Tony Cliff

The lessons of the 25th November

(December 1975)

From Tony Cliff & Chris Harman, Lições do 25 de Novembro (pamphlet), SWP International Department, December 1975.
Printed in English in Tony Cliff & Chris Harman, Portugal – Lessons of the 25th November, 1976.
Reprinted in Tony Cliff, Neither Washington nor Moscow, London 1982, pp. 260–73.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Portuguese revolution suffered its first major setback on 25 November 1975. After paratroopers had seized a number of airbases and the national radio and television station, the right wing staged a counter-coup. The outcome was the disarming and disbandment of those left-wing military units in the Lisbon area that had supported the struggles of workers.

The main organisation of the workers movement in Portugal remain intact, but it can no longer look to support from the best armed sections of the army. Indeed, the monopoly of organised military power now lies with generals most of whom are well to the right of the present coalition government and who would relish the idea of turning Portugal into another Chile.

Glossary of organisations

COPCON: Continental Operations Command. Highly radicalised crack troops.
RAL I: Lisbon barracks light artillery regiment. Very radical.
CRTSM: Councils of Revolutionary Workers, Soldiers and Sailors. They were not Soviets since they organised only a minority of the most class conscious workers.
PRP: Revolutionary Party of the Proletariat.
MES: Left grouping which tended to act as a pressure group on the Communist Party.
SUV: Soldiers United Will Win.
RADIO RENASCENCA: Radio station owned by Catholic hierarchy, occupied by the workers. Reported sympathetically on workers struggles in Portugal and abroad. An important symbol of the revolution.

THE PORTUGUESE revolutionary movement suffered its first major defeat on 25 November since the overthrow of fascism.

Its base among the military units in the Lisbon area has been destroyed and scores of left-wing soldiers and officers are in jail. The ruling class has regained a more or less complete monopoly of armed force.

Prime responsibility for the defeat lies with the Communist Party leadership, which initiated the rebellion and then abandoned it to its fate.

Communist Party aligned officers agitated for the paratroops to seize airbases.

The revolutionary organisations seem to have been quite taken by surprise.

But once the paratroopers had taken action, they saw no choice but to support them. It was then that the PRP and MES issued a joint statement that “the hour had come to give a lesson to the bourgeoisie”.

But within hours, the Communist Party leadership had copped out of the struggle. It called no strikes to back up the paratroopers – although it had been able to initiate a successful two-hour general strike the day before – but did issue a leaflet calling on the workers to stay calm. It left the revolutionaries, and even some of its own officers, isolated in the face of attacks from the right.

The Communist Party campaigned against strike action by the workers at the very moment when such action was the only way to prevent the advance of reaction.

In October, we wrote in the Portuguese edition of the pamphlet Portugal at the Crossroads – that the bourgeoisie would attempt to strangle the revolutionary left, “to provoke it to engage in battle before there existed either soviets or a mass revolutionary party. The right will do everything in its power to dupe the working-class vanguard.”

It succeeded on 25 November through the Portuguese Communist Party.

Now this treachery looks like being rewarded, as right-wing military figures such as Melo Antunes and Charais call for the Party to be kept in the government, while the left-wing officers are in jail.

But the treachery of the Communist Party was to be expected. To explain the defeat, it is necessary to know why the revolutionary left could not counteract that treachery.

Sections of the middle class, even those most favourable to the working class, will always vacillate when it comes to decisive confrontations. The job of a revolutionary organisation is to inculcate this lesson into the ranks of the workers and soldiers before the crunch comes.

Lack of Organisation

Above all what characterises the events of 25 November is the lack of any serious organisation of the revolutionary soldiers when it came to the crunch.

Too much trust was put in revolutionary officers and no real structure of organisation of the rank and file existed able to lead at the testing time. As was stated in an interview in Lisbon on 27 November by a couple of revolutionary comrades:

There was no co-ordination, no real co-ordination. The CP expected Copcon to do it. Copcon didn’t. It hesitated, wavered, and so on. The same thing happened with the so-called revolutionary units because they were caught in a totally defensive position, discussing and so forth. Inside the barracks they did not take a single initiative. Yet they were exposed to the extent that they never pledged themselves to the military commanders and did not follow this or that order.

No-one offered resistance (to the commandos). There were only a few shots in the case of the military police. And even there the top commander of the military police opened the door to them. He surrendered himself after a little shooting – and not from the other side.

What happened at RALIS? (at the time of the interview RALIS had not yet surrendered). Last night the soldiers were still there and wanted to do something but they lacked military direction (their commander, Denis da Almeida, had surrendered).

One of the military police, a soldier, told me how annoying it was for these soldiers who were prepared and organised for an insurrection for the socialist revolution. As soon as the two commanders – Tome and Andrade disappeared – one surrendered, the other was captured – they didn’t know what to do. There wasn’t anyone to give orders. Although the soldiers were refusing military discipline, they didn’t know how to operate in any other way.

The so-called revolutionary officers are finished.

Weakness of the Revolutionary Left

The decisive factor in the defeat of the 25 November was the weakness of the revolutionary left. When it came to the decisive test, the reformists were shown to have incomparably more weight within the working class than the revolutionaries. And even within the left-wing army units, the reformists were able to prevent a full mobilisation.

A few weeks ago, the revolutionary left was able to mobilise for demonstrations through SUV many thousands of soldiers. Over the last year on a number of occasions the revolutionary left also mobilised tens of thousands of workers, despite the complete or partial opposition of the CP (on 7 February, on the CRTSM demonstration in the early summer, on 20 August, on the SUV demonstrations of 25 September, on the demonstration to liberate Radio Renascenca). But the failure of the working class to respond en masse to the calls from the paratroopers on 25 November show that over the class as a whole, even in the Lisbon area, the paralysing grip of the reformists is much stronger than the directing influence of the revolutionaries.

It is a quite different thing for workers to demonstrate in defiance of reformist leaders than to enter upon the insurrectionary path. No worker will risk his livelihood, and even his life, in an insurrection without a feeling of the probability of success. If he feels that only a minority in the class back insurrection, he will foresee the defeat and abstain from the movement.

On 25 November the weakness of the revolutionary left meant it was not even able to mobilise the workers for a defensive general strike. The reformists were still strong enough to sabotage mass resistance to the extreme right.

On 25 November, even those soldiers who first moved – the paratroops – hesitated as soon as they saw that the mass of the class was not moving with them.

It is this which explains why the soldiers’ committees and SUV, which seemed so powerful (even to the ruling class!) on 24 November, collapsed like a house of cards on the 25th.

As we wrote in our paper Socialist Worker of 25 October:

The greatest weakness of the revolutionary movement is the unevenness between the soldiers and the workers. The workers’ movement lags far behind the soldiers movement ...

The unevenness cannot go on forever. If the workers do not rise to the level of the revolutionary soldiers, there is great danger that the soldiers’ level of consciousness and action will go down to the level of the workers ...

If the workers do not catch up with the soldiers, the danger is that the soldiers’ spirit will be damned ... The soldiers will be wary of marching forward on their own to seize state power ...

In fact, armed forces substituting for the proletariat will not even do for Lisbon in 1975 what the Blanquists did for Paris in 1839. Then a small minority of a few thousand could take power because the rest of the population was unorganised. This cannot be repeated in Lisbon. The Communist Party is too well implanted in the class to allow it.

Shortly before 25 November some revolutionaries were saying that “the objective conditions for a successful insurrection” existed. Now certainly many of the conditions were present: the deep divisions within the armed forces, the splits within the ruling class on how to deal with these, the growing wave of struggle of the workers. But one crucial thing was missing – a mass party of revolutionaries, with members in every workshop, fighting for its policies in every workers’ committee, counterposing its policies to those of the reformist bureaucrats in the unions, everywhere able to put across to the broad mass of workers direct and immediate arguments to counter the treacherous twists and turns of the reformists.

The revolutionary left did have influence in a few of the leading workers’ committees. But when it came to the class as a whole, its influence was much weaker than that of the Communist Party.

Under such conditions it was easy for the CP first to disorientate the revolutionary left with the coup and then to isolate the revolutionary left by betraying the movement it had helped initiate.

It was able to play on certain mistakes of the revolutionary left – above all on the confusion between propaganda and agitation. In the weeks before 25 November the best elements of the revolutionary left had quite rightly made propaganda among advanced layers of workers, stressing that only through an armed insurrection could the class prevent counter-revolution. But often the propaganda was presented in such a way as to give the impression to many workers that it was an agitational call for immediate insurrection. So although the leaders of the revolutionary organisation seem to have been clear that the coup of 25 November could not be the insurrection, those who followed them in the class were not always so clear.

In a revolutionary period, the timing of slogans is crucial. The revolutionary organisation has to make absolutely clear the distinction between its propaganda for insurrection, its call to prepare the political conditions for insurrection, and its immediate agitational demands. Otherwise thousands, tens of thousands of workers who are new to political activity can be confused and demoralised unnecessarily.

Reaction Wins a Battle – Not the War

The capitalist class has regained a practical monopoly over armed power. One must not underestimate the defeat for the revolution. On the other hand one should not exaggerate it. Neither complacency nor panic are good guides to revolutionary action. Above anything else workers need the truth. The defeat for the revolution is not yet total. Army units have been dissolved, but not workers’ committees and the trade unions remain more or less intact. The right wing does not yet feel strong enough to take them on directly.

The disaster is not as in Chile. Reaction has won a notable battle, but full-blooded counter-revolution is not triumphant.

Reaction to counter-revolution is as reform to revolution. We may call victories of reaction those changes in the regime which bring it in the direction desired by the counter-revolution without altering radically the balance of forces, without smashing the organisation and confidence of the proletariat.

After July Days when the Bolshevik Party was slandered as being German agents, when hundreds of Party members were thrown into prison, when Lenin and other Party leaders were in hiding. Lenin posed the question: was this a victory of counterrevolution or only a victory of reaction? The key question was whether the working class had lost its confidence and ability to fight. Some time after July Days Lenin explained how one incident clarified to him completely that counter-revolution had not been victorious, that although a battle was lost the war was far from being ended.

After the July Days ... I was obliged to go underground... In a small working-class house in a remote working-class suburb of Petrograd, dinner is being served. The hostess puts the bread on the table. The host says: “Look what fine bread. They dare not give us bad bread now. And we had almost given up thinking that we’d ever get good bread in Petrograd again.”

I was amazed at this class appraisal of the July Days. My thoughts had been revolving around the political significance of these events, analysing the situation that caused this zigzag in history and the situation it would create, and how we ought to change our slogans and later our Party apparatus to adapt it to the changed situation. As for bread, I who had not known want, did not give it a thought. I took bread for granted ...

This member of the oppressed class, however ... takes the bull by the horns with that astonishing simplicity and straightforwardness, with that firm determination and amazing clarity of outlook from which we intellectuals are so remote as the stars in the sky. The whole world is divided into two camps: “us”, the working people, and “them”, the exploiters. Not a shadow of embarrassment over what had taken place; it was just one of the battles in the long struggle between labour and capital. When you fell trees, chips fly.

“We” squeezed “them” a bit; “they” don’t dare to lord it over us as they did before. We’ll squeeze them again – and chuck them out altogether, that’s how the worker thinks and feels. (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 26, p. 120)

Historical experience shows that in revolutionary times a victory of reaction can be followed swiftly be revolutionary victories.

To chart only the chronology of events in Germany in 1919-1920: in January 1919 Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and hundreds of other revolutionaries were massacred – then January 1919 defeat of the German proletariat was incomparably more costly than the defeat of the Portuguese on 25 November. On 3 March a general strike broke out in Berlin; on 21 a general strike broke out in the Ruhr; a year later, on 13 March 1920 the Right organised a coup and took power; on 14 the Social Democratic leaders afraid for their own skins called a general strike that toppled the right-wing Kapp four days later; in October that same year 300,000 members of the USPD (Independent Social Democratic Party) joined en bloc the Communist Party and thus transformed it from a small organisation of a few tens of thousands into a mass party.

These points all lead to one conclusion: the 25 November was not the final battle. It was not like the coup in Chile. If historical analogies are needed, it is better to look at the defeat suffered by the German revolution in January 1919 (at a much greater cost than the defeat of 25 November) which still left the German working class with the strength to fight in March 1919 and against the Kapp putsch in 1920.

If the SUV demonstration of the 25 September or the building workers’ mass demonstration besieging the government officers for thirty-six hours on 13 November for example, were semi-insurrections or quarter insurrections then the victory of reaction on 25–26 November was a semi-victory of the counter-revolution.

There is no doubt at all that the 300,000 workers who went on a demonstration in Lisbon on 16 November and 90 per cent of the workers in the Lisbon area who went on strike on 24 November could not have lost their soul, their confidence, their ability to fight, notwithstanding the cruel coup by the right on the 25th.

Symptomatic of the weakness of the Government is its inability to impose a curfew in Lisbon. As a Lisbon comrade wrote on 27 November: “Lots of people have been ignoring the curfew. The military do not have the means of implementing it.”

Win the workers to Revolution

If up to 25 November revolutionaries put the emphasis on winning power, on the immediate winning of power by the proletariat, now the centre of all party agitation must be the winning of the majority of the proletariat. The march towards the dictatorship of the proletariat of necessity has become longer and will take a more roundabout path.

Unable to take power – for lack of a mass revolutionary party – the proletariat will have to lay down the gauntlet in the economic and social field.

The pressure of the international economic crisis continues to be felt by Portuguese capitalism. It cannot expect real relief from these until an upturn in the world economy. This will not come for 6–8 months at the minimum – and in any case will be shortlived, leading to renewed world inflation, and to a renewed world crisis within two years.

The government and the council of the revolution will be compelled to proceed at top speed with their austerity’ plans – price increases, enforced sackings, factory closures, a clamp down on wage increases.

Under these circumstances the economic struggle of workers will most likely very rapidly regather momentum. The great struggles of recent weeks (the metal workers, the builders) involving whole layers of previously passive workers will be followed by further struggles. The most important thing for the recuperation of the forces of the revolutionary left will be to be able to relate to these struggles.

Because of the partial defeat for its forces, as well as those of the revolutionary left, the CP will be in a much weaker position for bargaining over the price it has to pay for remaining in the government.

Those who were victorious on 25 November will only let the CP retain its positions if it does its utmost to dampen down the economic struggles of workers.

Revolutionaries could well find themselves as in the first months after 25 April, being the only people to support the most elementary economic struggles of workers.

That is why it is essential to understand the key role which the economic struggles of workers play in any revolution.

As the great Polish-German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg noted sixty years ago,

Every new rising and new victory of the political struggle simultaneously changes itself into a powerful impetus for the economic struggle by expanding the external possibilities of the latter ... After each foaming wave of political struggle, a fructifying deposit remains behind from which a thousand strikes of economic struggle shoot forth ... The ceaseless state of economic war of the workers with capital keeps the fighting energy alive at each political pause. It forms, so to speak, the ever-fresh reservoir of strength of the proletarian class, out of which the political struggle continually renews its strength. (Mass strike)

It was because she saw this that after the first defeat of the German revolution at the hands of reformism, in December 1918, she stressed that the fight by revolutionaries for leadership of the class meant moving, for a brief period, from direct political confrontation to economic confrontation:

In the first period of the revolution, the revolution remained exclusively political. Only in the last two or three weeks have strikes broken out quite spontaneously. Let us be clear: it is the very essence of this revolution that strikes will become more and more extensive, that they must become more and more the central focus ... No-one will dispute that we alone are on the side of the striking and fighting workers.’ In this way, she argued, the hold of reformism would be shaken over even the most backward strata of workers and the base of the revolution would expand hugely.

No-one in Portugal today can afford to ignore that lesson. After the political change of 25 April followed a period of intense economic struggle. Now, after a period in which political questions have dominated everything, the class will recoup its powers through economic struggle.

In the past phase of continual political crisis, there has been a tendency for revolutionaries to dismiss the economic struggle as “out-dated”. But that is to make a dangerous confusion.

It is true that Portuguese capitalism can no longer afford reforms to the benefit of the workers. It is true also that some of the most advanced workers find themselves in a situation where wage demands threaten the economic viability of enterprises controlled by their own workers’ committees, and therefore draw revolutionary political conclusions. But the vast mass of workers are not yet at this level of consciousness. The fact that they have followed the wage demands of the reformist unions shows it. Instead of the revolutionaries telling these workers that the economic struggle is surpassed, it is necessary to fight alongside them for the economic demands, to suggest forms of organisation appropriate to winning them, to fight within the workers’ committees and the unions against the inevitable tendency of the reformist leaden to bow to the needs of Portuguese capitalism and renege on the fight even for reforms. Revolutionaries must not merely comment on the fight for wage improvement: they must do their utmost to propel it forward, to unite the strength of the workers round partial economic demands, in order to raise the level of unity and combativity of the class, so that the political question of state power is posed to wider ranks of workers than ever before.

The embryonic organs of Popular Power by and large showed themselves to be inadequate on 25 November. This is because many of their activities remained remote from the everyday activities of workers – from the daily struggle for better wages and conditions, for better housing, against unemployment and rising prices. Workers vaguely supported them, but did not feel intimately and organically involved in their actions. The building of real organs of Popular Power will depend upon overcoming this fault, upon making them central to the partial, economic struggles of workers, as well as seeing them as an embryo of working-class power.

In the period immediately ahead, groups of revolutionaries in each factory will only be able to recuperate their strength and to overcome the weaknesses of 25 November if they do more than pose, abstractly, the question of state power, and make themselves the centre of the struggle against the austerity programme of the government. That means formulating demands for a fight back on the economic front, using regular factory bulletins and newspapers to counter the betrayals of the reformists on this front as well as on the political front.

Revolutionaries will have to seize every opportunity to link themselves to workers’ struggle through legal “front” organisations.

To repeat, the revolution has not yet suffered a decisive defeat. The revolutionary left can still rally support and turn the tide. The struggle now is a struggle to convince workers that all the gains of the revolution to date are at risk. The economic offensive which the rulers must launch, the offensive to break the industrial power of the working class, is now the centre of the battlefield. On this battlefield, working class unity around a militant programme can still be achieved.

On that basis the revolutionaries can begin to build the party that was so clearly missing on 25 November. If they learn the lessons of that defeat, it will not be long before they rise again.

Building the Mass Party

Even with the best elements of the revolutionary left there is a failure to understand the need to organise politically those workers who are breaking with reformism. The notion is widespread that the job of the party is to deal with technical questions, like the organisation of the insurrection, while the functioning of organs of workers’ power can be left to the “non-party” bodies themselves. In practice this means that the Party is seen as being made up of small, highly trained (in military terms) cadres, which does not need to permeate every single section of the class.

This aversion to a stress on building up the organisation of the Party and its periphery is perhaps a natural reaction to the crude, Stalinist notion of the Party peddled both by the Communist Party and the Maoist sects (which leads the Maoists to counterpose building the Party to the tasks of the mass movement). But it is extremely dangerous at present.

In Russia in 1905 Lenin stressed again and again the need of the Party to draw to it tens of thousands of workers, to grab at every single worker who in any way was drawing close to revolutionary politics.

He recognised that if the revolutionary party did not seize on them and win them to its full position by joint activity in a common organisation, they could all too easily be pulled back into the orbit of reformism or even reaction.

We need young forces. I am for shooting on the spot any one who presumes that there are no people to be had. The people in Russia are legion; all we have to do is recruit young people more widely and boldly, more boldly and widely and again more widely and boldly, without fearing them (Lenin stress)... Get rid of all the old habits of immobility, of respect for rank, and so on. Form hundreds of circles of Vperyod-ists from among the youth and encourage them to work full blast... We must with desperate speed, unite people with revolutionary initiative and set them to work. Do not fear their lack of training, do not tremble at their inexperience and lack of development. In the first place, if you fail to organise them and spur them to action, they will follow the Mensheviks and the Gapons and this inexperience of them will cause five times more harm. In the second place, events themselves will teach them in our spirit ... This is a time of battle. Either you create new, young, fresh energetic battle organisations everywhere for revolutionary work of all varieties among all strata, or you will go under wearing the aureole of “committee bureaucrats”.

His words apply absolutely in Portugal today. Everyone moving to the left who is not won to an organisation will be pulled into the orbit of reformism, centrism of sectarian Maoism, and will present insuperable problems for the revolutionaries in the future.

The danger can be avoided but only if the revolutionary left sharply alters the priority which it gives to Party building.

Above all, regular and popular press is needed. Without it there is no pressure on members of the revolutionary party to bring contacts to the organisation. They have no automatic organisational link with those who waver between them and the reformists, Maoists or centrists, not yet being willing to join the Party. They have no ready way of explaining the Party’s view of day to day events to the large number of workers attracted to revolutionary ideas. They have no easy way to open up a dialogue with the dissident Communist Party members or even those Maoists and centrists bemused by the behaviour of their organisations.

Of course, the Party cannot be built merely by proclaiming it, or by counterposing it to the development of the mass struggle (as most of the Maoist groups believe). But it can be built by an organisation that shows in practice that it knows what needs to be done by the class and insists openly and clearly again and again to the rest of the class that it has only been able to do so because it exists as a party around a certain programme.

To enter upon the road of insurrection and civil war without a mass Party is the most dangerous thing conceivable for revolutionaries.

In Portugal, there is no possibility of evading for more than a few months (at most) sharp, armed clashes between the classes. That is why the most urgent task for the revolutionary left is to build the political organisational structure within the class. A failure to do so will not only condemn the Portuguese working class to defeat: it will also throw away the best opportunity for a revolutionary breakthrough in Europe since 1917.

The road to power

To aim to win power without first winning over the mass of the proletariat is ultra-left adventurism. To win the proletariat to the party as an aim is simply opportunism. To win the proletariat to the revolutionary party in order to win power is the only realistic revolutionary path open now in Portugal.

A long time ago Lenin, who was destined to lead the only successful mass proletarian insurrection up till now, explained how the organisation of the revolutionary party dovetails with the preparation for an armed insurrection. He wrote in 1902:

Picture to yourselves a popular uprising. Probably everyone will now agree that we must think of this and prepare for it. But how? Surely the Central Committee cannot appoint agents to all localities for the purpose of preparing the uprising! Even if we had a Central Committee it could achieve absolutely nothing by such appointments under present day Russian conditions. But a network of agents that would form in the course of establishing and distributing the common newspaper would not have to “sit about and wait” for the call for an uprising, but could carry on the regular activity that would strengthen our contacts with the broadest strata of the working masses and with all social strata that are discontented with the autocracy, which is of such importance for an uprising. Precisely such activity would serve to cultivate the ability to estimate correctly the general political situation, and consequently, the ability to select the proper moment for an uprising. Precisely such activity would train all local organisations to respond simultaneously to the same political question, incidents and events that agitate the whole of Russia and to react to such “incidents” in the most vigorous, uniform and expedient manner possible; for an uprising is in essence the most vigorous, most uniform and most expedient answer of the entire people to the government. Lastly, it is precisely such activity that would train all revolutionary organisations throughout Russia to maintain the most continuous, and at the same time most secret, contacts with one another, thus creating real party unity; for without such contacts it will be impossible collectively to discuss the plan for the uprising and to take the necessary preparatory measure on its eve, measures that must be kept in the strictest secrecy. (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 5, pp. 525–6)

Only when the mass revolutionary party is implanted deeply in the proletariat can it lead to a successful insurrection. A necessary condition for the victory of the proletarian insurrection is that the decisive sections of the proletariat will it. Lenin wrote in 1917:

To be successful, insurrection must rely not upon a party, but upon the advanced class. That is the first point. Insurrection must rely upon a revolutionary upsurge of the people. That is the second point. Insurrection must rely upon that turning point in the history of the growing revolution when the activity of the advanced ranks of the people is at its height, and when the vacillations in the ranks of the enemy and in the ranks of the weak, halfhearted and irresolute friends of the revolution are strongest. That is the third point. (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 26, pp.22–3.)

Military conspiracy is Blanquism, if it is organised not by a party of a definite class, if its organisers have not analysed the political moment in general and the international situation in particular, if the party has not on its side the sympathy of the majority of the people, as proved by objective facts, if the development of revolutionary events has not brought about a practical refutation of the conciliatory illusions of the petty bourgeoisie, if the majority of the Soviet-type organs of revolutionary struggle that have been recognised as authoritative or have shown themselves to be such in practice have not been won over, if there has not matured a sentiment in the army ... against the government ... if the slogans of the uprising have not become widely known and popular, if the advanced workers are not sure of the desperate situation of the masses and the support of the countryside, a support proved by a serious peasant movement or by an uprising against the landowners and the government that defends the land-owners, if the country’s economic situation inspires earnest hopes for a favourable solution of the crisis by peaceable and parliamentary means. (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 26, pp.212–3.)

Some people have claimed that the example of the Cuban revolution shows that such conditions need not be fulfilled in Portugal. But the conditions under which the Cuban revolution occurred are quite different from those of Portugal today.

The guerilla movement in Cuba was able to win because when it came to the decisive test, none of the major classes was prepared to support Batista against the rebel army. The local bourgeoisie in Cuba was weak and divided, to such an extent that some of its representatives joined Castro’s first government. Even sections of the US state department were prepared to show a benign neutrality to Castro at this stage. Remember, at the time of taking power and smashing the established army of Batista, Castro was still claiming that the revolution would not be an anti-capitalist revolution. He only proclaimed its socialist intentions on 16 April 1961.

Conditions in Portugal today are quite different. The bourgeoisie are much stronger than they were in Cuba. They have a wide measure of support among the petty bourgeoisie and the northern peasants. The bourgeoisie are aware that their whole social position is threatened by any intensification of the revolution and are determined to fight to the end against it. The US government does not show “benign neutrality” but bitter hostility to the revolution.

All this makes the hold of reformism much harder to deal with than was the case in Cuba. The reformists can impede an all-out struggle against the forces of the right: this was shown conclusively on 25 November. No insurrection can be successful until their hold in the factories is already challenged in a decisive fashion by the revolutionaries. It cannot be the case that, as in Cuba, the insurrection takes place and then the CP is forced to accept it. And it is worth remembering that even in Cuba the hold of the reformists continued to be crucial after the insurrection, forcing the leaders of the rebel army to make an alliance with them that explains many of the deformations in Cuba today.

As a guide to revolutionaries in Portugal, as elsewhere in the world, not Castro but the Communist Manifesto should serve when it states: “All previous historical movements were movements of minorities or in the interests of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious independent movement of the immense majority.”

The working class is ready for the armed seizure of power only when both objective and subjective conditions are ripe. Thus Lenin never raised the slogan for the insurrection prior to September 1917 – when the Bolsheviks won a majority in the soviets of Petrograd and Moscow. In April 1917 a leading Bolshevik in Petrograd, Bogdatev, secretary of the Putilov Bolshevik Committee issued a leaflet calling “Down with the provisional government”. Lenin attacked him as ultra-left and his action was condemned by the party, because of the danger that the workers would see this as a call to immediate action before the party had the support of the class.

In a revolutionary situation tenses are more important than grammar.

For revolutionaries, there cannot be a gap between words and deeds. Therefore when a party makes propaganda about the need for insurrection it must allow no confusion at all to exist in the eyes of the workers that this is an immediate call for action. Every statement, every leaflet must make this distinction clear. No call can be put to the workers in a way that will be seen as a call to action unless the party is fully prepared for the essential consequences that will follow.

If revolutionaries work correctly in Portugal today, they can create the conditions for the organisation of a successful struggle for power. But that means recognising that in the forefront of those conditions is winning the working class for the revolution.

The hold of reformism, so decisive on 25 November, can be shaken. But only if revolutionaries recognise that it is necessary to go backwards a little in order to go forward, to relate to the many economic struggles we can expect in the months ahead in order to prepare the ground for renewed political struggle.

The attempt of the government to solve the economic problems of Portuguese capitalism will lead to many sharp dishes between it and sections of workers. If revolutionaries know how to relate to these economic struggles, it will be easy to push them to the point at which political issues are raised – the role of the police, the role of the purged army, the role of the government and all its components (including the CP) the need for class action against it and for corresponding organisations of struggle and power.

The contradictions within the forces who were victorious on 25 November mean that the next major political conflict may not be far away. Already sections of the military want to go much further in their repression than do Antunes and sections of the Socialist Party leadership.

Revolutionaries have very little to build the organisational strength in the class that did not exist on 25 November. But if the opportunities available are seized the revolution can still be saved.

The defeat of 25 November should be used to teach every worker in Portugal and elsewhere the key lessons needed for the achievement of proletarian victory in the future. An army that has been licked is the better for it if it draws the lessons from its beating.


Last updated on 3 February 2017