«Rejeter “toutes les formes d’assujettissement”: Daniel Guérin sur la démocratie directe, l’autogestion et l’autonomie individuelle». Je donne ci-dessous le passage concernant la Révolution française de cet article de David Berry, que l’on peut lire intégralement et télécharger librement à cette adresse.
The French revolution and the birth of a ‘new type of democracy’
Unlike many on the left associated with postwar ideological renewal, most of whom would focus on a revision or reinterpretation of Marxism, often at a philosophical level, Guérin the historian began with a return to what he, like Kropotkin, saw as the source of revolutionary theory and praxis: in 1946, he published his study of class struggle in the First French Republic (1793–1797). The aim of the book was to ‘draw lessons from the greatest, longest and deepest revolutionary experience France has ever known, lessons which would help regenerate the revolutionary, libertarian socialism of today’, and to ‘extract some ideas which would be applicable to our time and of direct use to the contemporary reader who has yet to fully digest the lessons of another revolution: the Russian revolution.’ Applying the concepts of permanent revolution and combined and uneven development, inspired by Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, Guérin argued that the beginnings of a conflict of class interest could already be detected within the revolutionary camp between an ‘embryonic’ proletariat – the bras nus (manual workers), represented by the Enragés – and the bourgeoisie – represented by Robespierre and the Jacobin leadership. The influence of Kropotkin may also be detected in Guérin’s argument that the French Revolution thus represented not only the birth of bourgeois parliamentary democracy, but also the emergence of ‘a new type of democracy,’ a form of working-class direct democracy as seen, however imperfectly, in the ‘sections’ (local popular assemblies), which were for Guérin precursors of the Commune of 1871 and of the Soviets of 1905 and 1917. In the second edition of the work (1968) he would add to that genealogy ‘the Commune of May 1968ʹ – which on the bicentenary of the 1789 revolution would be described by philosopher Victor Leduc, as ‘the first sketch of a permanent democracy, fusing and transcending both political democracy and economic democracy.’
Guérin’s interpretation emphasised the political ambivalence of the bourgeois Jacobin leadership which ‘hesitated continually between the solidarity uniting it with the popular classes against the aristocracy and that uniting all the wealthy, property- owning classes against those who owned little or nothing’. For Guérin, the essential lesson to be drawn from the French Revolution was thus the conflict of class interest between the bourgeoisie and the working classes. The dominant historiography – whether bourgeois, social democratic or Stalinist in Guérin’s eyes – tended to maintain the ‘cult of Robespierre’ and thus reinforce the labour movement’s dependence on bourgeois democracy, and were thus to be rejected.
This interpretation unsurprisingly proved controversial. Its political significance was that the Revolutionary Terror had been used as a parallel to justify Bolshevik repression of democratic freedoms and of more leftist movements. Stalin was seen by Communists as the reincarnation of Robespierre. The Jacobin tradition of patriotism and national unity in defence of the bourgeois democratic Republic has been one of the characteristics of the dominant tendencies within the French left.
Guérin accepted the classic interpretation of the Revolution as a bourgeois revolution, albeit one which was ‘bourgeois only in its results’. But following Kropotkin, he was keen to emphasise that without the constant pressure from the sans-culottes, the most audacious steps within the revolution would not have been taken, from the taking of the Bastille to the adoption of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen to the campaign for dechristianisation. Guérin’s analysis was described by Eric Hobsbawm as ‘a curious combination of libertarian and trotskyist ideas – not without a dash of Rosa Luxemburg’.
The first half of Guérin’s interpretive introduction to his history of the revolution – not included in the abridged English translation – is concerned with his central argument that the French revolution was not only a bourgeois revolution which led to the creation of a parliamentary representative democracy; it was also characterised by the spontaneous preference of the more plebeian and more radical sans-culottes for more direct and more decentralised forms of democracy, notably in the shape of the municipal councils (communes) and the local ‘sections’.
This emphasis on the ‘forms of popular power’ created by the sans-culotte is something which Guérin insisted had too often been ignored or downplayed by ‘republican historians’ who had been content to portray the revolution as ‘the cradle of parliamentary democracy’. But it also represented ‘an embryonic proletarian revolution’ and consequently carried within it the ‘seed of a new form of revolu- tionary power whose features would become clearer during the proletarian revolu- tions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.’ As the American anarchist Murray Bookchin would put it:
«The sections provide us with a rough model of assembly organization in a large city and during a period of transition from a centralized political state to a potentially decentralized one. [. . .] The word ‘model’ is used deliberately. The [. . .] sections were lived experiences, not theoretical visions. But precisely because of this they validate in practice many anarchic theoretical speculations that have often been dismissed as ‘visionary’ and ‘unrealistic’».