Nearly a decade before the Berlin Wall's collapse, the French Marxist philosopher Daniel Bensaïd filed an application for a US visa. To the question of whether he had ever been part of a communist organisation, he defiantly answered "yes". So he was summoned to meet the consul. There, he recounted his expulsion from the French Communist Party in 1966, and the visa came through.
Bensaid (who died in 2010, and whose memoir An Impatient Life has just been translated) was never one to be embarrassed by his leftist roots, unlike the countless other May 1968 rebels who later converted to capitalism and became known as la gauche caviar. His ideological fervour comes through in the memoir. Part autobiography, part activist's logbook, and part political treatise, it's the story of how a working-class boy went on to co-found a party that twice participated in French presidential elections, and became a leader of the Fourth International, the global organisation of Trotskyist followers.
Bensaid was one of the few '68 mutineers to claim true working-class roots. His Algerian-Jewish father quit school at age seven, dabbled in boxing, escaped deportation (unlike his two brothers), and ended up a bar owner. His mother was a milliner who got a job in Algeria and married the man everyone told her not to.
The author's formative years were spent in his parents' bistro outside Toulouse. It was filled with Spanish, Portuguese and Italian blue-collar workers who turned the counter into "a kind of secular confessional, the poor man's couch". There, little Daniel also witnessed meetings of the local Communist cell. Little wonder that he went on to start communist movements himself.
His adult life was peppered with incredible encounters. Yet he mentions them only briefly. May '68 is wrapped up in a few lines: a march on a car factory, Sorbonne meetings, a daily bulletin. He describes being sheltered (as an outlawed activist) by the author Marguerite Duras, and – while fundraising for his party newspaper – receiving a fistful of banknotes from Yves Montand and a check from Jean-Paul Sartre. Endless pages are devoted, instead, to the nitty-gritty of activism, and to grassroots details that would bore all but the stalwarts.
Ultimately, Bensaid seems determined to emphasise one point: that May '68 was not a waste, and that the world needs another left. "Not a left 'lite', like fat-free butter, alcohol-free wine or decaffeinated coffee, but a left of struggle." Yet he never tells us what form that new left should take. His memoir leaves us thirsting, instead, for less dogma and more personal drama.