Obituary: Manuel Azcarte

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The Independent Culture
THE SPANISH Communist leader Manuel Azcarte was distinguished by his passionate internationalism, inspired both by a diplomatic childhood in European embassies and his free-thinking family, several of whose members influenced Spanish progressive thought from the turn of the century.

In his memoirs, Derrotas y esperanzas (1994), Azcarte describes how, as a teenager in the 1930s, he astonished his comrades in the Geneva branch of the Young Communists as he rolled up to meetings in the chauffeur-driven Oldsmobile of his father, Pablo, who was Assistant Secretary General of the League of Nations, embryo of the UN.

Pablo Azcarte was ambassador in London for the Spanish Republic from 1932 to 1936. Young Manuel, aged 18, spent some time studying at the London School of Economics where he came to know Professor Harold Laski, who crucially influenced his decision to become a Communist. He studied Law and Economics at the University of Madrid in 1933 and in 1934 became a member of the Young Communists' executive committee.

When the Civil War began in 1936, he became editor of the left-wing paper La Hora and joined the 11th Division of the Republican Army. On Franco's victory in 1939 he fled to exile in France and in 1941, under Nazi occupation, began reorganising the Communists against the occupying forces, starting only from the addresses, committed to memory, of a few sympathisers in Paris. He edited a number of clandestine newspapers including Mundo Nuevo ("New World") and Nuestra Bandera ("Our Flag").

Azcarte remained in France until 1975, with a long period between 1959 and 1964 spent in Moscow. He was to conclude that Russian Communism was a failure - but because it was distorted by nationalism, not because the ideas of Marx and Engels were wrong. He continued to believe it was possible for European Communism to be open and civilised.

The phenomenon of Eurocommunism emerged in the late 1970s as an attempt by some West European CPs to break from Stalinism's dead hand and take a less sectarian line towards other working-class parties. The trend, pioneered by the Italians, was taken up by the French Communists and the newly legalised Spanish party, each seeking an electoral alliance with democratic socialists to isolate the right.

Anti-Stalinists on the left of the British Labour Party - a reduced but energetic group around Eric Heffer MP - were eager to encourage what they saw as a promising process of Communist democratisation and, in an unprecedented move, invited a number of Eurocommunists to attend Labour's annual conference in 1978.

Manuel Azcarte, responsible for the Spanish Communist Party's international policy, was a perfect representative for the Spaniards, with his sweet manners, impeccable English and years of direct experience of Stalin's rule. Later that year, a young assistant in Labour's international department who had helped him during his visit was surprised and gratified to receive an affectionate Christmas card.

But the Eurocommunist adventure was never convincing in Spain, whose party held fast to Stalinist methods despite preaching democratic ideas. The socialists led by Felipe Gonzalez were viscerally opposed to any Communist rapprochement and showed by their sweeping electoral victory in 1982 that they needed no Communist help to win power in post-Franco democracy.

That year, aged 65 and having been a Communist since 17, Azcarte was expelled from the party. He wrote the book La crisis del eurocomunismo ("The Crisis of Eurocommunism", 1982) - part analysis, part autobiography - to try to explain what had happened to his party and his life. He became a journalist and commentator for a number of newspapers before settling with El Pas, where he wrote a weekly column on international affairs until a couple of months ago.

In 1986 he wrote La Izquierda Europea ("The European Left") about the dilemma facing socialists in a period of world recession and Soviet collapse. His memoirs, Derrotas y esperanzas: la Republica, la Guerra Civil y la Resistencia ("Defeats and Hopes: the Republic, the Civil War and the Resistance"), followed testimonies of his distinguished former comrades Fernando Claudin and Jorge Semprun in tracing how someone committed to fighting Fascism from the first stamp of the jackboot was eventually squeezed out of a party that was gripped by intrigue and dogma. But he never became cynical or bitter.

I often bumped into him as he padded the corridors of El Pas, where The Independent has an office, and he would lucidly explain his thinking on this or that, with his low voice, his myopic gaze through thick spectacles somewhat flat and dimmed latterly by a two-year fight against cancer. Yesterday a colleague pinned up a valedictory note on the canteen noticeboard that concluded: "So long, Don Manuel. You were wise, and you were a gent."

Juan Manuel Azcarte Diz, politician and writer: born Madrid 7 October 1916; married Esther Jimenez Milagro (one son, one daughter); died Madrid 24 August 1998.

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