Daniel Guérin’s Dialogue with Leninism

Ian Birchall


At times Guérin himself put forward the even more ambitious aim of achieving a synthesis between Marx and Bakunin.[4]

Yet Guérin’s greatness lay in his rôle as a mediator rather than as a synthesist. Over six decades he had a record of willingness to cooperate with any section of the French left that shared his fundamental goals of proletarian self-emancipation, colonial liberation and sexual freedom. He was a vigorous polemicist, but saw no fragment of the left, however obscure, as beneath his attention. In 1967, he wrote an angry letter in defence of his views on anarchism, accusing his critics of misrepresentation and intellectual dishonesty, to the bimonthly journal Pouvoir ouvrier.[6] He was also typically generous, never seeking to malign his opponents, however profoundly he disagreed with them. In his book on Algeria, he dealt sharply with Francis Jeanson’s defence of the politics of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) and his attacks on the Mouvement National Algérien (MNA) — but immediately followed this with a tribute to Jeanson’s courage as an anti-imperialist activist.[8] In 1969, he wrote of himself that: ‘The Marxists have begun to turn their backs on him as an “anarchist”, while the anarchists, because of his “Marxism”, have not always been willing to consider him as one of them.’[10]

The classic debates between anarchism and Leninism are resurfacing in new forms in the anti-capitalist movement.[12] led him to be vilified by such Stalinist historians as George Rudé,[14]

As a contribution to the understanding of the French Revolution, Guérin’s work will have to be judged against more recent scholarship. Jean Marc Schiappa’s recent study of the babouvistes certainly seems to confirm Guérin’s view of an emergent working class; though Schiappa refers explicitly to Edward Thompson rather than to Guérin, his term ‘working class in gestation’ is only a minor variant of Guérin’s embryo metaphor.[16]

In a preface to La Lutte de classes originally written in 1944, but in which ‘the present and the future invade the past to such an extent that I didn’t dare put it at the front of my book’,[18] He thus opened a debate about forms of organisation which was to preoccupy him for the next four decades.

Guérin’s critique of Jacobinism was set out in an essay, ‘La révolution déjacobinisée’, which was included in his study of 1959, Jeunesse du socialisme libertaire.[20]

Guérin produced two further collections of essays including ‘La révolution déjacobinisée’ as one of the main items: Pour un marxisme libertaire (1969) — a title which he later admitted had shocked and confused his ‘new libertarian friends’[22] As he pointed out himself, he now found the notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat ‘adulterated’, and throughout the work replaced the phrase with ‘revolutionary constraint’.[24] A few pages later the 1946 edition proposed that, in rethinking the key concepts of socialism, we should ‘take as a starting-point the peak of the curve achieved by Marxist thought (before it began to degenerate) and which, however high it was, was far from being the last word of revolutionary science. We would start, for example, from Lenin’s State and Revolution.’ Both sentences vanished in 1968, and the paragraph was reworked. However, the index to the 1968 edition gave a reference to Lenin for the page on which the paragraph in question was situated, suggesting that Guérin took a last-minute decision, perhaps at proof stage, to withdraw the reference to Lenin. The book was printed in November 1968, so the change was doubtless made in the aftermath of the May events.[26]

The final chapter, dealing with the defeat of the bras nus and the activities of Babeuf, also showed some evidence of reconsideration. In 1946, a chapter heading informed us ‘But they lacked a revolutionary leadership’; by 1968 this had become ‘But they lacked a revolutionary strategy’.[28]

The main line of argument about the Babouvists, however, remained unchanged. Although elsewhere Guérin suggested a continuity from Babeuf via Blanqui to Lenin, in his substantive treatment of Babeuf he had not much to say about organisation. He made little use of the documents prepared for Babeuf’s trial which give a vivid picture of how Babeuf’s so-called conspiracy actually functioned. Instead Guérin directed his fire almost exclusively at the way in which the Babouvists sought to cooperate with the former followers of Robespierre, and thus failed to make a proper analysis of Robespierre’s period of power. What Guérin thus failed to observe was that the Babouvists were making a first, hesitant attempt to apply the tactic of the united front.

To understand why Guérin made a political shift between 1946 and 1968, it is necessary to examine both his political writings and his practical experience of left-wing organisations. A crucial text is his essay on Lenin, first published as a journal article in 1957.[30]

Guérin’s critique of Lenin was very different from either the standard right‑wing Cold War attacks or the classic anarchist approach. His critique contained no psychology and relatively little history. He did not question Lenin’s motivation, nor suggest that his ‘authoritarian’ ideas derived from a personal desire for power. Neither did he make any extended discussion of the record of Bolshevism in power. Instead he proceeded almost as if writing a history of philosophy, giving an extended exposition of Lenin’s ideas on the party and the state, with particular reference to certain key texts. This approach had certain significant advantages. It permitted a focus on central themes rather than on anecdotic accidents and allegations of atrocities, and thus allowed a calmer and more sober presentation of the debate. But it also had some serious limitations, as I shall attempt to show.

He began by stressing that he rejected the idea of a continuity between Lenin and Stalin, thus repudiating the key assumption shared by both Stalinists and right‑wingers, as well as some anarchists. Guérin affirmed his admiration for the revolutionary strategy which had led to the first successful workers’ revolution in October 1917.[32]

Guérin gave particular importance to Lenin’s use in What Is To Be Done? of a formulation from Kautsky: ‘Thus socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without… and not something that arose within it spontaneously.’[34] In 1910, summarising the lessons of the 1905 revolution, he argued:

Capital collects the workers in great masses in big cities, uniting them, teaching them to act in unison. At every step the workers come face to face with their main enemy — the capitalist class. In combat with this enemy the worker becomes a socialist, comes to realise the necessity of the complete reconstruction of the whole of society.[36]

(If Lenin had lived to see Rupert Murdoch he would certainly not have removed the italics from the word ‘immeasurably’.) Lenin’s answer was that socialists must struggle ‘vigorously’ for their ideas to challenge the inbuilt advantages of their opponents. But that is precisely what Guérin himself did over seven decades of tireless writing and agitation in defence of human liberation. (Perhaps if Lenin had used the word ‘automatic’ rather than ‘spontaneous’ the point would have been clearer. Patently the working class does not automatically become socialist, as Luxemburg’s alternative of ‘socialism or barbarism’ reminds us.)

Moreover, it is an indisputable historical fact that socialist theory was formulated by intellectuals and not by factory workers. There was a very simple reason for this:

The autonomous movement of the masses is blind and unconscious, for manual workers, bound from dawn to dusk to their harsh labour, crushed by muscular fatigue and domestic tasks, kept systematically in ignorance by the dominant class, or deceived by it from the day when it can no longer avoid opening up the realm of knowledge to them, lacking the necessary leisure and means of investigation, rarely rise above the concern for daily bread, above immediate demands of a purely economic character.[38] Years later Radek recorded that when he found Lenin rereading some of his articles from 1903, he laughed and said: ‘It is very interesting to read what fools we were then.’[40] On the eve of war in 1914, he was demanding that the party paper ‘must get the workers to take a regular part in editorial work’.[42]

Pierre Broué has noted that for both Stalinists and anti‑communists ‘What Is To Be Done?… is the bible of Bolshevism conceived as a new current. Yet nothing entitles us to agree that it was such for the Bolsheviks or in the mind of Lenin himself.’[44] In short, the whole idea of ‘Leninism’ as a coherent and unchanging set of principles about organisation is a myth, the product of Stalinist fabrication and, to a much lesser extent, of Trotskyist defensiveness. Already in 1904, Lenin responded to Rose Luxemburg’s criticisms of One Step Forward, Two Steps Back by stating:

Comrade Luxemburg… supposes that I defend one system of organisation against another. But actually this is not so. From the first to the last page of my book, I defend the elementary principles of any conceivable system of party organisation. My book is not concerned with the difference between one system of organisation and another, but with how any system is to be maintained, criticised and rectified in a manner consistent with the party idea.[46]

After a consideration of critiques of Lenin’s organisational theory, notably by Trotsky and Luxemburg, Guérin jumped directly to 1917, failing to give any account of how Lenin modified his theory of organisation in the light of the 1905 revolution or the upturn in struggle in 1912 which made possible the publication of a legal daily paper. Here he focused on what was perhaps Lenin’s most important work, State and Revolution, which he wrote in 1917 on the eve of the Bolsheviks’ capture of power.

As Alfred Rosmer, who came to Bolshevism from revolutionary syndicalism, pointed out, when State and Revolution was first published in France in 1919, it produced some sharply contrasting responses on the French left:

Lenin… was treated as an outcast by the theoreticians of the socialist parties which claimed to be Marxist. ‘It isn’t Marxism’, they shrieked, ‘it’s a mixture of anarchism and Blanquism.’ One of them even found a witty turn of phrase and called it ‘Blanquism with sauce tartare’. On the other hand, for revolutionaries situated outside the mainstream of orthodox Marxism, for the syndicalists and anarchists, this Blanquism, sauce and all, was a pleasant revelation.[48] It soon becomes clear from a reading of Guérin’s text that Lenin’s sole crime was to argue that a period of transition was necessary between the existing capitalist state and the eventual disappearance of the state. Guérin contrasted the reality of Bolshevik power in a society that was economically backward, weakened by war and threatened by foreign intervention with a hypothetical anarchist revolution in which the state would disappear without any need for a period of transition. Of course Guérin could not provide any historical instances of the state being abolished overnight, and he made no suggestions as to how genuine libertarians would have dealt with counter‑revolutionary opposition from within and without. Unfortunately, Bakunin never had the opportunity to show how it could be done; as a result he got to die with clean hands. Peter Sedgwick has noted:

The cardinal vice of anarchist writing is, after all, that (even more than most of us) it assesses other ideologies in terms of their performance, and its own philosophy in terms of its principles: that is what they do, this is what we say.[50] This claim was substantiated by a reference to a quotation given in a footnote to an edition of one of Proudhon’s works. The same reference appeared in all four published versions of the essay. Guérin was a busy man, but it is surprising that between 1957 and 1984 he never found time to check out the original source of the quotation in Lenin’s published works.

If Guérin had found the time to read in full Lenin’s contributions to the Eleventh Congress of the RCP(B), he would have discovered that things were slightly more complex. Lenin was defending the New Economic Policy. He had no illusions that the bourgeoisie were helping with the building of communism: ‘The capitalists are operating alongside us. They are operating like robbers; they make profit; but they know how to do things.’ Against this Lenin posed the bitter recognition that ‘we communists… cannot run the economy’. At the same time, he urged ‘Marxist authors’ to write textbooks for the training of a new generation in social sciences, in order to replace the ‘old bourgeois junk’.[52]

In his 1965 study of anarchism Guérin seemed more aware of the positive aspects of State and Revolution. He described it as a bouquet offered to the anarchists ‘in which thorns are mixed with flowers’. He noted that in 1918, at both the Third Congress of Soviets and at the Congress of Trade Unions, Lenin spoke positively of anarchism, and recorded that the anarcho‑syndicalists declared that the Bolsheviks had abandoned Marxist ideology and become a variety of anarchists. Yet he stressed the contradictions, describing State and Revolution as being ‘a mirror in which the ambivalence of Lenin’s thought is reflected’. And though he saw this as ‘the peak of Lenin’s libertarian period’, he noted that the Russian anarchists were right to warn workers to be on their guard.[54] In seeking to rehabilitate Marx’s old opponent, Guérin was being faithful to his declared aim of breaking down the opposition between Marxism and anarchism.

Yet compared with Lenin’s accomplishment in developing the Bolshevik party from a tiny sect to a mass party of some quarter of a million members, Bakunin’s organisational achievements were distinctly meagre. His attempt to declare the state abolished in Lyon in September 1870 came to nothing, and as one biographer has put it, ‘one could not imagine a more rigidly centralised, authoritarian revolutionary organisation than the one Bakunin proposed as the weapon for carrying out this destruction of all authoritarianism’.[56]

All the more reason, one might think, not to treat Lenin’s 1902 formulation as though it were a definitive and timeless philosophical statement.

Guérin was always a man of action as well as a writer and thinker, and his critique of Leninism grew out of his own experience in the organisations of the French left. The shift in his position on Lenin can be attributed to his changing experience of left organisation at least as much as to a set of theoretical and historical arguments.

Since the 1930s two currents of the French left presented themselves as Leninist. On the one hand, there was the French Communist Party (PCF), for many years one of the most rigidly Stalinist parties in the world. (It was not until 1973 that the PCF recognised the authenticity of Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’ of 1956.) Even after 1968, PCF doctrine still tended to reinforce the scriptural status given to What Is To Be Done?. Georges Cogniot condemned as ‘opportunists’ those who ‘exalted the spontaneous element of the working-class movement’, arguing that the party’s ‘essential task’ was to ‘bring scientific knowledge to the working class’ and that ‘the denigration of What Is To Be Done? is a constant feature of opportunism’.[58] It is little wonder that Guérin detested such bureaucratic authoritarianism, and that he endorsed the description of Stalinism as the ‘syphilis of the working-class movement’.[60]

From the 1930s to 1968, French Trotskyism was always a marginal phenomenon, involving at best a few hundred militants. Yet it was not without influence on sections of the left. Although Guérin had great admiration for the person of Trotsky, whom he met in 1933, he always retained a critical distance with regard to Trotsky’s various tactical positions.

Instead, Guérin involved himself in the mass organisation of the Socialist Party (SFIO). This permitted the open organisation of publicly competing factions, and in 1935 Guérin was involved in the formation of the most left-wing of these, the gauche révolutionnaire headed by Marceau Pivert. Guérin stood on the left of the left; he was the only member of the comité directeur of the gauche révolutionnaire who voted against Pivert taking on official responsibility under the Popular Front government.[62] and by 1938 welcomed the prospect that it would be expelled from the SFIO and become an open revolutionary party. Pivert, in a typically centrist evasion, declared that the SFIO already was a revolutionary party.[64] Guérin himself recounted that in this work he sought the support of the ‘meagre contingent’ of Fourth International members in the PSOP.[66]

Guérin recalled that during the strike and factory occupations of 1936 — under the influence of the traditions of the syndicalist Charte d’Amiens — he kept politics and trade unionism separate, and made no attempt to argue for political ideas in trade union meetings:

In my modest sphere of activity, on the Inter-Union Committee at Les Lilas, I took care not to politicise the strikes. I didn’t believe that it was possible, by adopting the attitude of someone with an axe to grind, to win the confidence of the working masses who were pouring into the unions. It would have been contrary to my nature, and, moreover, both dishonest and clumsy, to take advantage of a trade‑union position to push the party or the tendency to which I belonged. I scrupulously respected trade‑union independence, and the workers for whom I was responsible never had occasion to suspect my intentions or purposes.

In this he was diametrically opposed to Lenin’s insistence that there should be no separation between the ‘economic’ and the ‘political’. Later Guérin recognised that his position had in fact represented a major political error:

We had played the game of trade-union legality too scrupulously. We had not dared to replace it with an embryo of the new legality: that of the ‘soviets’. Eighteen months passed before reflection and perspective allowed me to develop and draw up a self-criticism.[68] A clandestine four-person committee had been established by Pivert just before the outbreak of war; but at the beginning of September two of its members were abroad and one in jail.[70]

La révolution prolétarienne suspended publication at the outbreak of war. Monatte and friends could not simply repeat their courageous opposition to war of 1914, but they had no alternative strategy to offer.[72] Ephemeral groupings like Sartre’s Socialisme et liberté could not survive the situation produced by the PCF’s entry into the Resistance after the German invasion of Russia. Outside the PCF the only organisations with a real activity were the followers of Leninism, that is, the Trotskyists. They actually succeeded in reversing the normal development of Trotskyism; rather than splitting, three Trotskyist organisations came together in 1944 to form a united body, the Parti communiste internationaliste (PCI).

Guérin returned to France in 1942 after time in Norway and a German internment camp. (According to Jacques Kergoat, he was ‘fleetingly’ a member of the Fourth International in Oslo in early 1940.[74]

He cooperated with Martin Widelin, who produced a German‑language paper, Arbeiter und Soldat, aimed at German troops — a form of class fraternisation diametrically opposed to the PCF’s crude nationalism. Leninist forms of organisation seemed to have proved their validity in the difficult circumstances of the time. This helps to explain the relatively sympathetic attitude to Leninism manifested in the first edition of La Lutte de classes.

After the war things changed again. Trotskyists had been faced with vilification and worse at the hands of Stalinists.[76]

Guérin was shocked by a number of aspects of the SWP’s practice — the way in which full-time organisers sent exaggerated reports of their achievements, and the puritanical attitude towards sex and drugs. Most of all he was appalled at what he saw as concessions to racism, as when a black member was told he would discredit the party by cohabiting with a white woman, or when the party failed to fight racial discrimination in the Seafarers International Union because it wanted jobs for its own (white) members.[78]

Yet deplorable as some aspects of American Trotskyism undoubtedly were, Guérin failed to show how these defects derived from Leninist organisation.

Elsewhere he claimed that it was reading Bakunin at the time of the brief flowering of workers’ councils in Hungary that had made him ‘forever allergic to every version of authoritarian socialism, whether it was called Jacobin, Marxist, Leninist or Trotskyist’.[80] (The RDR was already in decline when Guérin returned to France in 1949, and there is no mention of it in his autobiography, but it is hard to imagine that if he had been in France in early 1948 he would not have backed it.) A few years later the PCI suffered another catastrophic split over the question of ‘entrism’ into the PCF.

At the very start of the Algerian war, on 8 November 1954, the PCF issued a statement invoking the ‘teaching of Lenin’ and condemning ‘individual acts liable to play into the hands of the worst colonialists’.[82]

Guérin was involved with the first attempt to hold a meeting against the Algerian war, called in December 1954 by the Fédération communiste libertaire and the PCI (Lambert tendency), but banned by Interior Minister François Mitterrand.[84] However, he scrupulously admitted that the programmatic differences between the two were small, and he sought reconciliation when the conflict between the two liberation movements became increasingly bloody.[86] Meanwhile the other Trotskyist current, the PCI (Frank tendency), continually outdid itself in giving wholehearted support to the FLN.[88]

The later years of the Algerian war saw the emergence of La Voie communiste. Originating with a group of oppositional PCF members, this became a grouping organised around a publication to which Guérin contributed. This development of a looser and more open form of organisation caused some friction for the Trotskyists working within it, some of whom, like Denis Berger, formerly a member of the Political Bureau, were expelled from the PCI.[90] He was in addition a member of the ‘new left’ party the Union de la gauche socialiste (UGS), and after 1960 of the Parti socialiste unifié (PSU), though he later recounted that his membership was ‘without conviction’.[92] In the late 1940s, CLR James, who was in process of breaking from the American SWP, was engaged on a translation of La Lutte de classes, although it was never published.[94] In 1965, Guérin participated in a conference organised by Socialisme ou barbarie on Marxism today. A little later he hailed the Situationists for their ‘libertarian transcendence of Marxism’ — even though the Situationists had a record which far outdid that of any Trotskyists or Leninists as far as splits, expulsions and mutual denunciation were concerned.[96] The events of 1968 brought, albeit briefly, the marginalised currents of the revolutionary left to the centre of the stage. Maoists (so‑called ‘Marxist-Leninists’), Trotskyists, anarchists and spontaneists coalesced into an ephemerally united vanguard. But as the movement went down, the divisions re-emerged and the debates about strategy and organisation involved a whole new generation.

Guérin’s response to 1968 was clearly prepared by his earlier writings. Already in 1962, at the end of the Algerian War, he had written a devastating indictment of the mainstream parties of the French left:

The incredible weight of their apparatus, which overwhelms the weary activist under a pyramid of authorities and formalities of all sorts, the ageing of their language, the archaic quality of their worn-out slogans, their attachment to aping traditional rites which have gradually become emptied of all content condemn them to sterility and inactivity, and cut them off from both the masses and the young. Their death-knell will soon sound.[98] Here he was clearly right — seven million of the 10 million workers who struck in May 1968 were not unionised. Yet it is also true that the absence of a radical opposition organised within the unions made it easier for the bureaucracies to stitch up the strike and prepare the return to work.

Though Guérin still claimed to be seeking a synthesis of Marxism and anarchism, and adopted from Italian students the term ‘libertarian Marxist’, on the organisational level he gravitated towards anarchism. But here too the sectarian spirit was far from absent, and he changed his organisational allegiance on more than one occasion, moving from the Organisation communiste libertaire to the Organisation révolutionnaire anarchiste, and then to the Union des travailleurs communistes libertaires.[100] was now brought openly into the public arena. Guérin was sharply critical of the Trotskyist groups which he believed were particular backward on the question of homosexuality: ‘… in the “leftist” milieux there are still groups like the Trotskyists of the OCI — utterly hysterical with respect to homosexuality — or those of Lutte ouvrière who remain uncomprehending; even those of the former Ligue communiste despite making a deliberately contrived effort.’[102]) However, Guérin always remained willing to cooperate and to debate with any tendency of the left; he spoke more than once at the annual fêtes organised by Lutte ouvrière.

Guérin’s response to what he saw as the bankruptcy of the Leninist tradition was to explore the history of the socialist movement for alternatives. It should be said from the outset that, whatever the limitations of the results achieved, the project was wholly commendable. The reduction of the rich variety of the socialist tradition to an orthodox line of ‘great teachers’ — as happened in the Stalinist tradition and to a lesser extent in the Trotskyist tradition also — was entirely detrimental to the rebirth of a healthy socialist current able to confront the realities of a changed world.

Two further articles by Guérin included in his 1969 volume confronted aspects of Leninism. In the first, he dealt with problems of the German revolution in the period of 1919-33, and the ineffectiveness of the German Communist Party (KPD).[104] He noted that the KPD had not prepared workers for the possible seizure of power in 1923. But the real problem here — which Guérin did not confront — was not Moscow’s intervention, but the repeated lurches from right to left and back by the KPD leadership between 1919 and 1923 which resulted from the fact that it was a new party lacking any coherent or experienced leadership team. If Rosa Luxemburg had followed Lenin’s example in building a cadre, the KPD might not have performed so badly. Apparently Guérin was not very satisfied with his own argument, for he omitted the piece from the 1984 collection A la recherche d’un communisme libertaire.

In the second article,[106] While he endorsed Lewin’s picture of the ailing Lenin, already a prisoner of a Central Committee dominated by Stalin, he believed that Lewin overstated the rôle of the objective circumstances produced by the Civil War in producing bureaucratisation, and thus underestimated the importance of the ideas of party organisation developed by Lenin since What Is To Be Done?.

Much more important was Guérin’s attempt to offer an alternative to the Leninist tradition by a revival of the ideas of Luxemburg. Although her historical rôle had made it impossible for Stalinism completely to write her out of history, it nonetheless largely marginalised her. As orthodox Trotskyism became increasingly focused on its own single father figure, it was left to those on the fringes of revolutionary politics to study Luxemburg, and Guérin’s book on Luxemburg[108] — played a crucial rôle in bringing her back into the Marxist debate.

Guérin was entirely right in attributing great significance to Luxemburg. Had she lived she would undoubtedly have had the authority to confront Lenin within the debates of the Comintern as no other non-Russian Marxist was able to. He drew out the strong points of her work, with particular emphasis on such texts as The Mass Strike in which her concept of revolutionary spontaneity was embodied.

Guérin noted the way in which Luxemburg adopted a lyrical tone — very different from Lenin’s style — when writing of mass action. She observed that on many occasions the so-called vanguard lagged behind the masses, and she vigorously denounced the ‘mechanical bureaucratism’ and excessive centralism of the German Social Democratic Party.[110]

In concluding, Guérin judged that ‘many misunderstandings and contradictions handicap the work of Rosa Luxemburg’, and he criticised her for her ‘inability… to discover a precise synthesis between spontaneity and consciousness’.[112]

Yet the rejection of Leninism did not lead Guérin to abandon the idea of revolutionary organisation. On the contrary. He had little time for the extremes of post-1968 spontaneism, of which he wrote quite scathingly:

May 1968 intoxicated an enthusiastic youth, and for a time the magical effects of spontaneity dazzled it. But the same sorcery which made them upset all institutions and shake all established values, including the CGT and the Communist Party, has, in the long term, struck these young magicians with impotence. And by this very fact, called into question exclusive recourse to the weapon of spontaneity. …

But 1968 in France did not only demonstrate the effectiveness of spontaneity, it also revealed its inadequacies. Apart from a handful of die-hard ‘spontaneists’, obsessive opponents of organisation who are haunted by the danger of bureaucracy and who have condemned themselves to sterility, no activist today, whether in the student movement or in the working class, believes it would be possible to carry through the revolution to its conclusion without an ‘active minority’.[114]

For Guérin the basis of spontaneity was to be understood in materialist terms. Ultimately any authentic revolutionary movement must be based on the movement of social classes as determined by their situation in the economic and social order. No vanguard could replace such class movements, or the whole principle of the self‑emancipation of the working class would be lost.

This was no surrender to mechanical determinism. On the contrary, human initiative had a vital rôle to play in any spontaneous movement. As Guérin pointed out, quoting an unnamed worker, ‘there’s always someone pushing for spontaneity’.[116] Of course Rocton was responding to a felt mood — if he had moved his resolution a week earlier he might have been laughed to scorn. But this is a striking example of the fact that there is no such thing as ‘pure’ spontaneity.

Thus Guérin was quite right to insist on the importance of organisation, as he did on so many occasions. Indeed, his whole evolution was marked by a concern for organisation. If one adds up all the political organisations to which he belonged between the 1930s and the 1980s, the total must be approaching Guinness Book of Records territory. Certainly he was not guilty of anything so facile as a stark juxtaposition of organisation and spontaneity.

Unfortunately, however, Guérin never produced a fully revised confrontation with Lenin, made no attempt to assess the totality of Lenin’s life and work. For Lenin, while focused throughout his entire career on the problem of organisation, was extremely flexible as to the form such organisation ought to take. Moreover, unlike some of his comrades, he was very much open to the idea of dialogue with anarchists. In the hectic years after October 1917, Lenin found time to meet and discuss with various Russian and foreign anarchists, including Emma Goldmann and Kropotkin.[118] The former syndicalist Alfred Rosmer, who first met Lenin in Moscow in 1920, identified ‘the secret of the exceptional position he held in his party’ in his willingness to learn from comrades; being told by Rosmer of the situation in France, he immediately accepted that he had written ‘something stupid’ in his theses on the question.[120]

Lenin, however, sought to minimise the differences; he referred to the syndicalist concept of the ‘active minority’ which, he said, was very close to the idea of the party as the most advanced element in the class. For him, the reality was more important than the name. Hence he argued that syndicalists should accept party organisation. But he recognised that many syndicalists were anti-party because of their experience of corrupt parliamentary organisations.[122]

This was effectively a pre-emptive denunciation of the way Zinoviev and then Stalin would use the myth of ‘Leninism’ in order to create a monolithic world organisation that would be obedient to Moscow’s every whim. This was Lenin against Leninism.

There are thus a number of points of convergence between Lenin and Guérin. Both recognised the centrality of working-class self-activity, both recognised the need for socialists to organise themselves. Guérin for his part argued that the main problem with calling the revolutionary minority a ‘party’ is merely that ‘the word has taken on suggestions that are simultaneously authoritarian, sectarian and electoralist, and which provoke growing distrust from workers’.[124]

This is not to argue that the differences between Guérin and Lenin were trivial or non-existent. Guérin raised serious criticisms and they deserve a serious answer. It was entirely to Guérin’s credit that he opened up a series of debates that had the potential to take the left beyond a facile sequence of quotation and counter-quotation. Bolshevism was neither revealed truth nor evil incarnate, and it deserves serious and rational historical criticism. Guérin’s style of polemic, firm but calmly reasoned, is one from which the left can learn.

But ultimately, in their commitment to working-class self‑emancipation, to the need for revolutionary organisation, to the necessity for dialogue and the recognition of the need constantly to adapt to changing circumstances, Guérin and Lenin had more in common than Guérin might have been willing to admit. The real Lenin, cleansed of the distortions and excrescences of Stalinism, still has much to offer us. The quasi‑religious use of Leninist texts has been a positive obstacle to the appreciation of Lenin’s true merits. If Guérin’s criticisms have made it easier to grasp the real Lenin, then we are in his debt.



[2].      P Sedgwick, ‘Out of Hiding: The Comradeships of Daniel Guérin’, Salmagundi, no 58-59 (1982-83), pp197-220, especially p219.

[4].      D Guérin, L’anarchisme, Paris, 1965, p15.

[6].      P Gottraux, ‘Socialisme ou barbarie’, Lausanne, 1997, p167.

[8].      D Guérin, Proudhon oui et non, Paris, 1978, p7.

[10].     Ibid, p39.

[12].     The phrase was Clemenceau’s; see G Dallas, At the Heart of a Tiger, London, 1993, pp292‑97.

[14].     G Lefebvre, review of La Lutte de Classes, Annales historiques de la Révolution française, Volume 19 (1947), pp173-79.

[16].     D Guérin, Le Feu du sang, Paris, 1977, p137.

[18].     Guérin, La Révolution française et nous, Paris, 1976, pp55-56.

[20].     Ibid, pp43, 61.

[22].     D Guérin, La Lutte de classes sous la première république, Paris, 1946 and Paris, 1968. [Hereafter LDC 46 and LDC 68.] An attempt to analyse some of the differences between the two editions was made in N Carlin, ‘Daniel Guérin and the Working Class in the French Revolution’, International Socialism, no 47 (Summer 1990), pp197-223.

[24].     LDC 46, Volume 1, pp38-39; LDC 68, Volume 1, p54.

[26].     LDC 46, Volume 2, p292; LDC 68, Volume 2, p326.

[28].     LDC 46, Volume 2, p353; LDC 68, Volume 2, p392.

[30].     Guérin, Jeunesse du socialisme libertaire, pp91-119; Guérin, Pour un marxisme libertaire, pp129-55; Guérin, A la recherche d’un communisme libertaire, pp79-92.

[32].     Ibid, pp27-28; VI Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 5, Moscow, 1960ff, pp510-11.

[34].     Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 4, p315.

[36].     Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 5, p386.

[38].     Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 10, p20.

[40].     Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 11, p358.

[42].     Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 20, p328.

[44].     Cliff, Lenin, Volume 2, p157.

[46].     Guérin, Jeunesse du socialisme libertaire, p104.

[48].     Guérin, Jeunesse du socialisme libertaire, pp110, 113.

[50].     Guérin, Jeunesse du socialisme libertaire, pp112-13.

[52].     M Haynes, Russia, London, 2002, pp51, 53.

[54].     Guérin, Jeunesse du socialisme libertaire, pp115-19.

[56].     Guérin, L’anarchisme, pp44-45.

[58].     J Kanapa, Question personnelle, Paris, 1956, p334.

[60].     There were exceptions. See the quote from Pierre Broué at note 43 above.

[62].     Ibid, pp81-99.

[64].     Ibid, pp151, 156.

[66].     C Chambelland, Pierre Monatte, une autre voix syndicaliste, Paris, 1999, pp147-54.

[68].     Kergoat, Marceau Pivert, pp162-66.

[70].     Guérin, Front populaire: révolution manquée, pp311-15.

[72].     D Berry, A History of the French Anarchist Movement, 1917-1945, Westport CT, 2002, p256.

[74].     Guérin, Le Feu du sang, pp100, 108-09.

[76].     Guérin, Le feu du sang, p149.

[78].     Ibid, p152.

[80].     La Vérité, 12 and 19 March 1948. See also I Birchall, ‘Neither Washington nor Moscow’, Journal of European Studies, Volume 29 (1999), pp365-404.

[82].     Sylvain Pattieu, Les camarades des frères: trotskistes et libertaires dans la guerre d’Algérie, Paris, 2002, pp39‑50, 78

[84].     Ibid, p182

[86].     Ibid, p81.

[88].     C Nick, Les trotskistes, Paris, 2002, pp227-28.

[90].     Gottraux, ‘Socialisme ou barbarie’, pp273, 280.

[92].     J Léger, ‘Baboeuf et la naissance du communisme ouvrier’, Socialisme ou barbarie, no 2 (May-June 1949), pp67-82.

[94].     C Lefort, ‘Le marxisme et Sartre’, Les Temps Modernes, no 89 (April 1953), pp1541-70, in particular p1545.

[96].     See statements published in Le Monde on 7 and 8 May 1968.

[98].     Guérin, Rosa Luxemburg, p59.

[100].   D Guérin, ‘Le message de délivrance de Kinsey’, France Observateur, 30 August 1956, p14 (and subsequent hostile correspondence); see also D Guérin, Shakespeare et Gide en correctionnelle, Paris, 1959.

[102].   Sedgwick, ‘Out of Hiding’, p200.

[104].   P Broué, La révolution en Allemagne, Paris, 1971, p528.

[106].   M Lewin, Le dernier combat de Lénine, Paris, 1967; M Lewin, Lenin’s Last Struggle, London, 1969.

[108].   T Cliff, Rosa Luxemburg: A Study, London, 1959; third revised edition, London, 1969. Reproduced in T Cliff, Selected Writings, Volume 1, pp59-116.

[110].   Ibid, p39.

[112].   Letter of 24 November 1917, cited in A Rosmer, Moscou sous Lénine, p297.

[114].   Guérin, Pour un marxisme libertaire, p285.

[116].   C Nick, Les trotskistes, pp472-73.

[118].   D Guérin, Ni Dieu ni Maître, Volume 2, Paris, 1999, p174-83.

[120].   J Riddell (ed), Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite! (Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress 1920), New York, 1991, pp144, 146.

[122].   Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 33, p431.

[124].   Guérin, Ni Dieu ni Maître, Volume 2, p23.