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Universalist, Bisexual Ambivalence: An Interview with Daniel Guérin
The following piece first appeared in print in Salvage #8: Comrades, This is Madness, our latest issue. Issue 8 is available to buy individually here. Our poetry, fiction and art remains exclusive to the print edition, and our subscribers have exclusive access to some online content, including all audio content. New subscriptions can be taken out here, and start with the next issue (issue 9).
What was the political event that first made you aware of the nature of the historical period in which you lived?
It’s necessary to go back a long time, to when I was fourteen years old in 1918, when I felt the horror of the First World War very distinctly … I was a man of the left from extremely early on, well before becoming militant.
You came from a relatively well-off family…
A great bourgeois family.
But with a father whom you yourself refer to as a humanist.
Yes, that’s right. He was very involved in art. He had a vast [interest in] literary and musical culture too. Through this I came to know of composers very early on. Gabriel Fauré, among others.
In this rich period for French culture, how did you relate to the idea of homosexuality? Was it spoken of in such circles?
It wasn’t spoken of, not, in any case, in my circles. And as for myself, it took me years to discover that I was of a homosexual orientation, and that my father was too.
How old were you when – during a trip to Greece – your father spoke of his feelings for men?
It wasn’t during the voyage to Greece, it was later. I had just turned twenty, I think. One day my father said to me: ‘I’ve noticed that you often have boys over in your bachelor pad, and that one never sees any girls there.’ I told him: ‘Yes, I didn’t tell you for fear of hurting you, but I prefer boys.’ He began to sob and told me, ‘So do I.’
Did your father live his life in the closet?
It’s difficult to say. With respect to his family, certainly they didn’t know. But in terms of his broader social circles, he wasn’t closeted at all. My father was a member of the Automobile Club de France and very early on, in the gym and the club swimming pool my father was surrounded by young athletes with whom he performed frankly astonishing acrobatics given his forty-odd years of age.
To come back to politics, how did you become informed? What topics interested you? How did your radical leftism develop?
Until 1930, when I was twenty-six, I was not active; my political ideas came to me through the general trends of leftist thought I consumed, and also from a journey, a trip to Beirut, to Lebanon and to Syria between 1927 and 1929. While I was there, I saw the all the horror, all the scandals of colonialism and I became an anticolonialist. When I came back to Paris and I wanted to take action, the starting point was anticolonialism. What’s more, as well as the trip to Syria, I spent three months in Indochina and so came to know the foulness of French behaviour there.
Tell me about your journey to militantism?
I came back from Indochina and decided to break with my family circles. I wanted to live alone and independently. To make a life for myself, one way or another. That was in 1930. I went to see my uncle, Daniel Halévy, who had had links to revolutionary syndicalist militants in the past. He sent me to Pierre Monatte, whom he knew well. They had written a book together on the workers’ movement. Monatte took me under his wing and and introduced me to his revolutionary syndicalist movement.
Did this split from your social class have anything to do with what had happened in the USSR, that is, the October revolution? What position did you take on that?
My first response was to develop a kind of fascination with the world’s first socialist state. But the Communist Party was based on principles I couldn’t accept. And then there was a material and physical issue. The lads who made up the CP in 1930 were genuine proles, in the real sense, they wore caps, work clothes. My interest, it must be said, was simultaneously social and sexual. I was fascinated by a group completely different from the one I came from.
During those two years in the Middle East you became aware of the colonial question, but surely you also came to realise your homosexuality too?
Of course, because Beirut was a French naval centre, and as a result, from the moment I arrived I had sexual relations with two seamen who for a year and a half were my companions every two or three nights. They ate dinner at mine, then there was sex after, particularly with one of them.
So was homosexuality a well-shared practice among men in the Middle East?
Yes, but it must be said that I rarely slept with Lebanese men. At one point, I had an affair with a young typographer who did nothing but sodomise me, no more …In the 1930s, against the backdrop of the huge power of syndicalism that existed, there was the rise of fascism. One felt this from the beginning of 1932, even in 1930 one was shocked by the Nazi’s victory – but that didn’t convey the danger. And the memories of Mussolini, in 1922, were very blurry. What was happening in Germany didn’t seem very significant.
Were you in Germany at this time?
The first time I was there was summer 1932, Hitler hadn’t yet taken power. The second was April–May 1933, when Hitler had just taken power. This meant that I had two very different trips: the first was a journey by foot, bag on my back, with a friend: we slept in youth hostels, quiet places, charmed by the young people there. We encountered the romantic youthfulness of the time in movements which were very old-fashioned, the ‘Jugendbewegung’ (Youth Movement), those young people who walked along the streets with a guitar or a mandolin, a backpack, legs bare. This was the period I knew. In ’33, it was very different, the hostels were in part Hitlerised and you had to talk with young Nazis when you stayed it them. It was stimulating, but very tough.
How was it that this strong youth movement, which was spectacular and impressive, became a vehicle for homosexuality, at least young people’s fascination with it?
To be honest, I never saw any overt demonstrations of homosexuality in the youth hostels. I felt a great desire for lots of the youths who were there, but I never made love with them … Fortunately, I was with a friend who dispensed these sorts of gratifications to me.
Had you not had this strong political conscience, would you not have been so fascinated by Nazism?
Oh no, absolutely not!
Because for several years I had been of a violently anti-authoritarian, anti-Nazi, antifascist persuasion! These positions had been anchored in me for a long time, not just developed in an instant; despite physical desires I neither failed nor faltered.
Did you have the impression that, up until the fall of Berlin, there were a lot of gays within the apparatus of the Nazi state?
Certainly, there were many.
And homosexual acts took place in a clandestine manner, and were performed apologetically by men of purity?
That’s right, but it wasn’t totally clandestine, Visconti’s film shows it well. There it’s represented through orgies.
Did you not have the impression that there was a sort of contradiction, an ambiguity, in which you observe the eroticism of uniform as well as your struggle against hierarchies?
Of course, naturally, there was a deep contradiction which has followed me throughout my life up to today. I am a libertarian [anarchist], I’ve earned my anti-militarist stripes, I take part in movements and committees fighting on behalf of soldiers … and I have always been seduced by the young squaddies I see at Maine-Montparnasse on a Friday night, or leaving on Sunday evenings. Always very fascinated by them. This is perhaps a reason for my specialisation in the anti-military cause. Homosexuality led me to a militant and ‘pure’ point of view.
That’s a bit like the story of Jean Genet. In the sense that when he said, very provocatively: I would never have understood the FLN (Algerian National Liberation Front) if I hadn’t slept with Arabs. Or when he campaigned for the Black Panthers, or over the situation for immigrants in France. It’s a similar tale in a way.
Yes, and what is more, this sentiment turned up in me during the period of the Algerian war. At that time, I had Algerian friends with whom I made love. A duality existed in me during this war: I was profoundly and sincerely disgusted by French colonisation in Algeria, but at the same time deeply attached to these young men, who were studs, and who pleased me enormously but who also generally fought for the FLN.
When did you get married?
In 1934. My wife was a young German communist who was a refugee in Paris … We went camping and I was very shocked to get hard while I was lying beside her in the tent. So, I made love to her. I married her and I experienced many years of normal – in inverted commas – heterosexual life, so that was that.
Did you join the Resistance during the war?
I always refused to go into the Resistance, the Gaulist and the Communist alike, because I was an internationalist and I thought that the two camps had as much responsibility for the war of ’39 as they did for the First World War. The only thing I could do was to help the workers at a company in a part of Paris to produce secret newspapers, which opposed both the German occupation and the boss who was getting rich off making weapons for the Wehrmacht.
For many years you were separated from your family by your break with their social class. Was this permanent?
I had broken away from my family and their class. At the same time that I went to see Monatte, I had been to see Léon Blum, who, following a letter where I told him I wanted to join the socialist movement, received me at his house, on the bed dressed in headspinning pyjamas (mauve, a gold pattern), very camp. He was very kind to me and told me: you will join the Socialist Party, twentieth section, the most proletarian in Paris. So, at the same time, I was part of the revolutionary syndicalists and on the left of the Socialist Party.
Did you think that Blum was gay?
I am convinced that Blum was bisexual. Homosexual tendencies were very visible in him, in his gestures, his elegance.
At what point did you decide to talk about homosexuality as part of your militancy?
Oh much later, when I published the little book Kinsey et la sexualité in ’54. I had read the two volumes of the report and I published this little book with Julliard. I called it my polemic. That was my first official act, in writing and in public.
How did those around you react?
Not too badly. The book earned me some credit with a few people. There wasn’t any scandal.
What can you tell me about your relationship with Sartre? Do you think Sartre was too obsessed with the Communist Party?
Sartre was a political weathervane, a very bad politician, he didn’t understand a thing about it. Put simply, he had a generous nature, a ‘masochistic’ nature, he looked for ways of stopping himself, searched for repression, never coming close to anything else. I was never in political agreement with Sartre.
You had longer relations, and even a friendship, with François Mauriac, is that right?
Ah, that friendship was the greatest honour. I knew him in 1923 …we would speak of our homosexual tendencies. He had a hidden love for someone who always lived in Switzerland.
Do you think that Mauriac was active as a gay man?
Oh yes. Moreover, he never hid it from me.
But he didn’t want to speak about it publicly?
Oh yes, he hid it. Even today, Mrs Mauriac forbids me from publishing certain letters I received from him. I donated all those letters to the National Library. He wanted them burned. But I resisted. I told him that they formed a part of his literary works.
What’s the story of your marriage and your life with your wife? Why did you get married?
I suffered greatly from solitude. Until I met my wife, in ’33, my loneliness was furnished with a charming boy, the one who came on the trip to Germany with me.
But why didn’t you try to set up a household with a guy?
The idea never crossed my mind. Not with anyone. I got married because I had a great desire to leave a legacy.
To go back to the subject of Germany in the ’30s, Wilhelm Reich’s Sexpol movement was taking place. You wrote about this.
Far later. I didn’t know him while I was in Germany before the War. I met Reich in ’47–49 during my journey to the US. This made me want to get to know his work better … Reich was a repressed homosexual, that’s why he was so aggressively against homosexuality.
What were your political views before the Cold War began? What did you think of capitalism during this trip to the US?
I had been a dogged opponent of American capitalism, of huge monopolies, of the oppression of black people, of poor white workers … I came back and I wrote a book denouncing American capitalism. That earned me serious attacks from former friends who reproached me when the Cold War was fully in swing, when Stalin was the main enemy, for having denounced American capitalism.
What do you think of paedophilia? Are you of the view that it’s an early form of homosexuality, or do you think it’s a separate sexuality completely?
I have no preconceptions when it comes to paedophilia. All that I know is that I am not a paedophile. But I understand that certain people find pleasure in young boys, and I would take care to set myself apart from the pack who are against them. Right now, I’m in agreement with those who signed the letter to François Mitterand about the Coral business.
Did you experience gay life in Paris before the War? Did you go to the balls, or the great parties in the city at night?
Yes, I talked about it in Paris gay 1925by Gilles Barbedette. For example, I went many years in a row to the gay ball at Magic City.
If we jump across the years to get to 1968, were you a fervent participant in May ’68?
Yes. Fervent and to this day I still disagree with those who wish to diminish the importance of May ’68 as the beginning of a revolution in France. Even though many claim that it was never anything more than an aborted movement, and above all an intellectual movement, run by students. When all the businesses in France were paralysed by factory occupations, and even the Communist Party forbade any contact between students and workers, I think that it in fact constituted an incredible movement, and a bankruptcy of the far left, who ought to have pushed things far further.
In 1971, you ended up in the Homosexual Front for Revolutionary Action [FHAR].
Yes, I was in FHAR. And I was enthusiastic after my experiences participating in Arcadie– because I did take part in the activity of the Arcadie years.
How was it that among people of the calibre of Françoise d’Eaubonne, René Hahn, yourself, and perhaps Jean-Louis Bory, there was no chance – either within or alongside Arcadie – of creating a more radical, more audacious movement than that which occurred on the rue du château d’Eau?
It came down to the recruitment of the Arcadiens, all of whom were lily-livered petits bourgeois, or even posh. And the Napoleonic personality of Baudry.
He led the house from its beginning to its end?
Yes, by the whip.
What do you think about the break-up of Arcadie?
I think that Arcadie hadn’t been useful for a long while. It had become more and more washed out, soppy and boring. It had to end like that. But we should pay tribute to Arcadie for having been a thing of courage in a time when none existed.
At the level of FHAR, I remember that you were frankly scandalised by the attitude of the Gazolines, sometimes.
Yes, but if I quit FHAR, it’s because in its later stages it became a hook-up spot. Go to rue Bonaparte if that’s what you’re after.
Still, it was foreseeable that, given the scale of the gay question, there would be difficulties in coordinating a movement. Do you not have the feeling that in FHAR there was a formally libertarian will, which prevented it from having a plan of action? It was all about coordinating all of this.
For sure. There was a fear of the birth of a bureaucracy in the FHAR. But I remember having been trained up by around fifty people, the room was closed, in the basement of a café on the corner of the Odéon theatre, and there was a very interesting meeting where we discussed very seriously important questions of homosexuality. All the people there were comforted to have finally done something a bit serious and constructive.
I’m moving now to the present: what do you think of the conditions of homosexuals today?
I think that the show of force that occurred when Fréquence Gaie was threatened was particularly important. But I think that an aggravation of the ghetto occurred due to the very success of the movement.
A commercial inflation?
Not just that, but a need to meet with people from the ghetto and according to the ghetto rites. So I don’t feel comfortable. I feel universalist, bisexual, politically ambivalent.
Your story shows that you have always been within the fabric of society, as much as a gay man could be, but that society’s fabric excluded gay men.
In accordance with the priorities of political miltantism, before the specific problems experienced by homosexuals, even though I defended them before there were many people doing so. But social militantism is the number one priority. For example, in the Fréquence Gaie affair, if I’d had a choice about what to do, I would have gone for Radio libértaire and not FG.
Can you make a quick comparison between the Front Populaire and the current socialist government?
There is a fundamental difference: there was a meaningful movement by the base at the time of the Front Popu, today no such moment exists! … We don’t hear the voices of workers.
So much so that we risk finding ourselves in a classic social democracy … becoming more and more reformist.
Yes, but it’s worse than that, to know that we are deep in a global economic crisis. And we’re at risk from transformations. No one can say where this will lead, a rejuvenation of the extreme left or the rise again of fascism.
The longer form of this text first appeared in issue thirteen of 3 Keller, the monthly magazine of the Gay and Lesbian Centre in Paris, in June 1995. Explanatory footnotes are by Sebastian Budgen.
Pierre Monatte (1881–1960), leading figure of French revolutionary syndicalism, and founder of the publication La Revolution prolétariennein 1925 when expelled from the PCF, along with Alfred Rosmer and Boris Souvarine.
Léon Blum (1872–1950), leading figure of the SFIO who combatted the split that led to the foundation of the SFIC and then PCF in 1920. Was twice leader of the Popular Front governments in June 1936–June 1937 and March–April 1938. Particularly detested by the far right as a Jew, he was imprisoned by the Vichy government and then deported to Buchenwald. Led the provisional govenrment December 1946–January 1947 that laid the basis for the Fourth Republic.
François Mauriac (1885–1970), writer and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1952. Both Catholic and (claims Guérin) gay, he had a series of vacillating political positions, ending up supporting the Resistance and opposing colonial policies.
Le Coral was an alternative education institution, influenced by principles of anti-psychiatry, for children with disabilities and/or other difficulties, founded in the 1970s in Aimargues, 30km from Nîmes. In 1982, a scandal exploded around Le Coral, including accusations of organised paedophile activities involving various public figures and intellectuals. The details of the affair remain ugly, murky and contested: what is clear is that Guérin, like many activists, political figures, writers and philosophers in France in the 1970s, took positions on age-of-consent laws and ethics that we would now consider quite indefensible.
Moderate gay lobby group founded in 1954.
Françoise d’Eaubonne (1920–2005), feminist and radical philosopher, coiner of the term ‘ecofeminism’. Pierre (here René) Hahn (1936–1981), gay activist and historian. Jean-Louis Bory (1919–1979), writer, journalist and film critic.
An offshoot of the FHAR.
Fréquence Gaie was a gay radio station founded in 1981 which started broadcasting without permission but supported by a campaign for such, which succeeded in 1982. After 1987 it went through a number of transformations including becoming a techno radio station, and is now known as Radio FG.