A biography of the French libertarian communist and gay liberationist intellectual, Daniel Guerin.
Daniel Guerin was born in Paris on 19th May 1904. His family was well-off, with a liberal and Dreyfusard* outlook. His family background was conducive to a vivid interest in the arts, letters and music. He distinguished himself at university. Reading Marx, Proudhon, Sorel, Lenin and Trotsky in 1930, Guerin broke with his bourgeois upbringing and began to be active on the left. Later, as he says in his own words: “the reading of Bakunin, in the six volume edition of Max Nettlau and James Guillaume, immured me to any type of authoritarian socialism, whether it called itself Jacobin, Marxist, Leninist or Trotskyist. Under the effects of the commotion provoked by this reading, I was led to fundamentally revise the sentiments of admiration that the revolutionary strategy of Lenin had inspired in me... I concluded…that socialism must rid itself of the fake notion of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in order to rediscover its libertarian authenticity. This led me, when I revised my historic work on the French revolution to substitute ‘revolutionary constraints’ for ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’”.
In 1936 Daniel had been active with Marceau Pivert in the left wing of the SFIO (forerunner of the Socialist Party). By successive stages he moved in a libertarian direction. One of these stages was the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. He first of all took up “What I call classic anarchism , which I explained in ‘The Youth of Libertarian Socialism’(1959) then ‘Anarchism’ (1965) and simultaneously ‘Neither God nor Master’, an anthology of anarchism, where at the side of Bakunin space was given to Stirner, Proudhon, Kropotkin and many others. Then distancing myself a little from classical anarchism and not turning my back so much on my previous Marxist readings, I published ‘For a Libertarian Marxism’, whose title, I admit, leant itself to confusion, and shocked my new libertarian friends”.
After the 1968 events in France, in which he took an active part, marching at the side of Daniel Cohn-Bendit on many demonstrations, he helped set up the Mouvement Communiste Libertaire (MCL) with Georges Fontenis. Following the collapse of the MCL, he was active in the Organisation Communiste Libertaire (OCL) – Mark I - and then the Organisation Revolutionnaire Anarchiste ( ORA) and then in the Union des Travailleurs Communistes Libertaires from 1980 up until his death.
“For nearly a quarter of a century I attached myself to libertarian socialism or libertarian communism (the word ‘anarchism’ appeared too restrictive to me, and I only adopted it if it was completed by the word ‘communist’.)”
Daniel took a position against fascism from the start and his ‘Fascism and Big Business’ is still read to this day. He took a leading part in the struggle against French colonialism - he protested against the situation in Algeria from the 1930s right up until the 1960s. In the last few years of his life he was active in the fight against French occupation of New Caledonia (Kanaky). He was a convinced and active anti-militarist, and as a working journalist and proofreader was active in the CGT union central. He was not afraid to proclaim his homosexuality from the beginning of the gay liberation movement. His memoirs are remarkably honest on his sexual preferences.
I only met Daniel once whilst attending a conference of the ORA as an observer from the UK-based Anarchist Workers Association in 1975. He had a fluent command of English, developed during his exile in the Second World War, and had an acute interest in the situation in Britain. Nestor Makhno in his ‘ABC of the Revolutionary Anarchist’ wrote that nine out of ten intellectuals would not rally to the cause of the oppressed or would attempt to fool them. One out of the ten would be their friend and fight with them against the mystification of the others. Daniel Guerin was that one in ten, a singular person, the intellectual devoted to the cause of libertarian communism. In his own words: “Libertarian communism is not an approximation and not a dogma without variation…it should not be rooted in the past, but should be a point of departure for the future. The only conviction that animates me is that the future social revolution will be neither Muscovite despotism nor social democratic chloroforming, that it will not be authoritarian but libertarian and self-managed, or if you like councillist”.
Daniel Guerin died in the night of April 14th 1988, at the age of 83.
By Nick Heath, edited by libcom
* Dreyfusards were opposed to the anti-Semitic victimisation of a Jewish officer in the French Army in the Dreyfus Affair