The Life and Universe of anarchist Octavio Alberola [book review]

Agustín Comotto’s new biography of Octavio Alberola, El peso de las estrellas (Rayo Verde), delves into the 20th century libertarian struggle through the life, considered thoughts and ideals of one of the most pugnacious anarchists of our day.

In Octavio Alberola we have the red thread connecting and affording meaning to the continuity between the libertarian struggles under the Republic and the civil war, the anti-Franco struggle, the revolts and armed actions of the 1970s, right up to the fresh re-formulations of anarchism in a globalized world. The narrative and his thoughts on his life and times as offered to us by the author of this book, the Argentinean writer and artist Agustín Comotto, through the skilful use of two voices embodying two generations, allows for a contextual analysis of things.  We have the voice of a protagonist who lived through historic times and personal and collective tragedies, and an activist familiar with great players in history such as García Oliver, Cipriano Mera, Federica Montseny, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Régis Debray and Giangiacomo Feltrinelli.

Furthermore, the book plunges into the contradictions and misgivings, certainties and ethical commitment to his ideas and to society that have always guided Alberola’s life through an unrelenting re-framing of the anarchist idea and the meaning of social struggle, not forgetting what it means to live one’s own individual life in accordance with anarchist ideas too. We discover not just the activist but also the person alive to and curious about the world of culture and thought. He was a very good friend of Agustín García Calvo and locked horns with Noam Chomsky, among others. His intellectual interests range from quantum physics and relativity theory to art, music, history, cinema, engineering and architecture.

The revolution is not there to wreak vengeance but to set an example

Son of rationalist school-teacher and Ferrer y Guardia disciple José Alberola, who served on the Council of Aragon during the civil war, Octavio sampled exile life at the age of eleven. At a very young age, in Mexico, he joined the Mexican and exiled republican anarchist groups. An initial action mounted by way of a protest at the death of Quico Sabaté in 1960 meant that he got to see Mexico’s awful prisons from the inside and the yearning for liberation that he shared with young Cubans and Latin Americans and the children of republican exiles laid the groundwork for a lifelong commitment to action.

The use of violence and is shortcomings represent one of the many intriguing topics pondered in this book. Back in Aragon, his father had been against the needless violence of the more radical members of the Durruti Column. His lesson was very clear: “The revolution is not there to wreak vengeance but to set an example.” Years later Octavio, together with the young libertarians who reactivated the armed struggle against Franco in the 1960s from within Defensa Interior or The First of May Group, would be very clear about their rejection of violence against the person, except in the case of Franco whose life they would attempt on several occasions. The remainder of their operations – and a lot of them had to be mounted in order create a lot of noise and alert the world, conjure up a worldwide climate of protest, media attention and well-deserved solidarity with prisoners and the people repressed by Spain’s military dictatorship.

Journey through time and ideas

There is one notion of Agustín Comotto’s that informs the spirit of this book: “When Octavio speaks, he weaves an odd spell, a blend of ethical awareness and an appreciation of well-being, in which the listener is swamped and swept away. Everything becomes comprehensible because he walks you through it. And a shared and magical silence descends. The natural silence of the listener on a journey through time and ideas.”

This sensation, the product of the words of the protagonist and those who are listening to them is also fully conveyed by a reading of the book. This is one of the merits of the text and to the author’s great credit. It also represents fluidity, interest and the balance struck between laying out the action and the considered thoughts, between the first-person narration of historical fact and its contextualization. Or between the protagonist’s day-to-day existence and his career as an indefatigable activist, prompted at all times by a special blend of theory and praxis, ethical accountability for social revolution and freedom until these are made the driving force and essential motive behind his life as an anarchist in the throes of the struggle and permanent revolt.

Comotto successfully weaves a readable text that looks past the facts and biographical and historical incidents, many of which are of interest if we want to delve more deeply into the times and the theoretical and activist struggle of libertarians who were the children of the civil war and exile years and who, in turn, acted in concert with the most significant international radical movements of their day. The author sets out a two-voiced account which, far from surrounding his subject with mythology, humanizes him, pointing out his contradictions and doubts, certainties and silences. In so doing he renders him more accessible to the younger generation and perhaps also makes the motives and problems besetting libertarian struggles better appreciated by them and by yesterday’s antifascists. Or interpreting the outlook on life that anarchist stands for.

A clandestine existence, a tale of unrelenting action

Alberola had dealings with the Cuban revolutionaries while they were training in Mexico. He made the acquaintances of Fidel, Che and Raúl and participated in meetings and actions in support of their struggle. Unfortunately, once they had come to power, he made to travel to Cuba to lobby for the help they had promised they would afford each other, only to have Fidel refuse him a visa. By then Cuba was toeing the communist line and had therefore distanced itself from the Spanish anarchists’ attempt to relaunch the active struggle against Franco.

That and other episodes, the protagonist’s clandestine travels to Europe and Spain, his contacts with clandestine figures in the struggle offer a very fine portrait of the scene in the 1960s, including the May ’68 eruption in which Spanish anarchists played a part. Alberola and his comrades were in touch with the Cohn-Bendit brothers and other anti-authoritarian university groups. “As far we were concerned, May ’68 put anarchist rebelliousness back on the agenda and had little to do with Situationists. Today, it is good form to talk about them and credit them with a decisive influence …”, Alberola reckons; he has never believed that Situationism was one of the revolt’s driving forces.

Alberola’s clandestine activity in the 1960s is awe-inspiring. A complicated odyssey through a labyrinth of police, secret services, infiltrators, informers and ambushes. Complete with good moves and mistakes. It reads like a tour of reportage from the inside of the historic libertarian movement from the post-war years through to the most innovative, radical currents such as the Dutch Provos or the Angry Brigade, to name but two. The reactivation of the fight within the Peninsula, the earliest attempts on Franco’s life, countless symbolic operations targeting Spanish interests at home and across Europe, the arrest and executions of comrades like Granados and Delgado (1963), a life filled with risk and precariousness, in the face of unbending, treacherous opposition coming from the organizational structures of the CNT-FAI, headed by the Federica Montseny-Germinal Esgleas duo.

This is a journey from past into present, through the great complexity of a tough, risky life lived with vigour and optimism, curiosity and considered reflections upon action, revolution and collective solidarity. Not that there was any shortage of personal tragedy in the course of that life. The abandonment of a comfortable, well-paying life as an engineer in Mexico, separation from family, partner and children, the pain of comrades hit by reprisals, executed or the awful death of his own father.

On 1 May 1967, the dead body of José Alberola was found; he had been tortured and hanged in his Mexico City apartment. He was 72 years old. An intellectual, a peaceful man, an historic FAI figure, a rationalist schoolteacher and literature professor. His killers were allegedly a fascist or para-police commando taking revenge for the activities of José’s son, then a leading member of the First of May Group. It is worth stressing for today’s readership that Alberola and his group had always, in their operations, displayed scrupulous regard for human life. Despite this, in those Francoist newspapers most deeply penetrated by the Brigada Político-Social, such as say, ABC, the “terrorist” Alberola was Francoism’s Public Enemy Number One.

Rubbing elbows with García Oliver and Cipriano Mera

The empathy that important historical figures such as Juan García Oliver and Cipriano Mera enjoyed with Octavio Alberola is a significant detail. The connection that existed between this trio and the trust and collaboration between them were one of the driving forces behind the creation of the DI (Defensa Interior) and the re-launching of fresh actions spearheaded by upcoming generations.  Among other things, this shows that, for all the setbacks of the war, repression and exile, there was an unbroken thread of activist anarchism. In El Eco de los pasos, speaking from exile about men of action, the exacting García Oliver sings the praises of Alberola and his comrades highly. And he was very wise about what would finally become of them due to the opposition put up by the ‘King Logs’ of the organizational apparatus:

The minorities among our younger generations were doomed by lack of understanding on the part of the over-thirties. But it was heartening to see them stand up to the older people who claimed to be the repositories of all truth. They had a healthy irreverence for birds whose first flight carried them far outside of the boundaries within they had to live with their fellows (…) the presence of such youngsters as Octavio Alberola, Floreal Ocaña, Floreal Rojas and others provoked outrage among their elders. I and other old hands – as they put it – were hugely gratified by their irreverent conduct which reminded me of the days of my youth when, to the stupefaction of the sanctimonious types, who mistook age for loyalty to ideas,  I argued that it was high time we shaved the beards off our venerable saints, the likes of Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin (…) and acknowledge their pioneering roles and the need for their teachings to be brought up to date.”

In Agustín Comotto’s El peso de las estrellas there are splendid portraits of the leading lights of this story, from García Oliver and Mera to Esgleas and Montseny, or Liber Forti, as well as the younger generations such as Salvador Gurruchari, Luis Andrés Edo, Joaquín Delgado, Stuart Christie or those Italian and British anarchists that worked in concert with them.

Among the historical events least familiar to the wider public, we should highlight, among others, the 1966 abduction of the ecclesiastical attaché at Spain’s embassy to the Vatican, Monsignor Marcos Ussía in Rome, by way of applying pressure for the release of all political prisoners. Or the 1974 kidnapping in Paris of Baltasar Suárez, director of the Banco de Bilbao, following the execution of Puig Antich, by way of a denunciation of that lawful outrage and to press for the release of his imprisoned comrades, José Luis Pons Llobet and Oriol Solé Sugranyes, among others.

Alberola spent five months in prison and a number of years in banishment in Belgium where he was arrested in 1968 with his partner Ariane Gransac while they were laying the groundwork for the abduction of Franco’s delegate to the EEC, Alberto Ullastres. After 1975, on returning to Paris, he set about finding whatever work he could, studying Cinema and History under lecturer Marc Ferro, wrote books and to date has not ceased participating in Spanish and European anarchist events alongside the youngest, most active participants like himself.

The fight for memory and historical justice

In 1998 he launched the Group lobbying for a review of the trial of Francisco Granado and Joaquín Delgado who had been executed by garrotte vil in Carabanchel prison in 1963. In the ARTE documentary Granado y Delgado. Un crimen legal (L. Gomá, X. Montanyà, 1996), which both TVE and TV3 had refused to make, we researched and reconstructed events and introduced to the public the two actual perpetrators of the outrages for which those two victims had been convicted.

Shortly after that documentary was broadcast in France in 1996 – it was only be broadcast in Spain a year later in an early morning slot – the relatives of those two young libertarians submitted an appeal to the Supreme Court, which rejected it. However, in 2004 the Constitutional Court granted the families’ submission, overturning the Supreme Court’s rejection and set the preliminary investigation in motion. In spite of that, however, that went nowhere, the case could have been pursued through the European courts but the families, having wearied of it all, decided not to proceed. This was the case that got furthest in its demand for justice and amendment of the memory of two of Francoism’s judicial murders.

Headed by Octavio Alberola, the lobby group was very busy during that time, sending out letters, giving talks and holding publicity meetings throughout the state. Afterwards, it carried on with the fight, demanding that all Francoist verdicts be set aside. During Zapatero’s term, in 2007, Congress passed the so-called Historical Memory Law which did not go far enough, in that it did not order the setting aside of the verdicts and it introduced an unfair and unfathomable date-centred distinction between victims of the dictatorship, excluding a significant number of those affected: victims who were such prior to 1 January 1968 and persons who had been active in armed groups.

Tireless and dogged, Octavio Alberola had relentlessly protested at this injustice.

Allow me to finish this article, as Agustín Comotto does his book, by reproducing the letter that Alberola wrote to Pedro Sánchez after the latter paid tribute to Manuel Azaña and Antonio Machado:

Sr. Pedro Sánchez
Prime Minister
Being one of the Spaniards who crossed the Pyrenees on foot in 1939, seeking refuge in France, I was touched by the tribute you paid to Manuel Azaña and Antonio Machado. Those two individuals also “were forced to quit Spain” and – like many others – had to die in exile.

I was eleven years old at the time and am now aged ninety-one, and since 2007, following the passing of the Historical Memory Law, I have ceaselessly denounced the unfathomable cravenness of a law which, whilst purporting to do right by the victims of Francoist repression, fails to revoke the verdicts handed down by the Francoist courts, and also – in its Article 10 – shamefully subdivides them into two sorts, depending on the date of delivery – without any justification or explanation.

You will not be surprised, then, if I again ask you to put paid to that cravenness and this disgrace. Not merely because there is the possibility of your doing so by Decree today but also because it would be truly shameful not to do so after asking for “forgiveness” from the exiles for the fact that Spain had not done so “much earlier”.

It is true to say that “exile is always abominable”; but Francoist repression was even more abominable. Which is why it is a disgrace to allow this Law to stand with an article that makes a distinction between those who, for fighting for the democratic freedoms that everybody these days claims to champion, had their lives taken from them by Francoism.

It is precisely because “it is late, very late” that there should be no more delay …

25 February 2019
Octavio Alberola

Xavier Montanyà

Translation originally published at

Translated by: Paul Sharkey.