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Ian Birchall

Death of a friend

(June 1988)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.110, June 1988, pp.24-25.
Transcribed & marked up Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The death in April of Daniel Guérin robbed the left, not only in his native France but throughout the world, of a prolific writer, an original socialist thinker and tireless revolutionary activist. Ian Birchall looks back over his life.

DANIEL GUÉRIN was born in 1904 into a right wing bourgeois family, but he was proud of the fact that one of his ancestors had been a follower of the pioneer socialist Babeuf during the French Revolution.

He originally intended to pursue a literary career (he published his first volume of poems at the age of 18), but a visit to Indochina in 1930 showed him the brutal reality of French imperialism at first hand and he abandoned literature for politics. He joined the French Socialist Party and began to publish a series of articles on the French role in Indochina and Morocco.

Guérin was one of the first Marxists to make a detailed study of fascism, at a time when many on the left were still hoping the problem would simply go away. He recalls that one Socialist Party member told him that talking about fascism would simply encourage the fascists; she later died at the hands of the Nazis. A couple of months after Hitler came to power Guérin cycled round Germany, observing Nazism at first hand and concealing illegal leaflets inside his bicycle frame.

On the basis of his studies Guérin published in 1936 Fascism and Big Business, a pioneering study developing some of the themes in Trotsky’s writings, and a work which remains relevant today. In it he demolishes the idea that fascism can be explained by national characteristics – Italian backwardness or the German temperament – and shows that it can potentially spread to any country.

He also rejects the myth that fascism was in some sense “anti-capitalist”, arguing that it is “an instrument in the service of big capital”, sponsored in particular by owners of heavy industry. While recognising fascism’s ideological power, he shows that this is firmly rooted in material circumstances. He concludes that the only effective way to fight fascism is by opposing it with the socialist alternative.

Inside the Socialist Party Guérin aligned himself with the most left wing current – the “Revolutionary Left” led by Marceau Pivert. He played an active role as a party and trade union militant during the great wave of factory occupations in 1936. The Revolutionary Left was well to the left of the Communist Party, characterising Stalinism as the “syphilis of the working class movement” and sympathising with the POUM in Spain.

But, though Pivert and Guérin had a high regard for Trotsky, Trotsky quite rightly characterised the Revolutionary Left as centrist. When the Socialist Party entered the government in 1936, Pivert was offered governmental office. He consulted the executive of the Revolutionary Left; Guérin was the only one to vote against.

Guérin’s own analysis was that the Popular Front had a double nature. While he rejected the idea of governmental alliances, he believed the Popular Front had also created a popular movement drawing poor peasants and petit-bourgeois behind the working class. In a sense this was true, but while Guérin stood on the extreme left of the Revolutionary Left, he was too late in seeing the need for independent revolutionary organisation.

In 1938 the Revolutionary Left was expelled from the Socialist Party and Guérin was among the founders of the PSOP – Workers and Peasants Socialist Party. But a current which in 1936 could mobilise tens of thousands of supporters now only gathered together 6,000 members.

In March 1939 Trotsky wrote a letter to Guérin – whose revolutionary integrity he respected – urging him to persuade the PSOP to turn to the Fourth International. But it was too late and the loose organisation of the PSOP collapsed at the outbreak of war.

The tragedy of war contained some elements of farce. Pivert had appointed Guérin to a clandestine leadership which would take over the PSOP in the event of war; but in the interests of secrecy he did not tell Guérin about this! As a result Guérin was in Norway at the outbreak of war and did not return to France until 1942. Pivert went on to appeal to de Gaulle to assist with the distribution of socialist propaganda.

Guérin now broke with Pivert. He was unwilling to participate in a resistance movement based on nationalism and class collaboration and so, while maintaining some differences with the Trotskyists (he had opposed the foundation of the Fourth International) he worked closely with them during the occupation. As he put it, he refused:

“to enter a resistance which aimed at the defeat of one of the two imperialist blocs, preferring to participate with the Trotskyists in a clandestine working class action, fighting simultaneously the occupying forces and French capitalism.”

While never joining the Trotskyists he worked closely with them; his archives became one of the main sources for study of the underground Trotskyist press.

Guérin also devoted the war years to writing a massive study of the French Revolution, first published in 1946. (A much abbreviated version exists in English under the title Class Struggle in the First French Republic.) Guérin was not an academic historian and his study of the past was quite unashamedly intended to illuminate the present. By showing the class tensions within the bourgeois revolution, he was helping to undermine the myths of national unity and the “progressive bourgeoisie” which underlay the Popular Front and the Resistance.

By using the past to illuminate the present Guérin found himself the object of accusations of anachronism – of bending the past to make it fit the patterns of the present. In feet his aim was simply to show that within the bourgeois revolution a working class with its own interests was already beginning to emerge; as he put it, he was trying “to bring to light the embryos of anti-bourgeois revolution concealed within the womb of the bourgeois revolution”.

Guérin’s work on the French Revolution continues to be a matter of controversy; he claimed that later historians such as Soboul and Cobb had confirmed his findings but failed to acknowledge their debt to him.

In December 1946 Guérin went to the United States for two years, and wrote extensively to explain the USA to a European audience. At a time when many, not only on the right but also on the left (for example Herbert Marcuse) were arguing that there was no class struggle in the United States, it was vital to point to the deep-rooted class and racial divisions in American society.

Already in 1950 Guérin was writing of the “black revolt” in the USA. His short history of American trade unionism (translated into English as A Hundred Years of Labor in the USA) remains a useful introduction to the subject. Written from a revolutionary standpoint, it is sharply critical of both governmental anti-communism and the manoeuvres of the American Communist Party.

Guérin first came into politics as an anti-colonialist and this was to remain a constant theme in his writing and activity. In the thirties he corresponded with the leading Vietnamese Trotskyists (later murdered by the Stalinists) and in the fifties and sixties he campaigned actively on behalf of independence for the West Indies.

Above all Guérin worked tirelessly in support of Algerian independence. He first met the Algerian nationalist leader Messali Hadj at the time of the Popular Front (Algerian workers participated in all the main anti-fascist demonstrations in the 1930s) and he published articles on North Africa before 1954.

In December 1954, one month after the outbreak of the Algerian War, while most of the French left had not woken up to the situation, Guérin was involved in a joint Trotskyist-anarchist initiative to set up a committee against colonial repression. The first meeting was banned by the minister of the interior ... a certain François Mitterrand.

Defence of Algerian rights was not a comfortable activity. On one occasion Guérin was on the platform of a meeting when it was attacked by fascists with steel clubs and tear gas. In 1961 he signed the Manifesto of the 121 expressing support for those who gave practical assistance to the Algerian liberation struggle. While the most prominent signatories such as Sartre were not prosecuted, Guéin was one of 29 who were charged with incitement to disobedience and desertion. Like so many other revolutionaries Guérin felt the pressures of the long years in the wilderness between 1945 and 1968. The warring sects of French Trotskyism could not hold him. But while so many others drifted to the right, Guérin’s undying revolutionary integrity took him to the ultra-left. He increasingly identified himself with the anarchist tradition, of which he wrote a historical study.

But for Guérin anarchism was always a current within socialism, not something to be counterposed to it. He was far from uncritical of the great anarchists and continued to find much that was positive in the Marxist tradition. He defended Marx against anarchist criticism, edited writings of Rosa Luxemburg and praised Lenin’s “libertarian moments”, among which he numbered State and Revolution. The fairest description of his position is probably “libertarian communist”.

In the sixties Guérin started to discover virtues in the “workers’ control” practised in Yugoslavia and post-independence Algeria. But he did not go completely overboard for them, undoubtedly seeking signs of hope when nothing was happening at home.

He reacted immediately and enthusiastically to the upsurge in 1968; as early as 8 May he issued a statement, with Sartre and others, urging all workers and intellectuals to support the students.

Guérin was bisexual and while for a long time this was no more than a minor current in his literary work, he welcomed the birth of the gay movement, in the early seventies. He played an active role in the FHAR – Homosexual Front for Revolutionary Action.

Guérin never abandoned his revolutionary commitment and remained active until his final year; in one of his last articles he linked the French Revolution to the spirit of 1968. He was non-sectarian and would cooperate with whoever shared his basic goals. He wrote for Sartre’s journal Les Temps Modernes and spoke at the annual fêtes organised by Lutte Ouvrière.

Guérin’s work on fascism remains a valuable contribution; his analysis of the French Revolution will undoubtedly continue to be a cause of controversy. But more importantly than for any particular text, Guérin should be remembered for the totality of his life – theory and practice united by a commitment to fighting against racism, colonialism, fascism and war, and for the emancipation of the working class. Whatever specific disagreements there may have been, Guérin belongs to our tradition, and we mourn him as a comrade.

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