The interview with Pierre Vilar published here for the first time in English was conducted in March 1987. Vilar may be best known in the Anglophone world today for his tightly conceptualized epic, A History of Gold and Money, 1450–1929, and for his landmark ‘Marxist History, a History in the Making’, a far-reaching engagement with Reading Capital that offered a bravura presentation of Marx’s historical method to match Althusser’s own, as well as a series of trenchant theses on the relation of theory and historical inquiry.footnote1 But in his native France and adoptive Spain, Vilar was first and foremost an economic historian of the Iberian peninsula. It was in this capacity that he was recruited by Marc Bloch to write for the Annales when still in his twenties, becoming a leading second-generation scholar of that tradition.
The son of two teachers, Vilar was born in 1906 in Frontignan, a village on the French Mediterranean coast west of Montpellier. He studied geography and history at the École Normale Supérieure and in 1930 left for Spain to begin research at the Casa de Velázquez in Madrid, then in Barcelona, for his doctoral thesis on eighteenth-century Catalonia. It was here that he met his wife, the historian Gabrielle Berrogain (1904–1976), and was caught up in the Spanish Civil War. Relocating to France, he was called up in the general mobilization of 1939, taken prisoner in June 1940 and spent the War in German prison camps. His History of Spain (1947), banned by Franco, became essential reading. An active contributor-correspondent of the Annales, he became a director of studies at the Sixth Section of the École des Hautes Études in 1951 and in 1967 succeeded Ernest Labrousse in the chair of economic history at the Sorbonne. His master work entitled La Catalogne dans l’Espagne moderne, a three-volume enquiry into the social and economic bases of national structures, was published in 1962.
Never a member of the communist party, Vilar was always politically aligned on the side of the workers’ movement. His engagement with Althusser was initially commissioned for Faire de l’histoire, a collection of critical essays edited by Jacques Le Goff and Pierre Nora.footnote2 Since the volume in question carried only an abridged version, it was the full text republished in the ‘Débats et Combats’ section of Annales that made the bigger splash. Here was the first important Marxist ‘reply’ to Althusser’s theses on the role of history in Marx from a professional historian, a figure well known for his works of economic history and his methodological contributions. The same shock—and the sympathy stirred in all those who considered Althusser’s abstract anti-historicism to be incompatible with the empirical work of a historian on the left—was felt abroad as well. Numerous translations followed.footnote3
Yet if some took ‘Marxist History’ to be attack on Althusser, this was not how it was understood by the protagonists. One index of this was Vilar’s participation, at once benevolent and argumentative, on the panel examining Althusser’s submission for a doctorate by published works at the University of Amiens in June 1975. Althusser’s archives also reveal that, having read the Annales article—of which Vilar sent him an offprint with the dedication, ‘To Louis Althusser, who so kindly understood my intention, this “attack” which is in reality a common defence’—he spontaneously decided to respond, leaving a sketch that amounts to a rather astonishing rapprochement, in which the philosopher goes almost to meet the historian.footnote4 In effect, while reiterating his central theses, Althusser conceded that Vilar had formulated criticisms and reservations that were ‘fruitful, having a bearing on other questions altogether, integral to understanding the logic of the concepts of the Marxist science of history’.
For my part, having witnessed the two of them in face-to-face dialogue at Amiens, I soon came to doubt the reality of the supposed gulf. At the time I was working on a thesis on revolutionary syndicalism, and in that connection had discussed certain problems with Althusser—he lent me his copy of Roland Trempé’s Mineurs de Carmaux, which he had annotated from end to end. But it was only ten years later during another stay in Paris that I was able to ask Vilar in person what he thought about it. Thanks to an introduction from Étienne Balibar, Vilar agreed to see me in January 1987 at his apartment on Quai de la Rapée, overlooking the Seine. He talked at length about his conception of the historian’s craft, and about his relationship with Marxism, which he considered the most interesting and fruitful theoretical approach, provided it avoided all superfluous abstraction and dogmatism. And it was evident in this regard—he didn’t conceal it—that he saw a certain danger in Althusser’s writings.
After a wide-ranging conversation and lunch together at a corner bistro, Vilar presented me with his new book on the Spanish Civil War, which had just come out in the puf Que sais-je? series. Having read La Guerre d’Espagne on my return to West Berlin, I wrote to him proposing an interview for a German left-wing monthly to coincide with its publication in Germany. Perhaps rather boldly, I appended a list of seven questions, going from the Spanish Civil War and his historiography to the Annales School, and from there to Althusser. Barely three weeks later I had in my hands his responses, together with a note: ‘Your letter was a pleasure, a sign of friendship in the wake of your visit. The questions you put to me seem to me relevant for orienting those of the German public who will have the occasion to read my book. And for your own orientation, I have replied at length. See how much you can preserve for publication. The echo of my books is fainter there than in France. In a Hispanic country, it can be disproportionate to their worth. I’ll always be happy to hear of signs of interest in the German public.’ The German edition of La Guerre d’Espagne appeared in April 1987; the interview came out a few months later in Kommune.footnote5 Vilar republished it in Catalan translation in a collection of his articles about the inter-war period.footnote6
Today, outside Spain and Catalonia, Vilar risks being one of the great forgotten historians. A large part of his work is scattered in journals and conference proceedings, accessible only in Catalan or Spanish. In his 2003 obituary, his friend Eric Hobsbawm called him a historians’ historian, suggesting that his methodological work, however generous in conception, might seem to be addressed primarily to his fellow professionals.footnote7 Indeed Vilar’s last book, ‘An Introduction to the Vocabulary of Historical Analysis’, has never appeared in French. Vilar had no illusions on this score. But he never thought to sacrifice his rigorous conception of a scientific history ‘in the making’ to the changing fashions of the Parisian boulevard.footnote8