By Mark L. Thomas
Daniel Bensaid was a leading figure and theoretician in the French Ligue Communiste Revolutionaire (LCR, now part of the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, the NPA) and the Fourth International, the main “orthodox” Trotskyist current, for more than four decades until his death in 2010.
The great strength of his memoir, first published in French in 2004 and now translated into English by Verso, is Bensaid’s fidelity to the project of revolutionary socialism that he committed himself to in the 1960s as a teenager.
His account of his political formation and his experiences building the Ligue and the Fourth International is fascinating.
Bensaid joined the youth wing of the French Communist Party after the police killed nine pro-Algerian protesters in Paris in 1962.
He and a group of others influenced by the growing radicalisation of the 1960s subsequently broke from the Communist Party towards Trotskyism.
He provides vivid accounts of the mass student and worker rebellion of May 1968 and the years building the Fourth International that followed in France.
He also describes his extensive involvement in the work of his co-thinkers in Spain and in Latin America, especially Brazil, where the Fourth International group played an important role in the formation and development of the Workers’ Party (PT).
The weakness of the Fourth International was a tendency to accomodate towards social forces other than the working class.
So the Latin America sections were pulled towards armed struggle and guerrillaism in the 1970s, only to be replaced with an accommodation towards parliamentary reformism in the 1980s and after.
This would ultimately lead to a split in the FI’s Brazilian section with former Trotskyists ending up as ministers in the first PT government under Lula. Bensaid’s critical assessment of these experiences is telling.
In France, such tendencies were weaker. But the Ligue in its early days was influenced by ultra-leftism and voluntarism (as Bensaid acknowledges).
One example was a misconceived episode of street fighting (organised by Bensaid, who was in charge of the Ligue’s stewards’ organisation) with the police outside a fascist meeting in 1973 which led to the organisation being banned by the French state.
But Bensaid’s memoir is also a vigorous intellectual defence of the notion that history could have been, and still could be, different.
If this outlook, and the belief that such change could only come through socialist revolution, was widely held among left activists, significant sections of intellectuals, and even a layer of worker militants in the years that followed 1968, by the late 1970s and into the “gloomy 1980s” it ran against the stream of the prevailing political and intellectual mood.
Many a former revolutionary lined up to renounce Marxism and revolution as inherently totalitarian projects.
Bensaid weathered the storm and in the process sought to develop a Marxism purged of any sense of fatalism – both against any comforting notion that history is automatically on our side, but also to challenge the complacency of liberals and social democratic reformists who insist there is no alternative to capitalism.
He wrote: “Instead of resigning itself to the idea that what is was fated to be, strategic history seeks to deploy the bundle of possibilities that each conjuncture contains.”
For Bensaid this involved a switch from the “hasty Leninism” of 1968 when revolution seemed almost imminent to a longer term wager that revolution remained necessary and possible.
He argues that this requires a combination of urgency (because we have to remain active) and patience (because it a longer road than expected) – “a slow impatience” as he puts it.
The outcome of history crucially depends on politics and organisation.
Above all, Bensaid insists that “the world still has to be changed, and still more profoundly and more urgently than we had imagined forty years ago.”