Against all forms of oppression
by David Berry D.G.Berry@lboro.ac.uk
Writer, historian, revolutionary theorist and activist, anticolonialist, syndicalist activist, campaigner for gay rights, Daniel Guérin was active in many organizations and published in many fields. Those who write about him seldom do justice to this multiplicity of commitment or to what Guérin considered to be the importance of his attempt to reconcile anarchism and marxism and, on a much broader level, the personal and the political.
His second autobiography "Le feu du sang" (Paris. Grasset, 1977) was sub-titled "Autobiographie politique et charnelle", and asserted the common well of the 'vital force' which motivated him in both his personal, emotional life and in his socio-political commitments. Thus, in the 1970s, when Guérin campaigned for gay rights, it was through an organization called the Front Homosexuel d'Action Révolutionnaire.
The identity of 'Daniel Guérin' - this 'son of the bourgeoisie' who 'sought to merge with the people in order ultimately to put himself at the service of the revolution' ("Autobiographie de Jeunesse", Paris: Belfond, 1972, p.9) was a central concern of his autobiographies, and he was to suffer often from simplistic pigeon-holing. It would not have surprised him to learn that, in different biographical and obituary articles, he was described by a writer in "Le Monde" as an anarchist; an anarchist-communist declared his incomprehension of Guérin's interest in the individualist Max Stirner; a Trotskyist lamented the fact that Guérin had not been quite Trotskyist enough; and a labour historian neglected any mention of his sexual proclivities and included "Le Feu du sang" in the 'sexology' section of the bibliography.
Guérin was born of a liberal, humanist, pro-Dreyfus family of the Left Bank, a very upper-class family with connections in banking, industry, commerce, transport and publishing. In 1927 he finally escaped a restrictive family life by going to Syria and the Lebanon to work as a bookseller, and his long stay there, combined with a three-month visit to Indo-China, convinced him of the injustices of French colonialism.
On his return to France in 1930 he contributed articles on the subject to H. Barbusse's "Monde", and was later to be an active member of F. Jourdain's Comité d'Amnistie aux Indochinois.
At the same time, he became involved with the revolutionary syndicalists around Pierre Monatte, contributing articles to "La Révolution Prolétarienne" and "Le Cri du Peuple", and involving himself in the campaign for the reunification of the CGT and the Communist-controlled CGTU. He joined the Belleville group of the Socialist Party (SFIO), but resigned again because of the anti-communism of certain municipal councillors.
After visits to Germany in 1932 and 1933 Guérin wrote his studies of nazism and fascism, "La Peste brune" and "Fascisme et grand capital". In 1932 Guérin joined the Syndicat des Correcteurs, and was to remain a lifelong member. The following year, he was a co-founder of the Centre Laïque des Auberges de la Jeunesse.
In October 1935 Guérin re-joined the SFIO, and became a member of the recently-created Gauche Révolutionnaire (revolutionary left) tendency led by M. Pivert. He was to hold several posts, and clashed not only with the Communists over their attempts to dominate trade union activities, but also with Marius Moutet, the SFIO minister for the colonies, and with M. Paz, secretary of the SFIO's colonies committee.
In January 1938 the Gauche Révolutionnaire gained control of the SFIO's Seine Federation, and Guérin became one of the assistant secretaries. When the tendency was expelled from the SFIO (Royan Congress 1938), and the Parti Socialiste Ouvrier et Paysan was created, Guérin joined the new party, remaining firmly attached to the principles of revolutionary defeatism and proletarian internationalism. He had links with Trotsky, whilst disagreeing with him over the creation of a Fourth International.
Guérin had attended the International Congresses in Brussels (October 1938) and Paris (Apnl 1939) of the Front Ouvrier International, and had been delegated by it to establish a secretariat in Oslo if war broke out. This he did, and he produced a monthly bulletin from October 1939 to April 1940, when he was arrested by the German army and taken to Germany. He managed to return to France in 1942 and was involved in an underground Trotskyist organization.
For just over two years, 1946-9, Guérin lived in the USA, and on his return produced the two-volume study "Où va le peuple américain?" (Paris: Julliard, 1950 and 1951), parts of which were later republished as more specific studies on the American labour movement, the position of black Americans and economic concentration.
Throughout the 1950s Guérin was heavily involved in anticolonial agitation. In 1952 he travelled to the Maghreb and established contact with syndicalist and nationalist militants there. From 1953 to 1955 he was a member of the Comité France-Maghreb led by F. Mauriac. In 1960 he was one of the first signatories of the 'Appeal of the 121' calling for the right not to fight in the Algerian War, and in 1963 he presented a report to President Ben Bella on Algerian self-management After the coup of 1965, he helped found the committee which supported Ben Bella and opposed political repression in Algeria. He was also behind the creation of a committee to establish the truth about the disappearance of Moroccan leader Ben Barka in 1965.
Guérin's ideas regarding socialism evolved significantly from the 1950s. In 1955-7 he was active in the Nouvelle Gauche led by, among others, C. Bourdet; in 1957 this merged with the Mouvement de Libération du Peuple to become the Union de la Gauche Socialiste, then the Parti Socialiste Unifié. In May-June 1968 Guérin led open debates on self-management in the Sorbonne and in an occupied factory. The following year he joined G. Fontenis' Mouvement Communiste Libertaire, later to become the Organisation Communiste Libertaire, and he was responsible for its organ, "Guerre de Classes".
In 1973 he joined the Organisation Révolutionnalre Anarchiste, and wrote for its paper, Front Libertaire. His evolution towards what he called libertarian communism - an attempted reconciliation of anarchism and Marxism (see "A la recherche d'un communisme libertaire", Paris: Spartacus, 1984) - led him to become a member of the Union des Travailleurs Communistes Libertaires in 1980.
David Berry, ‘Daniel Guérin’ in David Bell, Douglas Johnson and Peter Morris (eds.), A Biographical Dictionary of French Political Leaders since 1870 (London: Harvester Press for the Association for the Study of Modern and Contemporary France, 1990), p.191-3.