For a Libertarian Communism

For a Libertarian Communism


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781629632360
Publisher: PM Press
Publication date: 11/01/2017
Series: Revolutionary Pocketbooks Series
Pages: 160
Sales rank: 1,050,805
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Daniel Guérin was a prominent member of the French left for half a century. He published The Brown Plague in 1933 and Fascism and Big Business in 1936. His controversial, libertarian Marxist interpretation of the French Revolution, Class Struggle in the First Republic, 1793–1797 was judged by his friend C.L.R. James to be “one of the great theoretical landmarks of our movement”. Mitchell Abidor is the principal French translator for the Marxists Internet Archive. His translations include Anarchists Never Surrender, Voices of the Paris Commune, and Death to Bourgeois SocietyDavid Berry is currently a senior lecturer in politics and history at Loughborough University, UK. His publications include A History of the French Anarchist Movement, 1917–1945, New Perspectives on Anarchism, Labour and Syndicalism, and Libertarian Socialism. He is currently preparing a biography of Guérin.

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I have a horror of sects, of compartmentalisation, of people who are separated by virtually nothing and who nevertheless face each other as if across an abyss.

— Daniel Guérin

As he once wrote of the fate suffered by anarchism, Daniel Guérin (1904–1988) has himself been the victim of unwarranted neglect and, in some circles at least, of undeserved discredit. For although many people know of Guérin, relatively few seem aware of the breadth of his contribution. His writings cover a vast range of subjects, from fascism and the French Revolution to the history of the European and American labour movements; from Marxist and anarchist theory to homosexual liberation; from French colonialism to the Black Panthers; from Paul Gauguin to French nuclear tests in the Pacific — not to mention several autobiographical volumes. As an activist, Guérin was involved in various movements and campaigns: anticolonialism, antiracism, antimilitarism, and homosexual liberation. This is a man who counted among his personal friends François Mauriac, Simone Weil, C.L.R. James, and Richard Wright, to name but a few of the famous names which litter his autobiographies. His youthful literary efforts provoked a letter of congratulation from Colette; he met and corresponded with Leon Trotsky; and he had dinner "en tête à tête" with Ho Chi Minh. Jean-Paul Sartre

A version of this introduction was first published in Alex Prichard, Ruth Kinna, Saku Pinta, and David Berry (eds.), Libertarian Socialism: Politics in Black and Red (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012; 2nd edition, Oakland: PM Press, 2017).

judged his reinterpretation of the French Revolution to be "one of the only contributions by contemporary Marxists to have enriched historical studies." The gay liberation activist Pierre Hahn believed his own generation of homosexuals owed more to Guérin than to any other person, and the Martinican poet Aimé Césaire paid tribute to his work on decolonization. Noam Chomsky considers Guérin's writings on anarchism to be of great importance to the development of contemporary socialist thought.

Yet despite such assessments, and although there is widespread and enduring interest in Guérin among activists, he has been badly neglected by academic researchers in France and especially in the English-speaking world. This is doubtless due to a combination of factors: Guérin never held an academic post or any leadership position (except briefly at the Liberation as director of the Commission du Livre, a government agency that oversaw the book publishing industry); he was consistently anti-Stalinist during a period when the influence of the French Communist Party, both among intellectuals and within the labour movement, was overwhelming; he never fit easily into ideological or political pigeonholes and was often misunderstood and misrepresented; and in France in the 1960s and 1970s, his bisexuality was shocking even for many on the Left. Guérin was, in a word, a "troublemaker."

Concerned that his reinterpretation of the French Revolution, La Lutte de classes sous la Première République, 1793–1797 (1946), had been misunderstood, in 1947, Daniel Guérin wrote to his friend, the socialist Marceau Pivert, that the book was to be seen as "an introduction to a synthesis of anarchism and Marxism-Leninism I would like to write one day." What exactly did Guérin mean by this "synthesis," and how and why had he come to be convinced of its necessity? For as Alex Callinicos has commented, "genuinely innovative syntheses are rare and difficult to arrive at. Too often attempted syntheses amount merely to banality, incoherence, or eclecticism."

It must however be noted from the outset that Guérin had no pretensions to being a theorist: he saw himself first and foremost as an activist and secondly as a historian. Indeed, from the day in 1930 when he abandoned the poetry and novels of his youth, all his research and writings were concerned more or less directly with his political commitments. His developing critique of Marxism and his later interest in the relationship between Marxism and anarchism were motivated by his own direct experience of active participation in revolutionary struggles on a number of fronts; they can thus only be clarified when studied in relation to social and political developments.

Although Guérin, in some of his autobiographical or semi-autobiographical writings, had a tendency to divide his life into more or less distinct "phases," and despite the fact that his political or ideological trajectory may seem to some to be rather protean, I would argue that there was in fact an underlying ideological consistency — even if changing circumstances meant that his "organisational options" (as he put it) changed in different periods of his life. A historical materialist all his life, he remained attached to a revolutionary socialism with a strong ethical or moral core. Although it was many years before he found an organisation which lived up to his expectations, he was always at heart a libertarian communist, developing an increasingly strong belief in the need for a "total revolution" which would attach as much importance to issues of race, gender, and sexuality as to workplace-based conflict. Whether specifically in his commitment to anticolonialism or to sexual liberation, or more generally in his emphasis on what today would be called intersectionality, Guérin was undoubtedly ahead of his time.

Early Influences

Despite coming from the "grande bourgeoisie" — a background which he would come to reject — Guérin owed much to the influence of his branch of the family: humanist, liberal and cultured, both his parents had been passionately pro-Dreyfus, both were influenced by Tolstoy's ethical and social ideas, and his father's library contained The Communist Manifesto as well as works by Benoît Malon, Proudhon, and Kropotkin. The young Daniel seems to have been particularly influenced by his father's pacifism and was also deeply affected by his own reading of Tolstoy's Diaries and Resurrection. In the context of the increasingly polarised debates of the inter-war period between the Far Right and Far Left ("Maurras versus Marx" as he put it), he identified with the "Marxist extreme Left" from a relatively early age. His later "discovery" of the Parisian working class and of the concrete realities of their everyday existence (to a large extent through his homosexual relationships with young workers) reinforced a profound "workerism" which would stay with him for the rest of his life.

The Bankruptcy of Stalinism and Social Democracy

This workerism would lead him in 1930–1931 to join the syndicalists grouped around the veteran revolutionary Pierre Monatte: typically, perhaps, Guérin's first real active involvement was in the campaign for the reunification of the two major syndicalist confederations, the CGT (dominated at that time by the PS-SFIO, the Socialist Party) and the CGTU (dominated by the PCF, the French Communist Party). His workerism was also responsible for a strong attraction towards the PCF, far more "proletarian" than the Socialist Party, despite his "visceral anti-Stalinism" and what he saw as the Party's "crass ideological excesses, its inability to win over the majority of workers, and its mechanical submission to the Kremlin's orders." Yet Guérin was no more impressed with the PS, which he found petty-bourgeois, narrow-minded, dogmatically anticommunist, and obsessed with electioneering:

The tragedy for many militants of our generation was our repugnance at having to opt for one or the other of the two main organisations which claimed, wrongly, to represent the working class. Stalinism and social democracy both repelled us, each in its own way. Yet those workers who were active politically were in one of these two parties. The smaller, intermediate groups and the extremist sects seemed to us to be doomed to impotence and marginalisation. The SFIO, despite the social conformism of its leadership, at least had the advantage over the Communist Party of enjoying a certain degree of internal democracy, and to some extent allowed revolutionaries to express themselves; whereas the monolithic automatism of Stalinism forbade any critics from opening their mouths and made it very difficult for them even to stay in the party.

Hence his decision to rejoin the SFIO in 1935, shortly before the creation by Marceau Pivert of the Gauche révolutionnaire (Revolutionary Left) tendency within the party, of which he would become a leading member. Guérin was attracted by Pivert's "Luxemburgist," libertarian and syndicalist tendencies. He was consistently on the revolutionary wing of the Gauche révolutionnaire and of its successor, the Parti socialiste ouvrier et paysan (PSOP, or Workers' and Peasants' Socialist Party, created when the GR was expelled from the SFIO in 1938), and, in the Popular Front period, he drew a clear distinction between what he called the "Popular Front no. 1" — an electoral alliance between social democracy, Stalinism, and bourgeois liberalism — and the "Popular Front no. 2" — the powerful, extra-parliamentary, working-class movement, which came into conflict with the more moderate (and more bourgeois) Popular Front government. He viewed the "entryism" of the French Trotskyists in these years as a welcome counterbalance to the reformism of the majority of the Socialist Party.

Indeed, in the 1930s, Guérin agreed with Trotsky's position on many issues: on the nature of fascism and how to stop it; on war and revolutionary proletarian internationalism; on opposition to the collusion between "social-patriotism" (i.e., mainstream social democracy) and "national-communism" (i.e., the PCF) as well as any pact with the bourgeois Radicals; and on the need to fight actively for the liberation of Europe's colonies. As Guérin comments after recounting in glowing terms his sole meeting with Trotsky in Barbizon (near Fontainebleau) in 1933: "On a theoretical level as well as on the level of political practice, Trotsky would remain, for many of us, both a stimulus to action and a teacher."

Ultimately, Guérin's experience of the labour movement and of the Left in the 1930s — as well as his research on the nature and origins of fascism and Nazism — led him to reject both social democracy and Stalinism as effective strategies for defeating fascism and preventing war. Indeed, the Left — "divided, ossified, negative, and narrow-minded" in Guérin's words — bore its share of responsibility and had made tragic errors. The SFIO was criticised by Guérin for its electoralism and for allowing its hands to be tied by the Parti radical-socialiste, "a bourgeois party whose corruption and bankruptcy were in large part responsible for the fascist explosion"; for its incomprehension of the nature of the capitalist state, which led to the impotence of Léon Blum's 1936 Popular Front government; for its failure to take fascism seriously (and to aid the Spanish Republicans), despite the warnings, until it was too late; and for its obsessive rivalry with the PCF. The PCF was equally harshly criticised by Guérin — for what seemed to him to be its blind obedience to the Comintern, the criminal stupidity of the Comintern's "third period" and for its counter-revolutionary strategy both in Spain and in France.

As for Trotsky, Guérin disagreed with him over the creation of the Fourth International in 1938, which seemed to him premature and divisive. More generally, Guérin was critical of what he saw as Trotsky's tendency continually to transpose the experiences of the Russian Bolsheviks onto contemporary events in the West, and of his "authoritarian rigidness." Trotskyism, Guérin argued, represented "the ideology of the infallible leader who, in an authoritarian fashion, directs the policy of a fraction or of a party." What Guérin wanted to see was "the full development of the spontaneity of the working class." Writing in 1963, Guérin would conclude with regard to such disputes over revolutionary tactics:

The revolutionary organisation which was lacking in June 1936 was not, in my opinion, an authoritarian leadership emanating from a small group or sect, but an organ for the coordination of the workers' councils, growing directly out of the occupied workplaces. The mistake of the Gauche Révolutionnaire was not so much that it was unable, because of its lack of preparation, to transform itself into a revolutionary party on the Leninist or Trotskyist model, but that it was unable ... to help the working class to find for itself its own form of power structure to confront the fraud that was the Popular Front no. 1.

So as Guérin summarised the state of the Left in the 1930s: "Everything made the renewal of the concepts and methods of struggle employed by the French Left both indispensable and urgent." These debates on the Left regarding tactics (working-class autonomy or "Popular Frontism") and the role of the "avant-garde" or, in syndicalist terms, the "activist minority" (minorité agissante) would recur in the postwar years, and Guérin's position would vary little.

The Break from Trotskyism

Despite Guérin's reservations about Trotskyism, his analysis of the nature of the Vichy regime was very similar to that put forward by the Fourth International, and he was also impressed with Trotsky's manifesto of May 1940, "La guerre impérialiste et la révolution prolétarienne mondiale" [Imperialist War and the World Proletarian Revolution], including it in a collection of Trotsky's writings on the Second World War he would edit in 1970. He worked with the Trotskyists in the resistance, not least because they remained true to their internationalism and to their class politics. They rejected, for instance, what Guérin saw as the PCF's demagogic nationalism. Guérin was thus closely involved with the Trotskyists' attempts to organise extremely dangerous antimilitarist and anti-Nazi propaganda among German soldiers. He also contributed to the activities of a group of Trotskyist workers producing newsletters carrying reports of workplace struggles against both French employers and the German authorities.

However, an extended study tour of the United States from 1946 to 1949, which included visits to branches or prominent militants of the Socialist Workers' Party and the breakaway Workers' Party, represented a turning point in Guérin's "Trotskyism." In a 1948 letter to Marceau Pivert, he commented on his unhappiness with the Trotskyists' tendency to "repeat mechanically old formulae without rethinking them, relying lazily and uncritically on the (undeniably admirable) writings of Trotsky." Looking back thirty years later, he would conclude: "It was thanks to the American Trotskyists, despite their undeniable commitment, that I ceased forever believing in the virtues of revolutionary parties built on authoritarian, Leninist lines."

The "Mother of Us All"

Unlike many on the Left associated with postwar ideological renewal, most of whom would focus on a revision or reinterpretation of Marxism, often at a philosophical level (Sartre, Althusser, or Henri Lefebvre, for example), Guérin the historian began with a return to what he saw as the source of revolutionary theory and praxis: in 1946, he published his study of class struggle in the First French Republic (1793–1797). The aim of the book was to "draw lessons from the greatest, longest and deepest revolutionary experience France has ever known, lessons which would help regenerate the revolutionary, libertarian socialism of today," and to "extract some ideas which would be applicable to our time and of direct use to the contemporary reader who has yet to fully digest the lessons of another revolution: the Russian Revolution." Applying the concepts of permanent revolution and combined and uneven development, inspired by Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution, Guérin argued that the beginnings of a conflict of class interest could already be detected within the revolutionary camp between an "embryonic" proletariat — the bras nus (manual workers), represented by the Enragés — and the bourgeoisie — represented by Robespierre and the Jacobin leadership. For Guérin, the French Revolution thus represented not only the birth of bourgeois parliamentary democracy, but also the emergence of "a new type of democracy," a form of working-class direct democracy as seen, however imperfectly, in the "sections" (local popular assemblies), precursors of the Commune of 1871 and the Soviets of 1905 and 1917. In the second edition of the work (1968) he would add "the Commune of May 1968" to that genealogy.

Similarly, this interpretation tended to emphasise the political ambivalence of the bourgeois Jacobin leadership which "hesitated continually between the solidarity uniting it with the popular classes against the aristocracy and that uniting all the wealthy, property-owning classes against those who owned little or nothing." For Guérin, the essential lesson to be drawn from the French Revolution was thus the conflict of class interest between the bourgeoisie and the working classes. Bourgeois, social democratic, and Stalinist interpretations of the Revolution — like those of Jean Jaurès, Albert Mathiez, and so many others — which tended to maintain the "cult of Robespierre" and to reinforce the labour movement's dependence on bourgeois democracy, were thus to be rejected.


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Table of Contents

Foreword and Acknowledgments,
List of Acronyms,
The Search for a Libertarian Communism: Daniel Guérin and the "Synthesis" of Marxism and Anarchism,
Daniel Guérin, For a Libertarian Communism,
Why "Libertarian Communist"?,
The Rehabilitation of Anarchism,
Proudhon and Workers' Self-management,
Three Problems of the Revolution,
The French Revolution De-Jacobinized,
Two Indictments of Communism,
May, a Continuity, a Renewal,
Self-management in Revolutionary Spain, 1936–1937,
Libertarian Communism, the Only Real Communism,
The Libertarian Communist Platform of 1971,
The 1989 Call for a Libertarian Alternative,

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