Work in Progress
Daniel Guérin Conference
THE writer and activist Daniel Guérin (1904-1988) was a significant figure on the French and international left from the 1920s to the 1980s. On 17-19 September 2004, there was a conference on Guérin at Loughborough University, which attempted to cover all the varying aspects of his life and work. The conference was organised by David Berry, a specialist on Guérin, and was attended by various interested individuals from Britain, France, Belgium, Russia, the USA and Slovenia. Guérin’s daughter Anne, his son-in-law and his grandson participated in the conference, and were able to add useful information for the benefit of those of us who knew Guérin only through his writings.
The conference opened with a showing of the film Daniel Guérin, 1904-1988: Combats dans le siècle, by Laurent Muhleisen and Patrice Spadoni, which gives an excellent overview of Guérin’s life, from his visits to Syria, Lebanon and Indochina in 1927-30, through the Popular Front, his imprisonment in Germany and his return to occupied France, his years in the USA after the end of the Second World War, his opposition to the Algerian war, and the events of 1968.
After this initial treat the conference was hard going, with some 18 papers in a day and a half. Since the organisers were anxious to stress the totality of Guérin’s work, it was decided to have all sessions as plenary, rather than allowing specialists in different areas to discuss among themselves. The result was a highly informative conference, though more time for discussion and questions would have been welcome.
The conference began with a consideration of Guérin’s political activity in the 1930s. David Renton analysed the relevance of Guerin’s insights in The Brown Plague for modern debates on fascism,and Robert Hall (whose English translation of Guerin’s Front populaire — revolution manquéewill hopefully appear in the near future), spoke on Guérin’s involvement in the Popular Front events of 1936, and parallels with our own day.
Sonia Combes from the Bibliothèque de Documentation Internationale Contemporaine in Paris described the documents left by Guérin and the problems involved in archiving such a vast quantity of material.
Two papers dealt with Guerin’s influential and still controversial work on the French Revolution; Jean Ducange dealt with Guérin’s use of Kautsky, while Julia Guseva from the Victor Serge Memorial Library in Moscow spoke on the Terror.
After this several papers covered Guérin’s evolution from Marxism to anarchism, and his role as an intermediary between the two traditions: Ian Birchall on Leninism, David Berry on anarchism, Laurent Esquerre on the Union des travailleurs communistes libertaires, and Anthony Zurbrugg on the Libertarian Communist Group. The veteran libertarian Georges Fontenis was unable to attend for health reasons, but submitted a paper.
The second day began with papers on aspects of Guérin’s tireless and lifelong involvement in struggles against colonialism and imperialism by Ahmed Henni (Guérin’s son-in-law) and Sylvain Boulouque.
Then papers by Hervé Baudry, Laurent Muhleisen, Robert Schwartzwald and Mimmo Pucciarelli dealt with Guérin’s homosexuality and his autobiographical writing.
In the final session Matic Cvitković spoke about Guérin and Malcolm X, and Dan Gordon described Guérin’s support for immigrant workers in France after 1968, and his involvement with the paper Le Paria, which took its name from a paper edited by Ho Chi Minh for the French Communist Party in the 1920s. This brought the wheel full circle, showing Guérin as an heir of the best traditions of the early Communist International. By the end participants had a very good grasp of both the enormous range of Guérin’s writing and political activity, and the central unifying factor in his commitment to the cause of the oppressed and exploited.
The one unfortunate aspect of the conference was that since it was held as a residential event in Loughborough, it was relatively expensive, and there were few in attendance other than those giving papers. Perhaps if it had been held in London or another large centre it might have attracted a larger audience. Many of the papers can be consulted at http://www-staff.lboro.ac.uk/~eudgb/DG. htm, and it is hoped that the proceedings will be published.
Peter Sedgwick Commemoration
PETER Sedgwick (1934-1983) was one of the most talented and remarkable figures of the post-1956 British left. After a short period in the Communist Party, which he left after the Hungarian Revolution, he joined the Socialist Review Group in the late 1950s and remained a member — though often a dissident one — of the International Socialists until 1976, when he left in opposition to the formation of the Socialist Workers Party. He remained a libertarian socialist until his tragic death in 1983.
On 30 October 2004 — the year of what would have been his seventieth birthday — an ‘Event to Commemorate the Life of Peter Sedgwick’ was held in London at the initiative of his children Paul and Michele. Although there was little publicity for the event, around 50 people attended, a testimony to the enduring impact that Peter’s personality and writings had on so many people.
Around 20 speakers spoke for around five minutes each, covering the main periods of Peter’s life. Tom Arie, Stanley Mitchell and Gabriel Pearson recalled Peter’s days as an Oxford student. Richard Kirkwood evoked Peter’s days in the Oxford International Socialists in the 1960s, Sheila Rowbotham spoke of his friendship with David Widgery, one of Peter’s most remarkable admirers and disciples, and Peter Robinson of his days in York International Socialists.
Speakers came from a range of political traditions. There were some raised eyebrows among the more dogmatic of us when one speaker who had just arrived from the USA argued she was continuing in Peter’s footsteps by campaigning for Kerry in the presidential election. (Would Peter have approved of anything to stop Bush, or dismissed it as Popular Frontism? Who can say?) The only slightly sour note was struck by broadcaster and former member of York International Socialists, Laurie Taylor, who suggested that Peter’s political campaigning was futile, and that he should have devoted all his time to writing. Many of us would have felt that it was Peter’s involvement in day‑to‑day socialist activity that gave his writing its power and bite.
There were various moving tributes to Peter’s personality, to his role as a comrade and friend. But his greatest achievement was as a writer and many of the contributions addressed this. He will be remembered above all for two things.
Firstly, for his critique of the psychological theories of RD Laing, which in the 1960s and 1970s had a very widespread influence on the left. Peter’s work — above all his one full-length book, PsychoPolitics (1982) — remains controversial, but its importance is indisputable.
Secondly, Peter was the translator and champion of Victor Serge. At a time when Serge’s work could have vanished into total obscurity, Peter translated Serge’s Memoirs, a book which taught a whole generation of us that the Russian Revolution and its aftermath were more complex than either the Stalinist or even the Trotskyist orthodoxies would allow. A letter from Richard Greeman, for many years Peter’s companion in promoting Serge, urged that it would be a fitting tribute to get the Memoirsback in print in a complete edition; for some unknown reason (there was scarcely a paper shortage in 1963) Oxford University Press insisted that the text of the translation be cut by around one eighth.
But Peter’s work also ranged over many other areas, from contraception to African socialism. He had a wonderful gift of being both wickedly funny and profoundly serious at the same time. Some of his work may, sadly, be irretrievably lost. Apparently there was a whole box full of poetry the whereabouts of which nobody seems to know. In particular, Peter wrote on the history and traditions of the socialist left, realising, in Serge’s words, that socialists have a ‘double duty’ — to fight our enemies and to be critical of ourselves. His late essay on Daniel Guérin is full of acute insights, as are earlier essays on Deutscher and Orwell. In particular he wrote a series of essays on the history of the British left after the watershed of 1956. (See in particular ‘The Two New Lefts’ (1964), ‘A Day in the Life of the Fifties’ (1971) and ‘Farewell, Grosvenor Square’ (1976).) The year of 2006 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the 1956 crisis, and there will doubtless be much discussion of the legacy of the left in that period. Hopefully Peter’s writings will play an important role in such discussion.
The commemoration was a moving and convivial occasion. Happily it also turned out to be productive. For many years friends of Peter have discussed the possibility of publishing a collection of Peter’s writings. Circumstances — notably the deaths of David Widgery and Raphael Samuel — seemed to make this impossible. But after the commemoration, largely due to the efforts of Edward Crawford, a Sedgwick archive at http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick has been added to the Marxist Internet Archive, with around 90 items (including most of those mentioned above). Meanwhile Peter’s family have launched a website (http://www.petersedgwick.org) which will contain other material relevant to Peter’s life and work. It is good to have so much of Peter’s writing available again, so that those of us who read it long ago can savour it again, while those too young to remember Peter can learn a great deal from it.
Left-Wing Conference Venues
KEITH Scholey, the archivist of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, is attempting to compile a list of places where left-wing organisations held their conferences. If any readers can help, please write to Keith at 12 Regina Crescent, Victoria Avenue, Kingston-upon-Hull HU5 3EA.
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