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The Phallic Road to Socialism
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).
In an era characterised by petty and provincial ambitions, the boredom and routine of activism, working lives for academic scholars so crammed with bureaucratic obligations that even serious reading – let alone research and writing – only occur in stolen, illicit time, the life and œuvre of Daniel Guérin inspires enormous admiration and not a little envy. In the wonderful documentary Daniel Guérin (1904–1988) – Combats dans le siècle, available on YouTube, his daughter Anne calls him ‘effervescent’. So accustomed are we to the replies ‘I don’t have time’, or ‘Sorry, I’m completely swamped’, that we cannot fail to be astounded by the sheer number of activities – intellectual, artistic, political, sexual – Guérin engaged in throughout his life, even while, for long periods, holding down work as a proof-reader or as a manual labourer.
Guérin was the author of no fewer than forty-two books (a bibliography is available at danielguerin.info), including two novels, one collection of poetry, two plays, and several mighty tomes, such as the two volumes of La lutte de classes sous la Première République (The Class Struggle Under the First Republic) and Où va le peuple américain? (Whither the American People?) and innumerable articles in newspapers and journals. Still, he found the time to travel – in some cases for extended periods – to Lebanon, Syria, Djibouti, Vietnam, Germany (before and after the Nazi seizure of power, and even as a prisoner), Norway, the USA, the Maghreb, Cuba, the Antilles and elsewhere. He was politically active with or alongside the French Socialist Party (SFIO), the trade union confederations the CGTU and the CGT, the revolutionary syndicalists of La Révolution Prolétarienne and Le Cri du peuple, the Gauche révolutionnaire (the left wing of the SFIO, led by Marcel Pivert) and the Parti socialiste ouvrier et paysan (a left split from the SFIO led by Pivert), the Trotskyist PCI, the anarchist Fédération communiste libertaire, the Union de la gauche socialiste and the Parti socialiste unifié, the Mouvement communiste libertaire, the moderate gay decriminalisation lobby group Arcadie, as well as the ‘in-your-face’ Front homosexual d’action révolutionnaire (FHAR) and the Groupe de libération homosexuelle politique et quotidien, the Organisation communiste libertaire and the Union des travailleurs communistes libertaires (forerunner of today’s Alternative libertaire).
Amusingly, his membership of the SFIO was inaugurated by a visit to the future leader of the Popular Front government Léon Blum, whom Guérin considered gay or bisexual, who received him whilst lying on his bed, clad in ‘headspinning pyjamas (mauve, a gold pattern), very camp’. In a world where parties are joined at the click of a mouse, it is a difficult scene to imagine. And, too, he found time to found an (unconventional) family and father a daughter, whilst engaging in numerous sporting activities and attending to the demands of a very well-developed sexual appetite (hetero- as well as homosexual).
Whilst enthusiastically patronising working-class bars, cafés and clubs, as well as auberges de jeunesse (youth hostels) and naturist camps, Guérin also succeeded in maintaining friendships and correspondence with figures as diverse as François Mauriac, Simone Weil, Jean-Paul Sartre, C. L. R. James, Karl Korsch, Richard Wright, Paul Robeson, George Padmore, Aimé Césaire, and a host of revolutionary nationalists including, to name but a few, the Syrian Ibrahim bey Hanono, the Vietnamese Huynh-Thuc Khang, Ta Thu Thau, or even Ho Chi Minh, the Algerians Messali Hadj, Ahmed Ben Bella and Mohamed Harbi, Mehdi ben Barka and Habib Bourguiba, from Morocco and Tunisia respectively. Indeed, invited to a tête-à-tête lunch with Ho Chi Minh at Paris’s Hôtel Royal-Monceau in 1946, Guérin did not hesitate to raise the fate of Ta Thu Thau, about whom he had written movingly in Au service des colonisés, and whose Trotskyist sympathies and political success had seen him murdered by the Vietnamese Stalinists.
Guérin was capable of engaging in stretches of ascetic and monastic study and writing. According to a police report from 1931, cited by Antonio de Francesco in ‘Daniel Guérin et Georges Lefebvre, une rencontre improbable’:
He occupies a modest and uncomfortable room … He receives periodicals and pamphlets at his address: La vie socialiste, La gendarmerie nationale,La vie économique des Soviets… He has plastered the walls of his room with cartoons and communist leaflets. Visible on his table are numerous newspaper articles discussing Franco-Moroccan politics and the judicial organisation amongst the Berbers … Inquiry is represented as a form of mystical belief. He is obliged to lead a modest life, in accordance with the meagre income he receives from his work as a manual labourer and a journalist. Still, he visits his parents regularly … they deplore the political views of their son.
For all this, and despite his clandestine political activism (as during his association with the PCI in occupied France), Guérin was also immensely convivial and outgoing. Nor did he fail to experience more than his fair share of the exhilaration and pain of love affairs, alongside more casual encounters. To say that Guérin lived a ‘full life’ seems a pathetic understatement; but when he refers to having ‘lived his life full-time’, it seems exactly right. ‘It is to be noted,’ he insists in Homosexualité et révolution,
in order to omit nothing from my discourse of a whole life, that never, at no moment, in no manner whatsoever, has the intensity, the multiplicity, the frenetic nature of my homosexual affairs taken precedence over my militant activity which aims to change the world, nor has it disguised my determination, my revolutionary obstinacy. I say so not to glorify myself, but because it is the strict truth. Moreover, this concentration on that which for me is most essential has certainly not prevented me from drinking voraciously from other sources, from intoxicating myself with music, poetry, plastic arts, landscapes and journeys, nurturing diversions which relax the spirit to make it more able later, better disposed to pursue the cause of militant struggle.
While Guérin never held a position of senior political responsibility, nor was he simply a dutiful if rather plodding left activist or writer. Rather, he was a pioneer in so many fields that it is difficult to imagine that one individual could be so ahead of the curve so often.
First and most longstanding amongst Guérin’s several driving obsessions was the centrality of the struggles for national self-determination in the colonial world and the debilitating effects of racism and imperialism within the working classes of the metropoles. This is particularly evident in his 1954 collection Au service des colonisés (At the Service of the Colonised), 1956’s Les Antilles décolonisées (The Decolonised Antilles), and Ci-gît le colonialisme (Here Lies Colonialism) in 1973. Guérin reacted with a combination of aesthetic, moral and political disgust at the sight of the colons (settler colonialists), describing them in his Autobiographie de jeunesse as ‘such human garbage, doleful men, engaged in an endless card game, or slandering one another’, ‘[t]hese little white men [petits Blancs], prison guards, police officers, customs officers, manille [a card game] players and absinthe drinkers, pot-bellied slavedrivers of coolies’.
During his Middle Eastern and Indochinese travels, Guérin encountered nationalist leaders (both deliberately and by chance, as with Emir Khaled, the grandson of Abd el-Kader, on the boat to Beirut) and returned to France determined to act as their spokesperson. Occupying, with a handful of others, a tiny space of principled anti-imperialism in a French workers’ movement dominated by a chauvinism that would only be strengthened by the politics of the PCF in the Popular Front period, Guérin relentlessly denounced the massacres and repression in Indochina, the Maghreb and Madagascar – as well as in metropolitan France itself, as with the dissolution of the North African anticolonial movement the Etoile Nord Africaine in January 1937. He engaged and tried to establish solidarity with a wide variety of colonial rebels, scathingly criticised the blindspots and reactionary tendencies of the Socialist and Communist parties on these issues, and, as detailed in his Front popularie, revolution manqué (Popular Front, Failed Revolution), almost single-handedly held Marius Moutet, the Minister for the Colonies, to account before the SFIO’s Colonial Commission in 1937.
This commitment to national liberation struggles, while far from uncritical (see for example 1965’s L’Algérie caporalisée? (Algeria Under the Jackboot?)) would extend right up to the 1980s, with his defence of the Kanak independence struggles and protests against nuclear testing in Polynesia. So too with his hostility to Zionism, outlined in ‘Déjà le drame palestinien’ (‘Already the Palestinian Drama’), and ‘L’agression israélienne au Congrès culturel de La Havane’, (‘The Israeli Aggression at the Cultural Congress of Havana’) in 1968’s Cuba-Paris, notable for its critique of the attempts of various French intellectuals to avoid an outright condemnation of Israel.
Consistent with this sensitivity to the centrality of North-South relations, Guérin was also one of the very few who, from the 1940s onwards, grasped the importance of race and racism as structuring elements for twentieth-century revolutionaries. He explored the Black question in the US at length in several books, including Décolonisation du Noir américain(Decolonisation of the Black American) in 1963, and Africains du Nouveau Monde (Africans of the New World) in 1984. But Guérin was not satisfied, as were so many French leftists, with developing a spectatorial position of sympathy to Black Power activists across the Atlantic. This is testified to by his speech ‘Vers une opposition extraparlementaire’ (Towards an extraparliamentary opposition) at a meeting organised by the Amis du SNCC (Pouvoir noir) (Friends of the SNCC (Black Power)) in the company of James Forman in April 1968:
In this way, Black Americans rediscovered for themselves the fundamental rules of revolutionary action, which had been elaborated in Europe during the Nineteenth Century: on the one hand, to subordinate electoral and parliamentary action to direct action, nay even to the armed struggle; on the other hand, to safeguard the autonomy and, consequently, the spontaneity of organisations of the base, which one calls communes, soviets or councils. These principles, sadly, have been and today remain pretty much forgotten within the heart of our movements. We must thank our Black American friends for reminding us of them, and with such power of conviction!
I come to a point I consider essential. It is our task, it is necessary to say, to take up the defence of the Black Americans, to be their witnesses, as we are tonight, in solidarity with them. It is our task, of course, as it is to support the heroic Vietnam in its struggle. But I believe that we must be on guard against our own selves. It would be an error to concentrate our action on the [struggle of] the Black Americans, on Vietnam, simply for the sake of our good consciences, to construct a diversion, to fabricate an alibi which we would use as an exemption from the struggle here, in our home, against the enemy within our own country. …
[I]f we wanted to be true to you [‘comrades of Black Power’], our immediate task would be to engage, at the deepest level, with the battle against racial discrimination which is both economic and human, and which in France comes down hard on men of colour …
Next, dear Black American friends, we would have to lead, here in France, the battle against our bourgeoisie, our capitalism, our neo-imperialism with an energy that could certainly not reach your boiling heat, but would resemble those battles in which you have proven yourselves. …
The world is singular, the revolution is singular. You raise the lid over there. It is up to us, here, to raise another. How could we better support you in your struggle, dear brothers, than by ceasing here in France to be a milquetoast left [en pâte molle– literally, a creamy kind of cheese], in rabbit’s skin, as we said in my childhood, in a state of ‘peaceful co-existence’ as we say today, a divided left, more verbal than active and with no international weight. How could we better offer you support, than in wresting ourselves from the class enemies who command our destiny, a destiny that, in the final analysis, is identifiable with yours, is it not?
Guérin also developed the notion of a ‘décolonisation intérieure’ – internal decolonisation – which seems startlingly relevant in our own epoch. In Ci-gît le colonialisme, he writes:
There remains much to do in the matter of ‘internal decolonisation’, to know [the decolonisation experiences of] oppressed minorities: decolonisation of Black Americans, of migrant workers, Arabs, Portuguese etcetera in the western countries of the European continent; decolonisation of Black men in Great Britain, decolonisation of Northern Irish Catholics, decolonisation of French Canadians, economic decolonisation of the countries of South America, decolonisation of the countries turned into vassals by the USSR.
As Daniel Gordon has pointed out, in the 1960s and 1970s Guérin would put this notion into practice by acting as godfather, protective publishing director, of two radical anti-racist and anti-imperialist newspapers, Le Paria(reclaiming the name of a 1920s publication) and Al Khadihoun, and by intervening on many occasions to defend individual militants from prosecution, deportation and the like.
On other questions Guérin’s lonely prescience is well-known: his forebodings of the fascist wave in La peste brune (The Brown Plague) and Fascisme et grand capital (Fascism and Big Business) or his position on gay liberation, to which we will return. It is, however, perhaps worth underlining the nature of his masterpiece on the French Revolution (only partially translated into English), La Lutte de classes sous la Première République. Whatever legitimate and illegitimate criticisms it has attracted (from, among others, Denis Berger, Norah Carlin, Michel Lequenne, Ian Birchall and Claude Guillo), with its emphasis on radical movements of plebeian bras-nusand pre-proletarians pushing forward the radicalisation of the French Revolution, along with what is almost its companion volume, C. L. R. James’s The Black Jacobins, and thanks to the authors’ post-Trotskyist formations, the book can be seen as foreshadowing the great wave of subalternist ‘history from below’ and revisionist social history of the 1960s and 1970s especially in the Anglophone world (and so often linked to E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class).
Similarly significant, beyond Guérin’s various organisational affiliations and ideological avatars – revolutionary syndicalist, trotskisant Pivertist (or pivertisant Trotskyist?), Trotsko-compatible libertarian socialist, libertarian Marxist, Luxemburgist, libertarian communist – is his consistent, desperately minoritarian attempts to keep open a space of ‘Third Camp’ ‘socialism from below’. These ‘Neither Washington nor Moscow’ politics stretched from left-wing social democracy to the US Shachtmanites and more ‘pragmatic’ brands of collectivist anarchism, further to the left, to encompass figures such as James, Korsch, Castoriadis and Lefort, Raya Dunayevskaya, Tony Cliff. In this, he foreshadowed by several decade the New Left, which also defined itself against both social-democratic reformism and the bureaucratic Leviathan of Stalinism, and sought to rediscover the virtues of self-organised proletarian self-emancipation, council democracy and spontaneous activity, while disinterring and resurrecting libertarian and other leftist critiques of ‘Leninism’. And Guérin, always at the leading edge, was keen to take up the struggle for the rights of others brought out from the margins after 1968, such as the ‘mad’, the mentally ill, and, indeed, in a gesture that speaks powerfully today, to denounce, as he wrote in that year, ‘the moral abandonment, the psychological rejection, the contempt, the racism in relation to “the old”.’
But one could argue that Guérin’s most avant-gardist gesture, compared to the dominant traditions of even the radical Left in France and internationally, is in the book Autobiographie de jeunesse. The book demands to be read with its various autobiographical complements, 1977’s Le feu du sang: autobiographie politique et charnelle(The Fire in the Blood: A Political and Carnal Autobiography) andSon Testament (His Testament) of 1979, which includes the 1962 text Eux et lui (They and He). The singularity of this extended text lies not only in the nature of a deeply subjective, probing and self-critical autobiographical exercise, nor simply in the explicitness with which he discusses his (homo)sexuality, but also, for all its somewhat classical style, in its form. Guérin, in a talk given to the liberal gay rights organisation Arcadie, described the writing of this autobiography as a militant gesture, a blow against the taboo around homosexuality, an ‘anti-sexual terrorism’ and puritanism that extended into the revolutionary Left. ‘My real intention’, Alexandre Marchant reports him writing, ‘was to help the homophiles in their fight. To help them, this time, no longer as in some of my earlier books, through some developments that were of a scientific character, sociological, juridical, sexological, etcetera, but through the exposé of an individual case’.
(First Trotskological parenthesis: on two interesting indications of Guérin’s comrades’ reluctance to respond constructively to his writings on sexuality. In Michel Pablo’s 1955 review in Quatrième Internationale Guérin’s Kinsey et la sexualité(Kinsey and Sexuality), the leading figure of the Fourth International chose to leave ‘to one side the question of the “polymorphous” nature of sexuality and the place homosexuality takes up within it, both in the Kinsey reports and in the essay by D. Guérin’. In the next issue, in his rejoinder to Guérin’s response, which criticised him for his ‘attentisme’ (wait-and-see attitude) in positing the chronological priority of the social over the sexual revolution, Pablo described himself as ‘inclined to consider Freud’s opinion on this matter [of homosexuality] as still largely valid, when clarified and developed by a better understanding of the social conditions that favour the emergence of this phenomenon’. The two remained friends, however, and would later found the journal Autogestion et socialismetogether. In a personal communication to me, Adolfo Gilly recalls that Pablo was indeed fond of Guérin, but wished he would bang on less about sexual matters. Thirty-three years after this exchange, in his brief obituary of Guérin in 1988’s Inprécor, Ernest Mandel mentions in passing that he ‘played a key role in the homosexual movement’ but chooses to say nothing more about this aspect of his work.)
Guérin claimed it was reading Rousseau’s autobiographical writings which had turned him ‘upside-down’ – and also ‘created the desire to confess’. But it is clear that, though the forms may have changed through the years, the autobiographical itch, the need to speak up and out about his subjective constitution and its sexual substrate was present throughout the whole of Guérin’s life.
Bill Marshall intriguingly refers to the ‘detective novel’ elements in the autobiography, in relation to Guérin’s discovery of his father’s sexuality. In like vein, retrospectively, the work of Guérin (who in 1975 even referred to ‘the tactic of baby steps’) can almost be considered a trail of breadcrumbs leading up to Autobiographie. We can start with his first two novels, 1925’s L’Enchantement du vendredi saint (The Enchantment/Delight of Good Friday) andLa Vie selon la chair(Life According to the Flesh) of 1929. The latter caused such consternation in Guérin’s family that it needled him into jumping onto another ship, this time for Indochina. As Dave Berry has noted in ‘From Son of the Bourgeoisie to Servant of the Revolution: The Roots of Daniel Guérin’s Revolutionary Socialism’:
The title of the book is a biblical reference – ‘If you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you kill the actions of the body, you will live’ (Romans 8:13). In it, Guérin gave vent to what he called his ‘carnal storms’. A psychological novel, it follows the intertwined emotional lives of four characters, and its publication caused something of a brouhaha at home. This is not surprising, given the fairly grim picture the novel paints of four lost souls struggling to find happiness in a decadent, cynical and sexually promiscuous society. Yet the novel is very moral: a recurrent theme is the characters’ constant attempts to find meaning and a new direction in life, the need to make choices about what course to follow, the need in fact for self-discipline: the end of the story inconclusively leaves the three main characters on the threshold of new departures, searching for ‘a value able to replace the flesh’.
Guérin was deeply hurt by what seemed to him to be savage and unfair attacks on the novel, and the experience led him to want to break with his family and, he added, ‘with myself’? Combined with his growing interest in Africa and Asia, this rejection also helped alienate him from France. He now proposed to devote a three-month retreat in the Far East to studying the political, economic and social questions which he had not yet been able to examine in any depth. On 23 December he set sail for the Far East aboard the cargo boat, Bangkok – which, ironically, was carrying munitions for the French expeditionary forces in the colonies in Indochina.
Kinsey et la sexualité, from 1954, while it does not include a self-reflexive moment, emphatically stresses the American biologist’s taboo-breaking findings on the prevalence of homosexuality. In 1959, Shakespeare et Gide en correctionnelle? (Shakespeare and Gide in Criminal Court?) – not to speak of a whole series of articles on the repression of homosexuality in England and elsewhere in the late 1950s and early 1960s – edges yet closer by focusing on the repression of homosexuality. Soon after followed 1961’s Journal trop intime (Excessively Intimate Diary) and Eux et luithe following year. These were written in the third person, but bring us to the very brink of the Autobiographie.
(Second Trotskological parenthesis: in 1969 there followed Essai sur la revolution sexuelle après Reich et Freud(Essay on the Sexual Revolution after Reich and Freud), which, with the help of the heterodox psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, took the argument regarding sexual repression into the heart of the radical left milieu. Another of the popularisers of Reich’s work at this time was Boris Fraenkel – the political trainer of Lionel Jospin in the Lambertist OCI, when the latter was sent on a long-term entryist mission into the Socialist Party – who was prudishly expelled from the OCI in 1966 for publishing texts by Reich.)
This idiosyncratic series of texts must be set alongside those other publications on which Guérin’s political reputation was primarily built – along with La Lutte de classes sour la Première République– but which have a strong autobiographical element. These include La peste brune and Front populaire, révolution manquée. Within these are passages that, in the light of these post–1965 autobiographical texts, it is impossible to read in the naïve manner of earlier readers. From the former:
The communal room is already full: young people of fifteen to twenty years, blond hair, male voices, resolute faces. Khaki and green sport shirts, sleeves rolled up to reveal forearms bronzed by the sun. Sculptural knees emerge from velvet and leather pants, often complemented by Tyrolean braces, whose wide leather rectangles make a bridge between the pecs. The legs are tanned, with strong, stretched muscles. …
Witness this group of students, whom we meet the day after on the road, dressed just in shorts, close to nude under a beating sun. An unlikely collection of crockery hangs over on their bronzed backs. These merry souls stubbornly prefer naturism to political controversies. And to the accompaniment of a guitar they hum these verses, so peaceful, of a poet who fell at the front:
And my heart, my heart sings
An air that also rises to the sky
An air so very light and very soft
An air as delicate and tender
As a small cloud receding across the blue
Like a piece of down in the breeze. …
The girls have cropped hair, browned arms that could be masculine. The boys in short pants, as virile as could be, resemble a group of revolutionaries in a historical saga. …
One Sunday, we meet by chance a strange troupe on the road outside Berlin. It is certainly not their short pants, their naked calves set off by a woollen band, the huge and motley load swaying on their backs, the heavy work boots, that distinguish them from ordinary wanderers. But they have the look of what we would today call ‘rockers’. Vicious, troubled faces of yobs. And topped by the most bizarre headgear: black or grey bowler hats like Charlie Chaplin, old-fashioned women’s hats, the sides turned up ‘amazon’ style with plumes and medals, workers’ caps of the sailor variety decorated on the peak with a large edelweiss, handkerchief or headscarf, in garish colours, knotted any which way around the neck, half-naked torsos emerging from a low-cut striped jumper, arms streaked with fantastical or vulgar tattoos, ears hung with necklaces or large hoops, leather shorts covered with an immense triangular belt, also leather, both roughly painted with esoteric shapes, human figures, inscriptions such as ‘Wild-Frei’ (wild and free) or ‘Räuber’ (bandits). On the wrist, an enormous leather bracelet. In short, a bizarre mixture of virility and effeminacy.
At the front, a big lad, with sensual lips, eyes ringed in black, bearing a flag. This is Winnetou, the ‘boss’ of the group. …
The rain having stopped, we go to the edge of the water, to watch young and old surrender to the joys of sunbathing, while the more cerebral, stretched out on their rugs, are immersed in serious reading. And just as I look like I’m pressing the shutter of my camera, a supple and tall athlete, with a tawny mane, copiously tanned, tears off his pants with a brusque motion and offers himself, entirely naked, to the sun’s burning rays: ‘In protest against Chancellor von Papen’s decree!’ he cries out, roaring with laughter. …
Otto’s young sisters get into a spin as they hear the first sounds of boots on the ground.
‘Ah! Mama, it’s the SA…’
On the lips of these crazy girls, the prestigious sounds ‘SA, SS…’ sizzle like the noise of insects on the night of a storm. Without boots, without the smell of leather, without the stiff and harsh gait of the warrior, it is impossible today to conquer these Brunhildes. In Hitlerism there are strong, disturbing, sexual elements.
(Third Trotskological parenthesis: Robert Schwartzwald, in the pages of Dissidences, claims that Pathfinder Press, the imprint of the US Socialist Workers Party, refused to publish La Peste brune as an accompaniment to Fascisme et grand capital, due to the discussion of ‘the implicitly erotic dimension of the culture of young Germans at the beginning of the 1930s and the manners in which sexual attraction and political disgust, for example in relation to the Hitler Youth, could be transformed into a disconcerting conflict. Such ambivalence had no place in the activist perspective of the SWP’. Little did the straight-laced spirits of the Cannonites know that, as Guérin reveals in Le feu du sang, the apparently more ‘straight’ Fascisme et grand capital was composed during a period in which he was not only in a fully consummated marriage but was also sexually obsessed with a neighbouring construction worker who drove Guérin to ‘a state of hypnosis’ and ‘furious auto-erotic outbursts’. For an account of a less puritan side of US Trotskyism, see Alan Wald’s 2012 Labour/Le Travail article, ‘Bohemian Bolsheviks After World War II: A Minority within a Minority’.)
As for Front populaire, révolution manquée, in the following passage we can espy other meanings behind the term ‘intellectual’ than those underlying the contempt with which it was used by the revolutionary syndicalists such as Pierre Monatte, who Guérin described as, ‘in the best sense of the term, a petit-bourgeois, regular, correct, a home-body, of puritan morals’.
I was constantly on my guard, I believed I always had to forgive myself for belonging to the detested class of intellectuals, as well as [for] my social origins.
And, above all, I lived in a panicked terror that, by some unfortunate chance, in the display case of a bookshop or at a bookstand on the quais, my new comrades would stumble upon the poems or novels I had shamefully scribbled before my adherence to socialism. This fear was not of a political nature: I had not written anything in my youth that would make me blush on that account. It was of a human nature. I feared a scornful or ironic judgement. The books of my youth were imbibed with sensuality and a petty-bourgeois sentimentalism. This could have shocked the revolutionaries, or at least, condemned to futility.
One day, Chambelland [the revolutionary syndicalist to whom Guérin was very attached] came to talk about the work of Marcel Proust. There was nothing revealed but snobbery, hair-splitting, sexual heresy. I listened to him in silence, oppressed, and my fear of being discovered and unmasked by a man whose esteem and friendship I valued became panic.
In an interview in La Quinzaine littéraire in 1975 – May 1968 having opened the floodgates – cited in Homosexualité et revolution, Guérin poses the issue much more explicitly:
For my misfortune, I had published, before turning to socialism, several literary books somewhat impregnated with homosexuality … Also, I lived in permanent terror that, by some unfortunate chance, in the display case of a bookshop or on an embankment bookstand, my new comrades would stumble across these unhappy ‘follies of youth’, that they would leaf through them, or, in the worst possible case, that they would make a purchase of them and pass them around, so that in this manner I should appear before them no longer just as a simple intellectual, but an ‘intellectual’ of the nastiest kind, distorted, debauched, rotten to the core by the most hideous of ‘bourgeois vices’ … The greatest suffering faced by people of my kind, at this time, was the permanent fear of losing the consideration, of arousing the contempt, or even repugnance, of those of our comrades who might have caught us acting on our homosexual tendencies. It was necessary at all costs to keep quiet, to hide, if needs must to lie, in order to preserve a revolutionary ‘respectability’, the price of which could only be measured in relationship to the abjection into which one risked falling if one let the mask slip. The result of this self-repression is that I met in the revolutionary movements militants who, like me, did not exactly shout their inclinations from the rooftops … And I would add still this: that fear of censure, of a fall into a moral void, is without doubt more paralysing for a militant homosexual who would wish to win favour with a young worker than any other negative attitude, such as the dishonour felt at a pejorative word (and we know how rich in words of this type slang can be), even a beating. Injury, brutality – all are less harrowing than the deeper, more dramatic feeling of having fallen in the eyes of a someone for whom you are struggling, along with millions of others, in order to end their exploitation and alienation, and from whom you hoped to receive signs of comradeship, of generosity, and – why not – of tenderness, in responding to the great rush of solidarity and love – and very often, not coarse desire – that pushed you towards him.
Guérin’s insisted that the first volume of his ‘auto-analysis’ helped him re-establish the hitherto sundered totality of his life:
Moreover these guardians of ‘good’ morals unwittingly rendered me a service: that of standing up to them without a false sense of shame and being able to accept myself fully. To get over the division, sterilising and absurd, between two halves of myself: that which let itself be seen and that which had to hide itself. The totality was re-established … In truth, if I had, out of false modesty, or an untimely fear of crashing into the prejudices of my companions in struggle, dissociated my socialism from my phallism, or hypocritically concealed my phallism behind my socialism, I would have been castrating half of myself. Yet that is what I had done. I had been guilty of such false advertising for far too long. So with what relief, what impatient joy, I finally stopped the cheating and thus restored the unity of my being.
This text and its successors also retrospectively establish a totality to the dispersed and eclectic elements of Guérin’s previous publications: each on its own straining but failing to fully express the author’s true nature, indissociably carnal and intellectual. In this too, and not just in his assault on the division between public and private spheres, Guérin was a pioneer, one who has had all too few emulators, certainly in France.
These texts, and Guérin’s sometimes ferocious self-criticism, present us with the image of a personality deeply riven by contradictions which act as a driving force for his development. These spur him on in a headlong rush of transgressions – sexual, social (becoming a ‘class traitor’ and linking his destiny to that of the working class), national (identifying with the forces seeking to bring down the French imperial state), political (with the result that he was the black sheep in every group or sensibility in which he found himself – too radical for the SFIO, too intellectual for the revolutionary syndicalists, too Trotskyist for the pivertistes, too Pivertist for the Trotskyists, too anarchist for the Marxists, too Marxist for the anarchists…). Each contradiction propels him to a new attempted synthesis, from which he draws nourishment, but which is too unstable to last, and which creates a new series of contradictions and a new fragile synthesis.
Such contradictions also flow from the sheer breadth and generosity of Guérin’s horizons. He would have cakes and bloody well eat them: homosexuality and marriage and paternity; activism and the good life; the rigours of manual work or physical exercise and the hours of research at the Bibliothèque Nationale; debasement and the respect for literary and cultural values; the wild psychoanalysis of Reich and the cold-blooded positivism of Kinsey; the unbuttoned Fourier and uptight Proudhon; passionate antimilitarist activity and the company of handsome soldiers and sailors; Marx and Bakunin; indefatigable solidarity with national-liberation movements and lucid critique of their limitations, and so on, ad infinitum. Guérin existed always at interstices. Marginal within his own world, he was passeur between those of the literary intelligentsia and of the grassroots workers’ movement, of the parties of revolutionary opposition and of government, of forces of spontaneity and of organisation and institutions. We know from his testimony of the often existentially uncomfortable, even painful, nature of these positions. We can also, however, see the epistemological privilege it offered, a ‘bifocality’, as Peter Sedgwick put it of Guérin, both rare and precious.
One could even argue that Guérin’s contradictory relationship to his own sexuality, for all its apparent datedness, offers precisely one such vantage point. Guérin’s sexual tropes revolve around two main poles: what we might call the ‘sexual centrality of the working class’; and his refusal to be bound by a limited homosexual identity. On the first point, so overwhelmingly are Guérin’s sexual preferences for the working classes that one is almost tempted to propose for it the term ‘ergatophilia’, from the Ancient Greek ergates, meaning ‘labourer’. This ergatophilia could appear in his remarkable admiration, gained during tours of the US, for the ‘the vim of the young Yankee stallion’ so strikingly in contrast with the weariness of old Europe; but, too, in a more homegrown ‘erotic workerism’ which makes it very difficult for Guérin, for all his deeply rooted anti-Stalinism, to shake off a fascination for a certain type of PCF worker militant. (Peter Sedgwick has found parallels here with the English Utopian socialist Edward Carpenter, even with Walt Whitman.) Such passions, which see Guérin’s descriptions filled not only with physical attributes but also remarkable sartorial details (‘corduroy trousers’ of the terrassiers– navvies – is one common obsession, as is his self-confessed leather fetish), are perhaps expressed most lyrically in Eux et nous. Here we find dreams of organic, corporeal fusion with the proletariat alongside the open-mouthed fascination of one who will always be interloper.
I did not deny, I did not desecrate my socialism when I exalted phallism. My socialism and my phallism, in fact, the more that I thought about it, were not in contradiction. To tell the truth, I didn’t have to choose between the two. Their deep synthesis had ended up forming the substance of my being.
Because I had come to socialism through phallism. It was not pity, brotherhood overflowing from my heart, it was not the reading of theorists – undertaken much later, as enlightening as the removal of cataracts – it was no more than a social injustice felt in my very own flesh that had made me into a socialist.
But to have, early on, sought out the company of young proletarians, spent time with them at funfairs, carried heavy camping bags with them, strolled along roads with them, set up youth hostels with them, taken trains without tickets with them, swum laps with them in the pools, or dawdled in the lukewarm shower, climbed down into rivers to swim, hoisted the sail with them and weathered the storm, cooked for the rugged captain at the rudder of the boat, yelled with them in boxing fights, lifted dumbbells with them, slid along parallel bars with them face to face, hanging from our wrists, cared for their bleeding noses, their gashes, their damaged limbs and their sprains, tied ties stronger and more intimate than those to be found in workshops or on scaffolding, having slept on the elastic mattress of their muscles, inhaled their manly smell, having rubbed myself against the bristle of their chin, having waited, patiently, for them to pass the ball back to me and for their reassuring presence in order to slide into sleep, having listened to them, time after time, railing against work, against the carburettor valve, against the hospital, against the landlord, having probed the emptiness of their pockets or their wallets, having admired their class instincts, their robust good sense, their marvellous ease of adapting to the world, their ingenious ploys, their invincible cheerfulness in the face of the fact that life’s a bitch. …
And when I had begun to be politically active, it was a constantly renewing joy for me to rub shoulders in meetings with the ‘builders’ later immortalised by Fernand Léger, the superb labourers with wide velvet pants, noble and swarthy, now a lost species, eliminated by the machine, and the young steelworkers with leather overcoats, black nails, with a fluffed and proud cap, their hairstyle now lost, killed by general embourgeoisement. And, when I had to go up to the rostrum, to harangue the crowds, it was the very close, perceptible presence of the most masculine, the most robust of the young guys that charged me with electricity, inspiring in me, who passed for an intellectual, harsh, carnal means of expression, issuing from the bowels and stirring the guts. And then the world of the young males was a creative world.
Their gnarled arms ploughed the soil, kneaded the bread, cut up the meat, steered lorries or ships, majestic carriers of foodstuffs, built the residences, sawed wood, sewed leather, hoisted the interminable nets, attacked the rock or the coalface with a pneumatic drill.
My promiscuity with them placed me in the centre of the human workshop. In frequenting them I believed, rightly or wrongly, to have the best of it. While some were distracted, and sometimes even succumbed to fleeting pleasure, I learned the seriousness of life with these young workers, I discovered in their company the important mysteries of homo œconomicus. …
When I was lounging among my own people, I was suddenly taken with the urge to destroy, to throw out (or at least to refuse for myself) the treasures of their vain culture and, at the call of a distant clock, to slip away at night like a wrong-doer over the garage roof, to descend three steps at a time the metallic ladder sealed in the wall, to leave my people to their purrs of satisfaction, to descend the slope leading to La Ciotat to join the rough guys, who had nothing in common with me, people without aesthetic or spiritual needs, without luxury or airs, without ties or manners, but who were real and carnal, in their big jumpers, their thick leather jackets, their unironed trousers, their raucous bistros where card games raged, the TV, the PMU, and their presence which outclassed those above them, and their way of forming groups at the street corner, right up to the very centre of the road, of living in clusters, one against the other, of indulging themselves in a warm circle of men from which woman, the object of boastful conversations, was almost absent, of calling from a distance, taking one another by the arm, tapping a shoulder, treating each other to round after round, and, the time of a common culture accessible to all having not yet arrived, the ability of most to get on fine without books, not to be bothered by ideas, to bear happily the lack of artistic emotions, to tastefully flay pretentious and bland written language – in comparison to which the house above looked like a deserted, artificial and dreary place, an ivory tower, a world where one is bored.
It would be remiss not to note Guérin’s tendencies, in some of these descriptions of his lovers, to exoticise or Orientalise them. In his 1982 piece, ‘Out of Hiding: The Comradeships of Daniel Guérin’, Peter Sedgwick puts it thus:
The problem of romantic victimisation is closely related to the ‘fetishism’ which Guérin deplored in his own case but which is also a standard feature of sexual stereotyping in both straight and gay projections about the physical parts of people. A heterosexual man of the Left who published descriptions of his female lovers in the physique-cult terms typical of male gay literature would scarcely escape a vitriolic censure; and Guérin’s stereotypes are, with some touches of artistic variation, simple repetitions of the Glorious-Young-Athlete syndrome which figures so monotonously in the advertisement-columns of magazines. The specification of human desirability in terms of curving outer surfaces, smoothness of skin, blondness of hair and (above all) youthfulness is hardly any less problematic for an ethos of personal respect and social equality when it is applied from one male to another than when it crosses the gender-divide.
The fact that the stereotypes are not of Guérin’s making, but conform to the images of male athletic beauty that have been passed down the centuries from Greek antiquity, only renders them more doubtful, since a neo-Hellenic emphasis on virile physical form has been a regular reinforcement for élitist ideology from the eighteenth-century cult of bodily proportion to the body-fascist aesthetics or our own time. Even the ancient Greek ideal of the exquisite athlete, with its attendant elevation of homosexual practices as a superior erotic ethic, had intimate links with the city-state’s incitement of its ephebes into the pursuit of military excellence. Detached in the modern age from warlike purposes, since the individual warrior’s prowess has been replaced by methods of bureaucratised mass destruction, the contemporary cult of physique may serve no more than a harmless narcissism: all the same it is a narcissism which encourages unduly narrow conceptions of the beautiful.
It would be wrong to offer only severe and negative judgements upon Guérin’s delight in young ‘virility’. We cannot, however, remain immune from the critique in which feminism has challenged long-established stereotypes of physiognomy and physique as applied by the dominant sex to the appreciation of women’s bodies. Homosexual male stereotyping, inverted within the ruling gender itself, appears to follow patterns remarkably like those appertaining to the cruder sort of masculine type-casting in relation to women. The politics of a homosexual exchange of conventional images, between (let us say) Brain and Brawn, may still be less systematically exploitative of the athlete who is the object of physical stereotyping than in the heterosexual case where the high value placed by men on certain images of youthful female beauty converges with and facilitates many other elements in patriarchal power over women.
For all this, Guérin himself was not blind to the dangers of condescending objectification and idealisation.
But this coin had its other side. While I experienced nostalgia for these rough partners, they toiled in the bakery or came back exhausted from the construction site. Or they avoided me, their nerves tense from driving their trucks. Besides, I was wrong to seek them out as wonders of the world and of art, losing sight of the fact that they were producers and not museum pieces.
I was deluding myself when I thought that, through them, I could get to the heart of work. I visited them and I loved them aside from the laborious gestures they performed. I diverted them, I tried at least to divert them, from their primordial function.
What is perhaps most striking for the contemporary reader is that this proletarian dimension of homosexuality – or, rather, of homosexual activity – which Guérin pursued in his insistence on the class dimensions of repression, for him takes the form of an insouciant and open attitude to ‘hook-ups’ contrasting sharply with the prudishness of his comrades, the ‘red Puritans’.
In 1981, he expressed this in an interview for the book Paris gay 1925.
At that time, everything revolved around an exceptional sexual freedom, the extreme permissibility which allowed a man who loved boys to meet a young worker, a young firefighter, a young soldier on leave; there was no problem. The number of times when I wandered around Pigalle on holidays, weekends, it was very easy to accost a sailor, or a cavalry soldier with his big boots and spurs.
How did a meeting like that play out?
It played out in a very simple way, the most informal, the most natural that there could be for that type of thing: ‘Ah ! I’m pleased to meet you! Do you wanna go for a walk?’ And the other one responded: ‘Yeah, if you like; there’s a little hotel just down the road.’ The deed done, the guy opened his wallet and got out photos of himself, in postcard form ; and wrote one to you ! There was nothing perverse about it; there was a kind of ease in the relationships between men belonging to very different social classes, which I have never encountered since.
Was it not very easy for people of bourgeois backgrounds to have relationships with workers?
It was far easier than it is today. I think that there were two phenomena at work: the first, is that working-class youth at times went through fairly acute periods of unemployment, especially around 1927. But there was something much more important: the workers were still workers and not the petty-bourgeois that they later became. While today, it is claimed that it is almost impossible for a worker to have homosexual tendencies. If the Communist Party, which watches over its supporters, does not dare to defend homosexuals, it is because the working class has been incredibly gentrified for the past thirty years.
Were there no homophobic prejudices among workers during this period?
No, they did not enter into this environment for the reasons given by Kinsey: Kinsey, in his report, divided human beings into three categories, which he roughly equates to primary, secondary and higher education. He showed that those who had been restricted to a primary education were those who were not paralyzed by all kinds of cultural or moral considerations which are artificially instilled, first at the secondary level, and above all at the higher level.
In general, were the workers you met young?
Yes, of course, but one mustn’t forget that people married very late, in this period; I lived in the 20th [arrondissement of Paris] and one saw at night, in the little restaurants, guys between twenty and thirty, all single and completely unoffended if one demonstrated any homosexual desire towards them. They were still in the physical world and this world had not been polluted by moral values.
The context is of androcentric camaraderie and homosociality. For Sedgwick,
Guérin’s desires have always been framed less in terms of a body than of an embodiment: the lovers pass as successor incarnations of an active, questing proletariat, a mass of privacies summating through their plenitude and their sameness into a collective public subject. It is a myth of working-class virility which yokes Guérin’s syndicalism with his sexual nature, in an idealisation which echoes the less erotic (but equally ethereal) mythology of the proletariat-as-agent heralded by a Sorel or a Lukacs.
This is linked, for Guérin, to the repeated assertion of the pre-eminence of bisexuality, both as a ‘natural’ human sexuality before the imposition of the norms of class society, and as a utopian horizon in which gender differences will also be dissolved. (It should be noted, however, that, according to Anne Guérin, Guérin’s wife Marie only discovered his bisexuality in 1963, a very short time before the first publication of the Autobiographie, and suffered from depression as a consequence.) ‘I think the cause of homosexuality is relatively simple’, according to Guérin in Homosexualité et révolution. ‘In youth, there is radiance, freshness, beauty, physical attraction. Why should we be blind when we see this radiant youthful beauty? You really have to be mentally ill to not be a bit bisexual’.
If I was not insensitive to femininity, it was, to a certain extent, the boy that I tended to seek and love in women, and likewise the woman in boys.
Then I very much hoped that the time would come when woman and man would no longer form two opposite species, two dissimilar sexualities, when love of both sexes would be accepted and recognised as the most natural, the most widespread and most complete form of love, when my field of vision would merge with that of male ‘heteros’, when my perspective and theirs would widen, converge, to the point of encompassing all the splendid human fauna.
In this model femininity is largely dissolved in favour of a form of gender neutrality – with the male body as an implied norm to which the female would tend. It is perhaps no surprise that Guérin admitted to a distaste for affected effeminacy amongst men, particularly ‘les tantes’ (fairies) and ‘les folles’ (queens).
There are obvious immense problems with such a vision. It does, however, give Guérin a certain purchase in his resistance to any perceived attempts to imprison him or others in a restrictive – and class-inflected – identity of the ‘homosexual.’
Despite early enthusiasm for gay liberation and the revolutionary potential of the sexual question in the 1970s during his initial membership of the FHAR (‘Our arses are revolutionary!’ he said, and ‘Do not sacrifice the social revolution to the sexual revolution alone. Let one shoulder the other. Let’s fuck at the same time as we campaign. Because, in the end, the two revolutions are one and the same, and each in its own way sets out to liberate man. During the revolutionary days of May 1968 in France, the students wrote on the walls: “the more I make the revolution, the more I want to make love”’), and despite his respect for Guy Hocquenghem, Guérin soon grew wary of and disillusioned with the tendency to pursue sexuality at the expense of socio-sexual transformation, and to sacrifice the construction of a political strategy and organisation in favour of prefigurative politics. As he puts it in Homosexualité et révolution:
Do you think FHAR suffered from the lack of a real political plan?
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 fear of the birth of a bureaucracy in the FHAR.
More trenchant still is his merciless condemnation of the transformation of gay liberation into a gilded ghetto for middle-class homosexuals, even allowing criticisms of his nostalgic vision of the embourgeoisementof French workers, their recruitment to the ranks of ‘hétéroflics’ (‘heterocops’). In Paris gay 1925 he argues that ‘homosexuals have locked themselves up today in a ghetto, larger than that which existed before and, by claiming their homosexuality, they have aroused reflexes of defence and repulsion in young heterosexuals, which did not exist during the period that we mentioned.’This does not lead Guérin to deny the continued reality of oppression or the negative dialectic created between these phenomena, as Homosexualité et revolution make clear.
I think that the show of force that occurred when [gay radio station] 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 … We must beware of singing our victory song too loud and fast. Other dangers lie in wait for the homosexual movement: its excessive commercialisation, its excesses in the public space, sometimes even its useless provocations, the formation of a vast ghetto, with sectarian rites, which goes against the direction of social decompartmentalisation, bisexual universality…
The recent emancipation, the commercialisation of homosexuality, the superficial pursuit of pleasure for pleasure’s sake has generated a whole generation of ‘gay’ ephebes, fundamentally apolitical, crazy about stimulating gadgets, frivolous, inconsistent, incapable of deep thought, uncultivated, just good for a quick shag from time to time, corrupted by a specialised press and the multiplicity of meeting places, libidinous classified ads, in a word: a hundred leagues from any class struggle – even if their purse is empty.
This is an age marked by the reification of sexual identities, pinkwashing, ‘homonationalism’, a right-wing shift in part of the gay community that has led to the presence of gay spokespeople for far right organisations, the mainstreaming of gay identities, with marriage held up as the shining telos. At such a moment, Guérin’s refusal to be constrained by one historically specific form of homosexuality – his identification as a ‘revolutionary homosexual’ and not a ‘homosexual revolutionary’ – and his continual insistence on the indissociable unity of social and sexual revolutions is profoundly bracing.
Sebastian Budgen is a senior editor at Verso Books and a founding member of the editorial board of Historical Materialism.
Translated and adapted from the Preface to Autobiographie de jeunesse: D’une dissidence sexuelle au socialisme (Memoirs of My Youth: From Sexual Dissidence to Socialism), republished by Editions La Fabrique, 2016. Anyone writing on Guérin, such as the present author, is indebted to the crucial research by Dave Berry, who is working on a major biography. With thanks to Caitlín Doherty and David Fernbach for their help with the translations.