No.12 Winter 2016

Daniel Bensaïd and “the last generation of October”

Capitalism is blatantly failing a new, young generation of workers and students, shattering their hopes and dreams, as the Nuit Debout, (“rise up at night”) and struggles in France over the labour code show. Yet, against this rage and distress, the radical left has been in disarray, putting into peril decades of accumulated experience and effort that thousands have put into revolutionary projects before the dissolution of the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) and launch of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) in 2009. A labour of memory is in order, as it is useful to return to the political experience of revolutionaries who have gone before us.

Seven years on, it is clear that the NPA project has failed to achieve its initial goal of building a broader and larger force for the reorganisation of the radical left. The organisation and the leadership that made up the LCR has been thrown into pieces, the NPA has suffered a number of splits, with many leading members going to build inside the Left Front. The launch of the NPA was initially hopeful, signing 9,123 members: three times that of the LCR. Today, the figure is nowhere near that, and many have the sense that a great political waste has taken place.

This essay will demonstrate the political trajectory of Daniel Bensaïd in light of this failure, sticking to his melancholic ethic that “because we have tried, we have a right to start again”. This is useful to do in the pages of the Marxist Left Review, because Bensaïd did not give up on revolutionary politics and had a strong theoretical Marxism, unlike other proponents of the broad party like Murray Smith and the Socialist Alliance in Australia, who have rightly been criticised in this journal.[1] He embodied the political experience of the last generation of October. This generation’s political experience was modest. Their foundational experiences came from the May ’68 rebellion and the “fire last time”. They built no mass parties and enjoyed years of legality.[2] They were revolutionaries without a revolution. The LCR was an important organisation to come from the May ’68 events. Therefore it is worth looking at the way a leading representative of this generation faced up to the problems of revolutionary politics.

The LCR had its roots in the student movement and the Pierre Frank-aligned Trotskyist tradition in France. Their leading members had built an organisation prior to the eruption of May ’68, embodied in the Revolutionary Communist Youth. The LCR experienced a high point in the mid-1970s with the launch of a daily paper; it was able to withstand the dark years of François Mitterrand’s presidency, it played a role in the strikes against the Juppe plan of 1995 and grew substantially in the 2000s out of the popular presidential campaigns of the LCR’s Olivier Besancenot in 2002 and 2007. Combined with the decades of accumulated experience that the LCR had built, a vibrant intellectual culture existed, of which Daniel Bensaïd was only one representative, expressed through the journals Critique Communiste and Contretemps.

To learn from the development of his political thought is to set off from an immediate problem he worried about in his last months, and a more general perspective sketched out in the early 1990s. Before his death in 2010 “he worried about…the loss of the party’s political substance. We debated it at the time the NPA was launched. He worried that the extension of the surface could lead to a loss of substance”, wrote François Sabado, an NPA leader, in Daniel Bensaïd, l’intempestif, a collection of essays written about  Bensaïd’s life and politics.[3] Olivier Besancenot summed up the second problem, with regard to Bensaïd’s general perspective:

I recognise that Daniel was not the most enthusiastic [about the launch of the NPA], because while he saw the advantage and the necessity of constructing something new, he also saw the dangers and everything we could lose. We all knew it, no one was completely enthusiastic, but everyone saw as well that there was an objective problem. That started with Daniel and it was his fault for the most part since it is he who had brought forward the formula of the beginning of the 1990s: “new period, new program, new party”. According to him, there were new historical co-ordinates that pushed towards building something new. We needed a new party as a new strategic hypothesis not only from the new but, also, with the heritage and experience of the old… Today, we are within this interval, between the “already more” and the “not yet” and we don’t know how long it will continue. What Daniel predicted in the 1990s is probably longer than we thought.[4]

The essence of political comprehension is to understand what objective problems faced different radicals and how they represented them, in order to decipher their responses to them and judge accordingly. Necessarily this is an intellectual reconstruction. Without undertaking an intellectual reconstruction, there is no use setting ourselves to work on the texts, words, battles and thought of other revolutionaries, even if the texts and the militants’ own memories of different battles can differ. Nevertheless, such an operation makes judgement and comprehension possible when trying to describe the thought and interventions of another revolutionary. This means dealing with the problem of imputation, allowing us to single out what is objectively decisive beyond the arbitrary connections we may make, in order to elicit what was possible in a given historical context.

The early years of Daniel Bensaïd’s political engagement

The formative political experience of Bensaïd’s early years was the battle within the French Communist Party (PCF), culminating in his expulsion during the mid-1960s.

This battle revealed the growing tensions within the PCF during the long post-war boom. It was one of the most significant ruptures to take place within the party, a foundational moment for the anti-Stalinist left to rally students around them, before the upheavals of May ’68. LCR leader Alain Krivine wrote of this battle in his memoirs. “For the first time an organisation controlled by the party entered, as such, into conflict with the leadership of the PCF”.[5] This was essential to the generation that went on to form the League.

It signalled the emergence of an authentic left opposition inside the PCF. The crisis could attain this dimension because the Union of Communist Students was based in a definite social milieu: students who were more impacted by changes in the air of the times. The party apparatus found it quite difficult to control the organisation.[6]

A mass party at the time, the PCF had its fingers in every social pie, with a real anchorage in the working class and society. The party had a prestige, at once both real and imagined, based on the legacy of the Popular Front of the 1930s and the Resistance against Nazi occupation. The orthodoxy of the Party was stifling but formative. Figures of Bensaïd’s generation were politicised in the party, not just on the university campuses, schooling them in class politics. A political culture existed that made the language of class and Marxism – even if it was bureaucratically deformed – both accessible and popular. Entering into a clash with the leadership of this party was not something to be undertaken lightly.

The crisis of Stalinism, the Hungarian revolt of 1956 and the PCF’s ambivalent attitude to the Algerian war of independence formed a combustible mix for youthful rebellion. Once challenges were raised, the undemocratic nature of the PCF was on display for all to see. The crisis itself lasted for five years, until the expulsion of hundreds of militants.

The Union of Communist Students was heterogeneous. There was a political battle at its heart between four different currents. The majority tendency was made up of the “Italian capitulators”, so called because they were close to the politics of the intellectual Lucio Magri and some Italian Communist Party leaders. They argued for a liberal opening up of the party, an open left reformism. The second tendency was the Maoists. They argued that the leadership was on a reformist path. This tendency had names like Étienne Balibar, from Louis Althusser’s circle, and Benny Levy, who went on to lead the short-lived Proletarian Left, a Maoist organisation that was supported by notable public intellectuals like Michel Foucault, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. The third tendency was the upholders of orthodoxy, fighting tooth and nail for the leadership of the party to keep things under control. Last was the Left Opposition, led by Alain Krivine and Henri Weber, which had a stronghold at the Sorbonne, with about 500 members led by undercover Trotskyists doing an entrist job in the PCF. This was impressive. Both Krivine and Weber were members of the Fourth International – Krivine being mentored by Pierre Frank. They were able to build up a base amongst students in the PCF.

This experience was a moment of intense politicisation for everyone involved and formed those who would become, some years later, key leaders of the events of May ’68. Such was the case for Daniel Bensaïd. He began political life by setting up a Young Communist group at high school in the early 1960s the day after police had murdered nine trade unionists at the Charonne metro station in Paris.

Not long after his entry into the PCF, heresy was in the air. As with all things social and historical, a damn good heresy tells you a lot about the state of a party and its outside world. Heresy was sometimes hidden and at others open. “From the first meetings, I heard myself ask in a pale and hesitant voice the sacrilegious questions: ‘What about Hungary? And Budapest? What does the Party say about all this?’”[7]

Bensaïd began life in the PCF in Toulouse, far away from the tumultuous clashes in Paris. In Toulouse, some were suspicious of the Parisians because the “Parisians could speak well, but the cowl doesn’t make the monk, or the Bolshevik”.[8] As the crisis of the Union of Communist Students was reaching its height in 1965, they sent two delegates to the congress of Communist Students, to get a clearer perspective on events. Their delegates returned, won to the left opposition. Expulsion was near. Eventually, they were excluded from the PCF between December 1965, the date of the presidential election where Mitterrand faced off against De Gaulle, and the congress of Communist Students in April 1966 where the exclusion was formalised.

The political battle waged by these students of the left opposition was a foundational moment for a specific current of French Trotskyism. Clearly it wasn’t on a scale like the Tours Congress when the French Communist Party was formed. Nevertheless, it was experienced as a historic moment. It led to the birth of the JCR (Revolutionary Communist Youth).

Today it is hard to imagine what this renegade adventure meant. The PCF polled 20-25 percent in the elections. It was the party of the working class. Next to this party, the JCR with its few hundred members was microscopic. And they were young! Alain Krivine was the oldest, at the age of 27 years.

The JCR had about 300 members coming out of the youth radicalisation, but was not a fully formed project. Rather, it was produced by the force of circumstance and the particular brutality of the Stalinist leadership in France.[9]

Bensaïd was taken into the leadership of the JCR. Of eight members on the central committee, seven were members of the Fourth International. Bensaïd was not. If you draw his political portrait at this moment, he is not a Trotskyist. He was not one of the entrist figures, like Alain Krivine, Henri Weber and Gerard Verbizier, members of the Fourth International’s French section, the Internationalist Communist Party led by Pierre Frank. It is more correct to see Bensaïd as a revolutionary Marxist who looked to the symbolic image of Che Guevara. He did not spontaneously look toward the Fourth International, not even after the foundation of the JCR. Within the JCR, he was closest to a vague tendency led by Janette Habel, a Guevarist tendency. For Bensaïd, Che was the image of revolutionary fervour in the face of the timidity of reformist bureaucrats. His slogan “The duty of every revolutionary is to make the revolution” captured this sentiment.

Before May ’68 the JCR genuinely believed that there was no future outside the PCF. Consequently, their perspective was to go outside of the CP, get stronger, go back into it and win it. This was not without a whiff of utopianism, but we should remember that, before May ’68, it seemed like no organisation had a real future outside of the PCF.

The events of May ’68, combining a student uprising with the largest general strike in the country’s history, produced a break with this early perspective. It led to the unification of the JCR and the Internationalist Communist Party, consummated in 1969 and baptised as the Communist League (LC). For the Fourth International, this meant a break with entrism; until then they were burrowed down in the PCF. It also represented a passing of the baton, as the leadership of the League went to the youth who came from the JCR, with the exception of Pierre Frank.

This is a particularity of the League in the French landscape. The young leadership had no long established and experienced apparatus. They did not have a long history of party building. They built their own tradition basically from scratch as they constructed their organisation and created an apparatus. It also reflects the fact that the French section of the Fourth International enjoyed a formal continuity, being “a name through the history,” but not a material and human continuity of leadership, a legacy of splits in 1952 and 1965.

Nevertheless, the foundation of the League integrated three component parts. Firstly, the LC held onto the continuity – even if it was formal – of continental Trotskyism, staking out independent space in an atmosphere of Stalinism and Maoism, shortly after the Cultural Revolution in China. Secondly, the experience of being inside the PCF, in terms of its cell structures, party discipline and the centrality of the working class, gave the LC a certain party-building seriousness, sensitive to internal party democracy, with a very liberal internal regime. And lastly, coming out of the youth radicalisation, they had to hold onto the gains they made during the events of May ’68.

May ’68 and its traces

As May ’68 erupted, the Maoists, who also came out of the crisis of the communist students, were larger than the JCR. But the JCR came out of the struggles stronger than the Maoists, proving better placed to withstand the political challenges ahead of them.

The JCR’s activity during May ’68 is a concrete lesson for any organisation based in the university and high school student milieu. Their militant barricade action, their student voluntarism, lit the fuse leading to the explosive general strike. They led a mass student movement, held daily meetings and put all their strength into recruiting and explaining, and were conscious of the fact that the outcome of the general strike did not depend on students. The JCR was utterly marginal with regard to the workers’ movement, and they could not give a concrete political solution to the dynamic of the strike movement beyond general sloganeering. They recruited around 1,000 members from May ’68. Bensaïd was fully part of the debates in the student movement, along with Daniel Cohn-Bendit and the Maoists. “We said between ourselves that we didn’t know where it will go but we knew where it wouldn’t go. We pushed to the limit without knowing where it was going but we knew that the conditions hadn’t come together to make a revolution,” Krivine reminisced.[10]

The subsequent debates about party-building were decisive for the later trajectory of the LC. Their argument for an organisation went against the grain for those with illusions in spontaneity. Many students rejected new parties; therefore “we went totally against the majority of the movement to found an organisation”, eventually adhering to the Fourth International.

Not all was rosy in these early moments, as the ultra-left turn at the ninth world congress of the Fourth International attests. The Fourth International believed that the era of patient propagandism was over, opening the space for international combat. This tragically and irresponsibly led to support for armed struggle in Latin America, of which Bensaïd was a partisan.[11] The early period of the LC, in the immediate aftermath of 1968, was one of impatient gauchisme, “hurried Leninism”. If we look at the organisation in social terms, we see that it is very young, with an average age of 20. The year the LC was formed, 70 percent of the militants were still either high school or university students, 20 percent were teachers and 10 percent wage workers. This did change. As early as 1971, students were no longer a majority, with a quarter of the organisation being teachers and other categories of wage workers. Florence Johsua, who has researched the sociological history of the LCR, explained:

It is necessary to pay close attention to the particular social situation of most JCR militants when the May-June events of 68 struck: high-school or university students, the problem of their professional integration didn’t pose itself yet, and especially as the French economy is still close to full-employment. The May 68 movement thus opened…ten years of enthusiastic activity… In particular, amongst the young militants of the JCR, dreaming of replaying October 1917 and rocked by the tale of the assault on Moncada, the events of May opened a euphoric phase: they are convinced that power has shaken and many live from that moment onwards as if “the revolution is knocking at the door”. From now on it is a matter of days, months and their role as revolutionary militants is to push this along as quickly as possible. The political and social agitation of the years after 1968, in particular the first half of the 1970s, leaves little room for doubt: the world will change from top to bottom.[12]

The early years of hurried Leninism were ones of audacious, spectacular and symbolic actions. This was buttressed theoretically in Bensaïd’s The Notion of Revolutionary Crisis in Lenin, and May ’68: A Great Dress Rehearsal. They rested on the texts of the first congress of the Comintern, with an emphasis on the strict delimitation of the revolutionary party. Though not strictly speaking a foquist, Bensaïd saw Che Guevara as an antidote to the Maoists, and fought for a frenzied subjectivism, against the Althusserian dissolution of the subject. The theoretical expression of this gauchisme was to be found in his militarist vision of the party.[13] Building the party meant first and foremost building a party that could clash with the capitalist state, without worrying too much about the mediations involved in the development of class consciousness.

This was comprehensible as a result of the contradictory nature of May ’68 and of the JCR in the face of it. The JCR had argued that the student movement could unleash a radicalisation of the workers’ movement by going above and beyond the reformist leadership through their combative actions. In reality, this hardly took place. Rather, “the greatest general strike in France’s history – following the repression of the students at the barricades – did not become a real convergence between the students and workers, within the framework of the construction of a revolutionary party”.[14]

Here the social make-up of the JCR and then the LC made for some objective difficulties. They were outside the class in any meaningful sense. Their attempts to link up with the working class clashed with the refusal of the traditional trade unions and the PCF to let the ultra-leftists near the occupied factories, a reality they could not side-step. But they understood the centrality of the working class.[15] In 1969 they set up cells to sell the newly established paper Rouge at the factory gates, to take the organisation out of the student milieu. They “put a map on the wall and dissolved the student sections”. But their “effort was enormous and results were few”.[16]

We witness the politics of impatience in these early years. The objective problem that they faced – revolutionary students disconnected from a workers’ movement that had just unleashed a huge general strike – over-determined their practice. This practice could oscillate between two poles, and both neglected the mediations through which class consciousness could crystallise: a theorised defeatism and a substitutionalist impatience. Both perspectives are shortcuts that cannot wrestle hegemony away from the reformist forces. Sabado, Besancenot and Michaloux captured this moment:

If politics is the anticipation of means and roads to change an existing situation by modifying the relations of force, an active and democratic instrument is necessary to debate the mediations to this objective. The generation of 1968 had a tendency to think that…the right “initiatives in action” could accelerate things. These initiatives proved to be substitutionalist in relation to the mass movement, notably in the domain of the service d’ordre and self-defence.[17]

A pivotal moment of these early years was 21 June 1973, when the League organised an armed attack on a meeting of New Order, the fascist precursor of the National Front. Michel Recanati, Bensaïd and Charles Michaloux led this action, with an estimated 5,000 people at the rally.[18] The action led to a thoroughgoing reorientation of the League, being described by Bensaïd as a traumatism, with the banning of the League in 1973.

A year earlier the Socialist Party and the Communist Party had signed onto a Common Program for the left, in an attempt to channel the horizons of the left. Within a day or so the League put out a denunciation and critical analysis of its content, since it was a strategy to manage capitalism. Nevertheless, the signing of the Common Program had led to a debate in the League about how to orient to this new development. The militants of the LC began to realise the limitations of their early orientation of impatiently forcing the pace of things.

The LC’s banning in 1973 saw them come into greater contact with the socialists and the communists because of the defence campaign. Bensaïd endorsed the Communist Party’s denunciation of the ban. This was a step forward in comparison with the way the communists had responded to the murder in February 1972 of Pierre Overney, a Maoist militant who was killed by a guard at Renault-Billancourt, when they refused to send their members to his funeral. The support campaign for the LC, on the other hand, raised the question of unity and the united front. We should be careful about throwing around the term united front, since we are dealing with an organisation of about 2,300 at this moment, but nevertheless, with the foundation of the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR), there was a break with the early period of impatience.

The foundation of the Revolutionary Communist League: some critical notes on perspectives

The LCR was founded at the end of 1974. Without deploying the condescension of posterity, and remembering the context of the time, a critical discussion must be undertaken about the perspectives that underpinned the League.

After the LC was legally dissolved by the state in 1973 and the LCR was formed, Daniel Bensaïd was one of the theoreticians of the political line that the League adopted: less substitutionalist and more focused on how the party could be built in relation to the development of class consciousness. This “change of political perspective coincided with the first turn towards the united front of the LCR, accepted at the first congress of the organisation in December 1974, accounting for the limits of its implantation in the factories. The LCR’s central problem became the conquest, in opposition to the reformists, of what the tenth congress of the Fourth International – which had been held in 1974 – had called the ‘large workers’ vanguard’”.[19]

They believed that there was, since May ’68, what they called a large workers’ vanguard, breaking with the reformism of both the socialists and the Stalinists – a layer of the working class that they wanted to influence. In the years of impatience, the League thought it could agitate for strike committees and workers’ self-defence to relate to this layer, in a substitutionalist manner. With the foundation of the LCR, an orientation focusing on the workplaces took shape, with an emphasis on the united front and the workers’ government. This was a decisive shift and it is very present in Bensaïd’s writings on the Comintern during the mid-1970s.

Their aim was to win hegemony over the large workers’ vanguard. Their priority was winning young and radicalised workers. It “is only in winning to our organisation and its periphery these young cadres, in forming authentic mass leaders from these young radicalized workers that we can durably implant our hegemony in the large workers’ vanguard as a whole”.[20] Through this process it would be possible to win the older and more established workers of the vanguard. This would enable putting a fight for an anti-bureaucratic socialism on the agenda.

Above all, our fundamental preoccupation is the development of our penetration into the workplaces, with the goal, in this phase of revolutionary preparation, of getting into the debate inside the workers’ movement on a certain number of key elements of the transition program (self-organisation, workers’ control and active strikes, anti-militarism, unity of the working class: men and women; French and immigrants), and to accumulate a certain number of formative experiences – today isolated but which can be generalized during a revolutionary crisis.[21]

The project of Rouge going daily was a step towards relating to this small layer in the working class, as was their decision to send about 300 members into industry, of which they lost over a hundred. Underpinning all of these moves was an incorrect but wholly understandable perspective. De facto, they worked with an implicit building project that was “always based on the hypothesis of the acceleration of class struggle, [the coming of a] revolutionary crisis/situation and a rapid breakthrough of the organisation” expressed in the move towards the daily paper.[22] The catastrophist economic vision that followed the 1973 economic crisis fed into this perspective. The Portuguese revolution seemed to confirm it, and the militants of the League placed their bets on the rapid development of a similar revolutionary process in Spain faced with the twilight of Francoism. The Fourth International proclaimed that a European revolution was imminent in a matter of years.

Since the break with the PCF, the League – in its various forms – had grown from strength to strength. It grew solidly until 1977 reaching a membership of about 3,600. With the launch of the daily paper, they expected to continue to grow. Sociologically too, the organisation was changing. In 1969, 10 percent of the organisation was made up of wage workers. By 1976, the figure had reached 51 percent.[23] Then in 1979 it reached 60 percent. These wage workers were in rail, the postal service, health and metal works.

The expectations that Bensaïd and the League had in the 1970s now appear wildly wrong. At the time they didn’t seem so wild. Not since the 1920s had serious organisations independent of the Stalinists and socialists been thrown up. And the workers’ movement was combative. This all met with the deepest economic crisis since the post-war boom. It really seemed that the workers’ movement was going through a political recomposition that would render justice to the anti-Stalinist left.

This party building project failed. If the goal was to build “new, mass revolutionary workers’ organisations capable, like the early communist parties, of challenging the reformist organisations for political leadership of workers in Europe”, then one has to conclude that their projects did not achieve their goal.[24] This must be kept in mind.

The perspective for this party-building project, of winning hegemony over the large workers’ vanguard, had flaws. It is crucial to understand these flaws if we are to understand the pitfalls of the transitional program. The LCR held that “the period that we have experienced for some years is marked by the massive emergence of a new generation of workers and militants becoming durably conscious of the necessity for a total struggle against capitalism”. According to them, this new generation of militants wasn’t formed under the hegemony of the Stalinist or social democratic parties. These militants had broken with bureaucratic practice and were able to take independent initiative. This was a “practical rupture”. Nevertheless a Marxist revolutionary core didn’t lead these militants. Therefore, the League spoke of three factors that made up the conjuncture – the rise in mass struggle, discrediting of the reformists and the weakness of the revolutionaries – in which this vanguard of the class emerged. Consequently, “[o]ur approach therefore aims to engage in campaigns, engage in actions that impose and systematically propose unity in action with reformists in a perspective of an anti-capitalist united workers’ front”.[25]

In these objective conditions, the League set out its program of intervention. It centred on the united front and transitional demands. It would take into account the objective situation on the one hand, and the level of class consciousness on the other. The transitional problematic aimed through slogans and actions to reduce the lag between the objective conditions and class consciousness, linking the day-to-day struggle with broader agitation for the insurrectional general strike.

But revolutionary groups faced limitations. In the aftermath of World War One, the competition between reformists and revolutionaries was concrete, with mass communist parties developing in parts of Europe. This fact gave a transitional method real weight. The same couldn’t be said about the upheaval of the 1970s, when groups were much smaller and weaker compared to their reformist or Stalinist rivals.

The objective limitation revolutionary groups faced was conducive to political idealism that fetishised programmatic demands.[26] This is a pitfall of propagandism that sought to expose the betrayals of the reformists for shielding workers from correct socialist ideas. But revolutionary politics isn’t just about correct ideas. Being based on the confrontation of class forces, it is first and foremost about struggle. It is only through struggle that the masses change their ideas. Through this struggle a united front tactic can emerge, being a tactic and not a principle. For the LCR, being weak compared with the forces of official reformism, the united front approach often meant nothing more than propaganda for unity, without any real, practical substance, an impotent injunction from the sidelines demanding that the reformist forces act, unite and challenge capitalism.

Here we can draw a political lesson. Small groups should understand their own forces and their role in reality in order to act accordingly. Messing around with a confused notion of a united front “can only undermine sober assessments of political situations and the tactics appropriate for organisations that fall well short of being revolutionary parties [leading to hot air or a softness on reformists]. The main asset of such groups is not their weight in society but the clarity of their analysis, particularly as a guide to political action that is necessarily on a very modest scale”.[27]

Behind the united front and transitional program, the perspective based on the large workers’ vanguard was a misjudgement. It confused a “genuine radicalisation of struggles for a qualitative change in the relationship of forces within the working class movement”.[28] This reality created difficulties for the anti-Stalinist left to break out, and as Charles Post explained, “[t]he ultimate limit for the party building projects in the 1970s was the reduced size and relative political and organisational weakness of the militant minorities of workers in capitalist Europe… The weakness of this independent layer of worker leaders doomed all of the attempts to recompose the workers’ movements in Europe and launch new revolutionary organisations in the 1970s”.[29]

With the signing of the common program, “[f]or the first time since May ’68, a political perspective – certainly reformist – but credible for workers, existed,” the LCR’s political bureau wrote. It was difficult for the far left to build an independent pole beyond the reformist horizon of the left government. In later years, Alain Krivine pointed to the weakness of the LCR in that it remained isolated:

As the Union of the Left grew in strength from 1972 to 1977, the far-left in general, and the League in particular remained relatively isolated. Admittedly, in 1977, at the municipal elections, the revolutionary left led a dynamic joint campaign… But in a general way, the criticisms formulated against the Common Program remained hardly audible; they could only reach an already convinced minority. For the popular layers, the Union of the Left represented a hope, that of sweeping away the right. The dominant sentiment was to give the left parties a chance.[30]

The balance of forces between revolutionaries and reformists was in the latter’s favour as the prospect of left government materialised. Within this dynamic, the LCR hoped the 1978 legislative elections would see the left win a stunning victory, because of the strong but withering scent of ’68, the balance of class forces and the economic crisis. In fact, they based their campaign upon what would happen after the election, as if a left victory was certain, “rather than doing what we have to do today”. Bensaïd himself “spent two months writing a big book, a program, on the city, women, planning…” – a plan, once the left won, for how to counterpose themselves to a left in the national assembly.[31] But the left lost the elections.

The political perspective of the certainty of a left victory at the 1978 elections was bound up with Rouge going daily. The LCR had grown until 1977 but had begun to lose members from 1978, ending up in what is called a “crisis of militancy”. The day of the electoral defeat in 1978, “we knew the daily paper was put into question”. The failure of an exciting but untenable project “demoralised comrades”. And 1978 itself was a “defeat, a frustration. We felt that we were unable to play a role to avoid the defeat, we were outside, only able to make propaganda” about unity and defeating the right, since the aspiration for left rule was seen as a positive development.[32] He thought these slogans were correct but didn’t express whether the organisation was able to play a decisive role or to pull it off concretely. This added to the frustration of militants.

Meanwhile, and despite the qualms about breaking the unity between the PCF and the socialists, the Socialist Party was experiencing a rapid renovation and was soon able to overtake the PCF in terms of votes. The LCR had to come to grips with the new party, revamped at the Epinay Congress in 1971. They didn’t have a clear characterisation of the new party. In the context of calls for unity – between the communists and socialists – to think that the Socialist Party of Mitterrand had anything to do with the SFIO of the 1930s could be disastrous, particularly as sections of the far left saw it as a place to do another entrist job. It would take time for the LCR to concretely come to grips with the new socialist party.

Confronting the Mitterrand debacle

They thought that if the reformists were to win, it would improve the relations of class forces and lead to a gain in confidence for the working class, after two decades of the right in power. In light of workers looking to an electoral and political solution to their grievances, the LCR was opposed to the communists and socialists splitting, a thorny question since France had two mass left parties competing for support. Unity between these two parties was a bureaucratic unity from above, and relying on Trotsky’s arguments to his forces in the Communist League grouped around La vérité in the 1930s, the LCR wanted to position themselves as fighters for unity when the socialists and communists were divided. They also emphasised unity from below to challenge this bureaucratic unity from on high. On the other hand, when the two parties did collaborate, they emphasised the function of this unity, with a perspective towards the left government. Bensaïd explained what the LCR did in the lead up to the elections:

[W]e devoted enormous time and energy to detailed propaganda in order to prepare and arm the workers on the programmatic questions under discussion. We did not pose the question of unity first and foremost in terms of unity between the parties, but in terms of the sovereign self-organisation of the workers in order to settle the differences and strike together against the bourgeoisie: inter-union meetings and sovereign assemblies in the factories, united action committees.[33]

This positioning formed a part of their insurrectionary vision. At the time it was thought that once the right was beaten electorally, a situation would open that could be used for a more audacious, insurrectionary strategy, pushing the government further to the left and benefitting from working class radicalisation against this government. The Popular Front and Chilean references were abundant.

The coming to power of Francois Mitterrand in 1981 shook this overblown and formalistic vision. Mitterrand won a smashing victory. In December 1981, the LCR held its fifth congress. Bensaïd ruled out class stability:

A unanimous accord has been reached at the congress regarding the perspectives that follow from this victory: we do not face a stabilization of the institutions of the fifth Republic and the beginning of an era of social democratic stability. The electoral victory of parties with allegiance of the working class has created an unprecedented situation. The new majority has the presidency of the Republic and an absolute majority in the national assembly, without needing an alliance with the bourgeois parties. Therefore, it has no pretext or alibi to avoid the demands of the working class, who expect that the electoral change will now be turned into a real social transformation facing the crisis. The horizon is therefore that of major confrontations between the classes, whose consequences go well beyond the French situation. The government…is without a doubt a bourgeois government. But the workers are looking at it for now as their government, whilst the bourgeoisie…has no confidence in it. Not that it doubts the loyalty of the PS and the PC vis-à-vis the established order, but because it is not sure about its ability to whip the workers’ movement into line like during the Popular Front in 1936 or the Liberation in 1944.[34]

The socialists and communists had a majority in the government. This was unprecedented. The left had the presidency, a majority in the national assembly, controlled general councils and large municipalities. Therefore, workers who had faced austerity expected this government to deliver.

The LCR had no illusions that this government would break with capitalism and that the government would not be able to satisfy the problems of the working class, but they propagandised as if it could. Nevertheless, they were prepared to go through the experience of left government with the working class and learn the lessons alongside them, guarding their right to criticism. This logically intersected with the turn to workers agreed on at the LCR’s fourth congress in 1980, obliging members to get jobs in industry.

For Bensaïd, revolutionary strategy involved the insurrectionary general strike. This has an important history in the League, as it founded a revolutionary identity, “because the struggle for political power is a key element in a problematic of the emancipation of the proletariat”. Antoine Artous – who wrote much alongside Bensaïd in the 1970s and 1980s – explained that “it is not only to insist on the necessity of the struggle for political power – Marx already did that – but on a ‘project for the overthrow of bourgeois political power’, that is to say a strategic hypothesis that illuminates a tactic and that defines the profile of a revolutionary organisation in the struggle for power”.[35] The insurrectionary general strike gave a revolutionary meaning to their daily practice. But it was nothing more than a propaganda utensil.

The stage seemed set for a possible débordement” (in ordinary English, “spill-over,” but in political terms, an “outflanking and overtaking”) of the reformist parties, with mass ruptures within them allowing the revolutionaries to take the lead – as it was classically sketched in Trotsky’s Transitional Program – since a powerful social movement against the left in government was hoped for. Resting on an outdated analogy of the Popular Front of the 1930s, the fifth congress of the LCR looked towards the prospect of a confrontation between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, leading in time to a revolutionary situation in France, although it was not possible to foresee its rhythm, profundity or duration. The elections resulted in a government that claimed to govern in the interests of the workers. However, if this government was to administer austerity during a crisis, the conflict between the austerity policy of the new government and the hopes of the electoral majority of the workers’ parties among the workers would become sharp, made more urgent by the feeling of their own power.

The LCR’s general perspective did not accord with reality and the years following Mitterrand’s victory did not see the expected social upheaval, even after his tournant de la rigueur of 1983. The workers’ movement didn’t experience a deeper radicalisation from where the radical left could take things further. The working class remained acquiescent, faced with austerity and falling real wages, as a consequence of the defensive position the working class was in when Mitterrand came to power:

If we examine the real shifts in workers’ struggles, the 1976 to 1981 period shows no radicalisation of the class. Quite the opposite. The number of working days lost through disputes (per thousand employees) fell sharply between 1976 and 1981 from 292 to less than 95; and the drop was still more marked in heavy industry and the service industries (from 477 to less than 171, and from 159 to less than 46, respectively)…the major defeat of the steelworkers after the large-scale struggles of December 1978 to March 1979 weakened whole sections of the working class and reinforced a sense of impotence… [This] indicates that the working class was on the defensive, while some of the more advanced workers were looking for a political solution, although primarily within the existing framework.[36]

The lack of a generalised workers’ response disoriented the LCR. Crucially, as the last wave of radicalisation kicked off by May ’68 was being exhausted, there was no decisive social shock able to put the equilibrium of nation states and the post-war political landscape into question. No hoped for revolutionary situation materialised, meaning revolution wasn’t an actuality but an abstract idea that would hopefully become concrete again in the future. Revolutionary strategy had flown into the realms of abstraction and revolutionaries had to go against the grain. Faced with the sordid 1980s, the preceding political experience of the LCR was coming to a close, the strategic question was being eclipsed.[37]

Going against the grain of history

In the 1980s Bensaïd began to accept the deep historical turn underway, between 1983 and 1986. He outlined this in his Contribution to a necessary debate on the political situation and our party building project, published in Critique Communiste, from 1986. He outlined this discussion in his lectures at the Fourth International cadre schools. At this moment, coming to grips with the collapse of previous hopes and the rapid decline of the revolutionary left, Bensaïd recognised that the LCR was at a “limit point”.

The previous period of the LCR was one that worked upon the hypothesis that the class struggle would accelerate, reaching a revolutionary crisis in time, upon which the organisation could make a rapid breakthrough. They thought they were living through an epoch of the actuality of revolution. The adventure of Rouge going daily expressed this perspective. Crucially, in the 1986 contribution, Bensaïd speaks of the collapse of a project that hasn’t been replaced, which was based on the “débordement of the traditional parties unmasked by the exercise of power leading to an organisational ‘breakthrough’ beyond the electoral victory of the left. The end of Rouge daily in January 1979, two years after its launch, was an expression of the failure of this, still over optimistic perspective”.[38] Bensaïd himself said in a cadre school lecture:

[T]his project was never really replaced. We are in a new situation, we have to redefine what we want. If not…everything is mixed, you have no common background, no flexibility in tactics, if you don’t have a clear project, which unifies at least your cadres in the party…we need to redefine now…that could imply a big change in the way of working… [This] also changes the way you organise materially, use the militants we have. If you think you will have a revolutionary crisis quick, you can burn your militants, it is not so important, a lot will come quick. But if you have to build a long-term party, as a consequence each one is gold… To care, take care, discuss when there are problems, not just a working militant force that comes and goes like that. It is a permanent struggle to keep them, and even the ex-militants, not to become enemies just because they are gone.[39]

This is a significant shift to building a durable revolutionary project for the long term. Lenin was the symbol of this continuity, to maintain a political tradition, accumulation of experiences, even if it “can appear routine build a long-term independent organisation, in a minority, with big risks of sectarianism,” lacking concrete links with real processes and movements. Lucidly, but quite late, settling accounts with the previous period, he saw that “[w]e need a new definition of a new stage in party-building now. It will be the challenge of the coming years”.[40]

Take this lesson from Bensaïd. He was capable of sharp re-orientation when the political situation shifts, while holding onto the best acquisitions of his political current, one of which was learning political sobriety the hard way.

This reorientation was not without overheads. Resisting the defeats in the 1980s (and early 1990s) was also due to activists being involved in campaigns and their trade union struggles, perhaps to the detriment of party building. This led to a loosening up of their organisation, “there had certainly been a movementist and trade unionist tendency of the League in the 1980s”.[41] From the mid-1990s the LCR tried to correct this kind of movementism with a heavier emphasis on the political field, while they also began to recruit again.

This shift towards politics was threatened by electoralism. The rectification crystallised in the successful Besancenot campaign of 2002, but it always risked oscillating between the social movements and electoral politics, opening the door to a divorce between economics and politics. Bensaïd didn’t reduce politics to electoralism, and pointed to the problems small revolutionary groups face:

[In] the framework of a weakening in workers’ resistance, the usefulness of the mass social movements seemed more obvious than that of a political organisation like ours, which could appear at a certain point just as a network and a forum for discussing ideas… [T]here is always a tension between the building of a political party and intervention in united fronts, between the risk of a sectarian response and that of dilution of your political profile. One can’t resist that double temptation by a magic formula, you have to work your way though it concretely in each case.[42]

The shifts of the 1980s accompanied the so-called “crisis of the workers’ movement”. Until the mid-1980s, the fetishisation of the transitional program was linked to the idea that the workers’ movement retained its fundamental references from the October Revolution. Within this framework, it was believed that a live debate with common reference points existed between the radical left and reformism. The twelfth congress of the Fourth International finally “stressed that the crisis of the international revolutionary leadership could no longer be posed in the same terms as the 1930s. It was no longer a matter of providing alternative leadership to an international working class movement bathed in the revolutionary culture of the period opened up by the Russian Revolution. A lot of water had flowed under the bridge since that time”. This was a settling of accounts with an old propagandist vision within the post-war Trotskyist movement where the “program becomes the ‘conscious’ expression of an ‘unconscious’ historical process and de facto functions like a norm. Its use is above all to gauge the way in which currents breaking with Stalinism and social democracy move towards this norm”. The “crisis of the workers’ movement” meant a crisis in its fundamental reference points, shaking the sharp contours of the debate between reform and revolution. Bensaïd wrote about the consequences of this crisis:

[The culture opened by the Russian Revolution] had been destroyed during the long night of Stalinism and by social-democracy’s embrace of capitalist order. A worldwide renewal of trade unionism and working class politics was now on the agenda. It was therefore a matter of plunging into the uneven and prolonged process of rebuilding.[43]

The time for the slow impatience of rebuilding was at hand.

Leading up to the New Anticapitalist Party

Let’s keep in mind that during the 1990s Bensaïd stood down from the official leadership of the LCR, and his core work was of a theoretical order. But he was always an absent presence in the leadership discussions until the launch of the New Anticapitalist Party, and gave many cadre school educationals.

Bensaïd’s general perspective, that remained from the late 1980s until his death, was the need to rebuild a revolutionary, strategic horizon that had broken down. His perspective was developed in the context of deep social and political defeat, which meant he thought a revolutionary project had to be reconstructed over the long term.

The NPA was the culmination of two decades of debate, experience and party-building opened by the turn of the 1990s, when the slogan of a new period, new party, new program was announced. Bensaïd was central to the writing of the LCR’s manifesto, À la gauche du possible, that summed up some of these problems. Since the LCR was a small organisation, they thought it was unlikely they would seriously break out and grow without left wing ruptures inside the PCF. As time wore on, serious left wing ruptures in the PCF did not take place. Since then, the terms of the question of going beyond a small organisation evolved. They had a lot of trial and error, for example, with electoral accords with Lutte Ouvrière (LO), the other major Trotskyist group, and other experiences of unity with dissidents from LO and Socialisme par en bas, the International Socialist Tendency group. For Bensaïd, these weren’t just tactical manoeuvres. “We cannot divorce politics from history. It is therefore necessary to defend a vision that facilitates the fixing of theoretical objectives, that does not crumble into the back and forth of the electoral game,” he wrote, at the time when the LCR was dissolving itself into the NPA.[44]

What would become the NPA was born of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Stalinism. Contrary to what some orthodox Trotskyists expected, the fall of the Stalinist regimes did not lead to the rebirth of democratic socialism in the East; “the ghosts of Bukharin and Trotsky didn’t come out on placards, they didn’t represent references for the new political generations in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Memory too had been defeated.”[45]

From the years 1989 to 1991, the idea that they had entered a new period had arisen, and old demarcations that justified the building of currents or political organisations no longer operated in the same way. This didn’t mean old references became null and void, but it necessitated thinking through a programmatic reconstruction and a new political project, in its content as well as in its organised forms. This was the challenge to rebuild the social subjects of emancipation, being made up of small resistances and partial victories. It was also a “political challenge, where we have to redefine a strategic horizon that has broken down”:

Therefore the problem was posed from 1989-1991. The winter strikes of 1995 began to give us a glimpse of the possibility of militant crews, unionists, campaign groups throwing themselves into a perspective of this kind. But this possibility was cut short. It was quickly aborted by the victory – a deferred effect of the 1995 strikes and Chirac’s dissolution of the national assembly – of the left in 1997. This electoral victory channelled a good part of the energy liberated by the winter 1995 strikes and the winter mobilisations against the Pasqua-Debré laws. The unions have been…neutralised in the name of governmental realism and the politics of the lesser evil.[46]

Let’s pause at 1997 for a moment, with Bensaïd’s critique of Lutte Ouvrière, in a letter destined for Arlette Laguiller, presidential candidate of the group.[47] In the 1995 presidential elections, Laguiller received over five percent of the vote, the first time a revolutionary candidate went beyond that mark, with only three percent difference with the PCF. While “there is a long way from a vote to mobilisation…it doesn’t prevent this result being revelatory of a significant repudiation of the major parties and of a radical current in popular opinion. It implies a sufficient public credibility to actively intervene into the public debate, formulate arguments, seek out alliances”. Rather than actively intervening in the mass demonstrations against the Pasqua-Debré laws or the demonstration at Strasbourg against the National Front, “on nearly all the key questions of the moment [Lutte Ouvrière put forward] at best an impotent abstention, at worst a sectarian rumination”.[48]

It was useful to rehash some banal but forgotten points: that “the politics and tasks of an organisation are dictated by the situation itself (and not only through the evaluation of available forces or their level of consciousness), that an effective revolutionary party will not be built through the simple individual recruitment of militants independent of collective experiences on a mass scale, that the communists worthy of this name try to propose a politics for the whole of the workers’ movement and that there is no struggle, whether ‘great or small’, where their activity isn’t needed”.[49]

It is useful to return to this episode for three reasons.

Firstly, Bensaïd didn’t downplay the importance of mass struggles outside of parliament, nor did he reduce politics to an electoralist back-and-forth. He did not fall into the reformist trap of separating politics from economics, where politics is seen as electoral campaigning and economics as strike action, even if it was a real pressure in his political current. Secondly, in light of his argument for a new party, the sectarian inability of LO to intervene after their electoral success was a “fantastic waste” for the whole revolutionary project, because “a new force or a new party is necessary today. It will have to be pluralist and democratic to rally historical currents, trajectories, different cultures, but that the new challenges of the international situation and the renewal of social movements could bring closer. Not only could Lutte Ouvrière be a component part, but a motor element”.[50] But as a whole, LO could not be counted on for a durable recomposition of the revolutionary left with the LCR. Thirdly, the LCR didn’t want to miss this kind of opportunity after Besancenot’s electoral success in 2002 and 2007. They wanted to use his success as a spring-board towards rebuilding a revolutionary project in France.

The 2002 Besancenot campaign wasn’t just about electoral results. The LCR, “which hardly counted more than 1,500 militants the day before the election, during the campaign and months that followed, experienced an important militant dynamic, that resulted in a quasi-doubling of their numbers”.[51] This rapid growth was a qualitative step forward. “Under the impact of this sudden influx of new members, the LCR was profoundly renewed and rejuvenated. It also became much less homogenised socially and ideologically.”[52] The LCR outpolled the PCF, with 4.25 percent of the vote. The result demonstrated that the LCR was more firmly established in the political landscape and could help to confirm its credibility in the social movements.

This moment of renewal solidified the problem of overture and continuity. The LCR’s generation of vieux soixante-huitards had met – via the Besancenot campaign, among other things – with a new-found interest of young workers and students, “a condition, certainly insufficient, but necessary for the construction of a new political force,” tied to the long-term project of reconstructing the left. Behind the 2002 presidential campaign, the obvious background was the Zapatista uprising in January 1994, the great strikes of 1995, the anti-capitalist movement erupting in Seattle, and the struggle of the youth from 1998 onwards against the fascist National Front. It was towards the end of the 1990s that the debate about a new party began to ramp up.

In the midst of this development Bensaïd saw a moment of resistance and reconstruction – the path will be long, as the prophet Jeremiah said. “What is certain is that the forces that will rise again, gain confidence, invent new paths, won’t be straight from the continuation of the currents of the workers’ movement born of the First World War and the Russian Revolution. Upon new foundational events, new alignments, new regroupments, new dividing lines will appear again. We are barely at the threshold of this necessary reorganisation”, he wrote in a document destined for the fourteenth congress of the LCR, held in June 2000.

Towards the end of the 1990s and 2000s, it was clear that the self-sufficiency of the social movements was not enough – whether it were the strikes, the sans movements, quartiers populaires (“popular neighbourhoods”) or the anti-capitalist movement. To believe the social movement is enough to win emancipation is to fall into the social illusion that counterposed the purity of social action to the mess of political engagement. A combative left was necessary to reach beyond the pitfalls of the social movement, a project that didn’t fall into the traps of electoralism. It was seen as the logical next step in the situation they were in.

On the agenda, therefore, at the threshold of the twenty-first century – before Besancenot’s 2002 results – was the need for a new party that could rally a new generation of activists. It was “a potential party, to transform into a real party. A party to give the social movement a political response.”[53] This perspective was coupled with a prophetic vision of the French political landscape, penned when the plural left government had a former Trotskyist, Lionel Jospin, sitting as prime minister:

The left, all of the left in its diversity, with its grandeurs and its miseries is the product of an epoch. All of its history, its memory, and its collective culture are today being challenged. In its current state, it will be incapable of confronting the historical shocks that lie ahead. For that, it doesn’t have the theory, the program, the militants or the leadership formed in the rude school of struggles and events.[54]

The times are out of whack, where the rhythms of political action, social mobilisation and reflection do not coincide. Therein lies a clash, in that revolutionaries have not been able to resolve the contradiction between the long time necessary to accumulate experiences, to reflect, to patiently discuss to achieve clarity, and the immediate, necessary, urgency of action. Bensaid drew a parallel between doing an apprenticeship and engaging in revolutionary politics, because both demand a “slow impatience”.[55] Revolutionary politics is an apprenticeship in patience and slowness. It is open-ended. And both patient and impatient at the same time. It combines patient building work and an impatient thirst for human liberation, actively intervening to change the world.

Inescapable contradictions lurk here. Any period that witnesses revolution on its horizon will have to overcome the weight of the century’s past defeats. In other words, what would it take, and how long will it take, for the past that weighs like a nightmare on the living to be overcome through conscious political praxis? No easy answers exist to this question. In a late interview, Bensaïd discussed the core political problem of the 1980s, “when the idea of emancipation disappeared”. He acknowledged the resistance against neoliberalism, none of which faced the problem of political power head on. Nevertheless he thought, “The dominant element of the era remains the historic defeat of the 1980s. We are not yet out of it. It is a race against time which is not won. It is clear that at the moment the renaissance of the radical left does not compensate for the decline of the traditional left.”[56]

At a moment that the radical left began to take a step forward again, without compensating for the decline of the traditional left – whether the trade union movement, Stalinist communist party type or the social-liberal stripes – and the crisis of political representation, three dangers demanded clarity among revolutionary ranks: of a first order, the dividing lines between reform and revolution, of a second, electoralism weighing down any new project that ends up tailing official reformist parties and lastly a third, organisational laxity.

Bensaïd was neither a sectarian nor an opportunist. His strong Marxist foundation permitted him to be open and flexible, situating political tactics in an overall strategy, the means to reaching the goal of overthrowing bourgeois political rule. His vision of a new party was an attempt to “synthesise the best traditions of the workers’ movement and revolutionary movements while being fuelled by the experiences of the present, a party with contours and strategic hypotheses without an a priori delimitation”.[57] In other words, “the NPA is a party of revolutionary transformation, but without finalised strategic delimitations. Many questions must remain open.”[58] In the context where the NPA is the product of the LCR – the motor force behind its construction lacking significant partners – dissolving, this postulate is open to a wide range of concrete interpretations.

If it means that history creatively produces novelty to learn from and respond to, then there isn’t much to argue about. But if this position assumes that the distinction between reform and revolution is an outdated concept, meaning that it can be left out of day-to-day political choices, then it is problematic. The distinction between reform and revolution is more relevant than ever, compared even with the Russian Revolution, because of the weight of the trade union bureaucracy, the continuity of parliamentary-reformist parties (notwithstanding their degree of internal crisis, collapse or loss of links to the workers’ movement), the way in which the bourgeois-representative state fashions out a specific political field as an illusory incarnation of the general will. In Western Europe, reformism is and has been the dominant current on the left and in the working class movement. Holding fast to this distinction should not lead to a sectarian inability to work alongside reformist forces in the struggle against austerity. But it is necessary for revolutionaries – even revolutionaries without a revolution – to understand the “sharp political differences that separate them from their reformist or semi-revolutionary temporary allies”,[59] lest they want to neuter their ability to intervene effectively, tailing their foes, which will result in broken illusions, because “apparatuses are determined not by ideology but by social logics”. An organisation must put its ideas to the test of practice. But without the ability to translate them into relations of force, correct ideas aren't enough. They cannot be shifted by whispering in the ears of their leaders but only by modifying the real balance of forces” between reformists and revolutionaries.[60] This is why the return of the strategic question means assessing the way a revolutionary, strategic horizon regulates day-to-day politics, where the radical left finds itself in a different and more unfavourable context compared to when Lenin, Luxemburg and Kautsky set the terms of the debate. Accepting that communism is a regulating strategic hypothesis implies – beyond a diverse range of concrete historical circumstances – that revolutionaries need discipline and coherence, organisational regularity to analyse and debate out political orientation to quickly changing conditions, rather than laxity.

Regularity and discipline are necessary for a membership to be cohered around a strong theoretical foundation, something Bensaïd’s later refoundation of Marxist theory aimed towards. It is one thing to have general ideas that are open and undogmatic that can attract high quality intellectuals to a party project. But it is a must to give theoretical and historical depth an organised form to wage battle, so that an activist membership can assess daily problems from within an open, but rigorous theoretical and historical framework. He argued for Marxist theory, destined to become strategy, and recognised the contradictions that confronted a watering down of program: “we have enough experience to know that in a compromise, we can cede on programmatic clarity in exchange for a gain in social surface, in view of action and common experimentation. But to sweeten the content of a program without winning in a capacity for action, to mix up pluralism with eclecticism, has often resulted in organisations that aren’t larger and stronger, but much narrower and more confused.”[61]

Bensaïd was aware of these problems, as his inquietude in the lead up to the NPA attests. He wanted the NPA to preserve relations with the Fourth International, but he did acquiesce. He also accepted that the old LCR wouldn’t intervene as an organised fraction, in a bid not to stand in the way of the NPA’s momentum; but he recognised the risks involved.

In the lead up to the NPA project, he fought for a politics of the oppressed and a League that was strong enough to withstand social-liberal pressure and maintain an intransigent independence vis-à-vis social democracy. He was opposed to weakening a left of struggle, meaning he saw the tension between institutional respectability and the struggle of the oppressed. While the electoral success of Besancenot shook things up a little bit from above, “the determinant condition for our project remains the ownership of politics from below. We must learn how to use the play of images without becoming dependent on it, without giving in to the media’s co-optation, and without being taken in by the illusion according to which televisual second life will replace life – otherwise said, the real struggle.”[62] Only a strong political foundation could withstand the pressures of getting lost in the succession of electoral contests without a revolutionary perspective, in order to move from defensive resistance onto the political offensive, with a vision to overthrow bourgeois political rule. In a debate hosted by Critique Communiste as a result of the victory against the European Constitutional Treaty, Bensaïd set some solid contours for founding a new project:

The perspective of a “new force” remains an algebraic formula for now (this was true for us before 1989-91 and is even truer since). Translating it into practice cannot be mechanically deduced from formulae as vague and general as “the broad party” or “regroupment”. We are only at the start of a process of reconstruction. What counts in the approach to this is our programmatic compass and strategic aim. This is one condition that will allow us to discover the organisational mediations we need and to take calculated risks. That way we avoid throwing ourselves headlong into some impatient adventure and dissolving ourselves into the first ephemeral combination that comes along… But, in every case, reference to a common programmatic background, far from being something that obstructs future reconstruction, is on the contrary its precondition. Strategic and tactical questions can then be prioritised so that we are not torn apart because of this or that electoral outcome. We can distinguish the political base on which organising open theoretical debate makes sense. We can assess which compromises allow us to forge ahead and which to pull us back. We can adjust to forms of organisational existence (whether to be a tendency in a shared party, part of a front, etc.), depending on our allies and how their dynamic fluctuates (from right to left or left to right).[63]

We should learn from this. Especially in circles where the radical left is on the defensive and has not broken with the spiral of defeats, because it underlines the need to pay attention to questions of political substance, theory, organisation and leadership, within a long-term perspective of reconstruction.

Conclusion

Reaching a conclusion, it is worth letting Bensaïd speak at length. He passed on before deep political crises tore the NPA project into rambling pieces, and it would be an abuse of political writing to say what he would have done, where he would have lined up, whether he had a magic wand to steer the party through tumultuous times had he not died so early. His legacy is a contested one. What we can do now is look back on his lucidity. He was prepared to take risks to confront historical contradictions that revolutionaries cannot escape, but must confront head-on:

In light of this disastrous situation, we assume our responsibilities. We are indeed conscious of the difficulties. Starting with that of taking on the construction of a new party, if this is not from the cold, then at least in a defensive context and not from the impetuous growth of the social movements. There is certainly resistance and important struggles, but most end in defeats. The other great difficulty is the absence of significant partners on a national scale. Some have responded to our proposition with silence or discarded it with a fear that it was a simple manoeuvre to renovate the League. They are short-sighted. Rather than hiding away in distrust and in fear, they should be happy that the League is taking this initiative instead of timidly contenting itself with managing its (small) electoral capital. And, rather than whining for no reason, they should engage quickly in a discussion about fundamentals: a new party, on what program? To do what? With what alliances in view? And what guarantees for democratic functioning?… If we do it, it is because we come from a historical current that has for a long-time posed this question, that has had to carry for great lengths, in adversity, the heavy baggage of exile, and that sees the possibilities of a conjuncture. We have inherited a vision of history that doesn’t give way to the post-modern cult of politics in crumbs, of a shrunken present, without a past or future, of a false realism of the here and now, sacrificing strategy to tactics, the goal to the movement, and that ends by building castles in the sky… Without a doubt it is much simpler to cautiously administer a simple reinforcement of the League, but it would fall short of the obligations of the situation. It is possible that we will not achieve our objective, or that we will only partially secure it. Except in rare circumstances, one doesn’t multiply militant forces like famous Biblical bread. And in setting ourselves to work on the task, we know that the path will be long.[64]

Bensaïd’s life was one of intransigent combat against the enemy class combined with a self-reflective attitude regarding political practice. This is a political ethic that the revolutionary left can positively learn from. His “slow impatience” is needed on the left today, a position that should be constantly rehashed, because the politics of impatience tend to resurface, for we are always forced to place absolute practical energy into relative political certitudes. There are times when what is necessary and what is possible are out of whack, and what can be achieved is limited, necessitating concrete analysis rather than launching into all sorts of empty possibilities, as the pot-house politician tends to do. This doesn’t imply acquiescence, but through analysing the situation and intervening, one can hope to strengthen revolutionary forces both quantitatively and qualitatively, taking the next step forward without stumbling, crucial when labouring for the uncertain, forever in the shadow of the melancholic wager.

 

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Post, Charles 2013, “What is left of Leninism?”, Socialist Register.

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Sabado, François 2012 (ed), Daniel Bensaïd, l’intempestif, La découverte.

Salles, Jean-Paul 2005, La Ligue communiste révolutionnaire (1968-1981) Instrument du Grand Soir ou lieu d’apprentissage?

 

Notes:

 

[1] See Armstrong 2014 for a critique of Murray Smith; Armstrong 2016.

[2] With the exception of the 1968 events and the dissolution following the 1973 anti-fascist demonstration against New Order.

[3] Sabado 2012, p166.

[4] Cahiers Critiques 2016, interview with Besancenot, p205.

[5] Krivine 2006, p61.

[6] Outside of the PCF and the different Trotskyist currents – PCI, LO and the Lambertists – were also the Maoists and the “centrist” grouping, the PSU, founded in 1960 by former Trotskyists, claiming a membership of about 10,000 before the May ’68 events. In 1972 some of its members would split away and join the League.

[7] Bensaïd 2013, p34.

[8] Bensaïd 2013, p37.

[9] Bensaïd 2010, p76.

[10] Cahiers Critiques 2016, interview with Krivine, p187.

[11] Unfortunately, due to space I cannot discuss Bensaïd’s engagements in the Argentine and Spanish underground, or his later work in Mexico or Brazil.

[12] Johsua 2015, p44.

[13] Fabio Mascaro Querido wrote: “In the French League, Daniel Bensaïd was one of the principle proponents through the theoretical formulation of the ‘substitutionalist’, where minority violence was part of a vanguardist necessity…despite the fact that this ‘ultra-leftist manifesto’, as Bensaïd would later say, had been criticised (by those like Gerard Filoche and/or Pierre Rousset), he incarnated the majority position within the League at that time.” Courtesy of Fabio’s unpublished notes.

[14] Fabio’s unpublished notes.

[15] On May 17, Alain Krivine led a group of students to the Boulogne-Billancourt Renault factory.

[16] Bensaïd lecture to Amsterdam party school; Salles 2005, p117.

[17] Charles Michaloux, Francois Sabado, Olivier Besancenot, “Combattre et penser”, in Sabado 2012, p11.

[18] There were leading dissenters against the action in their ranks. Henri Weber and Janette Habel saw this kind of action as a mask for political impotence and lack of implantation in the working class.

[19] Roso and Mascaro Querido, 2015.

[20] LCR 1975.

[21] LCR 1975; Salles 2005, p154.

[22] Bensaïd’s lectures to the Amsterdam cadre school 1983/4.

[23] Johsua 2015, p44.

[24] Post 2013, p187.

[25] LCR 1975, p36.

[26] The programmatic document Oui, le socialisme! that Bensaïd organised, was a manifesto predicated on the victory of the left parties in 1978, without knowing what would actually be the outcome of the elections!

[27] Kuhn 2011.

[28] Bensaïd 2010, p85.

[29] Post 2013, p87.

[30] Krivine 2006, pp186-187.

[31] Bensaïd lectures to Amsterdam cadre school 1983/4.

[32] Bensaïd lectures to Amsterdam cadre school 1983/4.

[33] Bensaïd 1980.

[34] Bensaïd 1982.

[35] Quoted from Johsua 2015, p106.

[36] Fournier 1983, p117-134.

[37] Bensaïd was a main force behind the lectures and texts titled Strategy and Party, given to the cadre school in 1986 then compiled in 1987. In this set of texts, Bensaïd thinks through the strategic lessons of two decades of party-building, alongside reflections on the revolutions of the twentieth century, Marx and Lenin. With these lectures and notes, he “hoped to keep the lessons of the 1960s to the 1980s alive until a new crisis would make them somewhat more topical again – as a way of assessing the present without losing the memory of the past”.

[38] Fabio Mascaro Querido’s unpublished materials.

[39] Bensaïd lectures to Amsterdam cadre school, 1983/4.

[40] Bensaïd lectures to Amsterdam cadre school 1983/4.

[41] Daniel Bensaïd and Pierre Rousset 2007, “Un étrange bilan”, http://www.europe-solidaire.org/spip.php?article6460.

[42] Daniel Bensaïd, interview with Phil Hearse, “Leninism in the 21st century”, International Viewpoint online magazine, IV, 335, November 2001, https://www.marxists.org/archive/bensaid/2001/11/leninism.htm.

[43] Bensaïd 2010, pp91-92.

[44] Bensaïd 2008.

[45] Bensaïd 2008.

[46] Bensaïd 2008, p281.

[47] Thanks to Alain Krivine who pointed me towards this letter.

[48] Bensaïd 1997.

[49] Bensaïd 1997.

[50] Bensaïd 1997.

[51] Johsua 2015, p76.

[52] Johsua 2015, p76.

[53] Bensaïd 1999, “Ouverture et continuité”, preparation for a congress of 2000.

[54] Bensaïd 1998, p273.

[55] Bensaïd 1998, p277.

[56] Bensaïd 2009.

[57] Palheta et al 2016, p52.

[58] Sabado 2012, p166.

[59] Armstrong 2016.

[60] Bensaïd 2007.

[61] Bensaïd 2008, p300.

[62] Bensaïd 2008, p304.

[63] Bensaïd 2007.

[64] Bensaïd 2008, pp290-291.