Crisis and Strategy: On Daniel Bensaïd’s “The Notion of the Revolutionary Crisis in Lenin”

daniel bensaid

The Eng­lish trans­la­tion of Daniel Bensaïd’s auto­bi­og­ra­phy, Une lente impa­tience, is a wel­come event in the Anglo­phone Marx­ist world.1 Not only does it con­tain a rich his­tory of some of the most deci­sive moments for the French Left from the ’60s to the present, it also deep­ens our under­stand­ing of the het­ero­dox sources that coex­isted within Bensaïd’s unique form of Marx­ism. Two key chap­ters con­tribute to this the­o­ret­i­cal appro­fondisse­ment: “A Thou­sand (and One) Marxisms” and “Think­ing the Cri­sis.” The for­mer is a wind­ing, wide-rang­ing intel­lec­tual mini-his­tory of the var­i­ous cur­rents of Marx­ism that have been an influ­ence on his own work, from the crit­i­cal, his­tori­cist Marxisms of Lukács and Gram­sci in the face of Sec­ond Inter­na­tional ortho­doxy, to the the ana­lyt­i­cal Marx­ist and post-work­erist schools.2 Ben­saïd stresses that each gen­er­a­tion must face its own “cri­sis” of Marx­ism, thus sweep­ing away any “myth of a homo­ge­neous doc­trine”; it is a crit­i­cal the­ory insep­a­ra­ble from social strug­gles and prac­tices, and “insep­a­ra­ble from the his­tory of its recep­tions.” From this per­spec­tive there is always a capac­ity for Marx­ism to begin anew, some­thing that needed to be urgently reit­er­ated and empha­sized in the post-’89 con­junc­ture. This way of approach­ing the his­tory of Marx­ism as an “open dog­ma­tism” is famil­iar to any­one who has read Marx for Our Times, his most sub­stan­tial and exten­sive the­o­ret­i­cal state­ment.3

The lat­ter chap­ter, how­ever, reveals a side of Ben­saïd that is less well-known to read­ers out­side of France. This is a ret­ro­spec­tive look at his mem­oire de maîtrise (master’s the­sis) writ­ten under the super­vi­sion of Henri Lefeb­vre, enti­tled “The Notion of the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Cri­sis in Lenin.” Parts of the the­sis were recy­cled for a famous arti­cle in Par­ti­sans from 1968, co-writ­ten with Samy Naïr.4 With the recent launch of Le site de Daniel Ben­saïd, the major­ity of Bensaïd’s writ­ings are now avail­able, includ­ing the com­plete ver­sion of this fas­ci­nat­ing the­sis. With an impres­sive range of sources and an aus­pi­cious ana­lytic and intel­lec­tual prowess on dis­play (cou­pled with a deep knowl­edge of Lenin’s Col­lected Works), Ben­saïd seeks in this text to the­o­ret­i­cally clar­ify the con­cept of cri­sis in Lenin and the broader Marx­ist tra­di­tion. While the marks of the then-cur­rent Parisian schol­arly field are evi­dent in the more Althusse­rian aspects of the text, it is also true that the themes he encoun­ters here would, as Sebas­tian Bud­gen notes, “con­tinue to goad him for the next 40 years.”5 These included the recur­rent dialec­ti­cal oppo­si­tions between sub­jec­tiv­ity and objec­tiv­ity, struc­ture and event, and cri­sis and strat­egy; Ben­saïd con­stantly, and from many dif­fer­ent angles, tried to set these philo­soph­i­cal dualisms in motion through a polit­i­cally charged optic. It becomes read­ily appar­ent, from even a cur­sory perusal of his later texts (not only on Lenin, but also his writ­ings in La dis­cor­dance des temps and Marx for Our Times) that these are con­cerns that stayed with him, as direct sec­tions of the the­sis will appear in his rightly praised arti­cle from the Lenin Reloaded col­lec­tion.6 This an oppor­tune moment, then – un moment prop­ice, in Bensaïd’s evoca­tive vocab­u­lary – to recon­sider the impact of this the­sis on his career, with his crit­i­cal rec­ol­lec­tions serv­ing as our guide. This is not meant to serve as an exhaus­tive overview, as his cor­pus demands a more patient and thor­ough read­ing, but is instead intended as a brief inquiry into the read­ing of Lenin that this par­tic­u­lar work opens up for us, and the ways in which the prob­lems evi­dent in this very early text have a con­tin­u­ing actu­al­ity for con­tem­po­rary Marx­ism.7

The first ques­tion we may pose is a com­mon prob­lem­atic that can be found in pre­vi­ous pages of View­point: what kind of Lenin does Ben­saïd give us?8 How does Lenin’s under­stand­ing of the rela­tion between the­ory and prac­tice, orga­ni­za­tional form and class strug­gle, state power and ulti­mately, the rev­o­lu­tion­ary cri­sis, bear on present strug­gles? As we will see, Henri Lefebvre’s “unfor­tu­nately neglected” book on Lenin was a major influ­ence on Bensaïd’s own read­ing, pri­mar­ily in its com­pre­hen­sive and care­ful recon­struc­tion of the con­nec­tion between Lenin’s con­tri­bu­tions to his­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­ism and his advance­ment of a dis­tinctly Marx­ist polit­i­cal the­ory, com­pris­ing both a the­ory of the state and rev­o­lu­tion­ary polit­i­cal action. Bensaïd’s text here and his later work will bear the traces of Lefebvre’s inter­pre­ta­tion, but we will also encoun­ter an even more intrigu­ing and inno­v­a­tive fusion of these two facets of Lenin­ism which, in an untimely fash­ion, endeav­ors to think pol­i­tics both as an art of scan­ning his­tor­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties and as a sur­vey­ing of sit­u­ated con­flicts for moments of strate­gic inter­ven­tion.

The sec­ond issue con­cerns the qual­i­fi­ca­tion of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary cri­sis being restricted to the sta­tus of a notion, not a con­cept. This sep­a­ra­tion is con­nected to the dis­tinct dif­fer­ence drawn between a rev­o­lu­tion­ary sit­u­a­tion and a rev­o­lu­tion­ary cri­sis. With the lat­ter prob­lem, there is a clear ref­er­ence to the French his­tor­i­cal epis­te­mo­log­i­cal tra­di­tion in Bensaïd’s analy­sis of how Lenin tried, and ulti­mately failed, to truly “estab­lish [fonder] a con­cept,” under­stood as a def­i­n­i­tion that can hold up to the modal­i­ties of his­tory, the­ory, and pol­i­tics.9 There could not be, in other words, a truly sci­en­tific con­cept of the “rev­o­lu­tion­ary cri­sis” in the Althusse­rian sense, since its pred­ica­tive char­ac­ter­is­tics nec­es­sar­ily had to pass through the test of prac­tice: there­fore, it could not escape the trap­pings of ide­ol­ogy and remained at the level of the notion. This line of ques­tion­ing, then, involves a strict delin­eation between the sub­jec­tive and objec­tive aspects of a cri­sis (between what can be described and what has to to be accom­plished through prac­tice) through a method­olog­i­cal lens that is tainted by an “ultra-Bol­she­vism” inspired by Lukàcs circa His­tory and Class Con­scious­ness, with the sub­jec­tive fac­tor – or rev­o­lu­tion­ary party – as the nodal point of dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion and deci­sive ele­ment. Ulti­mately, I will look to Bensaïd’s later writ­ings to answer this ques­tion of the demar­ca­tion between a rev­o­lu­tion­ary sit­u­a­tion and cri­sis, or notion and con­cept: there, he notes that pos­si­ble res­o­lu­tion of this prob­lem can come from see­ing “cri­sis” as a “strate­gic con­cept,” a con­cept that has polit­i­cal impli­ca­tions rel­a­tive to its his­tor­i­cal and the­o­ret­i­cal effi­cacy.

Lenin and Political Strategy

If we we want to gain an under­stand­ing of the basic ideas under­ly­ing Bensaïd’s dense text, it is use­ful to start with the “unjustly for­got­ten” book his the­sis super­vi­sor devoted to Lenin’s thought, La pen­sée de Lenine, from 1957.10 There Lefeb­vre embarks on an ambi­tious attempt to syn­the­size all the peri­ods of Lenin’s thought, an approach that finds def­i­nite echoes in Bensaïd’s own panoramic view that con­nects “What the ‘Friends of the Peo­ple’ Are” to the “April The­ses,” within a coher­ent the­o­ret­i­cal and prac­ti­cal nar­ra­tive. There are three fea­tures of Lefebvre’s account in par­tic­u­lar that I want to high­light for their impor­tance to Ben­saïd: first, the con­sid­er­a­tion of Lenin’s rig­or­ous inves­ti­ga­tion into the expan­sion of cap­i­tal­ism in the Rus­sian coun­tryside and the draw­ing out of its strate­gic and polit­i­cal impli­ca­tions; sec­ond, the role of the party as the prin­ci­pal “sub­jec­tive fac­tor” in the class strug­gle; third, and most sig­nif­i­cantly, the atten­tion given to the notion of rev­o­lu­tion­ary cri­sis as the moment where the polit­i­cal, eco­nomic, and social con­tra­dic­tions engen­dered by cap­i­tal­ism fuse and con­dense to pro­duce a con­junc­ture where true change is pos­si­ble, when it becomes pos­si­ble “to sketch the out­line of another mode of pro­duc­tion.”11 We can take these fea­tures in turn.

Lefeb­vre links Lenin’s body of thought as a whole to his ini­tial inves­ti­ga­tion into the con­di­tions of the devel­op­ment of the Rus­sian pro­le­tariat: “What has Lenin con­tributed? A the­o­ret­i­cal analy­sis of the total­ity [ensem­ble] of Rus­sian soci­ety and its his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ment – a new analy­sis that led him to a new analy­sis of the global sit­u­a­tion itself.”12 Lenin’s Marx­ist stance in the­ory and pol­i­tics – what Gram­sci would call his method­olog­i­cal cri­te­rion – allowed him to grasp his­tor­i­cal and soci­etal devel­op­ment in all its con­tra­dic­tory real­ity. Lefeb­vre con­tin­ues: “it was nec­es­sary to find a rev­o­lu­tion­ary for­mula specif­i­cally adapted … to Rus­sian con­di­tions, adapted to the back­ward coun­tries that are pre­dom­i­nantly agri­cul­tural.” But this agri­cul­tural basis does not dimin­ish the role of the pro­le­tariat: “the rev­o­lu­tion form­ing in Rus­sia – and in Asia and other con­ti­nents – will have Marx­ism as a guide, the pro­le­tariat as the lead­ing force.”13 From his detailed study of the ongo­ing intro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal­ist social rela­tions into Rus­sian agri­cul­ture, Lenin ensures that this the­sis – “the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion becom­ing increas­ingly dom­i­nant in Rus­sia” – is the focal point for his polit­i­cal strat­egy, stress­ing the lead­ing hege­monic role of the pro­le­tariat in the com­ing rev­o­lu­tion.14 While there is clearly (as will be shown below) a com­plex inter­play between rup­ture and con­ti­nu­ity in Lenin’s thought—chiefly based around the out­break of the First World War and the col­lapse of the Sec­ond Inter­na­tional, as well as his close read­ing of Hegel’s Logic15—Ben­saïd will main­tain even in his later work that this “foun­da­tional work of his youth… will put in place the prob­lem­atic that sub­se­quently allows him to make the­o­ret­i­cal cor­rec­tions and strate­gic adjust­ments.”16 This pro­vides an ini­tial yet cohe­sive frame­work that can be bent and shaped in light of the shift­ing ter­rain of con­flict, as will become evi­dent in the par­tic­u­lar shifts that took place in Lenin’s polit­i­cal vocab­u­lary and focus from 1905 to 1917.

There is a per­sis­tent empha­sis, then, on the fact that polit­i­cal the­ory and prac­tice fol­lows from and is bound up with inquiry into actual his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ments: Lenin’s early work could be seen as a “the­o­ret­i­cal sum­ming up,” to use Lenin’s terms in State and Rev­o­lu­tion, that can be referred back to for direc­tion in future strug­gles.17 For Ben­saïd, these early the­o­ret­i­cal and sci­en­tific works provide a “con­fronta­tional clar­ity” and coher­ence to all of Lenin’s polit­i­cal inter­ven­tions, from his polem­i­cal texts against the Pop­ulists, his debates within the RSDLP, and (most impor­tantly) his con­junc­tural analy­ses of 1917. Lenin trans­posed, in other words, Marx­ist the­ory to a cer­tain set of unique con­di­tions, con­di­tions which in turn delim­ited or made clear cer­tain tac­ti­cal and strate­gic choices. Lefeb­vre sees this as Lenin’s fun­da­men­tal deep­en­ing or elab­o­ra­tion upon Marx and Engels’s own rev­o­lu­tion­ary thought; the most effec­tive con­se­quences of this trans­po­si­tion are reflected in the nov­elty of Lenin’s polit­i­cal the­ory, and the con­cep­tual appa­ra­tus that is thereby estab­lished. The cru­cial fifth chap­ter of Lefebvre’s book – “Lenin’s Polit­i­cal Thought” – has two pas­sages from Lenin that will serve a crit­i­cal func­tion both in Bensaïd’s mémoire de maîtrise and his later work: first, from 1917, that “the key ques­tion of every rev­o­lu­tion is undoubt­edly the ques­tion of state power;” and sec­ond, from 1920: “pol­i­tics is more like alge­bra than like ele­men­tary arith­metic, and still more like higher rather than ele­men­tary math­e­mat­ics.”18 The ques­tion of state power will always be in play when pol­i­tics is involved, this is a mat­ter of course; yet the sec­ond quo­ta­tion is con­nected to the first, and helps to explain its deeper mean­ing. Pol­i­tics has its own logic that is irre­ducible to the social order, i.e. the social rela­tions of cap­i­tal­ism; Marx­ist pol­i­tics can­not be imag­ined as a form of soci­ol­o­gism.19

For Lenin, the con­fu­sion between the polit­i­cal sub­ject and the social sub­ject – party and class – can only lead to a “dis­or­ga­niz­ing” con­fu­sion that can con­sid­er­ably ham­per the impact of short- or long-term polit­i­cal strate­gies. There is an undoubt­edly a con­nec­tion between the two orders; but, as Lefeb­vre notes, “the per­pet­ual rela­tions between these two ele­ments is also per­pet­u­ally chang­ing.” Pol­i­tics reveals cer­tain “becom­ings, pos­si­bil­i­ties.”20 Ben­saïd will describe it in terms of “a per­ma­nent game of dis­place­ments and con­den­sa­tions,” whereby “social real­ity is man­i­fested in polit­i­cal lan­guage.”21 This refrac­tion causes the cen­tral antag­o­nism of cap­i­tal­ist social real­ity, between cap­i­tal and labor, to appear in more com­plex, con­vo­luted form, thus requir­ing an expanded con­cep­tion of polit­i­cal prac­tice to nav­i­gate through these his­tor­i­cally speci­fic artic­u­la­tions. This point was also made quite force­fully by Trot­sky in “Class, Party, and the Lead­er­ship,” where he polemi­cizes against deter­min­ist expla­na­tions of rev­o­lu­tion­ary pol­i­tics. He notes that “His­tory is a process of the class strug­gle,” but it also remains the case that “classes do not bring their full weight to bear auto­mat­i­cally and simul­ta­ne­ously,” as “in the process of strug­gle the classes cre­ate var­i­ous organs which play an impor­tant and inde­pen­dent role and are sub­ject to defor­ma­tions.”22 Pol­i­tics, and a form of pol­i­tics based on rev­o­lu­tion­ary Marx­ist prin­ci­ples in par­tic­u­lar, is to be con­ceived as a “strate­gic art,” tra­vers­ing the inter­act­ing and shift­ing vari­ables of a volatile sit­u­a­tion. In turn, it also requires a the­o­ret­i­cal under­stand­ing of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary polit­i­cal sub­ject and the objec­tive con­di­tions in which it finds itself that goes beyond any and all sim­pli­fy­ing or reduc­tive (soci­o­log­i­cal) ges­tures:

The force of Lenin’s thought lies in the fact that he knew to estab­lish, through the the­ory of the party, the speci­ficity of pol­i­tics as seen from the view­point of the work­ing-class. His the­ory of orga­ni­za­tion (the party) is at the cen­ter of a con­cep­tual net­work which struc­tures this new under­stand­ing of the polit­i­cal field: class con­scious­ness, rela­tion of forces, alliances, moment (rev­o­lu­tion­ary cri­sis). It is with Lenin that time, dura­tion, irrupts into pol­i­tics, giv­ing it a strate­gic for­mu­la­tion. The pro­le­tar­ian strug­gle is no longer a pil­grim­age [pèleri­nage] to the hori­zon of his­tory, or an abstract dialec­tic of means and ends; rather, it is a rhyth­mic bat­tle where, for the first time, there is a tac­tic (ini­tia­tive, deci­sion) that is not a empir­i­cal frag­ment the bat­tle, but the per­ma­nent actu­al­iza­tion of a plan, the trans­la­tion of a project and a will. It is thus with Lenin that Marx­ism makes a real step for­ward in terms of polit­i­cal the­ory.23

Two con­cepts are cru­cial to this read­ing: on the one hand, the for­ma­tion of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary party and its imple­men­ta­tion of tac­tics and strat­egy based on the his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ment and activ­ity of the pro­le­tariat and its class allies; on the other, the objec­tive con­di­tions, or sit­u­a­tional ele­ments, of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary cri­sis. Once again, these con­cepts are of great sig­nif­i­cance for Lefebvre’s ear­lier study. The rev­o­lu­tion­ary party, as described in What is to be Done?, “real­izes con­cretely, prac­ti­cally, the fusion of thought and action, social­ism and the work­ers’ move­ment, knowl­edge and the mass move­ment.”24 The rev­o­lu­tion­ary cri­sis is the nec­es­sary con­di­tion for this prac­ti­cal real­iza­tion. The cri­sis is the moment where the sub­jec­tive and objec­tive con­di­tions fuse together and rec­i­p­ro­cally con­di­tion each other, where a poten­tially rev­o­lu­tion­ary sit­u­a­tion is altered and trans­formed by the sub­ject which tra­verses it. In Lefebvre’s words, it is a “total cri­sis, shak­ing the exist­ing soci­ety from the base to the super­struc­tures, from the social rela­tions of pro­duc­tion to ide­olo­gies and juridi­cal insti­tu­tions … it is as much a cri­sis of daily life as it is of pol­i­tics.” In brief: “no rev­o­lu­tion with­out a rev­o­lu­tion­ary cri­sis.”25

As par­en­thet­i­cally noted above, the trau­matic shock of the almost unan­i­mous sup­port given by the Euro­pean Social-Demo­c­ra­tic par­ties for war cred­its in 1914 allowed Lenin to mod­ify as well as sys­tem­atize his con­cep­tual and prac­ti­cal under­stand­ings of rev­o­lu­tion­ary sit­u­a­tions and rev­o­lu­tion­ary crises in “The Col­lapse of the Sec­ond Inter­na­tional.” The rev­o­lu­tion­ary cri­sis became essen­tial to his over­all strate­gic approach, high­light­ing the break between Lenin’s out­look and the major­ity oppor­tunist ori­en­ta­tion of the Sec­ond Inter­na­tional. Above all, the con­sid­er­a­tion of the “fac­tors” that are at work within a rev­o­lu­tion­ary sit­u­a­tion implies a rework­ing of the role of the party, from a ped­a­gog­i­cal role to “a con­scious project, a force capa­ble of ini­tia­tive – of deci­sion.”26 Instead of an educa­tive party that mainly has a clar­i­fy­ing task, the party becomes a “strate­gic oper­a­tor” that is ready not only to reflect upon but also make tac­ti­cal choices depend­ing on the cur­rent rela­tion of forces within the polit­i­cal strug­gle. And with­out a notion of cri­sis, the “tak­ing of power by the pro­le­tariat… becomes strictly unthink­able… all avoid­ance of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary cri­sis leads sooner or later to the replace­ment of the per­spec­tive of rev­o­lu­tion by a grad­ual and elec­toral process of par­tial con­quests, sub­sti­tut­ing the move­ment for the goal.”27 The cri­sis, under­stood as the the­o­ret­i­cal and prac­ti­cal lens through which to view polit­i­cal strug­gle, breaks up the con­ti­nu­ity of rev­o­lu­tion­ary strate­gies based on econ­o­mistic themes of devel­op­ment and growth, and keeps the ques­tion of work­ing-class eman­ci­pa­tion as the end goal. Rev­o­lu­tion­ary strat­egy now artic­u­lated a plu­ral­ity of times and spaces through the analy­sis of con­crete, con­flict­ual sit­u­a­tions and pre­cise eval­u­a­tions of the national and inter­na­tional class strug­gles that did not accord to any form of his­tor­i­cal ratio­nal­ity, thus “com­bin­ing his­tory and event, act and process, the tak­ing of power and the ‘rev­o­lu­tion in per­ma­nence.’” Ben­saïd will come back to this ques­tion of the cri­sis as a “dis­con­ti­nu­ity within con­ti­nu­ity” in his the­sis.

This empha­sis on the the­o­ret­i­cal cen­tral­ity of rev­o­lu­tion­ary cri­sis is per­haps the most note­wor­thy upshot of Bensaïd’s con­tin­ual engage­ments with Lenin’s thought, as he takes Lefebvre’s short men­tion of the notion’s impor­tance to a much more rig­or­ous level. This is clear in his bal­ance-sheet of the events of May, Mai 1968: Une répéti­tion générale [May 1968: A Dress Rehearsal], co-writ­ten with Alain Kriv­ine right before the com­ple­tion of the master’s the­sis.28 This work con­tains the essen­tials of Bensaïd’s out­line of the ele­ments of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary cri­sis, as the authors ana­lyze Mai ‘68 as an “objec­tively” rev­o­lu­tion­ary sit­u­a­tion that fatally lacked a polit­i­cal sub­ject to work towards its resolution–thus remain­ing at a “pre-rev­o­lu­tion­ary” level. The inex­is­tence of “the sub­jec­tive con­di­tions of rev­o­lu­tion in May,” the lack of a “suf­fi­ciently orga­nized and polit­i­cally edu­cated polit­i­cal force” that could take up the project of over­throw­ing bour­geois power and rad­i­cal social trans­for­ma­tion, meant that there could not even be dis­cus­sion of a “sit­u­a­tion that was ¾ths rev­o­lu­tion­ary.”29 Rev­o­lu­tion, on this view,  is not a mat­ter of per­cent­ages. Bensaïd’s read­ing of Lenin will stress the “inter­de­pen­dence” of the ele­ments of rev­o­lu­tion­ary crises: but it is pre­cisely this inter­de­pen­dence or reci­procity of con­di­tions (i.e., sub­jec­tive and objec­tive) that make the for­ma­tion of a con­cept of rev­o­lu­tion­ary cri­sis so dif­fi­cult.

Lenin in the Crisis

In his the­sis, Ben­saïd takes the schema from “The Col­lapse of the Sec­ond Inter­na­tional” as his start­ing point. First, he delin­eates the cri­te­ria that Lenin describes as essen­tial for a rev­o­lu­tion­ary sit­u­a­tion to take place: when there is a cri­sis in the poli­cies of the rul­ing class; when class exploita­tion has grown more and more; when class strug­gle has become more antag­o­nis­tic. But there is always a decid­ing fac­tor, the sub­jec­tive fac­tor of the party and the actions of the masses in their abil­ity to take power. As he argues, “the nodal point of the cri­sis is no longer located in one par­tic­u­lar objec­tive ele­ment, but is trans­ferred within the orga­ni­za­tion-sub­ject which com­bi­nes and incor­po­rates them.”30 From this basic point, com­mon to both Lenin and Trot­sky, he then com­pli­cates his analy­sis. There is an acknowl­edge­ment very early on in the text that there is no sat­is­fac­tory con­struc­tion of the “con­cept” of rev­o­lu­tion­ary cri­sis in Lenin’s work; and yet, it still serves as a sin­gu­lar term, one in which all of the key terms of Lenin’s polit­i­cal the­ory – many of which prob­a­bly reach a higher degree of sci­en­tificity and thus con­cep­tu­al­ity – seem to merge and inter­act. He sets up these basic group­ings, or par­al­lel syl­lo­gisms, mod­eled after the Hegelian syl­lo­gisms of exis­tence, whereby the “sin­gu­lar serves as the medi­a­tion between the par­tic­u­lar and the uni­ver­sal”:31


Social For­ma­tion Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Cri­sis Mode of Pro­duc­tion
Sub­servient Spon­tane­ity Orga­ni­za­tion – Party Class
Ide­ol­ogy The­ory Truth


The first ver­ti­cal column (social for­ma­tion, spon­tane­ity, ide­ol­ogy) cor­re­sponds to the par­tic­u­lar, the mid­dle column (rev­o­lu­tion­ary cri­sis, party, the­ory) cor­re­sponds to the sin­gu­lar, and the last column (truth, class, mode of pro­duc­tion) rep­re­sents the uni­ver­sal, or the basic con­cepts of his­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­ism. It is the dialec­ti­cal inter­ac­tion of the first and third columns with the mid­dle (sin­gu­lar) terms that specif­i­cally pro­vides the his­tor­i­cal con­junc­ture of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary event, with the last column reduced to, or con­densed into, their most acute and antag­o­nis­tic forms. So, while the rev­o­lu­tion­ary cri­sis can only be the cri­sis of a deter­mi­nant social for­ma­tion with all its con­tra­dic­tory and over­lap­ping real­i­ties, it still lays bare the antag­o­nis­tic rela­tion between the work­ing-class and the bour­geoisie, mark­ing the “deter­mi­nate unity of the extremes.”32 The party is what allows, in the best Lukác­sian fash­ion, for the pas­sage from the pro­le­tariat as the the­o­ret­i­cal sub­ject of the rev­o­lu­tion to its role as the polit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion­ary sub­ject. More ambigu­ously, the cri­sis is what allows for the inter­sec­tion of truth and ide­ol­ogy to be mea­sured through rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory, that is, Marx­ism. It is through the cri­sis that the­ory can take on a prac­ti­cal role. As he writes later, the cri­sis is the moment where the­ory can be trans­formed into strat­egy, touch­ing upon prac­tice. It is, in an inter­est­ing turn of phrase, the “truth-oper­a­tor of an event,” medi­at­ing and sutur­ing the hole between con­ti­nu­ity and dis­con­ti­nu­ity, diachrony and syn­chrony. A rev­o­lu­tion­ary cri­sis, then, con­sti­tutes a “test of truth” for these dif­fer­ent group­ings: for the social for­ma­tion, by height­en­ing the con­tra­dic­tions between the antag­o­nis­tic classes of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion; for the party-orga­ni­za­tion in that it  must “take on the state” through its lead­er­ship of the pro­le­tariat,  while also fight­ing oppor­tunis­tic and reformist devi­a­tions with its own ranks; and finally for the­ory in that it allows for, in a his­tor­i­cally deter­mi­nant and dif­fer­en­tial man­ner, a “recon­nec­tion” of truth (his­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­ism) and ide­ol­ogy (class strug­gle or polit­i­cal prac­tice).

How­ever, Ben­saïd per­forms some auda­cious the­o­ret­i­cal leaps to keep this intri­cate struc­ture intact, not all of them effec­tive: draw­ing on Freud and Lacan, lin­guis­tics (Greimas and Guil­laume), as well as Lukács, Poulantzas, Bachelard, and Sartre, he tries to hold the dialec­ti­cal artic­u­la­tion of the three group­ings together. It is clear that they do not always work, and he would later dis­avow this the­o­ret­i­cal struc­ture as inevitably lead­ing to a form of “ultra-Bol­she­vism” and blind vol­un­tarism. No mat­ter how dif­fer­en­tial or non-lin­ear he tries to make the gap between the the­o­ret­i­cal sub­ject of rev­o­lu­tion (the pro­le­tariat) as com­pared to its his­tor­i­cally con­crete polit­i­cal sub­ject in the party, there is always an inevitable con­fla­tion of party and class within this frame­work. This ten­dency to absorb the class into the party was dri­ven in a cer­tain sense by the very con­cept of rev­o­lu­tion­ary cri­sis, through which one could “rec­on­cile, in a kind of his­tor­i­cal epiphany, the prac­ti­cal sub­ject and its the­o­ret­i­cal phan­tom.”33 Ben­saïd was deeply crit­i­cal of this “Hegelian meta­physics,” but also saw it as a pro­duct of a par­tic­u­lar prac­ti­cal-the­o­ret­i­cal milieu:

the very choice of such a theme was clearly a cri­tique of the struc­tural­ist ide­ol­ogy that was ten­den­tially dom­i­nant (at the uni­ver­sity at least), whose ulti­mate con­se­quence could be to ren­der the very idea of rev­o­lu­tion unthink­able. In other words: against the ven­tril­o­quist struc­tures, every­thing for the sub­ject!34

In later works, most evi­dently Marx for Our Times, Ben­saïd would try and rethink this linked prob­lem­atic of party and class, sub­ject and object, and ulti­mately, the in-itself/for-itself divi­sion in more mate­ri­al­ist and anti-his­tori­cist terms. Put oth­er­wise, it will be his recon­cep­tion of time, and its rela­tion to pol­i­tics, that will allow Ben­saïd to over­come the Lukác­sian prob­lem­atic. The con­cept of the dis­cor­dance of dif­fer­ent times within the present opens up a rad­i­cal cri­tique of his­tor­i­cal pro­gress and the “homo­ge­neous, empty time” that is seen as inhab­it­ing much of the pre­vi­ous Marx­ist polit­i­cal tra­di­tion.35 The con­se­quences of such a cri­tique of his­tor­i­cal rea­son for polit­i­cal action are evi­dent in Marx for Our Times:

Object and sub­ject, being and essence are bound up with one another in the devel­op­ment of classes. In the dynamic of class rela­tions, the sub­jec­tiv­ity of con­scious­ness can­not arbi­trar­ily eman­ci­pate itself from the struc­ture, any more than the objec­tiv­ity of being can be pas­sively detached from con­scious­ness. This prob­lem­atic is opposed to any mechan­i­cal con­cep­tion of a nec­es­sary tran­si­tion from the in-itself to the for-itself, from the uncon­scious to the con­scious, from the pre-con­scious social to the con­scious polit­i­cal, with time act­ing as a neu­tral go-between. Class con­scious­ness and uncon­scious­ness are inter­twined in a per­verse embrace, and both are con­sis­tently mis­taken.36

This leads Ben­saïd to posit a con­cep­tion of pol­i­tics based upon the uncer­tain­ties and uneven devel­op­ment of strug­gle, and most impor­tantly, the unpre­dictable bifur­ca­tions of his­tor­i­cal pos­si­bil­ity. This is a domain that can only be charted through a form of strate­gic rea­son, “based on the inter­ac­tion between the­ory and prac­ti­cal exper­i­men­ta­tion”; this idea of strat­egy, and the rev­o­lu­tion­ary cri­sis as fun­da­men­tally a strate­gic con­cept—the qual­i­fier is absolutely essen­tial, as it sig­nals a polit­i­cal importance—is the key break­through Ben­saïd retains from this early text.37

This returns us to to one of our guid­ing ques­tions – why the insis­tence in this text that the rev­o­lu­tion­ary cri­sis was not a con­cept, but a notion? It is because it nec­es­sar­ily breaks down at the thresh­old of prac­tice.38 This is a point that is rem­i­nis­cent of Lenin’s expla­na­tion in the Post­face of State and Rev­o­lu­tion for the incom­plete­ness of the text: “I was ‘inter­rupted’ by a polit­i­cal cri­sis – the eve of the Octo­ber Rev­o­lu­tion of 1917.”39 Rev­o­lu­tion­ary crises find their res­o­lu­tion and com­ple­tion through a sub­jec­tive inter­ven­tion: it is a con­cept with a nec­es­sar­ily prac­ti­cal ref­er­ent, a con­cept that is nec­es­sar­ily encoun­tered on the con­crete ter­rain of his­tory and pol­i­tics. For the Althusse­ri­an­ism dom­i­nant dur­ing the imme­di­ate period, Marx­ism was based on an epis­te­mol­ogy of the con­cept, and reliant on the autonomous pro­duc­tion of the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice. There could be no sub­ject of a sci­ence. As is well known, high-Althusse­ri­an­ism encoun­tered real and unre­solv­able dif­fi­cul­ties after May ‘68; it is clear that Ben­saïd had already observed these and taken them into account (he main­tained a crit­i­cal, if appre­cia­tive, dis­tance from Althusser through­out his career).40 The fact that a rev­o­lu­tion­ary cri­sis can only rise to the level of a notion – and not the “purity of the con­cept” – is surely attrib­ut­able to the impure imprint left by one of its con­di­tions, the rev­o­lu­tion­ary orga­ni­za­tion or sub­ject.41 This means that instead of a con­cept fash­ioned from the con­crete-in-thought, the devel­op­ment and effi­cacy of the notion of rev­o­lu­tion­ary cri­sis indi­cated a shift from the­ory to strat­egy: “the cri­sis then appears as the moment of rup­ture at which the­ory be trans­formed into the art of con­flict.”42

Strategic Questions

In some of his later arti­cles, and in the con­text of his own work as a mil­i­tant within the Ligue com­mu­niste révo­lu­tion­naire,  Ben­saïd deep­ens this shift from the­ory to politics—the lat­ter informed by strat­egy, with an empha­sis on the impor­tance of strate­gic hypothe­ses. These medi­ate the exi­gen­cies of strug­gle and a crit­i­cal under­stand­ing of pre­vi­ous rev­o­lu­tion­ary expe­ri­ences:

We have insisted on the role of the “sub­jec­tive fac­tor” as against both the spon­taneist view of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary process and the struc­tural­ist immo­bil­ism of the 1960s. Our insis­tence is not on a “model” but on what we have called “strate­gic hypothe­ses.” Mod­els are some­thing to be copied; they are instruc­tions for use. A hypoth­e­sis is a guide to action that starts from past expe­ri­ence but is open and can be mod­i­fied in the light of new expe­ri­ence or unex­pected cir­cum­stances. Our con­cern there­fore is not to spec­u­late but to see what we can take from past expe­ri­ence, the only mate­rial at our dis­posal. But we always have to recog­nise that it is nec­es­sar­ily poorer than the present and the future if rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies are to avoid the risk of doing what the gen­er­als are said to do – always fight the last war.43

From this pas­sage we can see how the ques­tion of strat­egy is impli­cated both in the Lenin­ist notion of rev­o­lu­tion­ary cri­sis and its the­o­ret­i­cal-prac­ti­cal impli­ca­tions (the cri­sis trans­forms the place or role of the­ory and the party), as well as Bensaïd’s own under­stand­ing of his­tor­i­cal time that stresses the “pri­macy of pol­i­tics over his­tory.”44 In a way, this is an exam­ple of Bensaïd’s het­ero­dox his­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­ism, what could be described as “the con­crete analy­sis of his­tor­i­cal pos­si­bil­ity” that com­bi­nes his­tor­i­cal reflec­tion with strate­gic fore­sight and tac­ti­cal cre­ativ­ity.45 Rev­o­lu­tion­ary pol­i­tics must have a con­cep­tion of how rup­tural events are his­tor­i­cally deter­mined. Today, when it seems that we can’t get away from the word “cri­sis,” this com­bi­na­tion or merger of per­spec­tives is more rel­e­vant than ever. Bensaïd’s Lenin invites us to ask our­selves: what is a cri­sis, how do we think its emer­gence, and what do we do about it? For what are we to do when the real cri­sis hap­pens?

Thanks to Asad Haider and Salar Mohan­desi for their help­ful com­ments and sug­ges­tions on both this short intro­duc­tion and the trans­la­tion itself.

  1. Daniel Ben­saïd, An Impa­tient Life, trans. David Fern­bach (Lon­don: Verso, 2014). 

  2. The chap­ter is in fact a con­densed ver­sion of his mémoire d’habilitation, an oral exam­i­na­tion that con­tains a sum­mary of past and future aca­d­e­mic research (an “intel­lec­tual auto­bi­og­ra­phy”) to be pre­sented before a com­mit­tee of one’s peers. Bensaïd’s com­mit­tee included Jacques Der­rida, Georges Lab­ica, Michael Löwy, and André Tosel. 

  3. Daniel Ben­saïd, Marx for Our Times, trans. Gre­gory Elliott (Lon­don: Verso, 2002). For another influ­en­tial read­ing of the his­tory Marx­ism as a series of “crises,” see Louis Althusser, “The Cri­sis of Marx­ism,” trans. Gra­hame Locke, in Power and Oppo­si­tion in Post-Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Soci­eties, trans. Patrick Camiller and Jon Roth­schild (Lon­don: Ink Links Ltd., 1979), 225-235. 

  4. Daniel Ben­saïd and Samy Naïr, “À pro­pos de la ques­tion de l’organisation: Lénine et Rosa Lux­em­burg,” Par­ti­sans no. 45 (May-June 1968). 

  5. Sebas­tian Bud­gen, “The Red Hus­sar: Daniel Bensaïd, 1946-2010.Inter­na­tional Social­ism 127 (June 2010). 

  6. Daniel Ben­saïd, “‘Leaps, Leaps, Leaps’: Lenin and Pol­i­tics,” in Lenin Reloaded: Toward a Pol­i­tics of Truth, ed. Stathis Kou­ve­lakis, Sebas­tian Bud­gen, and Slavoj Zizek (Durham, NC: Duke Uni­ver­sity Press, 2007). 

  7. Two col­lec­tions have been pub­lished in French that provide good intro­duc­tion to some of the major themes of Bensaïd’s thought: one is the var­i­ous arti­cles that appeared in the jour­nal Lig­nes, no. 32, May 2010; the other is enti­tled Daniel Ben­saïd, L’intempestif, ed. Fran­cois Sabado (Paris: Édi­tions La Décou­verte, 2012). 

  8. See Salar Mohan­desi, “The Actu­al­ity of the Rev­o­lu­tion: Reflec­tions on Lenin’s State and Rev­o­lu­tion,” View­point Mag­a­zine, 2012. 

  9. Daniel Ben­saïd, “La notion de la crise révo­lu­tion­naire chez Lenin,” 1968. 

  10. For Bensaïd’s remark, see Ben­saïd, 2014, 81. 

  11. Ben­saïd, 1968

  12. Henri Lefeb­vre, Pour con­naître la pen­sée de Lénine (Paris: Bor­das, 1957), 53. All trans­la­tions from this text are my own. 

  13. Ibid., 51.  

  14. One could argue that this is an under­es­ti­ma­tion of Lenin’s insis­tence on the need to strug­gle for bour­geois-demo­c­ra­tic polit­i­cal free­doms and the impor­tance of this strug­gle for the tac­tics of the Bol­she­vik party, as Lars Lih has recently pointed out in an influ­en­tial and thor­oughly researched inter­pre­ta­tion. It is also nev­er­the­less true that Ben­saïd actu­ally backs up some of Lih’s claims for the per­va­sive Kau­tyskist over­tones present in Lenin’s early works, and his fer­vor for the proletariat’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary mis­sion or call­ing. See Lars Lih, Lenin Redis­cov­ered: What is to be Done? in Con­text (Lon­don: Brill, 2006). We may also note the inter­est­ing par­al­lels and con­ver­gences between Bensaid’s read­ing of Lenin with that of Anto­nio Negri’s, specif­i­cally on the impor­tance of Lenin’s stud­ies into the class com­po­si­tion of the Rus­sian work­ing class and peas­antry for his polit­i­cal-orga­ni­za­tional work, and for his def­i­n­i­tion of rev­o­lu­tion­ary cri­sis more gen­er­ally. Cf. Anto­nio Negri, “Work­ers’ Party Against Work,” trans. Francesca Nov­ello and Tim­o­thy S. Mur­phy in Books for Burn­ing: Between Civil War and Democ­racy in 1970s Italy (New York: Verso, 2005), 53-54, 82; The Fac­tory of Strat­egy: Thirty-Three Lessons on Lenin, trans. Ari­anna Bove (New York: Columbia Uni­ver­sity Press, 2014). 

  15. See Michael Löwy, “From the ‘Logic’ of Hegel to the Fin­land Sta­tion in Pet­ro­grad,” in On Chang­ing the World: Essays in Polit­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy (Chicago: Hay­mar­ket Books, 1993), 77-90. 

  16. Daniel Ben­saïd, Un monde à changer: mou­ve­ments et strate­gies (Paris: Seuil, 2003), 154. All fur­ther trans­la­tions of Bensaïd’s works are my own, unless oth­er­wise noted. 

  17. V.I. Lenin, “State and Rev­o­lu­tion,” Col­lected Works, Vol­ume 25, 405. See Mohan­desi, 2012. 

  18. V.I. Lenin, “One of the Fun­da­men­tal Ques­tions of the Rev­o­lu­tion,” 1917; Left-Wing Com­mu­nism: An Infan­tile Dis­or­der, 1920. 

  19. Franck Fis­chbach, in his Man­i­feste pour une philoso­phie sociale, attempts to think this ques­tion from the inverse angle: how is pol­i­tics inscribed in the social, when do social processes and rela­tions become politi­cized? It is true that other Lenin­ists of this late ’60s-mid ’70s period, such as Tronti, shifted to a con­cep­tion of the auton­omy of the polit­i­cal. We should heed Fischbach’s warn­ing and see the two lev­els at their point of artic­u­la­tion. This would “con­test any auton­omy of pol­i­tics” under­stand the “rein­scrip­tion of pol­i­tics in the social and see the social as the con­flict­ual ter­rain where con­fronting polit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tions form.” Social reor­ga­ni­za­tion, then, always involves dis­tinct moments of polit­i­cal action. Frank Fis­chbach, Man­i­feste pour la philoso­phie sociale (Paris: La Decou­verte, 2009, 59-61), 132. 

  20. Lefeb­vre, 255. 

  21. Ben­saïd, 2003, 158. A sim­i­lar pas­sage is found, with a more speci­fic ref­er­ence to psy­cho­analy­sis, in Marx in Our Times, 112. 

  22. Leon Trot­sky, “The Class, the Party, and the Lead­er­ship,” 1940. 

  23. Daniel Ben­saïd, “Euro­com­mu­nisme, aus­tro­marx­isme, bolchevisme,” 1977. All fur­ther trans­la­tions of Bensaïd’s works are my own, unless oth­er­wise noted. On the subjective/objective dichotomy in Lenin, see Lefeb­vre, 65-66. 

  24. Lefeb­vre, 275. 

  25. Ibid., 301. 

  26. See Daniel Ben­saïd, “Stratégie et poli­tique: De Marx à la IIIe Inter­na­tionale,” 2007. 

  27. Daniel Ben­said, “Greve gen­erale, front unique, dualite du pou­voir,” 1979. 

  28. Daniel Ben­saïd and Alain Kriv­ine, Mai 1968: Une répéti­tion générale (Paris: Maspero, 1968). 

  29. Ibid., 171. 

  30. Ben­saïd, 2. 

  31. Daniel Ben­saïd, “Retour sur le mémoire de maîtrise,” 2001. Inter­est­ingly, Ben­saïd wrongly tran­scribes the last of these group­ings in this ret­ro­spec­tive text, putting truth as the mid­dle term instead of the­ory. 

  32. G.W.F Hegel, The Sci­ence of Logic, trans. A.V. Miller (Lon­don: George Allen and Unwin, 1969), § 1478. 

  33. Ben­saïd, 2014, 84. Bud­gen has explored the con­se­quences of such a sub­sti­tu­tion­ist con­cep­tion of the party in his ret­ro­spec­tive, par­tic­u­larly in the cir­cum­stances of the Ligue com­mu­niste révo­lu­tion­naire. It was also addressed in an inter­view con­cern­ing the LCR’s Lenin­ism, par­tic­u­larly in the for­ma­tive years of orga­ni­za­tion from the late 60s to the early 70s, as Ben­saïd urges that “a crit­i­cal review of that period is nec­es­sary. In the con­text of the period, we had a ten­dency to fetishise the party as the direct and imme­di­ate adver­sary of the state (inspired by a ques­tion­able read­ing of Poulantzas), and gave our ‘Lenin­ism’ a slightly ‘mil­i­tarist’ twist (‘ultra-left’ if you prefer). In this you can see the influ­ence of Gue­vara, his vol­un­tarism and the role attrib­uted to ‘exem­plary’ actions.” See “Lenin­ism in the 21st Cen­tury,” inter­view with Phil Hearse, Inter­na­tional View­point Online IV, no. 335 (Novem­ber 2001). 

  34. Daniel Ben­saïd, “Quar­ante ans après: une intro­duc­tion revis­itée,” 2008. 

  35. See, for exam­ple, Stathis Kou­ve­lakis, “Daniel Ben­saïd: La dialec­tique et la lutte des temps,” in Lig­nes, and Philippe Pig­narre,  “Le con­cept d’intempestif,” in Daniel Ben­saïd, L’intempestif

  36. Ben­saïd, 2002, 114-115. 

  37. Ibid., 270. 

  38. Alain Badiou, in his De L’idéologie, will make this same charge in regards to Althusser and May 1968: “In Althusser’s for­mu­la­tions prior to May ‘68, ide­ol­ogy was marked by the seal of infamy that opposed it to sci­ence. In the imme­di­ate after­math of May ‘68, the polit­i­cal lim­its of the mass move­ment had been trans­fig­ured by the enthu­si­asm for its ide­o­log­i­cal impor­tance.” In other words, a ”the­o­ret­i­cal ques­tion… was put to the test and divided by the real move­ment.” Alain Badiou and François Balmés, De L’idéologie (Paris: Maspero, 1975), 7. 

  39. V.I. Lenin, “State and Rev­o­lu­tion,” 492. 

  40. See his con­tri­bu­tion “Les intel­lectuels du PCF, dos au Stal­in­isme” to the col­lec­tion Con­tre Althusser (Paris: 10/18, 1974), 295-308, but also his more tem­pered and appre­cia­tive state­ments in Marx for Our Times, espe­cially for Althusser’s con­sid­er­a­tions on his­tor­i­cal time. 

  41. Cf. François Math­eron, “Louis Althusser, or the Impure Purity of the Con­cept,” in Crit­i­cal Com­pan­ion to Con­tem­po­rary Marx­ism, eds. Jacques Bidet and Stathis Kou­ve­lakis (Lei­den: Brill, 2008), 508. Althusser him­self was not unaware of the “prac­ti­cal” nature of Lenin’s own con­cepts, as has been detailed in his cor­re­spon­dence with Franca Mado­nia (which War­ren Mon­tag has recently noted) and is appar­ent from even a cur­sory read­ing of “Con­tra­dic­tion and Overde­ter­mi­na­tion;” Louis Althusser, For Marx, trans. Ben Brew­ster (New York: Verso, 2006). 

  42. Ben­saïd, 2014, 87. 

  43. Ben­saïd, 2007

  44. Ben­saïd, 2002, 87. 

  45. See Bruno Bosteels, Badiou and Pol­i­tics (Durham: Duke Uni­ver­sity Press), 59. 

Author of the article

is a member of the editorial collective of Viewpoint and a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz.