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Victor Alba, 1916-2003 By: Stephen Schwartz
Reforma | Friday, March 14, 2003

Revolutionary, journalist, historian, and lover of life – Víctor Alba has died.  The Catalan historian, who became a leading Mexican journalist and American political scientist,  succumbed to cancer in his beloved Barcelona, at 86, on March 10.   It is a loss I will mourn to the end of my days.

Víctor was born Pere Pages i Elies in the city of the counts (“la ciutat condal”), the offspring of a well-off family.  Like many others in the 20th century, the young and gifted personality turned to the cause of the working class.   The Barcelona of his infancy was a cauldron of proletarian hopes.   Legions of factory employees, their wages high because of Spain’s neutrality in the first world war, and the opportunity of the Catalan bourgeoisie to sell to both sides in the slaughter, flocked into the ranks of the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT), the anarchosyndicalist mass movement that was the greatest labor organization in history.

When he was only three, the infamous “social war” erupted in the streets of Barcelona.  The lions of the CNT, marching from strength to strength, were challenged by an army of professional strikebreakers, the so-called “sindicatos amarillos,” financed and armed by the bourgeoisie and its clerical allies.   CNT leaders were brutally murdered.  The beloved “Noy del Sucre” or “Sugar Boy,” Salvador Seguí, was shot down in the Barrio Chino.  One by one, the outstanding militants of the confederation were assassinated.   One by one, the movement’s leaders were buried and gave way to new figures.   Andreu Nin, a brilliant Catalan writer from the hinterland, who had grown up in the same town in which Pablo Casals was born, came to the fore after the slaying of the regional secretary Eveli Boal.   The “pistoleros” who killed Boal only spared Nin because the latter jumped under a table in a restaurant near the Ramblas, when Boal was shot, sitting next to him.    Joaquim Maurín, an idealistic schoolteacher from the borderland of Aragón, was shot through the leg by police.   Many more militants, anonymous men aflame with libertarian ideals, were killed.

The cenetistas, the heroes of the Barcelona workers, fought back.  Buenaventura Durruti and Francisco Ascaso killed Cardinal Soldevila, the church official who arranged the payoffs for the pistoleros.  Nin was charged with complicity in another act of self-defense, the revenge slaying of prime minister Eduardo Dato.  The responsible militants fled Spain, with Durruti and Ascaso going to France, and Nin to Germany and then to Russia.  Finally, the “social war” ended when the militant Angel Pestana was shot.  He survived, and was taken to hospital.   A brave newspaper reporter went to see him in the clinic, and saw that pistoleros were waiting outside to finish Pestana off.  The journalist summoned a photographer and took their picture, and splashed it across the front page of his newspaper.   The ensuing scandal led to a military coup.

That was the historical landscape from which Víctor emerged: a panorama of self-sacrifice, nobility, and danger.   In the 1930s, he joined the Bloc Obrer i Camperol (BOC) (please leave this in Catalan) or Workers and Peasants’ Bloc, founded by Maurín as an oppositional formation confronting the Stalinized Spanish Communist Party.   In the 1920s darkness had spread throughout the international workers movement.  Durruti, Ascaso, and others like them had remained faithful to the anarchosyndicalism of the CNT, but Nin, Maurín, and others had followed the path of Lenin.  When it became clear that Stalin, the monster of the Kremlin, had turned the Comintern to the path of counter-revolution, the generous and courageous sons of the Barcelona proletarian milieu left the PCE.

Then came the Spanish civil war, or as those who understood it have always called it, the Spanish Revolution.   Víctor followed the BOC into the new Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista or POUM, a revolutionary tendency that marched forward, against the Stalinists as well as against the fascists.   On July 17, 1936, the Spanish military rose up against the working class.   The conspirators seized Sevilla, where the proletariat was dominated by the PCE, but were gloriously defeated in Barcelona, Madrid, Valencia, and Bilbao.  With a grandeur that will never be extinguished, the workers of the CNT, POUM and Socialist Party built barricades, armed themselves, and took their cities.   They had avenged, forever, the horrors of the “social war.”

By then Víctor had begun his career as a journalist.  In the new environment, the POUM newspaper La Batalla became a daily, and more – the first in Spain to be redesigned and reorganized according to new ideas of newspaper production imported from the U.S.   Víctor worked as an editor on the paper, while continuing his commitment as a party militant.

But the struggle of the Spanish working class was doomed.   The cowardly French left blocked the shipment of military supplies to its Spanish comrades; fascist-lining Britain assisted in the blockade.  Worst of all, the Stalinist USSR sent police cadres to Barcelona to subvert the revolution.   Nin was brutally murdered by Soviet agents, a crime for which the PCE is still remembered with bitterness by the Catalans.   The POUM leaders were arrested and charged with high treason and espionage.   Víctor was spared that obloquy, and in the end, the Spanish court refused to do what the perverted Russian police system had done in Moscow.  Faced with the iron defiance of the POUMists, who had been schooled in the hard traditions of the CNT and the “social war,” and who were, above all, Iberian and not Slavic, the court absolved them of the false charges.

Among other incidents in his work with La Batalla, Víctor met George Orwell, and conducted him around Barcelona.  Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia stands as an imperishable record of everything in which Víctor and his comrades believed.

With the defeat of the Spanish people in 1939, Víctor was imprisoned for six years by the Franco regime.   He was allowed to work, translating Mark Twain, but finally left for France, and then Mexico, in 1946.  He earned a living as a crime reporter for Excelsior, the biggest Mexico City daily, and played a crucial role in positively identifying the Barcelona Stalinist who murdered Trotsky.    His extraordinary production of books had begun, and he became one of the most prolific writers imaginable, in French, Castilian, Catalan, and English.  He translated the Cant espiritual of Joan Maragall, a Catalan classic, into French, and published a definitive Histoire des republiques espagnoles.   He also directed, in Mexico, the Centro de Estudios y Documentaciones Sociales, and frequented the company of Victor Serge – from whom he seems to have borrowed his pseudonymous first name – and of Octavio Paz.

Later he went to the U.S., writing numerous books on Latin America, including the definitive Historia del comunismo en America Latina, which included many gems – such as the disclosure that the Comintern had denounced the Nicaraguan revolutionary Sandino as a sellout, not long before his death.   He taught political science at Kent State University in Ohio, retiring in 1974 and returning to Catalunya.  

That same year, he published the first edition of his four-volume Historia del BOC y del POUM, in Catalan – a classic work in which he revived the historic memory of his comrades.   I met him in 1982, and I was honored when he authorized me to translate and edit this fundamental work in the history of the Spanish civil war, which appeared in English under the title Spanish Marxism vs. Soviet Communism in 1988.  I was even more honored when he insisted we share its authorship.

When I encountered Víctor he was still controversial, to me and my former comrades in the Barcelona radical left, because he had moved to a position of cold-war anti-Stalinism.  But he was an unforgettably warm and encouraging friend.  I learned more from him than from anyone else I ever knew.  Above all, he taught me to distrust the common wisdom; that is, to “swim against the stream.”  He remained a model of productive work and combat and did not stop writing and fighting until cancer laid him low.   In 1992, with the outbreak of the terrible war in Bosnia-Hercegovina, he asked me sharply, “why haven’t you gone to Sarajevo?”  He knew immediately which side he was on:  that of the valiant Muslims and other ordinary Bosnians resisting the revival of fascism.  Finally, I was able to call him and announce, proudly, that I had carried out his suggestion.

He renounced nothing.  As noted a few days ago in the Barcelona daily Avui, in a recent interview he called himself a man “of the left, and of the proletarian left, although I am not a worker.”   He believed in internationalism and intervention, and said, “the United Nations must intervene when bastards commit their crimes; they must support the right of intervention.”   The significance of this in the moment facing us now is clear.

Víctor has left us.  But he remains alive, as trees are alive, as the soil in which they are nurtured teems with vitality.   The earth of Catalunya remains a territory of freedom.   The memory of the POUM triumphed over the Franco regime and the lies of the Stalinists, in very great part because of him.    Oh Víctor, we will never see your like again.   I know I can never match up to your example.   But I will try, until my last breath.   And until my last breath, some part of me will sing that song, the song we could never forget:

            Negras tormentas agitan los aires

            Nubes oscuros nos impiden ver;

            Bien que nos espera el dolor y la muerte

            Hasta la batalla nos manda el deber!

            El bien mas preciado es la libertad,

            Hay que defenderla, con fe y con valor!

            Alza la bandera revolucionaria,

            Que tantos triunfos nos lleva en pos!


Farewell, my beloved comrade, my dearest friend and mentor, my teacher in all things.

Stephen Schwartz, an author and journalist, is author of The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud from Tradition to Terror. A vociferous critic of Wahhabism, Schwartz is a frequent contributor to National Review, The Weekly Standard, and other publications.

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