated any "theology" of revolution. Here again, he continued the radical French tradition, as a fierce representative of one of its key features: thorough secularism (when not anti-clericalism). This attitude informed his thinking with regard not only to religion, but also to all forms of secular theology (like identity politics) as well as to the irruption of religious references into left wing authorship (criticising thinkers like Alain Badiou and Antonio Negri). Here again the title of his last major book is revealing: In Praise of Secular Politics.
His first book was published in 1968, co-authored with Henri Weber (later a Socialist Party senator). Its title, Mai 68, Une Répétition Générale (May 68: A Dress Rehearsal), spoke volumes about the very different spirit of the time. His following works were mostly interventions in French politics. However, after his 1989 bicentennial book he published one on Walter Benjamin and another on the figure of Joan of Arc.
This new range of topics reflected the melancholy created by the post-1989 international political shift, with the ideological assault on Marxism and the triumphalism of the global neoliberal drive. One of Daniel's later books was indeed to be called The Melancholic Wager.
His most important theoretical work, Marx for Our Times: Adventures and Misadventures of a Critique, was published in French in 1995 (2002 in English). It offered an unconventional reading of Marx, countering the positivist interpretation popularised by the Second International as well as by Stalinism. It came out the same year as another of Daniel's major works, at a time when he had already contracted Aids. These works confirmed his stature as a public intellectual.
Ever since he became ill, believing that his days were numbered, he set out to write and publish at an impressive speed: close to 20 books of various sizes and on various topics in 15 years, from his 1995 book on Marx until his death. At the same time he confronted death most bravely, a revolutionary who fought steadfastly to his very last breath.