Our Haunted Present: Daniel Guerin on Historical Analogies and How We Confront Our Past


Well before the recent waves of protests in response to George Floyd’s lynching, historians and public figures had been increasingly debating the types and use of historical analogies for making sense of our contemporary present, many of these positions finding a center of gravity in the New York Review of Books blog, NYR Daily. In January, philosopher Tamsin Shaw compared Attorney General Robert Barr to Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, and last summer Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (supported by a resounding quorum of Holocaust scholars) called migrant detention centers on the southern U.S. border concentration camps, evoking images of World War II Europe (the most immediate example, though admittedly not the only one she had in mind).[1] Ocasio-Cortez’s statement drew immediate criticism from commenters on the right who were scandalized by the comparison between US policy and Nazi policies, while some Jewish groups thought any comparison would diminish the unique historical import of the Holocaust.

Supporters of these analogies contended, in response, that they need not obscure or overshadow historical particularities in the past. Peter Gordon argued that such analogies are not only inescapable; they are the basis of historical interpretation. “All historical analogies are interpretative acts, but interpretation is just what historians do,” Gordon wrote in NYR Daily. “Those who say that we must forgo analogies and remain fixed on the facts alone are not defending history; they are condemning it to helpless silence.”[2] Observing these back-and-forth exchanges, historian Samuel Moyn recently cautioned against such reliance on historical analogies to carry contemporary political debate. Citing French historian and ardent anti-fascist Marc Bloch, Moyn held to the premise that comparisons are only as good as the differences they reveal. Otherwise, they result in a form of mimesis ill-tailored for the present.[3] In some cases, they just appear anachronistic.

In grad school, my friends and I used to delight in leveling this accusation against political theorists and political scientists who claimed Plato was totalitarian—or not, as if that made any more historical sense—or who defended any number of other timeless political typologies that just projected the present into the past.

Of course, things aren’t just that simple. The debate about present-day historical analogies with earlier forms of fascism highlights just how much the present informs and implicates the past. And it is often hard not to see uncanny resemblances of earlier fascist forms in contemporary politics, whether they are truly fascist or not. I offer no solutions to the problem of historical analogies. But I do think it worth thinking with a now obscure text penned by mid-century French anti-fascist, anti-colonial, gay rights activist Daniel Guérin. Not because he provides clear answers, but because he offers a way of thinking through these issues from a different angle.

Guérin was no stranger to allegations of anachronism and historical inaccuracy. His 1946 study of the French Revolution was panned by orthodox Marxist historians for seeing a nascent proletariat in a properly bourgeois revolution. These criticisms went on for over ten years, merging with disdain for Guérin’s open Trotskyite affiliations. As the old historian of the French Revolution George Lefebvre and his young disciple Albert Soboul saw it, everywhere Guérin wrote about Robespierre the Jacobin tyrant, he really was indicting Stalin and the French Communist Party’s support for him.[4]

By 1958, though, a different concatenation of events emerged as the independence struggle in Algeria destabilized the postwar French Republic and its lackluster imperial reform projects. A military coup in Algiers on May 13, 1958, led by jack-booted special forces and their often intégriste Catholic supporters, threatened to cross the Mediterranean unless the government got really tough in their campaign to continue their colonial occupation of Algeria.[5] But this moment of imperialist-fascist machismo quickly led to anti-Nazi Free French Forces leader Charles De Gaulle returning from the countryside to save the nation and form a new Republic. For those looking for historical analogies to diagnose the situation, the return of De Gaulle posed serious interpretive problems. Apparent Nazis had brought one of France’s most famous Nazi fighters to power. 

The French left was divided, not only on terminology and analysis, but also on strategy. Despite protests with hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating in Paris, no serious challenge to De Gaulle or the military supporters behind him emerged.[6] Hot takes proliferated; among them is Guérin’s essay “Parachronisme.”

Writing in the new—and short-lived—anticolonial and revolutionary journal Le 14 juillet (invoking the taking of the Bastille in 1789), Guérin wished to take the charge of anachronism so often used against him and prove his mastery of terms.[7] (Sometimes pedantry can be useful.) Like a bad undergraduate essay, he began by citing the dictionary, noting that anachronism is an “error of chronology”:

But there are two ways of committing this error. The one consists of placing an event earlier than it belongs: this is the true anachronism. The other consists of placing an event later than it belongs: this is parachronism (even if this word has fallen into disuse). By extension, we have improperly become used to treating as anachronistic any behavior that seems out of date, that looks old, that belongs to by-gone eras. In this sense, it would be more precise to say that it is parachronic. It is not simply a matter of wordplay to baptize the coup of General Massu and his praetorian guards as parachronistic. The fact that they have threatened us (and still threaten us) from the skies with civil war, the audacity of their movements across territory, the futurist edge to their getup that appeals to a certain cohort of the youth and, amidst this mess, tends to replace the traditional attire, all of this false modernism, this false virility, this false noise, is not sufficient to hide the fact that we’re being plagued with revenants.

What France faced, in Guérin’s view, was not so much too many people projecting the present into the past, but the past intruding into the present—old events, symbols, images, persisting beyond their expiration date.

I cannot, and I hope most would not now, follow Guérin’s faith in a progressive historical development. Though well aware that the good forces in any given moment could fail—this was the plot of his study of the working classes during the French Revolution, after all—he nonetheless believed his era was one of progress and one that had no use for fascism. “We are in the atomic age,” he confidently wrote, “the one of interstellar exploration, the irresistible movement from individual territories to global unity. And these social parasites, these short-sleeved ‘tough guys,’ these ignorant and brutal braggarts, these torturers whose ‘techniques’ have scandalized the whole world, pretend to dictate their law to this advanced part of contemporary humanity that is the French People? The parachronism is flagrant.” De Gaulle’s presence made the matter even more laughable for Guérin, since, though De Gaulle may not have been a fascist himself, he was a parachronic throwback to self-styled ideals of ancien régime grandeur. Here, Guérin’s attitude echoed Marx’s opening of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “Hegel observes somewhere that all the great events and characters of world history occur twice, so to speak. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as low farce.”[8] Of course, presuming the reappearance is simply farce puts too much faith in the movement of history. Since farce assumes the plot of comedy, it has its happy resolution built in. But let’s not foreclose the possibility that cursed return is simply another tragedy, with no righteous vindication on the horizon.

Despite his faith in historical progress, Guérin was nonetheless worried. He had experienced fascism firsthand, both while travelling Germany in the thirties to take account of the rise of Nazism and then in a Norwegian prison camp as a political prisoner. Unsurprisingly, among the new forces of order were now-well-known Nazi collaborators like Maurice Papon, who would go from directing state violence in North Africa to state violence in Paris as the Prefect of Police. Guérin wrote of France’s fascists, “They are, perhaps, the past and we the future. But for the moment, it’s the past that matters.” Without Guérin’s belief in future historical vindication, this conceit burns all the more. Whether our contemporary fascists are a thing of the past or not, they’re here.

This of course relies on a key insight of Guérin’s, as well as many of those contemporary commentators who go further than making mere analogies between our present and some distant, foreign fascist past. In order to see these problems as revenants—the dead returned—we have to acknowledge they are part of our past in the first place. Whether racist cops and authoritarian presidents are fascist or not, Guérin’s line of thinking suggests we first of all own these problems as American and not some faraway import. Acknowledging these problems as revenants requires us to confront our own haunted American attics, cellars, backyards, and basements.

It would be right here to interject and note that in order to be a revenant, you have to be first killed. We’d be foolish to think the elements plaguing us now had ever been truly extinguished, that we’d gotten beyond systemic structural racism, militarized policing, and authoritarianism. Even if some of those elements have been suppressed or unacknowledged, they were still there all along.

But one of the key conceits in many ghost stories is the continuity between the revenant and the plagued. Ebenezer Scrooge is tormented first of all by those closest to him. Ghosts are the intangible aspects of the past that nonetheless tangibly haunt us in the here and now. In his study Haunting History, Ethan Kleinberg, leaning on the Tale of Sleepy Hollow and Derrida, expands this sense of haunting to encapsulate history as a whole: “the past, like a ghost, is by definition absent and thus has no ontological properties per se, or perhaps more accurately, it has a latent ontology. History is the presence of absence, and what we do have of it is that which presents itself to us or that we force on it… But… crucial aspects of the past are missing. They lie hidden, buried, forgotten, or lost: latent possible that we might encounter while searching for something else or that could at any moment break loose and come hurtling at us seemingly out of nowhere.”[9] Certain critics of the New York Times’ 1619 project, say, have insisted racial capitalism and white supremacy were not integral to our nation’s history, but these revenants have returned to prove them mistaken.[10] Guérin’s advice was optimistic, tragically so given his hopes that the parachronisms haunting 1958 France did not just disappear. De Gaulle remained in power for a decade, eventually granting amnesty to many of the pro-colonial fascists who Guerin thought were destined for the dustbin of history. But the close of his essay is worth attention despite that misplaced optimism, if only because we’re lacking anything better:

This Restoration will be shorter than we expect, but not because the revenants will disappear of their own accord. We will only send them back to the “museum” forever if, on our own ruins, we rebuild without delay a revolutionary and libertarian socialism adequate to the needs of today’s world. 

Today’s revenants throw into sharp relief the necessity of reckoning with our nation’s past and building something better.

Timothy Scott Johnson is a Professional Assistant Professor of History at Texas A & M University – Corpus Christi. He has recently translated François Ewald’s Histoire de l’état providence as The Birth of Solidarity (Duke University Press 2020). Currently, he is working on a project examining the ways the history of the French Revolution framed the Algerian War of Independence.

[1] Tamsin Shaw, “William Barr, the Carl Schmitt of our Time,” NYR Daily (15 January 2020), https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2020/01/15/william-barr-the-carl-schmitt-of-our-time/; Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “Ocasio-Cortex Calls Migration Detention Centers ‘Concentration Camps,’ Eliciting Backlash,” The New York Times (18 June 2019); Omer Bartov et al, “An Open Letter to the Director of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum,” NYR Daily (1 July 2019), https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2019/07/01/an-open-letter-to-the-director-of-the-holocaust-memorial-museum/.

[2] Peter E. Gordon, “Why Historical Analogy Matters,” NYR Daily (7 January 2020), nybooks.com/daily/2020/01/07/why-historical-analogy-matters/.

[3] Samuel Moyn, “The Trouble with Comparisons,” NYR Daily (19 May 2020), https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2020/05/19/the-trouble-with-comparisons/.

[4] Daniel Guérin, La lutte des classes sous la Première République, 1793-1797, 2 Vols. (Paris: Gallimard, 1946). The analogies in Guérin’s politics continued to his commitments in the Algerian War, too. Just as he sided with the working classes in the French Revolution against the Jacobin club, he was an ardent supporter of Messali Hadj’s MNA, with strong ties to labor activism in North Africa, over the FLN, which Guérin thought was too bourgeois and too Jacobin.

[5] For a thorough study of these events, see Grey Anderson, La guerre civile en France, 1958-1962. Du coup d’État gaulliste à la fin de l’OAS (Paris: La Frabrique, 2018).  

[6] Danielle Tartakowsky, Les manifestations de rue en France, 1918-1968 (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 1997), 654.

[7] Daniel Guérin, “Parachronisme,” Le 14 juillet (July 1958), 12-13.

[8] Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, translated by Terrell Carver, in Marx. Later Political Writings, edited by Terrell Carver (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 31.

[9] Ethan Kleinberg, Haunting History: For a Deconstructive Approach to the Past (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017), 135-137.

[10] Allen Guelzo, “ ‘The 1619 Project’ Tells a False Story About Capitalism, Too,” The Wall Street Journal (9 May 2020); Phillip Magness, “The Anti-Capitalist Ideology of Slavery,” American Institute for Economic Research, published 16 August 2019, https://www.aier.org/article/the-anti-capitalist-ideology-of-slavery/