The profane politics of Daniel Bensaïd

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By JOSEP MARÍA ANTENTAS*

The profane conception of history and politics culminates in his work with the definition of political engagement as a “melancholy bet”

Daniel Bensaïd (1946-2010) was a key name in the French political-intellectual scene of the 90s and the first decade of our millennium. He was one of the founders of Jeunesse Communiste Revolutionnaire (JCR) in 1966 and the Communist League (LC) in 1969 (renamed Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) in 1973 after LC was legally prohibited). In his youth, he was leader in May '68 of the Movement du 22 Mars and he remained faithful to his revolutionary commitment until the end of his life. Despite the fact that the theoretical and militant dimensions often crossed during his career, it was only in the last two decades of his life that Daniel Bensaïd became a mature thinker.

In this article, I will focus on a central theme that runs through his work as a whole: the defense and pursuit of a profane politics, an issue related to the messianic turn that his work underwent under the influence of Walter Benjamin.

messianic reason

Daniel Bensaïd's intellectual vocation took off when the great revolutionary hopes evaporated. “Our universe of thought has not run out. However, he was put to the test. The crisis was threefold: the theoretical crisis of Marxism, the strategic crisis of the revolutionary project and the social crisis of the subject of universal emancipation”, he writes in his memoirs [1]. Bensaïd responded to these crises by trying to offer an intellectual reconstruction of emancipatory political and strategic thought. He opened his most productive period with a trilogy on history and memory composed by Moi, la Revolution (1989) Walter Benjamin, Messianic Sentinel (1990) and Jeanne de guerre lasse (1991)

The second volume was the most important and was the axis of a Benjaminian turn inspired by a political reading of About the concept of history. In search of a political Benjamin, and even a strategic one (something that was, however, excessively forced, as Enzo Traverso observed [2], as Benjamin lacks strategic thinking), Daniel Bensaïd developed what he would come to call “the messianic reason”. Also relying on Charles Péguy and Auguste Blanqui, Bensaïd's messianic reason was based on a conception of history as an open process, giving preferential attention to its discontinuities and moments of rupture, and on a non-mechanical conception of causality.

Political messianism is the way Daniel Bensaïd found to give new meaning to the frustrated revolutionary expectations of his youth, in a context where there was little reason to keep the revolutionary flame burning. He thus maintained a tenacious revolutionary commitment, always attentive to the possibilities of the present political situation and the surprises of history, but in a way that was compatible with the great weakness of the existing. Daniel Bensaïd's messianic reason remained firmly convinced that "history is not over and eternity is not of this world" [3].

In search of an unholy policy

Bensaïdean political messianism uses secularized references that come from the religious imaginary and is dedicated to what he called “profane politics” ⎼ a recurring topic throughout his work and which constitutes the central theme of his last important book, Éloge de la politique profane [4]. He often uses the adjective in a dual sense: as a critique of identity politics and the return of the sacred to the public sphere, and as a critique of teleological views of history [5]. The term “profane” refers not only to politics, but to a whole constellation of key concepts in his thought such as revolution, messianism or history.

The use of the term, surprising at first glance, is inspired by Marx himself, starting with his famous statement in the Communist Manifesto: “All that is sacred is profaned… and man is finally led to soberly face his real conditions of life and his relations with humanity” [6]. If political messianism is the way to give new meaning to revolutionary engagement, Daniel Bensaïd's work on profane politics is the search for new strategic paths.

Rather than seeking the substance or essence of politics, Daniel Bensaïd understood politics through its relationship to the economy, social structure and state institutions [7]. He defined it as the “strategic art of the conjuncture and the propitious moment”, a formula inspired by Françoise Proust, for whom politics is the “art of the present and the setback” [8]. Specifically, he considers profane politics to be an “art of founding or transforming a world, of producing a future free from the implacable decrees of the ancient oracle” [9]. He opposes it to all sacralization of politics and all subordination to market imperatives. In other words, their profane policy is based on the “non-negotiable primacy of principles over tactics” [10]; its role is, to put it in Benjaminian terms, to avert catastrophe and make the necessary possible.

The starting point of Daniel Bensaïd's reflection is the concern with the structural crisis of profane politics under the impact of the globalization of capital. On the one hand, the widespread commodification of the world and social relations aims to do away with politics in favor of a pro-market technocratic administration. On the other hand, it generates a desecularization movement, a revival of identity crises and holy wars.

In his pursuit of profane politics, he embarked on a quadruplely intertwined course: reaffirming the revolutionary horizon in a context where the revolutionary imaginary had faded; save communism from Stalinism; not abandoning the political struggle in favor of activism in social movements; and not fall into a politically sterile aesthetic or philosophical radicalism.

Revolution and communism go hand in hand in its attempt to recast them in a profane sense. Conceived as a messianic interruption of the continuum of history, for Daniel Bensaïd the revolution “without image or capital letter remains necessary as an indeterminate idea of ​​this change and compass of a will” [11]. The revolution, stripped of all fetishism and sacralization, operates as a “strategic hypothesis and regulatory horizon” [12] of social change. Daniel Bensaïd also uses the concept of “regulatory horizon” to refer to the very idea of ​​communism, which he tries to rescue from the summary judgments to which it was subjected in the 1990s by authors such as François Furet and Stéphane Courtois [13].

This means distinguishing communism from Stalinism and the bureaucratic experiments that were its sinister caricature: “To give in to the identification of communism with the Stalinist totalitarian dictatorship would be to capitulate before the provisional victors, to confuse the revolution with the bureaucratic counter-revolution”, he writes in the last of his articles, “Forces of Communism” [14]. Renouncing a non-capitalist horizon would also mean, following Benjamin’s notion of redemption, “committing an irreparable injustice to the vanquished, all of them, anonymous or not, who passionately lived the communist idea” [15].

In Bensaïde's understanding of revolution and communism, there is no room for a mythologized subject of universal emancipation. He stresses the need to “secularize the conception of classes” [16] and asks himself: “Subject, the class? If you want, yes, but then a turbulent, contradictory, schizoid subject” [17]. In fact, “it is enough to think of the real becoming of a plurality of emerging forms, of actors and assemblages without a great subject” [18]. His strategic proposal is the articulation of a plural block of resistances and movements whose common cause is the rejection of the generalized commodification of the world.

The third aspect of his pursuit of profane politics is the defense of the political perspective, punctuating the limits of simple movement activism. As a supporter of the global justice (or anti-globalization) movement, which was on the rise at the start of the new millennium, Daniel Bensaïd nevertheless noted the limitations of the most fashionable strategic conceptions within him. He dialogued in particular with Negri and Hardt and their books Empire (2000) and crowd (2004), and with John Holloway and his Change the World Without Taking Power (2002) [19]. For Bensaïd, many of the ideas of the anti-globalization movement represented a “social illusion”, based on the belief in the self-sufficiency of social movements, the dissolution of the political into the social and a neglect of the question of power. He used the term social illusion as an inverted reference to the "political illusion" that Marx criticized in the Young Hegelians who reduced human emancipation to civic emancipation [20].

The fourth aspect of Daniel Bensaïd's profane quest is his debate with those authors who, faced with the sudden decline of profane politics, fell into what he considered escapist temptations. Given the difficulties of thinking about another type of politics, for Daniel Bensaïd many authors who shared an anti-capitalist perspective with him had cloistered themselves in aesthetic, philosophical or ethical refuges. This is, for example, the criticism he makes of Alain Badiou, who he accuses of being tempted to “renounce politics instead of assuming its contradictions” [21], by taking refuge in a philosophical radicalism far from any concrete politics.

For Daniel Bensaïd, in Alain Badiou there is a fetishization of the event, which becomes politically and historically decontextualized. The revolutionary event appears as a kind of miracle, detached from politics and history ⎼ the exact opposite of the strategic reading of history and politics that is at the heart of his own thinking.

the melancholy bet

The threat of the disappearance of profane politics does not, however, imply the theorizing of its inexorable decline in the hands of absolute capitalist domination. Daniel Bensaïd insists on the need and possibility of “breaking the vicious circle of capital and the absolute fetishism of merchandise” [22]. Bensaïde's proposal to find a way out is clear: “work the contradiction” [23] ⎼ look for the fissures that sometimes seem non-existent, looking at the possibilities yet to come.

The profane conception of history and politics culminates in his work with the definition of political engagement as a “melancholy bet”. In Le Pari melancolique (1997), he revived the Marxist interpretation made by Lucien Goldmann, in the 60s, of Pascal's wager on the existence of God, to which Daniel Bensaïd added the adjective “melancholic”, due to the divergence between “the necessary and the possible” [24 ].

Once the revolutionary urgency and expectation of his youth had faded, Daniel Bensaïd and his traveling companions had to learn the “necessary revolutionary slowness” and the “art of waiting”, a waiting that, however, was active and persevering [25]. If in his youth Daniel Bensaïd had evoked the feeling of imminence of the revolution with the phrase “history bites us in the back of the neck”, the mature Bensaïd takes as his leitmotif the expression “a slow impatience” [26], by George Steiner, using it as the title of his autobiography published in 2004. In political and theoretical terms, the path between the two formulations represents the passage from a youthful voluntarist and subjectivist leftism marked by a certain reading of Lukács (and exemplified in his 1968 master's thesis, supervised by Henri Lefebvre, entitled The notion of crisis révolutionnaire chez Lenin) [27] to a political messianism and a profane politics with a Benjaminian stamp.

Daniel Bensaïd's melancholy gamble, then, becomes the way to combine the uncertainty inherent in his profane revolutionary commitment and his unshakable convictions. A theorist and practitioner of profane politics, Bensaïd concludes his Éloge de la politique profane as a messianic sentinel, if we return to the graphic image he uses to refer to Benjamin, who carefully, fervently and patiently examines the “cracks of domination from which an untimely possibility can arise” [28].

*Josep Maria Antenas Professor of Sociology at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.

Translation: Pedro barbosa.

Published French Studies Bulletin, v. 42, no. 160, 2021.

Notes


1. Daniel Bensaïd, A lens of impatience (Paris: Stock, 2004), p. 278; see also Darren Roso, “Confronting the Triple Crisis of the Radical Left”, Historical Materialism, 26(1) (2018), 37–67.

2. Enzo Traverso, melancolie de gauche (Paris: La Découverte, 2016), chap. 5.

3. Daniel Bensaïd, Le Souire du specter (Paris: Michalon, 2000), p. 230.

4. Daniel Bensaïd, Éloge de la politique profane (Paris: Albin Michel, 2008).

5. Antoine Artous, “Daniel Bensaïd ou la politique comme art stratégique”, setback, 7 (2010), 82–92. [Translator's note: there is a Portuguese version, published by Blog Marxismo Revolucionário Internacional – MRI: ]

6. Karl Marx, Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1848, available at: [accessed on 06.01.2020].

7. Daniel Bensaïd, Éloge de la résistance à l'air du temps (Paris: Textuel, 1999).

8. Daniel Bensaïd, think to act (Paris: Lignes, 2008), p. 271; Francoise Proust, Of the Resistance (Paris: Le Cerf, 1997).

9. Bensaid, Éloge de la politique profane, P. 347.

10. Daniel Bensaïd, Walter Benjamin, Messianic Sentinel (Paris: Les Prairies ordinaires, 2010 [1990]), p. 241.

11. Daniel Bensaïd, Le Pari melancolique (Paris: Fayard, 1997), p. 290.

12. Ibid.

13. Francois Furet, Le Passé d'une illusion: Essai sur l'idée communiste au XXe siècle (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1995); Stephane Courtois, Le Livre noir du communisme: Crimes, terreur, répression (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1997).

14. Daniel Bensaïd, “Puissances du communisme”, setback (2014), available at: [accessed on 06.01.2020]. [Translator's note: there is a Portuguese version, published by Blog da Boitempo: ]

15. Ibid.

16. Daniel Bensaïd, La Discordance de temps (Paris: Éditions de la Passion, 1995), p. 263.

17. Daniel Bensaïd, Marx l'intempestif (Paris: Fayard, 1995), p. 303. [Translator's note: there is a Portuguese version, published by Civilização Brasileira in 1999].

18. Daniel Bensaïd, Le Spectacle, stade ultime du fétichisme de la cartandise (Paris: Lignes, 2011), p. 86.

19. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000); Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2004); John Holloway, Change the World Without Taking Power (London: Pluto Press, 2002).

20. Bensaid, think to act, p. 163–64.

21. Bensaid, Éloge de la politique profane, P. 351. See also Daniel Bensaïd, Coils (Paris: Fayard, 2001).

22. Bensaid, Éloge de la politique profane, pp. 356 and 357.

23. Bensaid, Le Spectacle, stade ultime du fétichisme de la cartandise, P. 42.

24. Lucien Goldman, Dialectical Recherches (Paris: Gallimard, 1967); Bensaid, A lens of impatience, P. 454. For a detailed analysis of this issue, see Josep María Antentas, “Daniel Bensaïd, Melancholic Strategist”, Historical Materialism, 24(4) (2016), 51–106.

25. Bensaid, A lens of impatience, pp. 30 and 31.

26. George Steiner, hardship (Paris: Gallimard, 1993).

27. Daniel Bensaïd, The notion of crisis révolutionnaire chez Lenin, 1968, available online at: [accessed on 06.01.2020]. For a detailed analysis, see Patrick King, “Crisis and Strategy: On Daniel Bensaïd's 'The Notion of the Revolutionary Crisis in Lenin'”, Viewpoint Magazine (2014), [accessed on 2014/09/04].

28. Bensaid, Éloge de la politique profane, P. 357.

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