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

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Cole Stangler
Dissent Magazine
Spring 2017

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.

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