Tariq Ali: 'A Letter from Atlantis'

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Today marks the sixth anniversary of the death of Daniel Bensaïd, one of the most gifted French Marxists of his generation. In this extract from the foreword to Daniel's autobiography, An Impatient Life, Tariq Ali reflects upon his life and thought.



Successful revolutions always try to reproduce themselves. They usually fail. Napoleon carried the Enlightenment on the end of a bayonet, but English reaction, Spanish nationalism and Russian absolutism, finally defeated him. The triumphant Bolsheviks, disgusted by social-democratic capitulation at the advent of the First World War, orchestrated a split within the working class and formed the Communist International to extend the victory in Petrograd to the entire world. They were initially more successful than the French. Premature uprisings wrecked the revolution in Germany, destroying its finest leaders – Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and many others – and driving the German landed and bourgeois elite into Hitler’s embrace. In Spain, a united front of the European fascist powers (passively assisted by Britain and France) brought Franco to power. In France and Italy, the Communist platoons grew into huge battalions during the Second World War and excercised an unchallenged hegemony within the working class for three decades, but without any meaningful strategy to dismantle capital- ism. Here the close alliance with the narrowly defined needs of the Soviet state precluded any such possibility. Communists in China and Vietnam proved more successful, for a while. The Cuban revolution, the last till now, was no exception. Its leaders, too, were convinced that careful organisation and a handful of armed cadres could succeed anywhere in South America. It was a tragic error, costing the lives of Che Guevara and hundreds of others across the continent.

The Stalinisation of the Soviet Union and the execution of most of Lenin’s closest comrades led to the creation of dissident Communist groupuscules self-defined as Trotskyists. From Europe to China, these included some of the finest minds in their respective countries. South America, by contrast, tended to produce slightly eccentric equivalents. Britain had never experienced a mass Communist party. It made up for this by producing some of the most virulent sects within the Trotskyist framework. The late historian E.P. Thompson had one of these in mind when he described English Trotskyists as little more than stunted opposites of Stalinism, who had in their own practice reproduced the structures pioneered by those they claimed to oppose.

In France, where dissidence fermented inside the ideological vats of the Parti Communiste Français, the results were different. The intellectual and political culture was rigid, but its influence on the French left-wing intelligentsia as a whole provoked debates and discussions that were on a higher theoretical level than elsewhere (with the exception of Italy). After the Cuban revolution and during the Algerian war of independence, many young intellectuals inside the student wing of the PCF began to find its politics stifling. This led to the creation of the Jeunesse Communiste Révolutionnaire and its merger with the least sectarian wing of Trotskyism, led by Pierre Frank and Ernest Mandel. Reading this book brought back many nice memories of comrades who formed the core of the JCR, some of whom are still good friends. The first half of these memoirs also constitutes the intellectual history of the 68 generation. It’s amazing now to be reminded how many of those active in the political and cultural establishment of contemporary France were once on the far left. The JCR’s big rival within the Trotskyist world was the Organisation Communiste Internationaliste, combining a rigid sectarianism with an elastic opportunism. Some of its central figures were asked by Mitterrand to join the Socialist Party. He needed them to combat the PCF and its residual Stalinism. Who better to approach than the OCI? And so Jospin became the prime minister of France. Running into Krivine at some occasion, Jospin shook his hand warmly and whispered in his ear: ‘I always told your lot that we would take power before you’.

It is not easy to write in times of defeat, in an epoch where the triumph of Capital (the real thing, not the great book) has frightened the young away from posing an effective challenge via a carefully considered alternative. Those who assumed, stupidly, that with the fall of the Soviet Union the road was clear for a real, pure socialism, gravely underestimated the tectonic shift. Bensaïd was not one of this crowd. He grappled with real problems till the very end of his life. Ernest Mandel’s optimism of the will and optimism of the intellect had created within the ranks of the European far left a belief that revolution was on the horizon. The events of 1968 fuelled such a view. We were all believers. As Daniel writes, it was this belief that burnt out the large Spanish group of Trotskyists. They were demo- bilised by the peaceful transition from a right-wing republic to a social-democratic monarchy. The country in Europe that came closest to a revolution was Portugal, but here too, a clever social democrat outwitted (DB might have called it débordemont – unity in action to outflank and overtake) the groups to his left.

Reading much of this material today is like delving into the archives of Atlantis. With official Communism dead, how could its Trotskyist offspring survive? There were two solutions: the first was to launch a new broader party of the left, the second to retreat into a bubble of its own making and insist that everyone sing from the same hymn-sheet.

So much for the politics, what of the author? Daniel Bensaïd was one of the most gifted European Marxist intellectuals of his generation. Born in Toulouse in 1946, he was schooled at the Lycées Bellevue and Fermat, but the formative influence was that of his parents and their milieu. His father, Haïm Bensaïd, was a Sephardic Jew from a poor family in Algeria who moved from Mascara to Oran, where he got a job as a waiter in a café and after a short spell discovered his real vocation. He trained to be a boxer, becoming the welterweight cham- pion of North Africa.

Daniel’s mother, Marthe Starck, was a strong and energetic Frenchwoman from a working-class family in Blois. At eighteen she moved to Oran. She met the boxer. They fell in love. The French colons were deeply shocked and tried hard to persuade her not to marry a Jew. She was, they warned, bound to get VD and have abnormal children. But Marthe was a strong-willed women and, as Bensaïd records in his memoirs, capable of taking on anyone, including, much later, her son’s collaborationist headmaster when he attempted to discipline the boy for his anti-fascist opinions.

With France occupied by the German fascists and the bulk of the country’s elite in collaborationist mode, with its own capital at Vichy, the French administration fell into line. As a Jew, Daniel’s father was arrested and held at the Drancy internment camp pending deportation to Auschwitz. But unlike his two brothers, he survived, thanks largely to his wife who had an official Vichy certificate stating her ‘non-membership of the Jewish race’. In this affecting book, Daniel notes that these barbarities had taken place on French soil only a few decades prior to 1968. Le Bar des Amis, he writes, was a cosmopolitan location. Spanish refugees, Italian anti- fascists, former Resistance fighters, workers, post workers, railway workers. The local Communist Party branch held meetings there. Given his mother’s fierce Republican and Jacobin views (when a relative, after watching a syrupy French TV programme on the British monarchy, expressed doubts regarding the guillotining of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, Marthe did not speak to him for ten years), it would have been odd if young Bensaïd had become a monarchist. His father died of cancer in 1960.

Angered by the massacre of demonstrators at the Métro Charonne in 1961 (ordered by Maurice Papon, chief of police and former Nazi collaborator), Daniel joined the Union of Communist Students. But he soon became irritated by party orthodoxy and joined a left opposition within the Union organised by Henri Weber (currently a Socialist Party senator in the upper house) and Alain Krivine. The Cuban revolution and Che Guevara’s odyssey did the rest. The dissidents were expelled from the Party in 1966. That same year, Bensaïd was admitted to the École Normale Superieure in Saint-Cloud and moved to Paris. Here he helped found the Jeunesse Communiste Révolutionnaire (JCR), young dissidents inspired by Che and Trotsky, which later morphed into the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR).

In 1968, together with Daniel Cohn-Bendit, he formed the 22 March Movement in Nanterre, the organisation that helped to deto- nate the uprising which shook France in May–June of that year. Bensaïd was at his best explaining ideas to large crowds of students and workers. He could hold an audience spellbound, as I witnessed in his native Toulouse in 1969 when we shared a platform at a rally of ten thousand people to support Alain Krivine’s presidential campaign. His penetrating analysis was never presented in a patronising way, whatever the composition of the audience. His ideas derived from classical Marxism – Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, as was typical in those days – but his way of looking at and presenting them was his own. His philosophical and political writings have a lyrical ring – at particularly tedious central committee meetings he was seen immersed in Proust – and resist easy translation into English.

As a leader of the LCR and the Fourth International to which it was affiliated, he travelled a great deal to South America, especially Brazil, and played an important part in helping to organise the Workers Party (PT) that subsequently came to power under Lula. An imprudent sexual encounter shortened his life. He contracted HIV and for the last sixteen years of his life was dependent on medicine to keep him going, but with fatal side effects: a cancer that finally killed him.

Physically, he was a shadow of his former self, but the intellect was not affected and he produced over a dozen books on politics and philosophy. He wrote of his Jewishness and that of many other comrades, emphasising how this cultural identity had never led him, nor most of them, to follow the path of a blind and unthinking Zionism that was also deeply reactionary. For former Communists turned Zionists, it was Israel now that had to be supported, right or wrong. DB disliked identity politics and his last two books – Fragments mécréants (An Unbeliever’s Discourse) and Eloge de la politique profane (In Praise of Secular Politics) – explained how this had become a substitute for serious critical thought. He was France’s leading Marxist public intellectual, much in demand on talk shows and frequently writing essays and reviews for Le Monde and Libération. At a time when a large section of the French intelligentsia had shifted its terrain and embraced neoliberalism, Bensaïd remained steadfast. Even in the sixties he had avoided the clichés of left-talk; instead, he thought creatively, often questioning the verities of the far left. What would he have made of the travails of the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste – sectarian and economistic, reduced to warring factions, incapable of linking to a larger movement?

If there was a weakness in Daniel it was this: even when he knew that mistakes (some of them serious) were being committed by his organisation, he would never stand up and contest the will of the majority. Whatever else, neither Lenin nor Trotsky were reticent in pointing out, when necessary, that what was being proposed was politically unacceptable. I did put this to him once. He smiled but did not reply. Perhaps he thought that in a climate where Marxism was under heavy siege, it was best to be emollient within his organisation. His project was clear: to help create a non-dogmatic, non-religious, non-bullshit Marxism. This was not an easy task in bad times, but as Sebastian Budgen, one of his friends from a younger generation, noted in a moving obituary:

Perhaps most importantly for him, Daniel also doggedly pursued a project of developing Marxist theory by cross-fertilising it with other radical currents (such as those influenced by Pierre Bourdieu and Alain Badiou), and by seeking to transmit in a critical, open but unapologetic manner the wealth of Marxism’s past to a younger generation he hoped would forge a future for it.

The last time I met Daniel, a few years ago in his favourite café in the Latin Quarter, he was in full flow. The disease had not sapped his will to live or think. Politics was his life-blood. We talked about the social unrest in France and whether it would be enough to bring about serious change. He shrugged his shoulders. ‘Perhaps not in our lifetimes, but we carry on fighting. What else is there to do?’ This was the spirit that animated his life as it does this book, making it one of the more intelligent and unrepentant accounts of the French far left.