Louis Althusser

1918-1990 • Algeria

Philosopher • Communist

Philosopher and Communist from 1948. His structural Marxism strongly influenced Maoist currents in 1968.

He met his wife, a Communist and resistance fighter, in January 1946 while working on his Diploma of Superior Studies at the École normale supérieure in the Rue d’Ulm.

From March to May 1947 he was hospitalised for the first time at the Sainte-Anne psychiatric hospital in the Rue Cabanis. Diagnosed with a manic-depressive psychosis, roughly every three years he had to be hospitalised for brief periods.

He joined the Communist Party in 1948, but moved only slowly away from the Catholicism of his youth.

He lived with his wife, Helene Rytman, nearly continuously (although not exclusively) from 1948 to 1980 apart from some holidays and periods of hospitalisation) in a flat at the ENS in Rue d’Ulm.

This was where, suffering from another major depression, he strangled her on November 16 1980. As a result he was hospitalised for the rest of his life, dying on 22 October 1990.

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Daniel Bensaïd

1946 – 2010 • France

Trotskyist • Internationalist

Bensaïd’s Jewish father’s two brothers were killed during the German  Occupation. In his autobiography he reproduced the official document certifying his mother’s “non-membership of the Jewish race”. Without it, he noted, he would never have been born. He joined the Communist Party at the age of sixteen. But he soon became a dissident.

In 1966 with Alain Krivine [b. 1941] he helped found the Trotskyist Jeunesse communiste révolutionnaire (JCR – Revolutionary Communist Youth).

During the 1968 general strike he became prominent as a speaker and activist in the student movement. When the JCR was banned in 1968 he helped to found what became the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR – Revolutionary Communist League).

Bensaïd became part of the leadership of the new organisation, which grew rapidly in the aftermath of 1968. Krivine ran for the presidency twice, in 1969 and 1974, and the organisation launched a weekly paper, Rouge (red), which between 1976 and 1979 became a daily (Bensaïd was heavily involved in this).

He also took responsibility, as part of the Ligue Communiste‘s leadership, for the military-style attack on an anti-immigrant meeting of the far right Ordre Nouveau at the Mutualité in Rue Saint Victor on June 21 1973. The attack was a serious error of judgement that led to the Ligue communiste and Ordre Nouveau both being banned a week later.. 

Bensaïd also became a leading figure in the Fourth International, and took particular responsibilities for Latin America. He was a university lecturer in philosophy, and wrote copiously; he was the author of around forty books, on topics ranging from the history of Trotskyism to Joan of Arc.

He survived AIDS for some sixteen years before dying of cancer as a result of the drugs he had been obliged to take.

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Pierre Bourdieu

1930 – 2002 • France

Philosopher • Sociologist

A leading intellectual who believed in political engagement. He supported Algerian independence and the French strike wave of 1995, which he saw as one of many challenged to neo-liberalism.

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Simone De Beauvoir

1908 – 1986 • France

FeministAuthor • Philosopher

A major writer, intellectual, existentialist philosopher, political activist, feminist and social theorist from the 1940s to the 1980s.

In Paris in 2016, I was still walking round following dreamers and lovers. It was 30 years since Simone de Beauvoir died. Along with George Sand, she is probably close to the top in France (and with a world-wide reputation) when it comes to fighting for women’s rights – both politically and personally.

Simone de Beaouvoir lived in a first floor flat above the café brasserie at the centre of the Montparnasse art scene before the First World War

So I headed back to La Rotonde on the boulevard du Montparnasse. When I first had a drink there with the ghosts of Trotsky and Rivera I didn’t know that when they were there in August 1914, the six-year-old Simone was living above their heads in the posh flat where she was born. That didn’t last long. Her maternal grandfather, who had funded her wannabe-actor legal secretary dad (his Breton name including ‘de’ doesn’t mean he was an aristocrat), went bankrupt after World War 1.

In 1919 the family was forced to move to a sixth floor (ie servants’) flat) at 71 rue de Rennes, without (like most Parisian working class families at the time) running water. (It’s not like that today!!). From there she went first to the Catholic Cours Desir secondary school in the Rue Jacob and then to the Lycée Fénelon, the first girls’ lycée in Paris that had opened in 1893 in the Rue de l’Éperon. It’s just down the road from where my father’s partner for 30 years still lives (she’s over 94 and going strong).
Simone de Beauvoir became an atheist at 14, around the time a close friend died.

She passed her Bac exams in 1924 and became the ninth woman to get a degree at the Sorbonne University where, at 20, she first saw the 23-year-old Jean-Paul Sartre at philosophy lectures.

In 1928, still living at home, she completed the equivalent of a Masters dissertation on Leibniz under the supervision of the husband of the leading feminist, Cecile Brunschvicg.

Philosophy student Jean-Paul Sartre in his 20s

A year later, she had moved out to the Avenue Denfert-Rochereau. That same year, in 1929, De Beauvoir and Sartre met again at the Cité Universitaire (where I first lived in Paris in the Maison de la Tunisie in 1964), and that was it. For the rest of their lives they kept a close intimate and work relationship going. Over the years, De Beauvoir had many other lovers, men and women, while Sartre had many women lovers.

Simone De Beauvoir in 1945 at the end of the Second World War

From 1929 to 1943 de Beauvoir taught at various lycées to support herself. Her independence was crucial to her thought. In 1931 and 1932 she was allocated to Lycées outside Paris teaching first in Marseille and then in Rouen.

In 1936-37 she was back in Paris, teaching at the Lycée Molière in the wealthy 16th arrondissement while living in the royal Bretagne hotel in the Rue de la Gaîté. On mornings when she wasn’t teaching, she used to have breakfast at the Dôme, the haunt of many German refugees who read newspapers there and played chess.

At one point Sartre proposed marriage to her so that they could both be sent to the same region of France, but she rejected this idea. Her independence was not for sale.

In September 1937 both de Beauvoir and Sartre were assigned teaching posts in Paris, and they both rented rooms in the Hôtel Mistral in Rue Cels. They lived there until September 1939 when Sartre was called up. This was where de Beauvoir began to work on her first novel (L’Invitée, published in 1943, in English ‘She Came to Stay’). There is now a joint plaque to them outside the Hotel.

After Sartre was mobilised into the army, de Beauvoir moved to the Hotel Danemark in the Rue Vavin. From there she moved to the Hotel d’Abusson on the Rue Dauphine. When Simone was thrown out of teaching in 1943 after being subject to political and personal criticisms the pair moved into separate rooms in the even cheaper Hotel Louisiana in the Rue de Seine.

Strangely, though, given her huge reputation, I only found one individual plaque to her. There was no plaque at what is now an expensive restaurant with an average-priced brasserie attached, La Closerie des Lilas. This was where Sartre and de Beauvoir organised a ‘Socialism and Freedom’ meeting attended by 50 people in 1941 after Sartre returned from a prisoner of war camp.

From 1948 to 1955 De Beauvoir lived in a three-room flat in the Rue de la Bûcherie. She then moved to a first-floor flat in the Rue Victor-Schoelcher opposite the Montparnasse Cemetery with Claude Lanzmann.

A rare plaque in Paris to a leftist who opposed the Algerian War and was an inspiration to the world feminist movement

This was her final move. She lived there until until 1986, where a plaque recognises her presence.

De Beauvoir’s most important work, ‘The Second Sex‘, was published in 1949. Its central argument is that women are constructed as a subordinate ‘Other’ by men, but that they can choose freedom rather than accept this construction. She certainly did this.

After two hours walking I sat down at another cafe – not far from where the couple had shared much, and near the Montparnasse Cemetery were they now lie together.

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Frantz Fanon

1925 – 1961 • Martinique

Anti-colonialism • Human rights • Philosophy • Psychiatry

Frantz Fanon a philosopher and psychiatrist who charted the psychological, sociological and philosophical damage of colonisation

He joined the French Army fighting Vichy and the Nazis in 1943, and then, having witnessed the racism of the French in Algeria, studied psychiatry in France. From 1954 he supported the Algerians in their war of independence.

On 19 September 1956 he spoke at a Conference on the ‘Crisis of Black-African Culture’ organised by the Présence africaine journal. This was held in the Descartes ampitheatre of the Sorbonne. Along with Fanon, other speakers included Aimé Césaire and other international speakers such as Dos Santos and Richard Wright.

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Michel Foucault

1926 – 1984 • France

Author • Philosopher

One of the world’s most cited philosophers, in the 1970s he campaigned for prisoners’ rights and migrant workers.

In the 1980s he moved towards the reformist ‘Second Left’ such as Michel Rocard, Pierre Mendès France and Edmond Maire.

He was one of the first public figures in France to die of AIDS.

Foucault was one of the 137 intellectuals who called for a silent anti-racist protest from the metro station on the Boulevard Bonne Nouvelle on Saturday 16 December 1972 against the machine-gun murder by an officer of the police at the Versailles police station of a 32-year-old Algerian Mohamed Diab. Banned by the government the march became a battlefield with dozens of arrests of the predominantly migrant demonstrators.

Pierre Wiazemsky, the nephew of Claude Mauriac, one of those who called the demonstration, came back afterwards and completed several sketches, including one of Foucault running away from the CRS attack more speedily than Mauriac. Foucault’s skull narrowly missed being struck by a police batten before they were all arrested.

Jean Genet, Michel Foucault, Claude Mauriac and Alain Geismar sketched together in a Wiaz drawing after their arrests on 16 December 1972

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Henri Lefebvre

1901 – 1991 • France

Communist • Marxist • Philosopher • Sociologist

Marxist philosoper of art and space and time, Lefebvre joined the Communist Party in 1928 with other surrealists. Fired from his teaching post under Vichy in 1941 he joined the resistance. He left the PCF in 1956 and taught sociology at Nanterre from 1965 to 1968.

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Simone Weil

1909-1943 • France

SocialismAnarchism • Philosopher • Anti-fascist

A brilliant student of philosophy and committed revolutionary pacifist and anti-colonialist, she welcomed the workers’ occupations of 1936 but criticised the timidity of the Popular Front government.

The New Left Review introduced one of her essays it published with this brief (edited by me) biography:

Of the three most remarkable women thinkers born in the last century, Simone Weil (1909–43) was a year younger than Simone de Beauvoir, herself a little over a year younger than Hannah Arendt. From a secularized Jewish family in Paris, she declared herself a Bolshevik at the age of ten, and proved a brilliant student, first at the elite lyćee Henri IV and then at the École normale supérieure. ..

She wanted to teach in an industrial town but was dispatched instead to Le Puy, a rural backwater. There, nevertheless, she was soon active in solidarity work with the local trade unions and writing in La Révolution prolétarienne, a libertarian journal of the left edited by militants expelled from the Communist Party.

In 1932 she made a trip to Germany on the eve of the Nazi takeover, and on her return composed a ten-part report on the political situation in the country. In condemning the passivity of the spd and the sectarian blindness of the kpd in the face of the rise of fascism, her judgement of it corresponded closely to Trotsky’s warnings of the time, but was more clear-sighted in questioning the notion that Hitler was little more than a tool of big capital, and doubting whether the German working class was still in a position to resist his seizure of power, a fait accompli by the time her last installment appeared in late February 1933.

Six months later she published a pessimistic balance-sheet of the prospects for proletarian politics at large. Capital had reached the limits of its reproduction. But the Russian Revolution had given birth to a bureaucratic regime that had nothing to do with Socialism, Nazism was triumphant in Germany, and the New Deal in America offered no more than a technocratic variant of authoritarian capitalism. To a friend, she had written after returning from Berlin: ‘Insurrections on the order of the Commune are admirable, but they fail (true, the proletariat is much stronger than it was then; but so is the bourgeoisie). Insurrections of the October 1917 type succeed, but all they do is reinforce the bureaucratic, military and police apparatus. And at this moment nonviolence à la Gandhi seems simply a rather hypocritical species of reformism. And we do not yet know any fourth type of action.’

Now she concluded: ‘No workers’ state has ever yet existed on the earth’s surface, except for a few weeks in Paris in 1871, and perhaps for a few months in Russia in 1917 and 1918. On the other hand, for nearly fifteen years now, over one sixth of the globe, there has reigned a state as oppressive as any other, which is neither a capitalist nor a workers’ state. Certainly, Marx never foresaw anything of this kind. But not even Marx is more precious to us than the truth.’

Yet she continued to give classes in Marxism at the nearest Trade Union offices even as Trotsky denounced her for regression to an individualistic liberalism, attacking the ‘revolutionary melancholics’ among whom she had now to be numbered. Weil took no offence, arranging two months later for Trotsky to hold a secret meeting in a flat in Paris owned by her parents, at which the two continued to argue fiercely. Trotsky nevertheless told the Weils on his departure the next day: ‘You can say that the Fourth International was founded in your home.’

An admirer of Luxemburg, Weil had never shared her confidence in the spontaneity of the proletariat, and by 1934 had ceased to believe that the trade unions she had helped were sources of much hope. Deciding to withdraw from all political activity, she took leave from her teaching to become a factory worker, not only in order to experience the proletarian condition at first hand, but to see if there were other ways than those tried hitherto in which it could be transformed.

Before doing so, she composed the long essay she would ironically call her testament, ‘Reflections on the Causes of Liberty and Social Oppression’, conceived as a critical balance-sheet of Marx’s theory of history and the movements it had inspired, as well as a theory of struggles for power, not simply for property, which he had neglected, and of contemporary tyrannies of bureaucracy and technology that he could not have foreseen. She was just 25.

The turn to factory work left her disappointed, and the advent of a Popular Front government in 1936 politically cold. But when the great wave of factory occupations exploded a few months later, she was filled with joy, reporting from the Renault plant where she had been employed and kept a journal. In the summer, she joined the cnt militia in the Spanish Civil War, but after an accident was invalided out.

Back in France, she attacked her country’s colonial record in Indochina, Madagascar, North Africa as almost no one on the left cared to do at that time. In the last years before the Second World War, grappling with the growing threat of the Third Reich she first adopted and then relinquished a pacifism that, after Munich, could no longer be grounded in the lessons of 1914. When the Wehrmacht entered Paris in 1940, she escaped with her parents to the south, finding precarious refuge in Marseille.

While working as a farmhand, and later for the Resistance, her intellectual energies now turned to questions of religion—not only Christian, but Egyptian, Hindu, Buddhist texts—and philosophy, where as an accomplished Hellenist her range extended from the pre-Socratics to Plato, not to speak of Homer and Pythagoras; alongside an aversion to Judaism—did the Old Testament not celebrate the extermination of the Amalekites and others?—that would be a thorn to her posthumous admirers.

In the spring of 1942, she and her parents got visas to the us, arriving in New York via Casablanca in July. There she fretted till the autumn, impatient to join Free French operations in England, a wish she achieved in November with the help of Maurice Schumann, an old classmate from the Lcyee Henri IV, future Prime Minister and progenitor of European integration. In London she served in the exile equivalent of the Interior Ministry, under the Socialist André Philip, generating summaries of reports from France and drafting political proposals for its future after Liberation, constitutional schemes including a spirited critique of the ideology of human rights that was just coming into fashion. Working round the clock, at home and in the office, in four months Weil produced a prodigious volume of writing before expiring at the age of 34—from tuberculosis or anorexia?—in the summer of 1943. All but a handful of her texts lay unpublished when she died.

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