Sunday, September 16, 2007


The library is an erotic sort of place anyway, or at least it is to me, but imagine encountering Daniel Guérin for the first time in such a place. Of course, I've read Fascism and Big Business (excerpts here) in a non-commital sort of way, but I didn't know much about the author. About Guérin's life, you can read extensively elsewhere (he has a brief entry in Paul Avrich's Anarchist Voices). About his politics, you can discover some concise summaries online, as well as his own lengthy exposition. I only wanted to say what I like about him. I suppose you would expect me to admire his anti-colonialism, his outrage about American racism, his tireless combat against fascism (about which he theorised brilliantly), his anti-Zionism, his sympathy with Trotskyism and so on, especially since he held these views when both the reformist and Stalinist left in France had pathetic records on colonialism, fascism and Zionism (the less said about their approach to Trotskyism, the better). Well, yes. And there is the small matter of him being a sort of pioneer of gay liberation. But it was the Front Ouvrier International, and the Appeal to the German Proletariat Against the War, that left an indelible impression on my otherwise impassive kisser (as you know, I am one of those strong, silent types that Hemingway so admired). The attempt, that is, to revive the Zimmerwald Left in theory and practise during the darkest years of the Twentieth Century, in the most unpromising circumstances. That was bold, in a sense of the word that has been lost to an age pundits who are persuaded that a slight inflection in a Brown speech on Darfur can so be characterised. That was revolutionary.

You can read the appeal here, and for what it's worth, Google has a decent translation. Here he differed from those Trotskyists (including Trotsky) who advocated a Proletarian Military Policy which tried to turn an imperialist war into a revolutionary one, the Stalinists who offered a 'grand alliance' with bourgeois imperialism (after the tremendous success of the grand carve-up with Hitler), and the reformist left, which subordinated its anti-fascism to straightforward patriotic defense. I am not completely convinced that Guérin's position was the right one, but it's important to stress that it wasn't simple pacifism, or Beautiful Soul purity. He himself worked, after being freed from a Nazi internment camp, for the Comité d'Organisation du Livre, which regulated the publishing business in occupied France. His own Fascism and Big Business was one of the books on his 'banned' list. The opposition to the war was a revolutionary one, based on a rigorous marxist analysis of fascism. Guerin had himself spent some time in Germany before and during the Nazi years (see Dave Renton's review of The Brown Plague). As he wrote in 1945:

[T]he fascist regime, despite its “totalitarian” pretensions is not homogeneous. It never succeeded in dissolving into one single alloy the different elements of which it was composed. Its different wheels did not function without friction. Despite Hitler’s attempts for several years to find a compromise formula between the party and the army, the Wehrmacht on the one hand, and the Gestapo and the SS on the other, continued their cat and dog fight. Behind this conflict is a class question. The fascist regime, despite appearances, appearances that it delighted in maintaining, never domesticated the bourgeoisie.

The regime, despite appearances, was extremely fragile, and its unstable class formation was itself one of the reasons why war was pursued. It was also in part, as both Adam Tooze and Paul Hehn argue from different perspectives, a result of frenetic competition with the United States of America: as a model of development, and in terms of inter-capitalist competition over markets, particularly in Eastern Europe. Like most other revolutionaries, Guérin saw the war for what it was - not 'democracy versus fascism', but an imperialist conflict. So, while resisting the Nazi occupation, he and his confederates would not ally with De Gaulle as Maurice Thorez did. They sought to fraternise with German soldiers and encourage their revolutionary opposition to the war, to prise open the fissures in the regime and force its earliest possible downfall. We know that Hitler was funding his war in large part from extensive 'borrowing' from the German workers, which transaction - however coercive - relied on a certain amount of acquiescence. So it is by no means implausible that an upsurge in military and civil disobedience would have hastened the Nazi regime's implosion, and also hastened the end of the genocidal component of Drang nach Osten. But to think and act in such terms when the left has mostly sought to rely on the strength of the imperialist powers to defeat Hitler and Mussolini? When there were few visible signs that organised dissent was even possible within the Nazi war machine?

Such historical optimism seems insanely out of place, especially in light of the popularity of a version of Arendt's account of 'totalitarianism' in which social classes are liquidated, in which the individual is reduced to a fragment of the 'totalitarian' machinery and likes it, in which there is no match for the policeman inside the head of every 'totalitarian' subject. In light of accounts that accentuate the shadow of catastrophe under which we labour, alleged impulses to evil in the human make-up, the psychological appeal of mass violence - all of which would militate against the idea of socialist internationalism - the idea of a revolutionary struggle against both the war and fascism at that time seems impossible. But Guérin knew what we have been encouraged to forget: that the Nazis could not have succeeded without the timidity, confusion and pessimism of the Left. Had it understood the capitalist state, it would not have been disoriented by the failure of reformism; had it understood fully the threat of fascism, it would not have subordinated the struggle against it to sectarian rivalries or (as the German SPD did) passively sit out its coming to power, pursuing only legalist parliamentary opposition until liquidation; had it understood the rapid degeneration of the Russian bureaucracy, it would not have engaged in the criminal stupidity of 'third period' politics (or been surprised at the de-radicalising role of the Stalinists after the war); had it understood the significance of the Spanish Civil War, it would not have allowed the struggle to be subordinated to Stalin's foreign policy priorities; and so on (one really could go on).

It was through Guérin's analysis of fascism and the reasons for its success that he was able to look beyond the immediately self-evident, renounce the reigning pessimism, and try to subvert a war that killed 50 million people, and yet is still remembered as a 'good war'.