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Books on the barricades

Political pamphlets have undergone renaissance, first with 15-M movement and now with Catalan crisis

Fernando Savater, Jordi Amat and Eduardo Mendoza as seen by Sciammarella.
Fernando Savater, Jordi Amat and Eduardo Mendoza as seen by Sciammarella.

Brief, clear, aggressive and curiously innovative: it could be the recipe for the ideal social media post but in fact it refers to the pamphlet, a genre that underwent a renaissance during the economic crisis when people took to the streets to protest. Now the Catalan independence crisis has spawned a new flurry of leaflets printed with urgent messages such as Against Separatism (Ariel) by Fernando Savater; The Conspiracy of the Irresponsible (Anagrama) by Jordi Amat; and What’s Happening in Catalonia (Seix Barral) by Eduardo Mendoza.

Only the first two of these describe themselves as pamphlets – although the second is more of a report – while printed in capital letters on the cover of Mendoza’s book is the message: I’VE WRITTEN THESE PAGES IN ORDER TO EXPLORE IDEAS INSTEAD OF US SHRUGGING OUR SHOULDERS IN RESPONSE TO PREJUDICE, NEGLIGENCE AND LACK OF UNDERSTANDING. Like a pamphlet, it is a call to arms, rather than simply defamatory libel or an aggressive treatise.

A pamphlet is to politics what self-help is to psychology

Iván de la Nuez

Fernando Savater begins Against Separatism by saying. “Aggressive doesn’t mean so much insulting or slanderous, as to be on a war footing. Rather than aggressive, the word is belligerent. A fundamental characteristic of the pamphlet is a call to action. It’s not a text to be studied or reflected upon; its aim is to stir the reader up.”

Savater knows what he is talking about. In 1978, during the transition, a jury of intellectuals such as Juan Benet, Jorge Edwards and Jorge Semprún gave the Mundo Prize to his Pamphlet Against Everything – a call to arms that he has never in all the intervening years looked at again. “Why would I re-read that?” he laughs. “It wasn’t trying to be an essay, just a shake up. Luckily, it is out of date.”

Inevitably, pamphlets become dated. “If they become timeless, that’s bad,” says Savater, who is now in his 70s. “It simply means that it hasn’t succeeded in changing what it was protesting about.”

Transience, however, is not linked to quality. The Basque philosopher is a devotee of Voltaire whose criticisms of the church are no longer relevant. However, what remains relevant is the literary form these criticisms took. “Another aspect of the belligerent message is that it can’t be boring. It can irritate or make you laugh but a dull pamphlet is a contradiction in terms,” says Savater.

It can irritate or make you laugh but a dull pamphlet is a contradiction in terms

Fernando Savater

When asked for an example of a classic pamphlet, Savater suggests The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published in 1848, one of the most influential pieces of political writing in modern history. In 2012, a version of this famous work illustrated by Fernando Vicente for Nórdica became a runaway success at the Madrid Book Fair. The economic crisis was breathing new life into the old formulas. A year after the renaissance, Cuban writer Iván de la Nuez published an essay while living in Barcelona ironically entitled The Communist Manifesto. In it, he quoted texts relevant to the present day such as The Economy of Not Existing (Lince 2009) by Antonio Baños and The End of a Cycle (Traficantes de sueños, 2010) by Isidro López and Emmanuel Rodríguez and Get Indignant! (Destino 2011 by nonagenarian Stéphane Hessel – a text and title that inspired protesters camping out in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol in 2011 in the 15M, or Indignados, anti-austerity movement.

According to Iván de la Nuez, the genre was brought back because it offers the reader positive sound bites as opposed to questions; rather than responding to doubts like an essay, it tries to dispel them. “A pamphlet is to politics what self-help is to psychology,” he says.

Fernando Savater doesn’t see this as a criticism. “It’s a good way to look at it,” he says. “What self-help does is try to put things which have been revealed through psychology into practice which, like all sciences, is in itself static, as in it reveals things without saying if they are good or bad. Self-help on the other hand takes a position. Like the pamphlet. Although if all we had were pamphlets, we would never be able to study the world.”

Statements sell better than doubts – it’s a rule of thumb not only for pamphlets, but for today’s market in general

Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza wrote one of the first pamphlets in 1672, two years after writing his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. That pamphlet consisted of a sheet of paper with the words Ultimi barbarorum – the ultimate barbarian – on the site where his friend Johan de Witt was massacred in The Hague. The modern equivalent could be considered to be Women & Power: A Manifesto by historian and TV personality Professor Mary Beard. Other writers who have strayed into pamphlet territory include David Rieff (Against Memory) or Jordi Gracia (The Melancholy Intellectual). According to Iván de la Nuez, “The real victim of the pamphlet’s success has been essays rather than capitalism.”

A text filled with questions, he says, will lose against one filled with exclamation marks. “Unite! Get indignant! I accuse!” Statements sell better than doubts – it’s a rule of thumb not only for pamphlets, but for today’s market in general.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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