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Communism tomorrow? On Daniel Bensaïd

Daniel Bensaïd died 14 years ago today. In this essay, Victor Cartan explores Bensaïd's communism and what we, on the Left, can learn from it in the 21st century.

Victor Cartan12 January 2024

Communism tomorrow? On Daniel Bensaïd

This essay was originally published in Ballast on 10 June 2023.


After a long banishment, the word ‘communism’ is making a comeback in both the intellectual and the activist arena. ‘We can clearly see a movement taking shape’, the economics journalist Romaric Godin recently told us. The use of the term in the USSR, China, Kampuchea, and North Korea is well known: a single party, an omnipresent state, mass repression and the trampling of democratic rights. What is also well known is that communism, however diverse it has been since its inception, signified first and foremost the end of oppression and the establishment of a classless society. This renewed interest aims to reflect on past failure and cleanse the word of the abuses to which it has been subjected. Faced with globalised capitalism, the threat of climate change and the rise of nationalism, its new supporters maintain that the communist idea, properly understood, is the only one capable of tackling such challenges. ‘We can say that if things continue on the same path, we are heading for social and ecological disaster,’ warned Daniel Bensaïd in his final interview. Here we look back at the proposal put forward by this indispensable philosopher and activist: a communism for the 21st century.

‘We believe that getting organised needs good thinking. In other words, theory, critical thinking’ – Subcomandante Marcos/Galeano

‘Should we fear the return of communism?’ was the question posed not long ago by a 24-hour news channel owned by billionaire Vincent Bolloré. It lacked any analytical rigour, but the fact remains that the word is well and truly back in the intellectual and activist arena. This is borne out by the acclaimed work of sociologist Bernard Friot, by The Invisible Committee, Swedish ecologist Andreas Malm, Japanese theorist Kohei Saito and philosophers Isabelle Garo, Frédéric Lordon and Paul Guillibert – not to mention the older but widely read works of Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek. We could add to this list the strong stand recently taken by the former actor Adèle Haenel.[1] Given the symbolic power of the word, such a movement – however contradictory in its detailed expressions – is bound to raise eyebrows. According to a recent Ifop survey, 81% of French people refuse to see communism as an ‘idea for the future’ (although younger people are more in favour). When asked what notions they spontaneously associate with the term, the top answers are ‘an ideology that failed in the USSR and Eastern Europe’ (61%) and ‘dictatorship’ (55%), whereas what communism is conceptually, namely ‘equality’ and ‘a society free from exploitation’, is only brought up by 16% of respondents.

It is impossible to talk about the communist idea today without mentioning the thinker and activist Daniel Bensaïd, who died in January 2010. A member of the Fourth International, a major figure in the Trotskyist tradition, a member of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire and then the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, Bensaïd maintained throughout his life the idea that a different kind of communism was possible. A democratic communism, not a Stalinist one. A communism for the 21st century. His work spans some forty published texts, which we will draw on here.

Repair the word

‘In this century’s struggle between socialism and barbarism, the latter has a bit of a lead,’[2] Bensaïd observed in 1991 in the book he devoted to Joan of Arc. This statement is inseparable from the historical and political context in which it was formulated: the collapse of the Soviet Union, the emergence of neoliberalism, the long march of emancipation, the advent of alterglobalism, the ‘war on terror’, the expansion of nationalism, the subprime crisis and the rebirth of a parliamentary left wishing to turn the page on the market-oriented policies of social-democratic organisations. In other words, the sequence 1990-2010. The Occupy movement, the development of ‘left populism’, the many popular uprisings (Maghreb, Middle East, Chile, France, etc.), the rise and then decline of Al-Qaeda, the neo-socialist revolution of Rojava and the spread of the murderous theory of the ‘great replacement’ have no place in its analytical architecture. So what then can communism mean in our own day?

Bensaïd’s last text, published in January 2010 in Contretemps and Libération, provided just such an answer:

Communism is neither a pure idea nor a doctrinaire model of society. It is not the name of a state regime, nor that of a new mode of production. It is the name of the movement that constantly overcomes and suppresses the established order. But it is also the goal which, arising from this movement, gives it direction and makes it possible to determine, in contrast to policies without principles, actions without consequences, day-to-day improvisations, what brings us closer to the goal and what leads further away from it. As such, it is not a scientific knowledge of the goal and the path, but a regulating strategic hypothesis.[3],[4]

The words of emancipation, Bensaïd believed, have emerged bruised from the twentieth century. All of them. ‘Socialism?’ It was involved in the killing of the German Spartacists and in colonial wars. It was even tainted by the Nazis, with the prefix ‘national’. So, given that ‘communism’ is ‘the most accurate historical and programmatic expression of the struggle against the despotic logic of capital’,[5] it seemed legitimate and salutary to try to save it from the rubble. To repair it as people sought to repair Christianity after the Inquisition:


You don’t invent a new lexicon by decree. Vocabulary is formed over time, through use and experience. To identify communism with the totalitarian Stalinist dictatorship would be to capitulate to the provisional victors, to confuse revolution with bureaucratic counter-revolution, and thus to foreclose the series of bifurcations that is the only path of hope. And it would be an irreparable injustice to the defeated, to all those, anonymous or not, who have lived the communist idea passionately and who kept it alive against its caricatures and counterfeits.[6]

Nothing can be invented from nothing. A clean slate is never desirable. You always start again from the middle. And is it not ‘with old words that you write new love poems’,[7] he asked in his Éloge de la résistance à l’air du temps?

Trotsky and Lenin: sacred cows?

Reading Moi, la Révolution, an epic analysis of the French Revolution published on the occasion of the bicentenary, could give a misleading impression. In these pages, while Bensaïd shows his sympathy for the far left of the time – Marat, Babeuf, the Enragés – he is unsparing in his attacks on Saint-Just and, even more so, Robespierre, symbolic figures who were prized by twentieth-century communists. The first? A man with ‘a terrifying quest for social regulation’,[8] a master of the trial of opinion, an author of ‘appalling speeches’.[9] The second? A man whose words were full of ‘gall and venom’,[10] a sectarian ‘cop’,[11] a ‘demagogue’,[12] a sexist, a xenophobe, a sort of Stalinist before his time. And, while Bensaïd sometimes qualifies and occasionally praises them, we sense that he is more inclined to follow the radical, extra-governmental wing of the revolution. But, unlike some revolutionary critics of Saint-Just and Robespierre, whether Kropotkin or Daniel Guérin, Bensaïd did not repeat this gesture when it came to defining the Russian Revolution. He did not support the ultra-left or the anarchists but was a stubborn – albeit critical – defender of Trotsky and Lenin.

The violence unleashed by the police on French soil during the Algerian War prompted him to join the Jeunesses Communistes, the youth wing of the PCF, and then, after being expelled, to join a brand new organisation affiliated to the Trotskyist Fourth International. It was the 1960s: anti-imperialist struggles were sweeping the globe, and it was time for him and his comrades to denounce Stalinism relentlessly. Faced with the ‘ravages of a positivist and authoritarian Marxism’,[13] he opted for the Trotskyist family, albeit without much orthodoxy, and with his sights set not on the East but on Latin America.

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In a speech given in Lausanne in 1997, he regretted that the names Trotsky and Lenin had become ‘unpronounceable’.[14] The philosopher from Toulouse admired Trotsky – whom he nicknamed ‘the Old Man’ – as a conveyor of ideas, a ‘considerable’[15] strategist and a defeated and lonely anatomist of Stalinism; he admired Lenin as a strategist, an innovator, and a lucid analyst of the current situation. But Bensaïd tirelessly repeated that the label ‘Trotskyist’ was an external designation. He only endorsed it in relief, like reversing a stigma. ‘I don’t object to the term, insofar as it refers to a perfectly honourable struggle against Stalinism. I don’t mind being regarded as a Trotskyite in the face of a Stalinist, or a Jew in the face of an anti-Semite’,[16] he told the Quebec press in 2003. For him, Trotsky was a point of support, not a ‘pious [or] exclusive reference’.[17] The same year he added: 

There is still something topical about Trotsky. His vision of permanent revolution (so often misunderstood) is the beginning of a strategic response to the logics of commodity globalisation. His pioneering critique of bureaucratisation and Stalinism is not a thing of the past (under the pretext of the collapse of the Soviet Union), but an increasingly present question, in many forms. Finally, his writings on the Spanish Civil War and on how to deal with the rise of Nazism in Germany remain highly topical in political terms.[18]

As for Lenin, in his view he was, far more than Marx, ‘an authentic thinker of politics in action’.[19] In 2010, Bensaïd regretted that Lenin was ‘so easily lumped under the label of despotism or tyranny’.[20] A stubborn but critical defender, we could say. Bensaïd also highlighted Lenin’s ‘weaknesses’,[21] and described certain books by Trotsky as ‘appalling’[22] – especially Terrorism and Communism, published in 1920, which was ‘frightening’[23] in many respects. This was the ‘bad side’[24] of the leader of the Red Army. He also deplored Trotsky’s ‘sectarian logic’[25] during the Spanish Civil War (his indictment of the POUM) and referred rather too succinctly to ‘the disastrous repression of Kronstadt’[26] in 1921. He described as ‘particularly interesting’[27] Rosa Luxemburg’s criticism of Lenin and Trotsky for trampling underfoot the Constituent Assembly and all forms of electoral legitimacy. ‘The basic error of the Lenin-Trotsky theory is that they too, just like Kautsky, oppose dictatorship to democracy,’[28] she had written in her essay on the Russian Revolution. However, Bensaïd tried to explain the many blunders committed during the Russian Revolution by the horrendous violence of the period and the unprecedented character of such an upheaval – the first victorious socialist revolution in the history of the world – rather than by any ‘serious’[29] doctrinal errors of its leaders.

Daniel Bensaïd challenged the two dominant readings of the period 1917-1924. On the one side, liberals mechanically deduce Stalinism from Leninism; on the other, dogmatic Trotskyists maintain that everything separates these years from the terrible 1930s. Bensaïd was more nuanced: Lenin did not lead to Stalin, but, during Lenin’s time, the seeds of Stalin’s totalitarian power developed; Lenin’s conception of the working class as embodied in the party, itself embodied in the state, made a major contribution to the future state-ism of Russian society; party centralism undermined democratic life and plurality. Bensaïd readily concedes that the political police, the penal colony, and authoritarianism already existed before the advent of Stalin. ‘There were already alarming signs of bureaucratisation, of the professionalisation of power during Lenin's lifetime’,[30] he declared on the radio in 2008. No watertight break, but no pure extension either. An appalling ricochet rather than a logical outcome.[31]

In 1999, Daniel Bensaïd invited communists, ecologists, libertarians and genuinely socialist socialists to come together. Something new could come out of this meeting, perhaps even the creation of new words. Ten years later, he was back at it again with Olivier Besancenot, calling, in his pamphlet Prenons parti, for a socialism for the 21st century, self-managing democracy, ecosocialism and, above all, to draw on ‘the best’[32] in the history of the workers’ movement – socialism, communism, anarchism and Guevarism – as well as on the more recent contributions of social, feminist, and environmental movements. The aim is to ‘find out how we can, on this basis, go beyond ourselves and even, why not, surpass ourselves’.[33] In other words, become the majority.

But always take state power

Our era rejects grand narratives, continuities, and solid arrangements: it is one of fragments, broken lines, crumbs, interstices, fluid and liquid movements. ‘Minimalism is the fashion of the day, little treatises and sips of beer, micro-narratives and ego-histories,’[34] Bensaïd noted back in 1999. It seems to favour the here and now over the long term of revolutionary struggle, the laborious digging of the old mole that characterised the socialist tradition. The new generation of insurgents seems more inclined to respond to islets, archipelagos, destitution, or zones to defend than to vast Internationals and formations in battle order. The worldwide collapse of single-party communism, combined with the emergence of new struggles and new forms of struggle, has seen large sections of the emancipation camp abandon the ambition of seizing central power in order to transform society. Power is everywhere (Foucault) and the future lies in the molecular and in ways of escaping control (Deleuze); in the ‘intensification of the everyday’,[35] in nomadism, pirates, and creation of autonomous oases or ‘underground bazaars’[36] (Bey); the development of a resistance free of ‘the logic of maintaining power’,[37] equipped with a humble ‘anti’ recipe[38] (Holloway) as its only baggage; with ‘minority becomings’[39] as the basis of the revolutionary project (Benasayag); immediate attack and construction, resistance without hope, without a programme and without solutions: to raise the question of organisation is already to submit to the Leviathan[40] (The Invisible Committee). For Bensaïd, to renounce strategy and long-term organisation was tantamount to surrendering to the wanderings of a pure present, to floating, to the ephemeral. ‘The jargon of postmodernity seeks to pluralise conflicts indefinitely, to deny any global mode of regulation and any coherence in social relations.’[41]

While the historical vocabulary of the revolutionary movement has long been military (confrontation, conquest, capture, strategy, discipline, front), the ‘new radicalisms’ have spoken much more in the language of the deserter and the saboteur. Bensaïd scrupulously opposed this shift. In Walter Benjamin, sentinelle messianique, he openly attacked ‘the idea of minuscule resistance’.[42] He had read Foucault and read him with profit. But, in the notes to his last unfinished book, he mentioned the ‘theoretical impasse’[43] of this philosopher, the bearer of ‘an aesthetic without political ambition’.[44] Bensaïd had already fought against what he called ‘vulgar Foucaldianism’:[45] it was one thing that the state is not the only power, quite another to conclude from this that the effective multiplicity of powers means they are all of the same order:


The dispersion of powers is a part of truth, but only a part, insofar as the formula records a multiplication of forms, places and relationships of power. But in this dispersion not all powers are equivalent: state power and the power of property are not soluble in networks (or rhizomes) of power, and they remain central strategic issues.[46]

The totality of power flows had to be understood, and confronted each as they are, while not losing sight of ‘the overdetermining power of capital’.[47]

Bensaïd said it again and again: no one knows what the revolutions of the twenty-first century will be like – but there will be some (and, in fact, there has been at least one since his death). The capitalist mode of production has a date of birth; it will therefore have a date of death, just as the Asian, ancient, and feudal modes of production died. ‘We can emerge from it upwards or downwards, for better or for worse. But we will emerge from it in the end.’[48] The question is how to abolish it. Through revolution, of course, but how do we make this happen? The LCR and the NPA put forward candidates for the presidential election, which, for Bensaïd, was a paradox, but one that he accepted. ‘We are against this system, we are against the very principle of a presidential election and yet we are obliged to play along, even if it means denouncing it’,[49] he explained in Tout est encore possible. Because the field must not be abandoned to political professionals, and elections allow a balance of power to be built up; because a revolutionary break with the past does not preclude any articulated reformist change; and because the majority criterion, although it is not proof of any truth or justice, remained for him – whatever his contemporary Alain Badiou thought of it – irreplaceable.

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But the revolution that will make it possible to put an end to capitalism and build a society worthy of the name will not take place by the grace of the ballot box. Never, he said, has it been possible to remove the privileges of the dominant like plucking a daisy. ‘The enemy is powerful, organised and ready for anything. In any case, that has been the lesson to date. It would be imprudent to forget it.’[50] So one day there will be a turning point, a showdown with the power of the state. In other words, ‘a discontinuity in the legal order’.[51] The brutal confrontation between two powers, the decrees of popular power and the institutional state power, will be inevitable. As he wrote in 2007 in his preface to a book by the American socialist Mike Davis:


How do you disarm the dominators, or eradicate the eradicators? There are of course degrees of violence, but in a world where structural social and physical violence is a daily occurrence, there is no degree zero. It would therefore be illusory to unilaterally renounce legitimate violence against a hyper-violent world; but it is important to reflect in this new context on an ethic of politics, likely to contribute to a controlled culture of violence.[52]

Inscribing in tension

We could say of Daniel Bensaïd’s thought that it advances along a narrow crest. It avoids big reefs, straddles expected oppositions, follows a winding path without cowardice or concern for distinction. A critic of Progress (no, History is not a long river leading mechanically from the dark ages of animality to liberated humanity), a sympathiser with classical Romanticism who shows resolute contempt for postmodern thought, Bensaïd never joins the great family of anti-modernists. For this keen reader of Walter Benjamin and Blanqui, history is simply a space of possibilities, made up of forks in the road, unexpected conjunctures, and broken lines. Bensaïd accordingly expressed convictions rather than certainties, the deployment of an absolute fighting energy rather than the Absolute. These were the contours of his call for a ‘profane militancy’.[53] To questions that allow only answers A or B, Bensaïd responds with C. Internationalism? Obviously, but the national framework remains an indispensable level of struggle (‘politics is always a matter of place’,[54] he recalled in Le Pari mélancolique). The Republic? Of course, but by no means that of the exploiters – to speak of the Republic ‘without an adjective’[55] was, in his eyes, impossible. As an inseparable twin of the French Revolution (which ‘founded the political condition of modern man’),[56] a Republic that is not ‘social’ is merely the name of the existing order. Exploitation at work? Unquestionably, but we must also grasp work’s ‘creative potential’.[57] Defence of the individual? Certainly, but a ‘concrete individuality’[58] rather than the narcissistic individuality celebrated by liberal commercialism. The danger of protectionism? Undoubtedly, but protectionism can be beneficial if part of an emancipatory overall policy. The monstrosity of the Front National? Undoubtedly, but we must nonetheless seek to ‘win back this working-class electorate’.[59] Europe? Certainly, but with conviction rather than heart: European lyricism left him cold. The right to wear a Muslim headscarf in schools? Of course, but with an understanding of the whole situation: banning the headscarf from schools is wrong, the law that proscribes it is ‘discriminatory and humiliating’;[60] yet the garment in question is a sign, among others, of global patriarchy. The result is what we might call a politics of tension: ‘Tension remains inevitable between the logics of power and the demands of self-emancipation, between the collective and the individual, between majority rule and the rights of minorities, between socialism from below and a necessary degree of centralisation and synthesis.’[61]

As his life drew to a close, this intellectual dynamic led him to reaffirm, as a challenge for our near future, a bold and dialectical hypothesis: libertarian Leninism. But he did not have the time to pursue this line of thought, first sketched out in 2004 in the pages of his autobiography An Impatient Life. The Swedish ecologist Andreas Malm is now taking it up again, anxious in the face of the climate impasse to seize the apparatus of the state while avoiding the despotic centralism of past experiments. Michael Löwy and Olivier Besancenot, two people close to Bensaïd,[62] explicitly called in 2014 for the grievances between the communist and anarchist traditions to be overcome, and for work to be done on the convergence, if not the synthesis, of the red and black flags. In this sense, they affirmed that the Leninist-Trotskyist repression of Kronstadt – that ‘wound’[63] never closed – was an ‘inexcusable mistake’.[64] And the two libertarian Marxists saluted the enterprise of Nestor Makhno, the Ukrainian leader bitterly criticised by Trotsky. Bensaïd never went that far. ‘There are various references to anarchism in Bensaïd’s writings, but no systematic exploration of libertarian thought or of its real and potential relations with Marxism’,[65] the sociologist Josep Maria Antentas rightly points out in his preface to the Spanish edition of Bensaïd’s Stratégie et parti. And, in fact, Bensaïd writes in black and white, in his Éloge de la politique profane, that anarchism has a ‘constitutional paradox’:[66] rejecting all authority (organisational, representative, or majoritarian) under the guise of emancipation and freedom means preparing for individual absolutism (to each his own norms). A hasty verdict given the tremendous variety of anarchisms.

Bensaïd’s ‘libertarian Leninism’ – which should not be confused with libertarian Marxism or libertarian communism, the latter of these generally showing itself to be very little Leninist – can also be seen at work, albeit less explicitly than with Andreas Malm, in the latest works of the philosopher Frédéric Lordon, promoter of a communism which is both democratic and revolutionary, national and local.

Democracy means equality

‘Socialism and democracy are inseparable’,[67] Bensaïd assured us in his last interview, in May 2010. As we have seen, he saw Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of Bolshevik authoritarianism as a ‘foundational and fundamental lesson’:[68] no society freed from capitalism should trample on debate, polemic, contradiction, and freedom of the press. The problem, however, is that the word ‘democracy’ has been captured by Western capitalist governments. Their democracy existed only against totalitarianism (and, later, terrorism). He mocked this ‘democracy without qualities for men without qualities’.[69] Politics – literally antagonism and disagreement itself – is the prerequisite, the precondition for democracy. Against ‘a weak conception of democracy’,[70] Bensaïd pointed out that it actually meant a ‘universal egalitarian becoming’. True democracy – as the historian Ludivine Bantigny has recently said – is a constant scandal: it pushes back the instituted and established, upsetting the given order in order to move towards greater equality.

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While Bensaïd was, of course, critical of ‘parliamentary democracy’, a parody of democracy if ever there was one, he was never a fervent defender of direct democracy. He considered the usual opposition between representative and direct democracy to be ‘simplistic’[71] and, on several occasions, challenged the views of Cornelius Castoriadis and Hannah Arendt on the subject – the former an uncompromising lauder of Athenian democracy and workers’ councils, the latter a supporter, in the face of Marxist-Leninist experiments, of that lost treasure known as the council tradition. His major objection? There will always be forms of representation in a modern society. ‘Rather than denying the problem, it is better to tackle it head on and look for forms of representation that guarantee the best control of principals over agents and limit the professionalisation of power.’[72] We might be tempted to object that Castoriadis was not opposed to this type of supervision. In fact, he referred to it positively as ‘delegation’ rather than ‘representation’. The dispute over names may have distanced Bensaïd, who was certainly less interested in antiquity than the Franco-Greek theorist, from the most accomplished work published on the subject. This is all the more regrettable given that Bensaïd’s fear that a network of soviets or revolutionary councils would be incapable of generating ‘an overall policy’[73] is allayed in Castoriadis’s own work, which envisages the integration of councils into a structure both horizontal and vertical, topped by a popular government designed to deal with what remains of centralisation.

For an ‘egalitarian universalism’

Bensaïd’s father had been arrested by the Gestapo in 1943 following a denunciation. His cousin and two of his uncles were deported: none of them came back. ‘I grew up with these ghosts, with the shadow of the Judeocide at my heels,’[74] he confided in his memoirs. His adolescence was marked by the everyday presence of Jewish communists for whom communism was an extension of the Enlightenment: the cosmopolitan ideal and the resolution, at last, of the ‘Jewish question’. And Bensaïd joked that the only reason the LCR didn’t hold its leadership meetings in Yiddish was because he alone was Sephardic. As a reader and disciple of Frantz Fanon, he did not intend to be hostage to this traumatic family past: like so many of his comrades, he refused to suffer ‘the fatalism of origins’.[75] But in the 2000s, his ‘universalism resistant to communitarian nostalgia’[76] finally consented, without contradiction, to a particular intervention: faced with the recruitment of Jews the world over by the ethno-confessional and colonial state of Israel, Daniel Bensaïd emphasised his Jewishness in order to refuse any capture by the state. An anti-Zionist, a lover of Jewish literature, the heir of great ancestors, curious about mysticism but outspokenly heterodox, the thinker never wavered: ‘We are proud of what we do, not of who we are!’[77]

He watched with concern the ‘return to origins’ of a certain number of Jewish intellectuals of his time. He rejected both ‘the glue of origins’[78] and ‘the icy water of universal abstraction’:[79] in his view, the only emancipatory response that was worthwhile, for Jews as for any other ‘community’, lay in a universal woven from singularities. A fragmented totality. While rejecting with the utmost energy the contemporary tendency towards identity segmentation, or the dissemination of stubborn allegiances, Bensaïd kept his distance from its opposite pole, which was equally vain in his eyes: the false universalism that was in fact white, masculine and bourgeois – a ‘one-way universality’.[80] He smiled at hollow injunctions to world citizenship, chic and costless métissage, poetic calls to embrace the whole planetary space. The only internationalism that exists, he repeated, was that of the capitalist commodity. The grim irony is that liberal globalisation has not produced the promised global village, but a generalised withdrawal. ‘Tribes against tribes, sects against sects, one ethnic group against the other,’[81] he observed in 2005 in the first volume of his Fragments mécréants.

‘We can organise ourselves autonomously against specific forms of discrimination, but we must at the same time seek to build solidarity on the question of class,’[82] he argued a year later in the review Mouvements. The class struggle has the means to break the deleterious spiral of narrow community struggles; better still, it alone ‘can break the escalation of exclusive identities’.[83] By splitting the social order into two great blocs – the dominant and the dispossessed – it becomes possible to thwart the traps of this neoliberal age, without denying the internal dissensions of the dispossessed. In the absence of the socialist/communist focal point, this horizon of equality, the world is condemned to endless particular collisions – and thus to the victory of those in power. So Bensaïd supported the autonomy of the feminist movement, regularly stood up against the ‘republican’ derailment of the Republic, opposed Islamophobia and rebelled against the atheistic maximalism of certain fringes of the radical left. There’s nothing surprising in this: as a good Leninist, he refused to allow the working class, which is, by nature, composite, to be divided over peripheral issues such as religion. He thus offered his readers an ‘egalitarian universalism’[84] that drew simultaneously on the hot spring of the French Revolution and the struggles of the South. And what an offer! No ‘Victim with a capital V’,[85] no lesser victims either, but political subjects; no authenticity or purity, no cultural relativism, no ‘purging tendencies’[86] justified by some American ‘political correctness’; and no vaporous, unreal humanity, blind to its historical specificities and multiple memories, but, once again, a permanent inscription in tension, contradiction, the fertile knot.

And so the whole world

The criminal invasion of Ukraine by the Putin regime has revived old reflexes. Liberals both right and left applaud NATO, while ‘sovereigntyists’ right and left applaud Russia. NATO and the Kremlin both have blood on their hands; we can be sure that Daniel Bensaïd would have walked between the mines. Against blind adherence to one camp, the thinker hailed ‘the path of double refusal and a double front’.[87] He knew that this critical stance was as perilous as it was necessary. Internationalism had nothing in common with charity: authentic equality is also based on fair criticism of the oppressed. Thus, in Bensaïd’s view, it was appropriate to support the Algerian FLN without denying the summary executions it carried out internally; to support Cuba against the US embargo without turning a blind eye to the Stalinist trials carried out by its government; to encourage the Palestinian struggle, including armed struggle, without remaining silent about the corruption of its leaders and the counter-productive and immoral nature of attacks on civilians; to applaud Iraqi resistance to the US invasion without ever celebrating the ruthless dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.

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This demand was mirrored in his view of the North. Thus, among other things, he denounced the ‘fairy tales of ethical war’[88] in a book of the same name, lambasted both Bush and Bin Laden, those ‘twin barbarisms’, and campaigned against NATO’s intervention in Yugoslavia. The Western ‘we’ was never his. As he wrote shortly after the attacks of 9/11:

The use of a ‘we’ imbued with power and imperial condescension has hardly wavered: we, the democracies; we, the free world; we, the repositories of civilisation; we, the Westerners; we, the good guys, as Bush put it bluntly. We’re all Americans now, as Jean-Marie Colombani wrote in his Le Monde editorial the day after 9/11. It is this bloated Americanism that feeds the anti-Americanism of which we are accused. We use political categories, not tribal ones. We are not fighting America, but imperialism, which is European as much as it is American.[89]

And so ecology

But there can be no social world without material support for it, and therefore without ecology. Daniel Bensaïd is credited with inventing the term ‘ecocommunism’.[90] Not surprisingly, his interest in the question was rooted in the work of Marx and Engels. The human species is an integral part of nature, which is, as the author of Capital put it, its inorganic body. Was Marx a precursor of ecology or a champion of machines? This debate has mobilised many Marxists around the world. In his Marx, mode d’emploi, Bensaïd traced a transversal route: Marx was neither one nor the other. He understood human beings in their natural environment, while sharing the progressive and productivist views of his time. As ecosocialist Daniel Tanuro would say, Marxist ecology is an ‘unfinished business’.[91] Against an irrational and mystic ecology, a pallid reformist ecology or a scientistic and apolitical ecology, Bensaïd sketched out this communist ecology. The humanity being that entered modernity was certainly wrong to have cut itself off from the living world; yet it would not be right to re-divinise ‘Mother Earth’ in the hope of mending this rift. In his view, the solution lay in a ‘subversive, popular’[92] ecology, positing human freedom as a principle and, by the same token, questions of property and planning (and therefore of the state). Ecology will either submit economic laws to its needs and break the dictatorship of the markets, or it will be nothing. In other words: every consistent ecologist must work towards a social revolution without further delay.

Revolutions have a cost, to be sure. But what about the cost of failed revolutions? Would there have been Nazism and the Second World War if the Spartacists had seized power in 1919? Daniel Bensaïd liked to ask this question. Social democracy was in its death throes (Mitterrand’s presidency had ‘done lasting damage to the workers’ movement’),[93] ecosystems were taking a beating, the tyranny of capital was continuing its mad rush, election abstention was soaring, fascism was gaining ground just about everywhere and popular uprisings were multiplying. ‘To be revolutionary is to say that the world is unacceptable and that it is more urgent than ever to change it,’[94] Daniel Bensaïd reminded us in May 1999. The coming years will be decisive; once again, it will come down to them and us – the nationalists and those willing to share. Locking ourselves in a ‘far-left ghetto’[95] will not help us win the day. We need a broad new front. And with that, a clear eye: ‘no fairy tales’.[96] To read or re-read Bensaïd will not be a waste of time.

Translated by David Fernbach


[1] The prize-winning actor and feminist campaigner Adèle Haenel announced her allegiance to the Trotskyist party Révolution Prolétarienne in 2022. – Trans.

[2] Daniel Bensaïd, Jeanne, de guerre lasse. Chroniques de ce pays [1991] (Paris: Don Quichotte, 2017), p. 49.

[3] He continued: ‘It names, inseparably, the irreducible dream of another world of justice, equality and solidarity; the permanent movement that aims to overthrow the order existing at the time of capitalism; and the hypothesis that directs this movement towards a radical change in property and power relations, away from accommodations with a lesser evil that would be the shortest route to the worst.’

[4] Daniel Bensaïd, ‘Puissances du communisme’, Contretemps [online], 12 January 2010.

[5] Daniel Bensaïd, ‘Considérations inactuelles sur l’actuel encore actif du Manifeste communiste’ [1998], personal archive, Contretemps [online], 1 February 2018.

[6] Daniel Bensaïd, ‘Puissances du communisme’.

[7] Daniel Bensaïd, Éloge de la résistance à l’air du temps (Paris: Textuel, 1999), p. 63.

[8] Daniel Bensaïd, Moi, la Révolution [1989] (Paris: Don Quichotte, 2017), p. 201.

[9] Ibid, p. 233.

[10] Ibid, p. 133.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Daniel Bensaïd, An Impatient Life (London: Verso, 2011), p. 79.

[14] Daniel Bensaïd, Octobre 17, la révolution trahie. Retour critique sur la Révolution russe (Paris: Lignes, 2017), p. 19.

[15] Daniel Bensaïd, ‘Trotsky, un passeur du siècle’, Rouge, 2000.

[16] Antoine Robitaille, ‘Entretien avec Daniel Bensaïd – Le rouge’, Le Devoir, 11 October, 2003.

[17] Daniel Bensaïd, ‘Trotsky, un passeur du siècle’.

[18] ‘Entretien avec Daniel Bensaïd – Le rouge’.

[19] Daniel Bensaïd, Octobre 17, la révolution trahie, p. 44.

[20] David Muhlmann, ‘Un entretien avec Daniel Bensaïd sur l’apport de Rosa Luxemburg’ (May 2010), Contretemps [online], 15 January 2019.

[21] Daniel Bensaïd, La Politique comme art stratégique, (Paris: Éditions Syllepse, 2011), p. 47.

[22] ‘Un entretien avec Daniel Bensaïd sur l’apport de Rosa Luxemburg’.

[23] Daniel Bensaïd, Fragments radiophoniques. 12 entretiens pour interroger le vingtième siècle (Paris: Éditions du croquant, 2020), p. 26.

[24] See note 11.

[25] Ibid, p. 45.

[26] Daniel Bensaïd, ‘Communisme contre stalinisme. Une réponse au Livre noir du communisme’, Rouge 1755, 1997.

[27] Daniel Bensaïd, Fragments radiophoniques, p. 30.

[28] Rosa Luxemburg, ‘The Russian Revolution’ [1918], in Peter Hudis & Kevin B. Anderson, The Rosa Luxemburg Reader (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004), p. 307.

[29] Daniel Bensaïd, ‘Communisme contre stalinisme.’

[30] Daniel Bensaïd, Fragments radiophoniques, p. 133.

[31] Daniel Bensaïd, Octobre 17, la révolution trahie, p. 32.

[32] Daniel Bensaïd and Olivier Besancenot, Prenons parti. Pour un socialisme du XXIe siècle (Paris: Éditions Mille et une nuits, 2009), p. 334.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Daniel Bensaïd, Éloge de la résistance à l’air du temps, p. 60.

[35] Hakim Bey, TAZ. Zone autonome temporaire (Paris: Éditions de l'éclat, 2011), p. 32.

[36] Ibid, p. 25.

[37] John Holloway, Change the World Without Taking Power;

[38] Ibid.

[39] Miguel Benasayag, Abécédaire de l’engagement (Paris: Bayard, 2004), p. 236.

[40] The Invisible Committee, Now (South Pasadena: Semio(text)e, 2017), p. 155.

[41] Daniel Bensaïd, ‘Considérations inactuelles sur l’actuel encore actif du Manifeste communiste’.

[42] Daniel Bensaïd, Walter Benjamin, sentinelle messianique. À la gauche du possible [1990] (Paris: Les prairies ordinaires, 2010), p. 37.

[43] Daniel Bensaïd, Le Spectacle, stade ultime du fétichisme de la marchandise. Marx, Marcuse, Debord, Lefebvre, Baudrillard... (Paris: Lignes, 2011), p. 39.

[44] Ibid, p. 35.

[45] Daniel Bensaïd, Octobre 17, la révolution trahie, p. 77.

[46] Interview with the Argentinian journal Praxis, May 2006. In French: ‘Penser la politique. Un entretien avec Daniel Bensaïd’, Contretemps [online], 12 January 2008.

[47] Daniel Bensaïd, La Politique comme art stratégique (Paris: Éditions Syllepse, 2011), p. 33.

[48] Daniel Bensaïd, Éloge de la résistance à l’air du temps, p. 66.

[49] Daniel Bensaïd, Tout est encore possible. Entretiens avec Fred Hilgemann (Paris: La Fabrique, 2010), p. 69.

[50] Daniel Bensaïd, Éloge de la résistance à l’air du temps, p. 69.

[51] ‘Un entretien avec Daniel Bensaïd sur l’apport de Rosa Luxemburg’.

[52] Daniel Bensaïd, ‘Terreurs et violences’ [2007], Contretemps [online], 15 October 2008.

[53] Daniel Bensaïd, Éloge de la résistance à l'air du temps, p. 100.

[54] Daniel Bensaïd, Le Pari mélancolique (Paris: Fayard, 1997), p. 52.

[55] Daniel Bensaïd, ‘République(s)’, Une radicalité joyeusement mélancolique. Textes (1992-2006) (Paris: Textuel), p. 127.

[56] Ibid, pp. 19-20.

[57] Daniel Bensaïd, Le Sourire du spectre. Nouvel esprit du communisme (Paris: Éditions Michalon, 2000), p. 115.

[58] Daniel Bensaïd, Éloge de la résistance à l’air du temps, p. 39.

[59] Daniel Bensaïd, Penser Agir (Paris: Lignes, 2008), p. 302.

[60] Daniel Bensaïd, Un nouveau théologien. Bernard-Henri Lévy, Fragments mécréants, 2 (Paris: Lignes, 2007), p. 26.

[61] Interview with the Argentinian journal Praxis, May 2006.

[62] ‘We also had some disagreements, since Daniel was an authentic Leninist – though capable of a subtle and innovative reading of Vladimir Ilyich – while I was a follower, better still, a lover, of Rosa Luxemburg,’ Löwy once pointed out.

[63] Olivier Besancenot and Michael Löwy, Affinités révolutionnaires. Nos étoiles rouges et noires. Pour une solidarité entre marxistes et libertaires (Paris: Éditions Mille et une nuits, 2014), p. 133.

[64] Ibid, p. 125.

[65] Josep Maria Antentas, ‘Daniel Bensaïd, du léninisme pressé à la lente impatience’, Contretemps [online], 20 January 2020.

[66] Daniel Bensaïd, Éloge de la politique profane (Paris: Albin Michel, 2008), p. 221.

[67] See note 51.

[68] See note 32.

[69] Daniel Bensaïd, ‘Le scandale permanent’, in Démocratie, dans quel état (Paris: La Fabrique, 2009), p. 31.

[70] Daniel Bensaïd, ‘Le scandale permanent’ [online full-length version].

[71] Daniel Bensaïd, Le Pari mélancolique, p. 103.

[72] Daniel Bensaïd, ‘Le scandale permanent’, in Démocratie, dans quel état?, p. 48.

[73] Daniel Bensaïd, Le Pari mélancolique, p. 103.

[74] Daniel Bensaïd, An Impatient Life, p. 271.

[75] Ibid, p. 277.

[76] See note 32.

[77] Daniel Bensaïd, Fragments radiophoniques, p. 80.

[78] Daniel Bensaïd, Un nouveau théologien, p. 103.

[79] Ibid, p. 105.

[80] Daniel Bensaïd, Le Sourire du spectre, p. 159.

[81] Daniel Bensaïd, Fragments mécréants. Sur les mythes identitaires et la République imaginaire [2005] (Paris: Lignes, 2018), p. 9.

[82] Irène Jami, Wasserman Gilbert and Patrick Simon, ‘Quand l’histoire nous désenchante – entretien avec Daniel Bensaïd’, Mouvements 44, March 2006.

[83] Daniel Bensaïd, Éloge de la résistance à l’air du temps, p. 37.

[84] Jean-Claude Poizat ‘Entretien avec Daniel Bensaïd sur le rôle des intellectuels’, Le Philosophoire 37, January 2012.

[85] Daniel Bensaïd, Fragments mécréants. Sur les mythes identitaires et la République imaginaire, p. 148.

[86] Daniel Bensaïd, Le Pari mélancolique, p. 212.

[87] Daniel Bensaïd, Fragments mécréants. Sur les mythes identitaires et la République imaginaire, p. 153.

[88] Daniel Bensaïd, Contes et légendes de la guerre éthique (Paris: Textuel, 1999).

[89] Daniel Bensaïd, ‘Dieu, que ces guerres sont saintes!’, Contretemps 3, February 2002.

[90] See Daniel Bensaïd, Le Sourire du spectre.

[91] Daniel Tanuro, ‘L’écologie de Marx, chantier inachevé’, L’Anticapitaliste 142, January 2023.

[92] Daniel Bensaïd, ‘L’écologie n’est pas soluble dans la marchandise’, Contretemps 4, May 2002.

[93] Daniel Bensaïd, Fragments radiophoniques, p. 125.

[94] Christophe Forcari, ‘Daniel Bensaïd, philosophe et membre dirigeant de la LCR. La propriété est un pouvoir despotique’, Libération, 24 May 1999.

[95] Daniel Bensaïd, Éloge de la résistance à l’air du temps, p. 114.

[96] Daniel Bensaïd, Penser Agir, p. 76.

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Filed under: 1968, france, french-politics, french-theory