Abel Paz, Anarchist and Historian

Diego Camacho, better known under his nom de plume Abel Paz, was born in Almería on 12 August 1921. He died in Barcelona on 13 April 2009. An anarchist militant, self-educated and an historian, he wrote a much-plagiarised life of Durruti which has been translated into 14 languages. He toured half the world as a regular lecturer on anarchism and the Spanish Revolution, covering Europe, Latin America and Japan. He was utterly ignored by the official historians who sneered at his immense efforts as a historian on the simple basis that he was not part of the world of academe and the commercial circuit. A militant historian of Abel Paz’s stature could expect nothing but rejection from bourgeois academics. Catalanist and anti-libertarian reviews purporting to be about “history” always ignored Abel Paz the militant and historian, although they could not help publishing articles plagiarised from him. Out of hatred for the anarchist? Or was he shunned because of his language, his activism or his lack of letters after his name?

I used to give Diego a call two or three times a year and then drop by to see him the next day. Anybody without a thorough knowledge of Diego might have thought him a hard nut, a hardness that his forthright speech, irrepressible and direct, could aggravate intolerably. He spoke his mind and he believed what he said and this was his “shortcoming”. But after that first impression, and one his interlocutor had passed his initial scrutiny, once he was chatting in detail about matters that interested him, you could get some measure of the man’s qualities. If some journalist or interviewer failed to pass muster, he might find himself a target of jokes and insults that cut deep like stones thrown with all his might. The house on the Calle Verdi where he lived was, for many a long year, a, international and internationalist place of pilgrimage and hospitality. I remember Diego in the late 1970s climbing up a wooden staircase overlooking the front of the doorway behind which the Italian anarchists Berneri and Barbieri had once lived, in the very building where they were arrested by the Stalinists who murdered them. From the top of those stairs, after placing a cardboard plaque renaming the Plaza del Ángel the Plaza Camillo Berneri, he launched into an impromptu speech invoking the figure of that Italian internationalist, a revolutionary and an anarchist.

Diego had a huge library that covered all the walls of his home, from the reception room to the kitchen-sitting room. If one stopped to read the spines, there were real wonders there to behold, especially in French, a legacy from his long years in exile in Paris. The books dealing with Morocco were truly extraordinary. In his archives he had an extensive collection of handbills and pamphlets published in May ‘68. Most significant of all, though, was his correspondence with the most prominent leaders of the Spanish anarchist movement of 1936. I once asked him about the fate of his library and archives. Whereupon he told me, very sardonically, about a visit he had had from a prominent university professor, a man in charge of an important archive collection (his name I refuse to recall) who tried to bid for every item in his excellent library, including the collection of handbills and pamphlets on May ‘68, and his priceless correspondence. Diego had had high hopes of that offer made towards the end of the 1980s and dreamt of a windfall on which he could survive, publish future books and fund an ateneo. But when Diego actually listened to the offer from the learned professor, the director of a leading archive with lots of funds, he could not believe his ears: five thousand pesetas! And not a penny for the opening of any ateneo or cultural centre. Diego’s very phlegmatic response was that he might be poor but he had never sunk that low, that the offer was an insult to his intelligence and an affront to the very library and archives for which the bid had been made. He literally booted the guy out of his house. And that library and archives are no longer in Barcelona because a penny-pinching Catalonia […] proved incapable of stumping up the funding for the ateneo-archive that Diego dreamed of setting up. But what could a genuine anarchist expect of officialdom anyway? In 199 he put his signature to the Fight for History Manifesto denouncing the manipulations of official historians and their refusal to recognise the existence in 1936 Spain of a splendid revolutionary movement that stood up to the coup attempt of a military-fascist State.

He was granted a pittance by way of compensation for his years behind bars under Francoism, albeit that it was enough for him to self-publish his autobiography, using the “sophisticated” cardboard box method: the money raised from sales of the first volume was put in the box until enough had built up to allow publication of the second. And so on, with the third and fourth volumes. This will seem laughable to cultural, Catalanist, bourgeois circles used to oodles of money and when they themselves, their master’s voice, have access to such generous subsidies.

One of his last public appearances took place at a joint tribute to Andreu Nin and Camillo Berneri, arranged by would-be party officials looking to get their snouts in the trough, as part of their campaign to lay the groundwork for a new election ticket, an umbrella for supporters of Catalan independence, rusty Trotskyists, recycled Stalinists, resuscitated POUMists and disillusioned anarchists. One of the organisers of the tribute had this to say of Diego Camacho’s overall contribution to proceedings: “Up popped Abel Paz and he was invited to say something, and, whatever you might say about the man, he was no hypocrite. When it came his turn to say something he stated that Nin and Berneri had had nothing in common and he wrote us all off as phonies, but luckily he was brief and finished by thanking us for the invitation. You’re welcome, but never again.” That “never again” was reneged upon a few months later when, in an obituary for Diego, the very same writer, now making no mention of Abel Paz’s dressing down of the lumping together of the revolutionary Berneri, a critic of the CNT’s participation in government with Nin, a minister of Justice in the Generalidad government; nor, of course, was there ant reference made to his condemnation of the pro-independence, Popular Front-type election coalition. The writer made do with this remark: “Abel left, increasingly closed-minded in his attitudes.”

Abel Paz was so “closed-minded” that he was always up for a debate on any platform, especially where young people were concerned, his purpose being to spur them into action, rebellion, non-conformity and the struggle against the established order! He could put up with any number of differences of opinion, just as long as the methodology and the goals were subversive. As the years passed the differences of opinion between us increased and our analyses of 1936 diverged more and more, although this never impacted on our personal dealings and respect for each other. Diego had always had a gift for distinguishing between revolutionaries (anarchist or otherwise) and posturing phonies whom he wasted no time in exposing where it hurt them the most: in their lies and essential reformism.

Latterly, the walls of his home had been stripped bare: the books were gone, his conversation was punctuated with long, worrisome silences that opened on to the big questions of human existence and the alien, hostile capitalist society that he had spent a lifetime fighting to destroy in order to raise up a new world “already growing in our hearts.” At our last encounter we chatted again, as we always did, about the war and the revolution. And about why and how it was all lost. After one lengthy silence, he whispered, “No matter. Because the joy and the freedom tasted during a fortnight of revolution are justification enough for a lifetime of penury and disappointments.” And in his eyes the purifying flames of burning churches and monasteries seemed to be burning still. More that seventy years after, there was an imperishable flame still in his eyes: they had seen revolution on the streets of Barcelona. And that was his and no one could ever take it away from him.

There is one thing about Diego’s work that academic history knows nothing of and which it holds in contempt in that it falls outside of its business plan, its impossible objectivity and its scientific pretensions; whenever Diego wrote or spoke, he did so without ever playing word games, because before writing, or speaking, he had staked his life on the meaning of those words. Another thing unknown to and scorned by the academics is the fact that much of his research, his reading and his endeavours were pursued at the end of a long day’s work, at the expense of sleep and rest. He was driven by a passion for revolution: he wrote down the history of the 1936 revolution because that was his way of campaigning for the next one.

Here a few titles from Diego’s extensive list (his most important books perhaps)

Durruti in the Spanish Revolution (in English from AK Press 2007, translation by Chuck Morse)
The Spanish Civil War (available in English: Hazan Pocket Archives, Paris, 1997)
The Story of the Iron Column
Paradigm of Revolution
His four volumes of autobiography:
* Prickly Pears and Scorpions (Memoirs 1921-1936)
* Journey into the Past (Memoirs 1936-1939)
* In the Fog (Memoirs 1939-1942)
* Backs to The Wall (Memoirs 1942-1954)
The Internationals in The Spanish Region

The Moroccan Question and the Spanish Republic
CNT 1939-1951: Anarchism versus the Francoist State

Diego’s filmography or a list of those films on which he worked as screenwriter deserve a separate listing. For the death of a man with this sort of an oeuvre to his credit to escape the notice of the media (with the exception of the anarchist press and a short notice in El País a fortnight after his death) and the failure to attract fulsome comment in specialist contemporary history reviews is no accident. Diego was/is in the black list of authors not to be published, who “do not exist” because they are incorrigible and dangerous. Which is the finest tribute that could be paid to an author of a life of Durruti, a just reward for his struggles and research. I think, too, that it says all that needs saying about the press because it chooses ignorance of what ought to be known.

The Fundación Anselmo Lorenzo, which Diego helped set up had reissued most of his books. For anyone keen to understand the war and the Spanish revolution of 1936 they are essential reading. Diego has gone now but he has left us his oeuvre, his passion.

Agustín Guillamón, Barcelona, October 2009

Translated by: Paul Sharkey.