Daniel Guérin Showed Us What a Socialist Writer Should Be

French socialist thinker Daniel Guérin lived a life of extraordinary political commitment, from anti-fascist and anti-colonial struggles to his pioneering advocacy of gay liberation. Guérin’s writings and record should be a touchstone for the modern left.

French socialist writer Daniel Guérin at his home in 1977. (Sophie Bassouls / Sygma via Getty Images)

The French socialist Daniel Guérin was one of the most interesting political writers of the twentieth century. He was deeply involved in struggles for justice and equality, and much in his work remains relevant to our own time.

Guérin took part in the resistance to the Nazi occupation of France and campaigned against French colonial rule in Africa and Asia when it seemed all-powerful. He was a pioneer of gay liberation when it was a marginal, stigmatized cause, even within left-wing circles. Guérin also sought to foster dialogue between different ideological currents on the Left, Marxist and anarchist, instead of promoting one tradition above all others.

The remarkable story of Guérin’s political and intellectual career, which we can only summarize here, is full of important lessons for the socialist movement of today. Guérin’s work deserves to find a new generation of readers who can pick up the thread of the struggles in which he took part.

In Bed With the Working Class

Guérin was born in 1904 to a prosperous family in Paris. A talented writer, he originally aspired to a literary career and published two novels as a young man. He had already encountered socialist ideas as a student, but there were two factors which defined his development.

First, he was gay. This alienated him from his family background, but it also meant that a series of erotic liaisons brought him into contact with young Parisian workers. As he said many years later, “It was in bed with them that I discovered the working class, much more than through Marxist writings.”

It was a provocative statement, and not wholly true — Guérin was reading widely and intensively. Nonetheless, it does underline the importance of direct experience in his development.

This was followed by a decision to travel in the French colonies. He went first to Lebanon, then to Indochina. At this time, France still had the second-biggest colonial empire in the world, covering nearly one-tenth of the world’s land area and 5 percent of its population.

Most people expected things to stay that way. In 1931, the French government held a huge colonial exhibition; the minister responsible declared that “colonization is the greatest fact of history, . . . our grip on the world gets tighter every day.” Those like Guérin who believed that colonialism neither should nor would survive were a marginal minority, but they were to be proved right.

In Lebanon and Indochina, he saw the savage brutality on which French colonialism was based: the terrible poverty of the indigenous inhabitants and the way in which the authorities met any rebellion with harsh repression. He also made contact with some of those, both Communists and Trotskyists, who were organizing against French rule. By the time he returned to France in 1930, Guérin had decided that the rest of his life, and his writing, would be devoted to the struggles of the oppressed and exploited.

“It Couldn’t Happen Here”

He made contact with a group of syndicalists who had been expelled from the Communist Party and were firmly opposed to the rise of Stalinism in Russia. They published a journal called La Révolution prolétarienne (Proletarian revolution).

The next challenge was closer at hand. In 1933, Adolf Hitler had come to power in Germany. Many on the Left were confused and failed to understand what a new and dangerous phenomenon fascism was. Some claimed that Nazism was a product of the Germanic character — in other words, it couldn’t happen in France. One Socialist Party member told Guérin that talking about fascism would simply encourage the fascists; she was later killed by the Nazis.

Guérin was not anti-German; he had traveled in Germany previously, and liked the country and the people. But he was deeply shocked by Hitler’s success and wanted to learn more. In the summer of 1933, he toured Germany by bicycle. He tried to stay inconspicuous, even shouting “Heil Hitler!” at rallies to blend in.

He set out to talk to working people in Germany, to understand why some had turned to Hitler because of the failures of the Left, and how others were still trying to organize opposition. He collected illegal leaflets produced by the opposition and smuggled them out inside his bicycle frame. His aim was to reveal the “other Germany” which opposed Hitler and was his first victim.

As a result, he wrote a series of articles, and eventually a book titled The Brown Plague. But he also went on to write a more theoretical study of fascism, Fascism and Big Business, which was published in 1936. Here, Guérin argued that the Left needed to understand the nature of fascism, what was original about it, and how it differed from earlier reactionary movements.

His basic argument was that fascism was “an instrument in the service of big capital,” sponsored, in particular, by the owners of heavy industry. As a result, he believed the Popular Front alliance with an allegedly progressive bourgeoisie was doomed to failure. The only effective way to fight fascism was by opposing it with the socialist alternative.

Everything Is Possible

Guérin continued his support for colonial struggles, but now it was in France itself that the struggle came to a head. In 1936, a Popular Front government based on an alliance of left and center parties was elected. This electoral victory sparked off a general strike by 2 million workers, most of them occupying their workplaces.

Guérin was actively involved in the strike movement as secretary of the local committee for trade union propaganda and action in his own area, Les Lilas in the northeast suburbs of Paris, and he spent much time visiting factory occupations and encouraging action. While Guérin was suspicious of the alliance with the bourgeois Radical Party, he believed the Popular Front had encouraged “a genuinely popular movement in the sense that it drew behind the working class a not inconsiderable layer of petty bourgeois and poor peasants.”

By now, Guérin was a member of the Socialist Party (SFIO). The SFIO contained various factions, and Guérin aligned himself with the most radical, the Revolutionary Left tendency led by Marceau Pivert, although he disagreed with Pivert’s decision to take a post of responsibility for press, radio, and cinema on behalf of the government. As the Popular Front moved rightward and began to crumble, the Revolutionary Left was expelled from the SFIO.

The six thousand members immediately formed a new organization, the Workers and Peasants’ Socialist Party (PSOP). As the Second World War loomed, Guérin tried to transform the PSOP into a revolutionary party that could become clandestine if necessary. However, the fledgling party was too small and politically divided, and it disappeared with the outbreak of war.

Guérin always combined political agitation with practical activity. When Francisco Franco triumphed in the Spanish Civil War, he and other comrades, including the novelist Colette Audry, took a lorry across the Pyrenees to rescue five leaders from the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM), saving them from probable internment in the improvised camps set up on French beaches to accommodate refugees from Spain.

Resisting Fascism

When World War II broke out, Guérin was in Norway; later, after the Wehrmacht invaded the country, he was interned for a time by the Germans. He returned to Paris, now under Nazi occupation, in 1942.

Guérin remained true to the position he had argued for in The Brown Plague, namely that Nazism was directed against the German working class. Hence, he had little sympathy for the Gaullists and Communists in the Resistance who saw it as essentially an anti-German struggle for national liberation. The French Communist Party (PCF) organized physical attacks on German soldiers, raising the slogan “Chacun son boche” (Everyone kill a German).

Instead, Guérin sided with the small group of Trotskyists around the German Jewish exile Martin Monath, who produced a paper in German called Arbeiter und Soldat and attempted to organize resistance activity among the occupying soldiers. Nathaniel Flakin has now told the full remarkable story of Monath’s activism in a biographical study.

In spite of this extremely risky work and the general pressures of the occupation, Guérin somehow, almost miraculously, found time to do serious historical research. The result, in 1946, was a hefty two-volume study called The Class Struggle in the First Republic 1793–97, of which only a much-abbreviated version exists in English. This book set out to undermine some of the myths about the French Revolution, which was seen as the origin of the whole republican tradition in France.

Guérin argued that while the French Revolution was, in Marxist terms, a bourgeois revolution, it also contained the embryo of a proletarian revolution. The Parisian wage earners had begun to act independently of the Jacobins, whom Guérin saw as being led by the left wing of the bourgeoisie. In this sense, the Jacobins played a conservative role in relation to the movement from below. Thus, he was critical of the way that Communist Party historians in France espoused the Jacobin tradition. (If Guérin were alive today, I suspect he would like everything about Jacobin — except the title!)

Since Guérin explicitly drew on Leon Trotsky’s theory of the “permanent revolution,” his work was vigorously denounced by PCF-aligned historians, and it has remained controversial. However, more recent historical research has confirmed some of Guérin’s findings.

The Other America

Guérin continued to write and campaign in support of the victims of French colonialism. In 1946, when Ho Chi Minh came to Paris to negotiate about the future of Indochina, he invited Guérin, a well-known advocate of its independence, to dinner. Guérin dined with Ho, but as ever, he stood by his principles, asking him why the leader of the Vietnamese Trotskyists, Tạ Thu Thâu, whom Guérin met in Paris many years earlier, had been murdered because he opposed the line of the Vietnamese Communist Party.

After the defeat of fascism in Europe, a new world order emerged, with the United States now confronting the USSR. Guérin had no sympathies with the Stalinist regime in Russia, but he did not share the uncritical enthusiasm for America that existed in most of the West. Again, he decided to see for himself. Between 1946 and 1949, he spent over two years in the United States, meeting political leaders but also travelling around and meeting activists.

During his travels, Guérin made a close study of the US labor movement and its long history. He observed the deep roots of racism in US society and the emerging struggle for black emancipation, holding discussions with leading black activists like C. L. R. James and W. E. B. Du Bois. He gave a vivid picture of the struggles that would dominate American society in the coming decades.

Guérin’s position was clear. While he was deeply suspicious of the American regime and its role on the world stage, he gave full support to the movement of the exploited and oppressed in the country: “I have an unshakeable faith in the future of the American people. It must not be confused with a few monopolies which dishonour it in the eyes of the world.”

The result was a series of articles that appeared first in Jean-Paul Sartre’s journal, Les Temps modernes, then a two-volume book. Guérin’s work appeared in English with the titles 100 Years of Labor in the USA and Negroes on the March.

His perspective was clearly distinct from the pro‑American position widespread in the French political mainstream, at a time when the United States was increasingly financing France’s brutal war in Indochina. At the same time, he had no patience with the anti-American current in the French Communist Party, which went beyond political criticism of the US state and ruling class to mobilize a sense of cultural antipathy based on French nationalism.

Guérin’s writings did not please his erstwhile American hosts. Between 1950 and 1957, the US authorities refused him a visa even to visit the country, even though his wife and child were living there.

The Algerian Revolution

In 1952, Guérin spent three months touring North Africa, in particular Algeria. In constitutional terms, Algeria was defined as an integral part of the French state. In practice, it was a colony where the indigenous population was viciously oppressed. He published, again in Les Temps modernes, an article based on his observations called “Pity for the Maghreb.”

Guérin began by recalling that he had received a letter from Atlanta, Georgia, after publishing his works on the United States, urging him not to criticize the United States but rather to keep his own French doorstep clean. He responded that, as an internationalist, he had the right to criticize any country in the world, but he went on to admit that his American correspondent was right. He recognized that his first priority should be the enemy at home.

He described the wretchedness of urban overcrowding and unemployment in Algeria, and the way the authorities had suppressed indigenous culture, especially the Arabic language and Islam. He predicted that the owners of the great plantations would let North Africa be engulfed by fire and blood rather than surrender their power.

Did any of the leaders of the mainstream French left read Guérin’s article? Probably not. A government headed by SFIO leader Guy Mollet, which included future president François Mitterrand as a minister, attempted to crush the movement for Algerian independence by sending thousands of troops and executing Algerian prisoners. The result was a long and bloody war, ultimately proved futile by the granting of independence to Algeria in 1962.

From the beginning of the struggle waged by the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) in 1954, Guérin supported Algerian independence. He was involved in organizing what would have been the first meeting against the war in December 1954. However, it was banned by Mitterrand in his capacity as interior minister.

Defense of Algerian independence required courage. On one occasion, Guérin was on the platform of a meeting that was attacked by fascists with steel clubs and tear gas. Yet while Guérin unconditionally supported independence, he was not an uncritical supporter of the FLN.

Since the 1930s, he had known the pioneer Algerian leader Messali Hadj. Messali Hadj refused to join the FLN and maintained his own organization, the Algerian National Movement, which became involved in a murderous internecine dispute with the FLN. Guérin deplored this violence, which led to the death of many Algerian trade unionists.

In 1960, Guérin was a signatory of the Manifesto of the 121. It was an open letter signed by many public figures that contained the following declaration:

We respect and consider justified the refusal to take arms against the Algerian people [and] the actions of those French people who regard it as their duty to offer assistance and protection to Algerians oppressed in the name of the French people.

Guérin was one of those charged with encouraging insubordination and desertion, although the authorities eventually abandoned the prosecution, no doubt fearing the bad publicity a trial could bring.

After Algeria achieved its independence in 1962, the new president, Ahmed Ben Bella, commissioned Guérin to tour the country and report on developments. He was enthusiastic about what he saw as the development of self-management, but this came to an end with the overthrow of Ben Bella in 1965.

Gay Liberation

Though Algeria took up much of his time, Guérin also now began to write about homosexuality. In the 1930s, fearing, with some justification, that they would not understand, Guérin had concealed the fact that he was gay from his political allies. He was living two separate lives, with no contact between them.

In the 1950s and ’60s, the political left still took some very reactionary positions on gay rights. In 1956, Guérin wrote an article in the well-known left journal France-Observateur about the American biologist Alfred Kinsey, who had shown just how widespread homosexuality was in the population and had argued that it was natural. The journal published a number of letters in which homosexuals were described as “perverts,” “sick,” and unnatural.

He also published a little book called Shakespeare and Gide in the Magistrate’s Court, where he argued that some of Shakespeare’s sonnets were love poems addressed to a man. But hostility on the political left was still strong. The Trotskyist Lutte Ouvrière grouping dismissed the gay movement as seeking “socialism in one bed.” Guérin became involved in launching the short-lived Front homosexuel d’action révolutionnaire (Homosexual Front of Revolutionary Action).

At the same time, Guérin was having to reconsider his political strategy. He had never had any sympathy for Stalinism, which the Revolutionary Left had described as the “syphilis of the working-class movement.” In the 1930s and during the German occupation, he had been close to the Trotskyists. He met Trotsky in 1933, when the latter was exiled in France and had corresponded with him at the time of the PSOP. After 1945, however, he became less favorable toward Trotskyism.

Increasingly, Guérin’s sympathies shifted toward anarchism. In the first year of the Algerian War, it had been the anarchists who were to the forefront of the active opposition to the war. Guérin began to research the history of anarchism. He edited an anthology of anarchist writings, No Gods, No Masters, and examined the particular contributions made by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Mikhail Bakunin. He was a member of various anarchist organizations.

Between Marxism and Anarchism

Unlike some anarchists, Guérin did not use anarchism as a means to attack Marxism or socialism. On the contrary, he stressed that, for him, “anarchism is nothing but one of the branches of socialist thought.” At one time, he aspired to forge a synthesis of Marxism and anarchism. Whether such a synthesis would have been possible or desirable is not clear — certainly, Guérin never achieved it in his writings.

Rather, as Peter Sedgwick described Guérin’s trajectory:

His entire creative life has been spent in the effort to interpret to one another standpoints of a partial validity but with a claim to all-inclusiveness. As a mediator between libertarian socialism and “authoritarian” Bolshevism, as a spokesperson for anarchism among Marxists and for Marxists among the anarchisants, he has been the honest broker among ideologies as he is the rare interpreter of sexualities one to another.

Guérin was always anxious to encourage dialogue and cooperation between different tendencies of the Left. He particularly admired Rosa Luxemburg, about whom he wrote a book which helped to revive her reputation after many years when the Stalinist tradition had marginalized her. He was more critical — sometimes unfairly so — of Vladimir Lenin, but he did identify some positive features in Lenin’s work State and Revolution.

From his experience of the mass strikes of 1936, Guérin had learned to recognize the effectiveness of spontaneity, but also its inadequacies. He did not abandon the need for revolutionary leadership but saw that spontaneity derived from the fact that individuals were taking initiative and showing leadership. As he put it, quoting an unnamed worker, “There’s always someone pushing for spontaneity.”

1968 and After

In 1968, a wave of student demonstrations in France sparked off a general strike. It was like a rerun of 1936, and this time, there were 10 million strikers, often occupying their workplaces. Guérin supported the movement from the very beginning.

As early as May 8, when many on the Left, especially in the Communist Party, were ambivalent toward the student movement, he signed a joint statement with Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and his old comrade from the Revolutionary Left Colette Audry, urging “all workers and intellectuals to give moral and material support to the struggle launched by students and teachers.”

Guérin threw himself into the movement, speaking at meetings at the Sorbonne and discussing with radicalized students. His book on anarchism sold in considerable numbers to students who were looking for new ideas.

After 1968, he continued to oppose colonialism and racism wherever they appeared. He was enthused by the emergence of the Black Power movement in the United States and spoke in its support. But he also became involved in the struggle against racism in France, and in particular supported the emerging struggles of immigrant workers there. He was involved with the launching of a newspaper called Le Paria (The Pariah) in 1969–1970, which took its name from a paper edited by Ho Chi Minh when he lived in Paris in the 1920s.

Guérin took legal responsibility for the editorship since the immigrant workers involved faced repression and possible deportation. The paper did not last long, but while it did, La Paria produced 150,000 supplements in January 1970 in response to the deaths of five African workers in a migrant workers’ hostel at Aubervilliers because of a faulty heating system. It bore the slogan: “No to capitalist murder.”

Guérin’s Legacy

Anti-colonialism, anti-militarism, workers’ control — these were the themes around which Guérin continued to write and campaign up to his death in 1988. It had been a remarkably full life, the passion and intensity of which were captured in a (French-language) biographical film.

Guérin’s life and work remain an inspiration for socialist writers and activists in our own century. He was passionately committed to human equality and to genuine democracy for working people.

He was always concerned to bring together theory and practice; fascinated by the study of history, he never looked to the past for its own sake, rather seeking to draw lessons for the present. And he always had a voracious desire to see things for himself, to observe the situation in different parts of the world, to discuss with and learn from those involved in struggle.

On many questions, history has proved Guérin right. French colonialism, apparently so strong, has crumbled, leaving only a few small territories under French rule. Nobody now doubts that the peoples of Indochina and Algeria had the right to independence.

If homophobia still persists, the recognition of gay rights has made enormous progress in the last half century, thanks to those like Guérin who spoke out against prejudice. Same-sex marriage became legal in France in 2013. Racism may still be deeply entrenched in the United States, but there is also a massive movement organized against it.

If the enemies we face today seem all-powerful, Guérin’s struggles are there as a reminder that oppression does not always win. In the words of Trotsky, “The revenge of history is more powerful than the revenge of the most powerful General Secretary.”