Guest writer
Carlos Hermida (Professor of History)

Marxist historiography and political commitment:
the example of Pierre Vilar

First I want to express my most sincere gratitude to the leaders of the ICMLPO for their invitation to write for this special issue of “Unity and Struggle,” published to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the International Conference of Marxist-Leninist Parties and Organizations. Twenty years of struggle, of proletarian internationalism and of the relentless fight against revisionism; twenty years of holding high the banner of Marxism-Leninism. It is a great honour to include my contribution in the name of the Communist Party of Spain (Marxist-Leninist) with those of other fraternal organizations and parties.

In my position as a historian I felt that my contribution, if it can be of any use, should be related to some aspect of the study of history, and I have not found a better theme for the occasion than to write a few lines about Pierre Vilar, the French historian who, in my opinion, represented a milestone in Marxist historiography, besides having collaborated with the PCE (M-L) on various occasions.

At a time when bourgeois historians are making strenuous efforts to banish Marxist historiography from the academic field and use the most monstrous falsifications to discredit historical materialism, I thought it appropriate to reclaim the figure of Pierre Vilar as an example of intellectual clarity, political commitment and ideological coherence.

* * *

The materialist conception of history, developed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels throughout their prolific and brilliant work, was a transcendental qualitative leap in the study of the human past. The theoretical, analytical and methodological tools of Marxism raised history to the category of a social science, capable of rationally and scientifically explaining what was until then a series of events with no logical connection. It is true that by the middle of the 19th century, the study of history had undergone notable advances, but to a great degree what we know as history was generally a succession of political and military events in which the “great men,” whether kings, emperors or generals, constituted the theme of the historical narrative. In a series of important works – The Holy Family, The German Ideology, The Poverty of Philosophy, The Manifesto of the Communist Party, culminating in Capital – Marx and Engels established the bases of historical materialism, which laid bare the general laws of the development of society, the laws of the emergence of socioeconomic formations and the driving forces of their development.

The revolutionary character of historical materialism, which places the class struggle as the motor of history, led to its rejection by the bourgeois intellectual world. Academic historians saw their idealistic conception of history crumble before a scientific theory which provided a logical connection between the economic base of society and its political superstructure, considered the revolution as a consequence of the contradiction between the productive forces and the relations of production and provided the masses with a leading role that had been systematically ignored. If historical materialism showed that the bourgeois revolution had paved the way for the full introduction of capitalism, the proletarian revolution would illuminate socialist society. It was not a simple assumption; it was based on the internal contradictions of the capitalist mode of production. The response of the bourgeois historians was their implacable hostility towards Marxism.

The ideological arsenal of the bourgeoisie could not prevent historical materialism from gaining ground and penetrating into the university environment. The ability of Marxism to scientifically explain the crisis of the slave mode of production, the origin of the bourgeoisie, the transition from feudalism to capitalism and the bourgeois revolutions, to give some examples, toppled all barriers and prejudices that bourgeois historiography had raised. Some of its representatives were forced to use certain theoretical and methodological tools of the enemy in order not to become completely obsolete. The triumph of the Bolshevik Revolution and the formation of the Soviet historiographical school provided a huge impetus to historical materialism worldwide.

Marxist historiography had been consolidated by about the 1930s and enjoyed a great influence in the decades following the end of World War II, to the point that some of the great historians of the past century were Marxists or were strongly influenced by Marxism: Eric Hobsbawm, Maurice Dobb, Albert Soboul, George Rude and Manuel Tunon de Lara, among others. But undoubtedly the leading figure of Marxist historiography was Pierre Vilar, whose work was characterized not only by his extraordinary intellectual rigor, but also by methodological renewal, while maintaining an ideological consistency that contrasts with the twists and turns to which some so-called intellectuals have accustomed us to in present times.

A disciple of Lucien Febvre and influenced by Ernest Labrousse, Pierre Vilar revived the best tradition of the Annales d’Histoire economique et sociale (Annals of Economic and Social History), the magazine founded by Febvre and Marc Bloch. His encounter with Marxism goes back to the 1920s and ‘30s, during his years of study at the Ecole Normale Superieur and the years that he lived in Catalonia. From that first theoretical reflection, the works of Vilar were definitively based on the ground of Marxism.

His approaches developed throughout his vast work, but they unfolded theoretically in Marxist History, History in the Making. Polemicizing with Althusser, and contrasting the latter’s statements with those of Marx, Vilar dealt with some of the principal Marxist categories, such as the concept of mode of production, whose “originality does not lie in its being a theoretical object. It lies rather in the fact that this was the first theoretical object which expressed a social whole, where earlier attempts at theory in the human sciences had been confined to the economy and had perceived social relations either as immutable (like the Physiocrats ‘ conception of landed property) or else as ideals to be attained (like the juridical liberty and equality of liberal thought). The second originality of the mode of production as a theoretical object is that it is a structure of functioning development, and as such is neither formal nor static. Its third originality is that such a structure itself implies the (economic) principle of the (social) contradiction which bears with it the necessity of its destruction as a structure, of its own destructuration."1

The mode of production is a structure that expresses a kind of total reality, which encompasses, in a process of continuous interaction: “1) The rules that govern the acquisition by man of the products of nature and the social distribution of those products; 2) the rules that govern the relations of men among themselves, through spontaneous or institutionalized groupings; 3) the intellectual or mythical justifications given to these relations, with varying degrees of consciousness and systematization, the groups that organize them and take advantage of them, and which are imposed on subordinate groups.”2

The mode of production would, therefore, be a structure with different but interdependent levels (economic, legal and ideological). Moreover, it is also a structure in motion, full of contradictions that create crises and the class struggle. Vilar also stressed the need to distinguish between a real economic and social formation and the theoretical object mode of production, as well as in the development of a methodology that would allow one to analyze specific cases in which several modes of production are combined.

The concept of transition from one mode of production to another was the object of his attention in the concrete case of the transition from feudalism to capitalism, noting how a series of elements contrary to the principle of the feudal mode of production prepared its destruction: the circulation of money, commercial exchanges, the rise of the cities, the development of the productive forces, etc. But he warned, in contrast to the economistic thesis, that the class struggle was the key element in this transition:

“A social system in decline uses precisely that right, those institutions and those thoughts already acquired, to oppose with all its might the innovations that threaten its existence. This causes the struggle of the new classes, rising classes, against the ruling classes that are still in power, and determines the revolutionary character of the action and thought that inspire these struggles.

“The feudal system did not die without defending itself. And the attack carried out against it did not begin with the most developed forms of the new modes of production. These forms, in effect, could not win out but until they had got rid of the disadvantages, of the obstacles that feudal institutions necessarily opposed to them. This is the history of the bourgeois revolutions.”3

<> He also developed the concept of total history, understood as a scientific investigation that was able to link up the different levels of social activity from a Marxist methodology. It did not consist in speaking of or juxtaposing all of the elements (economic history + social history + political history + cultural history), but in coordinating structures with events.

Pierre Vilar was undoubtedly an undisputed authority on the issues related to the nation and the nation state. This is not surprising if we consider the many years devoted to the study of the Catalan economy and which resulted in his monumental work Catalonia in Modern Spain. For his research, he took as a point of reference the Marxist-Leninist theory of the nation and particularly the definition given by Stalin in 1913, which he considered a masterful formulation. Let us recall the definition:

 “A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture....

“A nation is not merely a historical category but a historical category belonging to a definite epoch, the epoch of rising capitalism. The process of elimination of feudalism and development of capitalism is at the same time a process of the constitution of people into nations.”4

“ different periods the ‘national question’ serves different interests and assumes different shades, according to which class raises it, and when.”5

For the French historian, these three formulations constituted an instrument of fundamental analysis, since they allowed him to distinguish the different historical periods. The nation exists over a long duration, as it is formed by stable elements – territory, language, economy, etc. – as a concrete historical event it belongs to the phenomena of medium duration, and finally the class interests, linked to specific events, correspond to the short duration. National movements are therefore inseparable from class interests, but they are not artificial creations that originated from nothing, but are based on objective data. Vilar made this revealing analysis in relation to Catalonia:

“If ‘Catalanism’ could seem, effectively, linked at some times to the specific aspirations of a small circle of leaders, and at other times, a place of convergence of opposites, working together but of different character, there remains the fact that its influence on many people’s minds has been sufficiently intense so that the mass of the population, although divided on other issues, finds no better way to express itself than the mutual accusations of “national treason. “ In fact, without a set of stable data, the intellectual arsenal of a ‘nationalism ‘ would remain empty. The problem is to know why, how and by whom, at this or that moment in history, this arsenal is prepared and used effectively. “6

The demands of the Catalan bourgeoisie around economic issues, such as protectionism and the expansion of the domestic market, and political formulations of Catalan nationalism, do not appear in a vacuum, but are part of a community of their own characteristics; these stable data to which Pierre Vilar referred explain the permanence in time of the so-called “specific Catalan question” or the Basque question.

The national question runs like a thread throughout the work of Vilar; it is a recurring theme that he reflects on systematically, calling attention to the error of confusing nation State and nation, and always reminding us that

“The nation as a historical category that exists, can only be described historically. Its definition also depends in some respects, on psychology, sociology and ethnology, always provided that their contribution, in time and space, are provided a perspective by the historian.”7

Pierre Vilar and Spain

French universities have been a source of great Hispanists, but above all the figure of Pierre Vilar stands out, linked to our country by professional, but also political ties.

In 1927 he made his first trip to Barcelona and in 1930 he was hired by the Ecole des Hautes Etudes Hispaniques (School of Higher Hispanic Studies), based in Madrid, in the Casa de Velazquez. After a short stay in the capital, he decided to take up residence in Barcelona, where he attended the proclamation of the Republic on April 14, 1931. With some gaps, Vilar was in Barcelona between 1931 and 1936, working as a professor at the French Institute, in contact with libraries and archives, writing articles on Catalan and Spanish themes, working with the Annals and deepening his study of Catalonia’s national question.

The Spanish civil war prevented him from continuing his work in Barcelona. He returned to France and was drafted at the beginning of World War II. After the World War he returned to his research and teaching. He returned to Spain in 1946 and continued his research on Catalonia in the Archive of the Crown of Aragon, the Archives of Notarial Protocols and various research centers.

The result of his reflections on the Spanish events of the 1930s was a small book entitled History of Spain, published in Paris in 1947, in which he wrote an admirable summary of Spanish historical development in just over 100 pages, breaking with the myths of pro-Franco historiography, for which the book was banned by the dictatorship. However, this did not prevent its clandestine circulation, winning him a great reputation and popularity in the anti-Franco media during the 1960s and ‘70s.

In 1962, as the result of over thirty years of research, his monumental work Catalonia in modern Spain appeared, in which, as the subtitle indicates, he analyzed “the economic foundations of national structures. “ Pierre Vilar made a detailed study of the geographical and historical environment, addressed the economic development of Catalonia and Castile from the 14th century to the War of Succession, studying the changes in Catalan agriculture during the 18th century and the formation of commercial capital, simultaneously analyzing the demographic aspects, the agricultural production, the movement of prices, etc.. Through the analysis of circumstantial and structural elements, he provided a novel view of 18th century Catalonia, exposing the foundations of Catalan economic growth in the 19th century and the formation of a national consciousness.

In 1982, he grouped together a series of articles on Spanish themes under the title of Gentry, Mutineers and Guerrillas. The book is divided into four main sections corresponding to different historical periods. “The period of the gentry” provides an analysis of the epoch of Philip II. In “the period of the Enlightenment” he studies the social structures of the 18th century, the mutiny of Squillace and the mindsets of the period. “The period of independence” addresses some of the problems of the War of Independence (1808-1814), such as the relationship between occupiers and occupied, and the concepts of homeland and nation during the war. Finally, in “the period of nationalities” he addresses the national question in Spain and the national structures.

In 1986 he published The Spanish Civil War, in which, true to his model of total history, offers a global view of the conflict, analyzing its root and immediate causes, the military developments, the political and economic evolution in the two zones and the cultural aspects, ending with the exposition of some issues under discussion, such as the human losses, repression and the International Brigades.

Unlike so many intellectuals, subject to passing fads and extremely prone to changing political labels, Pierre Vilar always based himself upon Marxism and maintained a cordial and close relationship with the Communist Party of Spain (Marxist-Leninist). The result of this relationship was the trip he made to Spain to present the Works of Stalin, published by the PCE (ML) by the publishing house Vanguardia Obrera (Workers Vanguard). On December 17, 1984, at the International Press Club in Madrid, he made some remarks in which he referred to a question that he knew very well: the national question. In his speech he highlighted the importance of Stalin’s essay Marxism and the National Question, which he regarded as “the best summary of the national question in the 19th century that has never been written."8

Pierre Vilar ridiculed those who spoke of Stalin’s intellectual poverty or underestimated his contributions on the national question, insisting that the Bolshevik leader was a recognized specialist in the field and, because of that, academic historiography was determined to downplay his importance, even falsifying reality. It was a masterly speech in which he laid bare the moral and intellectual poverty of the anti-Stalinists and elucidated some of the most common topics:

“As for the article of 1913, anti-Stalinism often contradicted himself. Trotsky, too intelligent to find it ‘bad,’ says that Lenin himself had corrected it, almost re-writing it line by line. But it is more common today to claim that Lenin did not like the article. That is probably why he chose Stalin as Commissar of Nationalities."9 Pierre Vilar not only corroborated Stalin’s theoretical contributions, but denounced the gravest error, stupidity and reactionary character of those carried away by their visceral anti-Stalinism who equated Stalin and Hitler. In his “Introduction” to the Political Writings of Ellen Odena, a leader of the PCE (ML), he wrote:

“I will just briefly say what I think is essential. Elena’s faithfulness to the three thinkers, the three revolutionary creators, Marx who foresaw the revolution, Lenin who made the revolution, and Stalin who built up the revolution and who saved it by winning the war against fascism.

“For thirty years the international bourgeoisie, through the mass media, has been trying to establish that the fundamental contradiction of societies is not between exploiting and exploited classes, but between ‘democracy’ (however formal it may be) and ‘totalitarianism ‘ (as if all dictatorships were equal). Elena Odena refused to compare Stalin with Hitler or Enver Hoxha with Pinochet. For her, of course, it was a political certainty. But I also appreciated this as a historian.”10

His anti-fascist commitment, his extreme clarity regarding the historical figure of Stalin, his loyalty to Marxism and his intellectual and academic greatness made Pierre Vilar a master of historians. His books constituted and still constitute a fundamental tool for training students and teachers.11 He opened new roads, introduced us to unexplored paths. He taught us history, but in a different and stimulating way. Not with cold data or the dull succession of events, but showing us a past rich in nuances, with tensions and social struggles, making us understand the complexity of the subject on which historical science is focused.

In these times of economic crisis, when the most reactionary approaches prevail in the social sciences and most intellectuals are docile before authority, the work of Pierre Vilar acquires a special dimension: that of an effective tool to combat this official history full of distortions and lies that threaten to erase the real history of humanity.

We people in Spain always appreciate him for helping us to better understand our own past, and we members of the PCE (ML) will never forget his affection for and collaboration with our party. May these lines serve to pay tribute to one who was certainly an extraordinary historian and a magnificent person.


  1.  Vilar, P.: Marxist History, a History in the Making: Towards a Dialogue with Althusser. In English in New Left Review, July-August, 1973
  2.  Vilar, P.: Introduction to a Historical Vocabulary. Barcelona Review, 1982. 4th edition, p. 67.
  3.  Vilar, P.: The transition from feudalism to capitalism, in Parain, C., Vilar, P. and others: Feudalism. Madrid, Sarpe, 1985, pp. 61-62.
  4.  Stalin, J.: Marxism and the National Question. In Works, Vol. 2, FLPH, Moscow, 1954, pp. 307 and 313, English edition.
  5.  Stalin, J.: The Social Democratic View of the National Question. In Works, Vol. 1, FLPH, Moscow, 1954, p. 31, English edition.
  6.  Vilar, P.: Catalonia in Modern Spain. Volume I. Barcelona, Critica, 1978, pp. 69-70.
  7.  Vilar, P.: Gentry, Mutineers and Guerrillas. People and Powers in the History of Spain. Barcelona, Critica, 1982 pp. 283-284.
  8.  Introductory remarks by Pierre Vilar, in J. Stalin: Works. Volume I. Madrid, Vanguardia Obrera publishing house, 1984, pp. XXXVI -XLI.
  9.  Ibid.
  10.  E. Odena: Political Writings. Volume I. Madrid Vanguardia Obrera publishing house, 1986, p. 7.
  11.  Among the books of Pierre Vilar we highlight the following:
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