Daniel Bensaïd – intellectual in combat

James Ensor, The Bad Doctors, 1895


Introduction to the book on the trajectory of the French Marxist

A highly modified and condensed version of a doctoral thesis in sociology, defended in 2016 at the IFCH/Unicamp, under the guidance of Professor Marcelo Ridenti, this book aims – as its general objective, around which the more specific ones gravitate – to analyze and check intelligibility to the trajectory of a contemporary intellectual who, in his specificity, summarizes some of the dilemmas of politically engaged intellectuals in recent decades: Daniel Bensaïd (1946-2010).

Not by chance, as will be seen, special emphasis is given to the way in which Daniel Bensaïd responded and, thus, repositioned himself intellectually in the face of the change in times that began, in Europe, in the late 1970s, expanding in the following decade, until the epilogue of the collapse of bureaucratic socialism in the USSR and Eastern Europe between 1989 and 1991.

In order to pursue this objective, the way in which the rediscovery of the work of Walter Benjamin helped him in this journey through the European desert is taken as a parameter: with the German philosopher in mind, Daniel Bensaïd found a possible path through which, without giving up the revolutionary hopes of the past, it became possible, in his view, to seek answers to the challenges presented to Marxism and politically engaged intellectuals, forced as they are to go out in search of lost legitimacy. This is because, as is well known, not even in France – the homeland of intellectuals, the former Republic of Letters, locus par excellence of engaged intellectuals, from Émile Zola to Jean-Paul Sartre – this figure resisted intact the new spirit of the times, whose lowering of the “horizon of expectation” seemed to remove its very raison d'être.

Understanding the historical-social motives and, at the same time, the authorial results produced in the midst of this tension between an intellectual formed in the atmosphere of the 1960s and the era that opens from the 1980s onwards is, therefore, what we intend to do here.

Objective for the attainment of which there is a need for an approach capable of articulating – which is easy to say, difficult to do – the analysis of the work and the reconstitution of the trajectory in its relations with the determined conditions of the corresponding intellectual scene, and, therefore, end, with changes in the broader historical-social context. It is within this complex framework that one understands the decisive importance of Walter Benjamin's work in Daniel Bensaïd's trajectory from the 1980s onwards.

At that moment, Walter Benjamin had appeared to him as an intellectual and political guide in a period when Marxism was under crossfire, accused of the crimes and disasters provoked in his name. This explains the deeply interested way in which Daniel Bensaïd interprets the German critic: speaking and writing about Benjamin, it is often as if he were speaking and writing about himself, in a context – such as the turn of the 1990s – in which, although much less dramatic from the point of view of its immediate consequences, it seemed as or more difficult for Marxist intellectuals than the 1930s, since what was now at stake was the very idea that another world was possible and, in particular, desirable. We were at the height, it is worth remembering, of the bold proclamation of the end of everything: history, ideologies, utopias, social classes, etc.

No one better than Walter Benjamin, in this scenario, to help him carry out a new diagnosis of the time, in order to apprehend the contours of contemporary capitalism without, on the other hand, renouncing the idea that a form of society qualitatively different from that proclaimed as a winner is still possible and necessary – as well as desirable. As much as Gramsci, for whom the pessimism of reason does not disallow the optimism of the will, Benjamin bet on the possibility that pessimism – necessary in the face of an adverse situation – would be transmuted into an impulse to break with an apparently unchangeable state of affairs. Pessimism, or, more precisely, “revolutionary pessimism”, was what, for the German critic, brought together different visions of the world, although not antithetical, such as Marxism and Surrealism.

For a Benjaminian still linked to the “classical” revolutionary Marxist tradition, like Daniel Bensaïd, the challenge to be faced was similar in form, despite the substantial historical differences between the 1920s and 30s and the 1980s and 90s. after all, apprehend without doctrinal obstacles the reasons for defeat. It is in this context that the Benjaminian affinities of Daniel Bensaïd and Michael Löwy blossom: both found in Benjamin an intellectual and political compass to guide them through the changes they faced, among which the decline of the figure of the engaged intellectual, denounced as a benevolent accomplice of totalitarianisms of all kinds.

For this very reason, as the reader will be able to observe, Michael Löwy will be a constant presence in this book. Firstly, because the doctoral thesis, defended in 2016, also covered the trajectory of Michael Löwy, an author on whom he had already worked in his master's degree. But, more fundamentally, because the comparison with Michael Löwy allows us to apprehend in a more detailed way the dynamics and changes in Daniel Bensaïd's intellectual itinerary, as if the course of one mirrored the other, in a contrast in which both are intertwined as “vessels communicantes” in search of the renewal of a tradition that they refuse to abandon, nor to simply celebrate.

An intellectual in combat at a time that was unfavorable to him, Daniel Bensaïd was “on the left of the possible” – a designation he used with regard to Benjamin – not because he was content to place himself on the left of a possibility that was pre-defined in advance, but because he had established as one of the tasks of the engaged intellectual that of contributing to the expansion of what is defined by the left as the space of the possible. To the “sense of the real”, absolutized by the positivists, Daniel Bensaïd adds the “sense of the possible”, in the terms of the Austrian writer Robert Musil, whom he admired and quoted. Like the Baudelairean ragpicker, under the vertigo of the crowd, Daniel Bensaïd recognizes the prevailing collective malaise, but, at the same time, senses in this indeterminate atmosphere the possibility of a new radical-democratic and, for that very reason, anti-capitalist invention.

In light of the aforementioned general objectives, the book is divided into three parts, covering, respectively, the before, during and after the active incorporation, by Daniel Bensaïd, of Benjamin's reflection on history, in the midst of political and cultural transformations of the period. Thus, if the first part deals with Bensaïd's intellectual and political journey in the 1960s, 1970s and mid-1980s, the second part aims to understand the different conditions that, together, explain the Benjaminian inflection through which the French philosopher from the late 1980s.

For this, in addition to the analysis of the texts (by Bensaïd) and the contexts (of the time), the book explores some aspects of the intellectual trajectory, as well as the reception of Walter Benjamin's work throughout the second half of the XNUMXth century, in order to find there the specificity of Bensaïde's interpretation.

Finally, in the third and last part of the book, the consequences of this inflection in Daniel Bensaïd's itinerary from the 1990s and 2000s until his relatively early death, in 2010, aged 63, are analyzed. Special emphasis is given to the way in which, in this scenario, Daniel Bensaïd used the Benjaminian reference as a guide for an intellectual repositioning seen as necessary in a context marked by the narrowing of the horizon of expectations.

A repositioning that gained new forms and dimensions from the end of 1995, with the victorious social movement against the social security reform proposed by the liberal-conservative government led by Jacques Chirac (president) and Alain Juppé (prime minister). From then on, Daniel Bensaïd opened new fronts for intervention, establishing a dialogue not only with different strands of Marxism, but also with political philosophy and critical sociology. At the center of his concerns was the need for a reactivation under new political bases, of the “profane politics of the oppressed”, as he would say, in a Benjaminian key, in opposition to both economic totalitarianism and identity and/or religious setbacks.

Fabio Mascaro Dear Professor at the Department of Sociology at Unicamp.


Fabio Mascaro Dear. Daniel Bensaïd: intellectual in combat. Belo Horizonte, Fino Traço, 2022, 272 pages.

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