By Miguel Urbano Rodrigues
Henri Alleg (July 20, 1921 – July 17, 2013), born Harry Salem to Polish-Jewish parents in London, who soon moved to Paris, was a French communist who, living in Algeria, became editor of the pro-liberation Alger Republicain in 1951. He is best known internationally for his pamphlet, La Question (The Question or Torture), which describes his month of torture — a torture practiced systematically against Algerian patriots — after being arrested by the French forces occupying Algeria. Miguel Urbano Rodrigues is a veteran Portuguese communist and journalist and former editor of Avante, the newspaper of the Portuguese Communist Party. The article is translated from the Portuguese by WW Managing Editor John Catalinotto.
I had been awaiting the news of Henri Alleg’s death.
He died yesterday, Wednesday (July 17), but to all intents and purposes had stopped living last year when, on holiday on a Greek island, he suffered a cerebral vascular accident. His brain was so damaged that recovery was impossible.
He remained semihemiplegic and spent the last months in a clinic, progressing to the end in an almost vegetative state. He could recognize his children and say a few words, but his speech had become chaotic.
I was bound to this man with a friendship so deep that I have difficulty defining it.
At age 90, he spent a week with me and my companheira in Vila Nova de Gaia, and then gave a conference at the Popular University of Porto on Algeria and the events that shook African Islam. His historical knowledge and lucidity impressed all who heard him then.
I admired him long ago when I first met him in Bulgaria, in 1986, during an international congress. Our empathy was immediate, opening the door to a friendship that grew stronger every year.
Henri, after the April 25, 1974, revolution in Portugal, was the correspondent for L’Humanité in Lisbon. At that time we hadn’t the opportunity to meet. But in the last quarter century, he visited Portugal many times. The publishing company Caminho published three of his books (“SOS America,” “The Great Leap Backwards” and “The Century of the Dragon) and Mareantes launched the Portuguese translation of “La Question” (“La Tortura”), the book that made him famous and helped to hasten the end of the Algerian war for liberation from France.
He loved Portugal, especially the Alentejo of the Left Bank of the River Guadiana, and admired the Portuguese Communist Party.
He participated in different international meetings in Portugal, and in one of his visits to Lisbon he was received by the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Assembly of the Republic, where he held discussions on the great problems of our time with members of Parliament from all parties and was later applauded by the full session of Parliament.
I also recall the exceptional interest aroused by his trips to Brazil and Cuba, where I accompanied him on his visits to those countries.
The complexity of the sense of wonder that Henri Alleg inspired in me led me to write more pages about him and his books than I devoted during my life to any other writer. They appear in my books and articles published in newspapers and magazines in many countries. I’ll thus avoid repetition.
I recall that when I read “La Grande Aventure d’Alger Republicain” (“The Great Adventure of Alger Republicain”) the shock — that was the right word — was so strong that I suggested at a conference that the study of this book should be included in the program of all colleges of journalism in the world.
What was it I found that made Henri Alleg different?
Reflecting on the fascination that this man had on me, I concluded that my admiration was based on the strength of his ideological choices, his Spartan courage and a rare sense of ethics.
More than once I told him that I saw in him the model set by the Bolsheviks of 1917.
Henri appeared to me as the full, pure, almost perfect communist. I have not met one with whom I identify so harmoniously in the debate of ideas.
It is regrettable that “Mémoire Algérienne” (“Algerian Memoir”) has not been translated into Portuguese. In this memoir, which is much more than that, Henri, in the final chapters, allows the reader to imagine the suffering of a communist who experiences the rapid disappearance, after independence, among the leaders of the FLN, of the principles and values that had led the Algerian revolutionaries to victory over French colonialism. He paid a high price for the authenticity that distanced him from power regarding Alger Republicain, his daily newspaper, which was closed down by Houari Boumedienne, hero of the independence struggle.
He also paid a heavy price in France, where, after his return to Europe, he was managing editor of L’Humanité, then the organ of the Central Committee of the French Communist Party.
From the onset, Henri Alleg denounced the wave of eurocommunism that hit the French, Italian and Spanish parties, among others.
He criticized openly the strategy that led the PCF to participate in the governments of the Socialist Party, which practiced neoliberal policies.
In the excellent book he wrote about the destruction of the USSR and the re-establishment of capitalism in Russia, he lashed out at intellectuals who, renouncing Marxism, passed in rapid metamorphosis to become defenders of capitalism and anti-Soviet positions. He did not hesitate to criticize even the very general secretary of the PCF, Robert Hue, as he considered the orientation then imposed on the PCF as incompatible with their revolutionary traditions as a Marxist-Leninist organization.
But, unlike some other comrades, he carried on his combat as a communist activist within the Communist Party.
I had the opportunity in France at communist meetings I attended to recognize the enormous respect that Henri Alleg inspired when he spoke. I found that even the leaders he criticized admired his clarity, the roots of his reasoning and the dignity of his critical speech.
In recent years, despite his frail health, he appeared on television programs, returned to Portugal and revisited Algeria, where he was received with enthusiasm and excitement. In the U.S., his conferences raised ideological debates of unusual depth, with the participation of communists and progressive academicians. And almost to the moment the CAV struck him, he toured France, responding to invitations from communist federations and other organizations. The youth, especially, greeted him with tenderness and admiration.
The death of his life partner, Gilberte Serfaty, in 2010, was a devastating blow for him.
“I no longer can feel the joy of living,” he answered when I asked him about the burden of being alone. An Algerian, she was also an exceptional communist. She contributed greatly to organize with the party his complicated escape from the French prison in Rennes, where he had been transferred from Algeria.
Often, when I visited France, she hosted me in their home in Palaiseau, in the suburbs of Paris. Henri, who was a gourmet and a great cook, welcomed me with authentic feasts, preparing a wonderful couscous, accompanied by Algerian wines.
On the last visit to Palaiseau before his illness, my companheira and I attended an unforgettable dinner. We were five: we, Henri, Gilberte and Henri’s son, Jean Salem, who is a Marxist philosopher with international prestige.
I remember that night we reviewed the state of the world. Henri radiated energy; fraught with the present grim condition of humanity, he spoke of the future with the hope of a young Bolshevik.
I repeat: Henri Alleg was a revolutionary and an exemplary communist.
Vila Nova de Gaia, July 18, 2013