In Memory of Alberto Arregui – a tragic loss

Today, on Thursday 17 January 2019, at half-past-twelve local time, the mortal remains of Alberto Arregui, whose sudden death we reported yesterday, were consigned to the flames at the crematory of the Cementerio Sur, Madrid. The editor of marxist.com, comrade Alan Woods, pays tribute to the memory of a man who devoted his entire life to the cause of Marxism and the socialist revolution.

Read in Spanish at Lucha de Clases |

It was the most unexpected and shocking news – something utterly unimaginable. Yesterday morning, in the middle of a meeting on the Brexit crisis, we learned of the sudden death of a dear comrade and friend, Alberto Arregui.

The shock was still greater, because Ana and I had been with him only a couple of weeks earlier. We had been invited for dinner by Alberto and his lifelong partner, wife and comrade, Blanca. He emerged from the kitchen, where he had been working for many hours, preparing a delicious meal, smiling broadly and full of life, as always. I will always remember him like that.

Alberto Arregui Álava was born on 10 August 1954, in Tudela, Navarra, and studied at the Jesuits school in Tudela. Later he began studying law in Pamplona, ​but his studies were interrupted when he decided to devote himself to the struggle for the emancipation of the working class.

He could have chosen another route. Coming from a relatively prosperous middle-class family, he could have achieved an easy and lucrative career as a lawyer or a successful politician. But from an early age, he decided to embark upon another road, a hard road, full of difficulties and dangers. He remained loyal to that course consistently for the rest of his life.

I first met Alberto during the underground struggle against the Franco dictatorship in the 1970s. He was then known by his party name, Manu, and many of us still used to call him by that name. Old habits die hard.

He played an important role in the work of providing legal advice to workers and trade unionists as a law student. Under conditions of illegality, in which free trade unions were not allowed, this was a difficult task, but he tackled it with his customary enthusiasm and élan, and he participated actively in the big strike of the Potasas mine in Navarra in 1973.

My first meeting with him was three years later in Madrid. I had moved to Madrid to live clandestinely at the beginning of January 1976, and was responsible for setting up the Spanish section of the Marxist International. At the time, he was an active member of the Socialist Party (PSOE) and the Young Socialists in Navarra.

I remember our first conversation as if it were yesterday. He immediately struck me as an extremely intelligent and able young man. The conversation turned to the subject of the Carlist movement, which was still strong in Navarra at that time. I remember he was surprised that a British person should be so well acquainted with that question. In later years, he often reminded me of that conversation, which was the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration.

From that very moment, we found that we were on common ground. He joined the Marxist tendency and he played an extremely important role in developing our work, not just in Navarra, but throughout the Spanish state. I can say the following. In the Spanish organisation there were many talented and capable comrades, but Alberto Arregui was, beyond the shadow of a doubt, head and shoulders above all the rest.

We established a journal called Nuevo Claridad. I was the political editor, based in Madrid, and always looked forward eagerly to receiving articles by comrade Manu. He was an excellent writer and orator. Other comrades were capable of writing good articles with correct political ideas, but his articles, in addition to a high political level, were written in a very fine literary style. They had a kind of sparkle, and also a sense of humour, that set them apart as something very special.

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His speaking skills were very clear right to the end in his extraordinary interventions at meetings and conferences of the United Left (Izquierda Unida). At that final meeting in his house just before Christmas, he showed Ana and myself a video of his interventions at a recent conference of that organisation, which clearly made a considerable impact on the delegates. His speeches always had that effect.

He always had a healthy, open attitude to life and a good sense of humour.

Yet he had more reasons than most to complain. From a very young age, Alberto had to struggle with a serious handicap. When still a child, he lost his left leg in a railway accident. As a result, he was often in pain and physical discomfort. But he never allowed this to show. He never let it spoil his life, or interfere with his favourite pastimes, which included hunting, and also collecting mushrooms – an area in which he was particularly skilled.

Apart from a slight limp, one would never guess that he had such a problem. I only found out about his leg by accident in March 1976 – and it was a very lucky accident for all concerned. At the time of the general strike in Vitoria, we decided to take a duplicator to the UGT of that town, where our tendency had a decisive influence. This was a risky business, as the entire city was occupied by armed police. And we nearly got into serious trouble.

To be caught on a demonstration was an offence; to be caught carrying left-wing literature was even more serious; but to be caught transporting an illegal printing press was something else again. The duplicator was placed in front of the passenger seat where Manu was sitting. It was covered with a blanket. To make it a bit less uncomfortable, he removed his artificial leg (which looked very realistic) and placed it on top of the blanket.

We arrived in the outskirts of Vitoria in the early hours of the morning. And we were immediately stopped by the police. I thought that our last hour had come when the policeman peered into the car and was looking at the spot where the printing press was hidden under the blanket. “Where have you come from?” he asked. “From Madrid,” the driver answered. At that moment, the astonished policeman noticed the artificial leg. And he just waved his hand and said: “Carry on,” so we did.

That day ended in tragedy, when the armed police surrounded the church of San Francisco, threw smoke canisters through the windows into a crowded space where a huge number of striking workers and their families were gathered in an assembly. As the people staggered through the doors, half asphyxiated, the police opened fire with automatic weapons. Five workers were shot dead and hundreds more were wounded. Others died later of their injuries. Such were the times we were living through.

Despite all the difficulties, we succeeded in building a strong Marxist tendency in Spain. The growth of the Marxist current was such that the bureaucracy of the PSOE, UGT and the Young Socialists started a witch hunt, clearly directed against our tendency. Felipe González and the other Party leaders were secretly receiving large quantities of money from the German Social Democracy. These subsidies carried a price tag, and the price was that the Spanish socialists must abandon Marxism and expel the Marxist tendency.

The wave of expulsions that followed led to the complete destruction of the Young Socialists, which was our main field of work. The bureaucrats of the Young Socialists, following the orders of the Party leaders, convened assemblies of the Young Socialists in every region, and delivered an ultimatum: for or against the leadership. In practically every case, the Young Socialists refused, whereupon the bureaucrat would announce: “This Federation is dissolved!”

In Navarra, there was such an uproar that at one point it looked as if the bureaucrats were going to get a very rough time. They were only saved by the intervention of our comrades, who prevented acts of physical violence. But as the general secretary of the YS, whose name was Miguel Ángel Pino, walked through the door, he was followed by a crowd of jeering young socialists, chanting: “Pino, Pino, Pinochet!”

Manu was expelled, along with the other comrades of the Marxist current in 1977. But these bureaucratic reprisals did not halt the development of the Marxist tendency, which continued to fight stubbornly for the ideas of Marxism. Shortly after, Alberto left Pamplona to live in Madrid with his comrade and wife Blanca.

I remember that the only condition he made for moving to Madrid was that every year he should be allowed to go to Pamplona for the festival of San Fermin, where he would put on his red scarf and white clothes and join in the festivities. We did our best to convince the comrades not to participate in the traditional corrida (racing in front of the bulls), but I do not know what effect our warnings had…

Alberto and I collaborated together very well, until I was forced to return to Britain for health reasons in 1983. After my departure, there were some conflicts between the leading comrades in the section, which led eventually to a very unfortunate split. This meant that for some years I lost contact with Alberto, who nevertheless continued to work patiently in the United Left. Together with a loyal group of comrades, in particular, Jesús Pérez and Jordi Escuer, he organised the Nuevo Claridad current in IU, which succeeded in winning significant points of support. Later on, they launched the Manifiesto por el Socialismo current.

Through his tireless work and consistent defence of Marxist ideas, he was elected to the leading bodies of Izquierda Unida, where he occupied the position of the extreme left wing. Never afraid to be in a minority, he was a firm defender of the right of self-determination for Catalonia – a position that brought him into conflict with Alberto Garzón and the other party leaders, but which was one of the main reasons that brought us back together again.

On the Catalan question, and on many other issues, we were in complete political agreement. This was the basis upon which we re-established political and personal contact. It is under difficult conditions that the value of political solidarity, and even personal friendship, is tested. From that point of view, the defence of Catalan self-determination provided an infallible litmus test.

We were very impressed by the line taken by Alberto and the Manifiesto por el Socialismo tendency on the Catalan question. We entered into discussions, which were progressing very well, and served to show that, irrespective of past differences, there was complete agreement on most, if not all, the fundamental issues. This was a matter of very great satisfaction for all the comrades of the IMT.

For Ana and myself, it was far more than a political question. We had always had a close personal friendship with Alberto, dating back to 1976. Those links of friendship were reunited in the course of the last period, and this is something that we have treasured, even above questions of political solidarity.

Our collaboration deepened with the publication of Trotsky’s biography of Stalin, which Alberto appreciated very much. We invited him to speak on the platform when we presented the book in Madrid, an invitation which he accepted without hesitation. That was on the 27 November 2017. And the political collaboration continued to deepen subsequently.

Last summer, when Alberto Garzón published an article attacking the basic philosophical assumptions of Marxism, Manu asked me if I was prepared to collaborate in a joint reply. I accepted with pleasure, and immediately got down to work. The final result was a fairly lengthy theoretical reply, answering Garzón’s theses, point by point. It was published in Cuarto Poder, Rebelión and other left forums in Spain, and I think it was generally well received.

Alberto himself was very pleased with this collaboration, and in December he proposed that we should consider producing joint theoretical material in the future. I thought that to be an excellent proposal, which we should definitely act upon. I never thought that our collaboration would be brought to a halt in such a sudden and cruel manner.

We had often invited Alberto and Blanca to London, but this was always prevented by pressures of work. But we were delighted to discover that they were planning to come to visit us this Easter, together with their son Jaime, who shows a keen interest in politics, in  particular Ireland and the ideas of that great Irish Marxist, James Connolly.

Apart from politics, one of the great passions of Alberto’s life was cooking and (as mentioned) collecting mushrooms, a subject about which he has written a book. He was a master of the culinary arts, who took a lot of trouble to produce the most exquisite meals. Ana and I were wondering how we could possibly provide a comparable reception in London. In fact, we were just talking about this the other day. Then came the shattering news of Alberto’s death.

One can make all the plans in the world, but in the final analysis, nothing in this life is certain. How fragile is the flower of human life, and how easily the light is extinguished…

But in writing about the life of Alberto Arregui, I do not wish to speak about death. That would not be to do justice to the man, who he was and what he represented. Alberto was a man who loved life in all its wonderful diversity, with all its contradictions and complexities. He was the very opposite of the caricature image that tries to portray revolutionary Marxists as narrow, dry and humourless people.

When I think of Alberto, I always recall the famous quotation by the Roman poet Terence – words that Karl Marx liked to apply to himself: "Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto": "I am human, and I consider nothing human as alien to me.”

In one word, Alberto Arregui was a big man in every respect, and his death has robbed the movement of one of its most outstanding leaders. It will leave a big hole, which it will be difficult to fill.

The time has come to say goodbye to a dear friend and comrade.

Farewell, Alberto. We will never forget you.

We send our heartfelt condolences to Blanca, Nerea and Jaime, to Jesús and Jordi; and to all Alberto’s family, friends and comrades.

Alan Woods, on behalf of all members of the International Marxist Tendency.

London, 17 January, 2019