In his reflections in the Guardian on the death of Pierre Vilar the British historian Eric Hobsbawm noted that he was a historians’ historian and that though he was not a member of the Communist Party one of the reasons his academic career had suffered was that he had an enthusiasm for Stalin as a thinker. Even in 1953 the editors of the journal Past And Present did their best to eliminate this from his work. The example of the historical and political work of Pierre Vilar shows that there was nothing inevitable about the slide to social-democracy and liberalism which was a blight amongst the Marxist historians after the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU.
Pierre Vilar died on the 7th August at the age of 97 years. Born in 1906, he made his mark in the troubled actuality of the Twentieth century.
Brought up in a pacifist and anti-militarist milieu he faced the imperialist butchery of 1914-18; he studied geography as that permitted him to touch upon the important questions of society, he was interested particularly in the economy and carried out his early research in the field of Spanish Catalonia.
He adopted the ideology of dialectical materialism without believing in making a show of bringing Marxism to bear on his thinking and work. He applied a global conception to his researches: only the study of economic and social phenomena permitted the deciphering of history and gave it sense. This would profoundly mark his path as an historian, author and Professor at the Sorbonne where he succeeded Ernest Labrousse in 1965.
He gave of his person in upholding the Spanish Republic from the 1930s because he saw in Republican Spain an advance towards a popular and multi-national Spain.
Mobilised in 1939, he spent the Second World War incarcerated in Germany where he taught the history of Spain to his companions in captivity.
Then, after the war he returned to Spain and was for some years close to his Catalan friends until his expulsion in 1948. In Spain his volume devoted to the history of Spain in the Que sais-je series was banned for several decades. His sympathy for Republican Spain continued to manifest itself concretely in his support (not only morally or thanks to his signature) for the causes that he considered important: support for the Spanish refugees, support for an international tribunal against the crimes of Francoism…
In France, he was involved in the causes which touched him: he showed his interest for the socialist experience in general and for Albania in particular.
He was equally present in the political acts of daily life as in his action against the putschistes of the OAS and the participation in a number of solidarity committees.
Despite a context which was more and more hostile to all progressive thought and most strongly to Marxist reasoning, Pierre Vilar was never afraid to express his opinions and to work in harmony with his convictions.
The popular and progressive movement has lost a sincere friend and supporter, an eminent intellectual who has made a contribution of the first order to contemporary history.
‘La Forge’, No. 433, September 2003.
Translated from the French by Vijay Singh.
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