The Red and the Rainbow: The Life and Work of Daniel Guérin

The Red and the Rainbow: The Life and Work of Daniel Guérin

Daniel Guérin speaking at a Popular Front meeting, 1936. Source unknown.

Class traitors are a rare breed. Some young bourgeois like to experiment but most end up repenting for their political transgressions. There are more Hitchenses than Guevaras; more David Horowitzes than Tariq Alis; more Brit Humes than John Reeds. After one’s newfound politics suffer a few rounds of defeat or fall out of fashion—or both—the home-spun comforts of privilege seem to have a way of making themselves hard to resist.

Fortunately, French activist and writer Daniel Guérin stayed the course—and with style, crafting an iconoclastic blend of history, journalism, criticism, and literature across the twentieth century. Born in 1904 into a well-to-do liberal family on the Left Bank of Paris, Guérin ditched what would have been a comfortable life in the bookselling business in order to live out his political convictions. He blossomed into an uncompromising champion of the labor movement, a sharp critic of authoritarianism both left and right, and an early defender of what we now call gay rights. Long before today’s debates pitting identity against class politics, Guérin showed how the two were inextricably bound in capitalism’s systems of exploitation and equally intertwined in the struggle to replace it.

Guérin is perhaps best known in his native country for a pair of historical polemics that undermined Communist Party mythologies from the left. Class Struggle in the First French Republic (1946) is a seminal account of the French Revolution that laid blame on Robespierre and the Jacobins, long venerated as “heroes of the people,” for betraying the mass movement of the sans-culottes. The other, Popular Front: A Missed Revolution (1963), decried France’s Communist-Socialist coalition government of 1936–1937 for putting the brakes on a worker-led revolution.

The rest of Guérin’s work is similarly inquisitive and teeming with disregard for his country’s left-wing establishment. In it, one finds sobering skepticism of the Soviet regime, clairvoyant critiques of fascism and colonialism, and an avant-garde defense of the sexual minority to which he belonged. Present throughout is a deep faith in the ability of ordinary people to make extraordinary social change. His perceptiveness for different forms of exploitation and his resilience in the face of political times grimmer than we can imagine make him essential reading for the left today.

Guérin’s penchant for self-criticism and reevaluation saw him drift between party labels and families within the Marxist tradition. He started off on the left fringes of what would become the Socialist Party, flirted with Trotskyism, and died a “libertarian Marxist,” intent on reviving the anarchist movement’s historic ties with organized labor. Through it all, he never lost sight of the original socialist ideal: a collectively owned and operated economy serving human needs, as the basis for a society at once freer and happier.

In Autobiographie de jeunesse : D’une dissidence sexuelle au socialisme (Autobiography of Youth: From Sexual Dissidence to Socialism), we get his conversion story. Until the small left-wing publisher La Fabrique released an edition last October, it had been out of print since 1972. Guérin first published the work in 1965, before the events of May 1968 paved the way for a second version to incorporate more self-reflection on gay identity. As with much of Guérin’s work, no English translation of Autobiography exists. This is a shame. He rightly belongs with figures like C.L.R. James and E.P. Thompson in the twentieth-century canon of engaged left-wing historians and journalists.

Guérin showed literary talent at a young age. A book of poems he published at age eighteen was particularly well received. Future Nobel Prize winner François Mauriac declared to have found in Guérin’s poetry an “exceptional gift.” The novelist Colette, some thirty years his senior, wrote to young Daniel that his work marked “the birth of a true poet.” “I hope you stay eighteen forever,” she added.

Guérin found little value in formal education. After attending the prestigious prep school Louis-le-Grand, he enrolled in the Institute of Political Sciences, or Sciences Po, the university of choice for France’s political elite. He quickly grew bored. “For me, studies are idiocies that make life hardly worth living,” Guerin quips.* At Sciences Po, he felt unmistakably out of place among his classmates, “future ministers and inspectors of finance, experts in their fields, hungry to succeed and to be in charge.”

After Daniel graduated and completed his obligatory military service, his father Marcel, a well-connected art dealer, used the family’s good name to land his son a job working for a bookstore in Paris. This, too, though, left Daniel restless. When a job offer surfaced at one of the company’s branches in Beirut—at the time under France’s flimsy postwar protectorate—Guérin jumped at the opportunity. The voyage would prove pivotal.

In Damascus and Beirut, Daniel describes witnessing the hypocrisies and brutalities of French colonialism. Amid meetings with high-ranking authorities and modest forays into journalism, Guérin catches wind of a grave miscarriage of justice: a murder ordered by a powerful Christian bishop results in the prosecution of two Arab hitmen, while the mastermind of the plot walks free. Not only do colonial authorities turn a blind eye, they award the bishop a position in the Legion of Honor.

In December 1929, Guérin’s employer opted to close its Levantine branch, forcing the writer back to Paris. Even as like-minded Americans flocked to the city for its “moveable feast,” Guérin was eager to get out. Almost immediately after his return, he set out again across France’s vast colonial empire—this time to Indochina, encompassing present-day Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. By this time, he had developed a detached and bookish interest in politics.

On the journey over, the budding intellectual studied the socialist classics, plowing through works from Marx, Trotsky, Kautsky, and Lenin. But as Guérin himself acknowledges, the reading alone wasn’t enough to inspire political conversion. It isn’t until he visits villages in northern Vietnam that he feels a genuine transformation take hold: “Slowly but surely, the marvel inspired by landscapes and folklore gave way to political observation. I learned, at the same time, how Europeans treated indigenous peoples and how the colonized despised their yoke.”

The precise motivation for the trip is unclear—it seems guided mostly by a kind of angsty wanderlust. But the colonial enterprise quickly becomes an obsession. Like a good reporter, Guérin meets with representatives of both sides to chip away at the truth of the matter at hand. With authorities and businessmen, he plays the part of dispassionate observer. With Vietnamese nationalist intellectuals, he assumes the more comfortable role of sympathizer and traitor to the French Republic. Upon return to Paris, he declares to have “more or less found [him]self.” Much to the chagrin of his family, he moves to the working-class neighborhood of Belleville and begins a new career as a rank-and-file labor activist. The transformation is complete.

Autobiography ends here, but Guérin’s political life was just getting started. After a few years roughing it in Belleville and Brest—a shipyard job in the early 1930s was likely more dirty and dangerous than Orwell’s gig as a Parisian busboy just a few years prior, memorably recounted in Down and Out in Paris and London—he set off on a bike tour of Nazi Germany seeking to better understand fascism before returning to foment revolt in Popular Front–era France. For this, and accounts of a trip to the United States in the 1940s, readers will have to turn to Guérin’s other autobiography, Le Feu du Sang (Fire in the Blood), published in 1977.

At any rate, it was during this two-decade period that Guérin produced most of his defining work. It remains painfully relevant today.

 

Fascism and Big Business (1936) sheds light on the intimate ties between economic elites and the bloodthirsty regimes that took root in Germany and Italy. A comparative study published on the eve of the Second World War, the book charts how industry-backed fascist groups seeking to eliminate the threat of organized labor and socialist revolution rode popular unrest to seize state power and build regimes that relentlessly served corporate profits. Guérin expounds on the class base of fascism—dispossessed small business owners joined by a swath of disillusioned workers—and the mystical appeal of the strongman ruler. He chides the labor movement and left-wing parties for their misplaced faith in bourgeois legal institutions and their general inability to grasp the depth of the threat before them. Perhaps most importantly, Guérin demonstrates how easily capitalist profit can go hand in hand with ruthless authoritarianism.

The latter point is especially vital to recognize in the age of Trump, whose victory was as nauseating for anyone concerned about the prospects of American democracy as it was thrilling for Wall Street. As Guérin shows, there’s nothing contradictory about this. The largest corporations in Italy and Germany didn’t just survive under fascist rule—they thrived, thanks to the war machine, a steady stream of state subsidies, and the decimation of trade unions.

Since the Second World War, the “fascist” label has become so saturated with meanings that employing it is rarely worth the headaches it induces. Current admirers seldom embrace the term in public; it’s typically meant as an insult; it’s famously hard to define; and it’s often used to connote a kind of closed-mindedness rather than an actual system of government. Against this backdrop, Guérin’s level-headed analysis ages well. It’s refreshingly cogent and to the point, beckoning contemporary readers to measure today’s right-wing populists with their ghastliest forerunners.

Writing in 1936, Guérin doesn’t examine fascism as an abstract ideology but as a concrete political process taking place in two neighboring states. While it’s probably futile to debate whether the current U.S. president is a fascist—the term bound to a set of economic and political circumstances that characterized 1930s Europe—Guérin reminds us that Trump’s rise has much in common with these prior movements.

Like those Europeans who saw their work lives crushed by technological change and economic crisis, Trump’s base, too, has felt the ravages of a rapidly changing economy. Like his predecessors across the Atlantic, Trump masterfully camouflages a radically pro-business agenda with populist messaging. His countless attacks against Muslims and immigrants recall the scapegoating practiced by the twentieth century’s most vicious ethno-nationalists, including the Nazis. And the mix of military and corporate power at the highest levels of government is uncannily reminiscent of arrangements under Hitler and Mussolini.

While we know what this toxic blend went on to produce in Europe, it remains unclear what will become of its American variant. At the very least, Fascism and Big Business suggests the United States is headed down an extremely dangerous path. Not only do major corporations not share this concern, but many actually stand to gain from it. One can only hope that the embattled left and labor movements rise to the occasion since, if history is any guide, the liberal-Democratic opposition will only go so far.

 

Guérin did not stop at analyzing fascism; as a member of the French Socialists’ Revolutionary Left tendency, he and fellow activists fought in vain to steer the party toward working-class interests and embrace revolution over reform. In the aftermath of a failed fascist coup at home, France’s socialists and communists joined forces to form the Popular Front alliance and won a parliamentary majority in the elections of 1936, sparking a massive and unexpected wave of nationwide strikes. While the spontaneous work stoppages troubled the country’s ruling coalition, Guérin’s comrades cheered the surging movement and the writer-activist himself helped manage a strike support committee in the eastern suburbs of Paris. After the Socialists disbanded the feisty minority fraction in 1938, Guérin co-founded the Workers’ and Peasants’ Socialist Party, itself outlawed by the newly installed Vichy regime just two years later.

On the dawn of war in 1939, Guérin moved to Oslo to work on behalf of the International Revolutionary Marxist Centre, a London-based group of small socialist parties that upheld an internationalist and pacifist line, a delicate position in defiance of the Second and Third Internationals. In April 1940, he was detained by invading Nazi troops and spent several months in a civilian internment camp in Bavaria—only to be released, remarkably, for health reasons and sent back to Oslo by the end of the year. In 1942, Guérin followed Germany’s order for French civilians abroad to return home, settling back in Paris where he went on to edit radical, antiwar propaganda aimed at both sides until the end of the conflict.

His penchant for seeking openings for the left in difficult circumstances may also be what inspired him to travel to the United States soon after the war, an unusual move for a French socialist at the time. European radicals in the immediate postwar years tended to view the States as a kind of wasteland for the left. Guérin was drawn to it, likely for this very reason. A two-year trip in the late 1940s gave him the sort of broad political insights about the United States that foreigners seem more predisposed to reach than its native inhabitants. Guérin originally published his findings in a two-volume collection entitled Où va le peuple américain? (Where Are the American People Going?), released in 1950 and 1951. Parts of these were later translated and published as Negroes on the March: A Frenchman’s Report on the American Negro Struggle (updated and published under the more provocative title Décolonisation du noir américain in 1963) and 100 Years of Labor in the United States of America.

Guérin, as others have noted, espoused a kind of  “intersectionality” avant la lettre: in other words, he was interested in different forms of oppression and how they related to one another. While his stances on racism and colonialism might seem like standard fare for socialists today, they were relatively original and nuanced for their time. During the early-to-mid-twentieth century, many French Communists and Socialists paid lip service to the idea of self-determination for colonized peoples but also tended to downplay the urgency of the matter. Guérin didn’t accept this logic. He saw the fight for national liberation and for socialism in France as different scenes in the same revolutionary drama, political subjugation in the colonies and industrial exploitation in the metropole fueling one another for the benefit of a privileged few. Likewise, as Guérin concluded during his travels to the United States, it was impossible to conceive of American socialism without addressing racism—and vice versa.

Autobiography of Youth sheds light on the roots of this sensitive and expansive political vision. “My move in the direction of socialism wasn’t objective, or of an intellectual order,” Guérin writes of his political transformation in Vietnam. “It was more subjective, physical, coming from feeling and the heart. It wasn’t in books, it was in me, first of all, through years of sexual frustration, and it was through contact with young oppressed people that I learned to hate the established order. The carnal quest freed me from social segregation.” Along with his experiences in the French colonies, it was coming to terms with his homosexual identity that pushed Guérin toward socialism, and he doesn’t spare us the details. The great theme of Autobiography of Youth is gay sex.

There is a lot to unpack here. On the one hand, Guérin brings to light the powerful connection between social stigma and political consciousness. As someone who shares the author’s preferences in both politics and sleeping partners, I have no doubt the two are interconnected: experiencing prejudice firsthand has a way of sensitizing oneself to the suffering of others—and it leaves a lasting suspicion of what passes for conventional wisdom. If society has discouraged two members of the same sex from holding hands in the street, then it must have gotten some other things wrong too.

This insurgent edge of coming out is often forgotten at a time when leading corporations and politicians claim to “accept people for who they are.” But gays have rallied to the side of other oppressed peoples for decades, from the early days of the Gay Liberation Front and its support for the Black Panthers to the Coors beer boycott designed to boost Teamsters’ organizing efforts in the 1970s. The dynamic was also on moving display in the recent film Pride (2014), which recounts the story of gay activists coming to the aid of striking coal miners in 1984 Wales under the banner of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. “Mining communities are being bullied just like we are,” declares the group’s cofounder Mark Ashton.

It’s what you might call the inherent empathy of gayness and it’s the stuff solidarity is made of. Guérin has plenty of it.

This is an especially subversive trait for someone born into the elite. One can easily imagine the life led by an alternative, straight Daniel Guérin: rather than being depressed and traveling to the colonies, he gets married and becomes an apolitical bookstore manager with a mildly successful literary career. Instead, his fondness for boys triggers an early break with bourgeois life and drives him to identify with those in direct conflict with it.

As Guérin often does with subjects, however, he takes the gay-revolutionary dialectic and pushes it to the limit. It’s not just sympathy with oppressed people and revulsion at mainstream society that turn him against capitalism. If we take the author at his word, it’s the actual physical desire to have sex with working-class men that ultimately leads him to embrace socialism.

Setting aside the paternalistic undertones, the ultimate outcome is a positive one. Still, one can’t help but see the argument as a bit forced.

Context is worth noting. To be a left-wing thinker in early 1970s France was to be obsessed with revolution, to be on watch for the slightest signs of rebellion. This lookout began at the workplace, but often extended across the banalities of day-to-day life. And understandably so: four years prior, the country had witnessed the largest wildcat strike in modern history and the stirrings of radical feminist, gay, and environmental movements. The events left intellectuals in search of new theories to explain the outburst and prolong the struggle against authority. Naturally, Marx and Freud were the great starting points, but they were insufficient.

Other than Foucault and Derrida—both of whom, for better or worse, have withstood the test of time—Guérin’s contemporaries included lesser-known thinkers like Guy Hocquenghem, Félix Guattari, and Gilles Deleuze. Bridging the gap between philosophy and psychoanalysis, their works share a frenetic urge to destabilize, unpack, and uncover the revolutionary elements of daily life and desire. This theory was cutting-edge at the time, but now comes across as dated and, at its worst, as an obstacle to actual organizing.

In positing gay desire itself as revolutionary, Guérin is speaking the language of high theory. But he’s also responding to concrete political struggles: this was also, more or less, the line of France’s first gay liberation movement, which grew out of May 1968. The so-called Homosexual Front for Revolutionary Action counted both Hocquenghem and Guérin as members, though Guérin eventually left after deciding it wasn’t serious enough of a political organization. In any event, the conclusion of Autobiography of Youth gives a nod to the group. The outburst of May ’68, Guérin writes in the final sentences of the book, “allowed many homosexuals to come to terms with themselves: in contesting class society more broadly, they’re led to unmask their sexuality against the ‘hetero-police’ at the same time as they fight for the Revolution.”

At a time when homosexuality was still classified as a mental disorder and prejudice widespread, including in left-wing organizations, Guérin’s emphasis on overtly gay themes was nothing short of courageous. He deserves immense credit for demystifying gay sex and tackling the idiocy of homophobia head on. Yet there are limits to the equation linking queerness and socialist politics. Attraction to the same sex alone hardly makes one revolutionary. After all, the likes of Tim Cook and Milo Yiannopoulos populate our ranks. Something else is going on here.

Although Guérin doesn’t stress it as much as one might expect, his other great radicalizing influence was unquestionably his experience in the colonies. Nowhere was the hypocrisy of the “advanced countries” more visible than in the colonial endeavor; likewise, nowhere was the need for an uncompromising solution more clear. Revolution and independence, nothing less, were absolutely necessary.

In an era of Walmart-sponsored pride parades and branded tweets for gay rights, Daniel Guérin’s youthful memoirs are a refreshing reminder of homosexuality’s radical political potential. And in a twentieth century marked both by fascism and by Marxist apologetics for all kinds of horrors, they offer valuable insight into the mind of someone who wasn’t fooled by any of the smoke and mirrors. Guérin was forever critical and principled. We could have used more like him.


Cole Stangler is a journalist living in Paris, France. He writes about labor and politics. A former staffer at In These Times and International Business Times, his work has also appeared in the Village Voice, the Nation, VICE, and Jacobin.

* All quotes from Autobiographie de jeunesse translated by the author.

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