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A life-time enemy of conventional ideas

by Anne Guérin

Daniel Guérin was born in 1904 to a wealthy, liberal and enlightened family in Paris who supported Dreyfus in the famous affair. His father was a collector of famous artists like Degas, and Rodin. His mother played piano with Ravel. Daniel got started with a literary career. His poems, published at 18, attracted the attention of Colette and François Mauriac (with whom he was to correspond for decades). But that same year, he read the Communist Manifesto with "enthusiasm".

 Armed with a degree from the University- Ecole des Sciences Politiques, he travelled to Lebanon, where he managed a Hachette bookstore, and then to Indochina (both under French domination at the time). There he discovered colonialism, which he was to battle against all his life… and also his bisexuality.

Having rejected his parents and renounced his literary works, Daniel became a proof reader for newspapers, and plunged deep into the numerous revolutionary movements of the 1930s: trade unionism, anti-Stalinism, anti-fascism, and anti-militarism. He was never ready to join any armed struggle, but was sometimes fascinated with violent action.

As a militant newspaperman, he twice covered Germany on his bicycle, just before and after when the Nazis took power, and wrote his testimony, "The Black Plague". In 1934, he married an Austrian girl, Marie Fortwängler. They had a daughter, Anne. And during the Front Populaire, Daniel joined the Marceau Pivert’s group, which was more to the left than Léon Blum’s.

Exiled in Norway, he worked as a waiter in a restaurant while trying to organize a workers’ international revolutionary movement. But he was soon arrested by the German invaders, and was deported to Germany as a civil prisoner. He was eventually freed because of his failing health and while back in Paris, he joined the French section of the Fourth International, a Trotskyite underground movement. He also found a job at the Comité du Livre (which sold limited stocks of paper for publishers and newspapers) and after the Liberation, became its secretary-general: "it was", Daniel wrote, "the only time in my life I ever held a position with power").

At the same time he continued, before office hours, his research on the French Revolution at the Bibliothèque Nationale. This led to his "Class struggle under the First French Republic": two thick volumes that won him the hostility of established historians, whether be they communist or conservative, but also the admiration of his father.

But Daniel was already travelling throughout the United States, from north to south and from east to west. When he returned to France and published the unfinished "Où va le people américain ?", McCarthyist America refused him re-entry, although his wife and daughter lived there. As Guérin denounced the black people’s plight, an American wrote him: “Why don’t you look in your own back yard?” So Guérin turned to North Africa.

As a virulent anti-colonialist, he followed every step of that region’s often-bloody emancipations (but did not spare its three countries when they became independent). Being especially revolted by the Algerian war, he signed the Manifesto of the "121", in support of French soldiers who did not to return to their units. This brought him - as well as 29 other French intellectuals - an indictment for threatening State security. But there were no judicial consequences.

Guérin inherited a comfortable sum of money from his father. This Jack-of-all-trades used it to travel; to set up a free refuge by the Mediterranean Sea for young writers, painters and students preparing their doctoral thesis; and to treat a wide variety of subjects with an almost always militant approach: Kinsey and Gauguin, the West Indies and anarchism – which increasingly attracted him – Rosa Luxemburg, homosexuality, and The Black Panthers. He helped Ionesco at the beginning of his career and took the risk of adapting Balzac, and Silone for the theatre, another of Guérin’s lasting passions. But he finally dropped his project of analysing the origins of sexuality from a Marxist anthropological point of view.

May 1968 found Guérin feeling old. Although he had deeply influenced student leaders such as Daniel Cohn-Bendit and the Trotskyite Alain Krivine, he hesitated about visiting the rebellious Sorbonne. But his libertarian disciples reserved a huge amphitheatre for him to speak. And he did: about self-management of the working-class, which was highly acclaimed. Guérin’s "Anarchism", a pocket book, became a best-seller in France and a world-known reference.

Shortly after that, the street demonstrations were harshly repressed. Daniel sent injurious telegrams to two ministers: Louis Joxe, his own cousin; and Raymond Marcellin, at the Home office. The latter triggered a never-ending inquiry into Guérin expenditures, as he was suspected to have financed the insurrection. (Which he denied).

Daniel’s outspokenness, his lack of diplomacy, his hard-line attitude in searching for the truth and for his own truth, brought unforgiving hatreds – and also indestructible friendships - to this incorrigible fighter whose address-book was as thick as a dictionary. Dozens of people were witness to his boundless generosity; many others knew how self-centred his was. He wasn’t often happy. Rather, he alternated between fervent activity and deep depression.

In spite of his many personal contradictions, Daniel never repudiated any of his sometimes-antithetical ideas or practices. Although he had already confessed about himself in "Eux et lui" (1965) - a slim opus which embarrassed even André Breton. The effervescence of the 70’s allowed him to make his coming out and to close a twenty-year-long inquiry on the murder of Mehdi Ben Barka, a revolutionary Moroccan leader.

He had ceased living with his wife dozens of years before, but they remained quite devoted to each other, notwithstanding their private quarrels. Marie attended libertarian meetings with him. Daniel nursed and looked after her. Marie’s death in 1979 left him distraught. His unfailing energy seemed to desert him. He faced old age, with terror.

A life-time enemy of conventional ideas, including anarchist ones, the old man horrified his own libertarian friends by signing, in 1981, a petition supporting Mitterrand (who he despised) as candidate to the presidency against Giscard d’Estaing (whom he despised even more). On the other hand, at a time when many younger militants abandoned all their commitments, Guérin asserted to the end his own faith in the coming of revolution, however delayed it might be.

Daniel Guérin died in 1988.

Dernière mise à jour CVS: Dimanche 02 Mars, 2008 [10:53:28 UTC]