Tony Cliff

Portugal at the crossroads

The Armed Forces Movement

Revolution and the army

The Armed Forces Movement (MFA) is a unique phenomenon. No revolution other than the Portuguese has seen anything like it.

Let us start with the historical experience of armies in periods of revolution.

One result of all past revolutions was the disintegration of the existing army.

“Surely, the fact is evident”, wrote Engels to Marx on 26 September 1851, “that a disorganised army and a complete breakdown of discipline has been the condition as well as the result of every victorious revolution.”

Look at the experience of Russia in 1917. Already in the months preceding the February 1917 Revolution, discipline in the Tsarist army was falling to pieces. The February Revolution accelerated the process. After all, the revolution took place not only without the officers, but against them. Many of the officers, a couple of days after the revolution, rushed to pin on red ribbons, But could the soldiers trust them?

V.B. Stankevich, an officer who joined the revolution “five minutes after it started”, and became a prominent leader in the army between the February and October revolutions, recorded quite clearly what the actual feelings between officers and soldiers were in the early days after the February Revolution:

It was the fact that the soldiers, breaking discipline, left the barracks not merely without their officers but even despite their officers, and in many cases against their officers, even killing some of them who tried to fulfil their duty. And now by universal, popular, official acclaim obligatory for the officers themselves, the soldiers were supposed to have realised by this a great deed of emancipation. If this was indeed a heroic exploit, and if the officers themselves now proclaimed it, then why had they not themselves led the soldiers out onto the streets – for you see that would have been easier and less dangerous for them than for the soldiers. Now after the victory is won, they adhere to the heroic feat. But is that sincere and for how long? You see, during the first moments they were upset, they hid themselves, they changed into civilian clothes ... Even though next day all the officers returned. Even though some of the officers came running back and joined in five minutes after the going out of the soldiers, all the time it was the soldiers who led the officers in this, and not the officers the soldiers. And those five minutes opened an impassable abyss cutting off the troops from all the profoundest and most fundamental presuppositions of the old army. [49]

Officially they [the officers – TC] celebrated, eulogised the revolution, cried “Hurray!” to the fighters for freedom, adorned themselves with red ribbons, and marched under red banners ... Everyone said, We, our revolution, our victory, and our freedom. But in their hearts, in their tète-à-tètes, they were horrified, trembled, felt themselves prisoners of a hostile elemental force that was travelling an unknown road. [50]

The open antagonism between the soldiers and the officers meant that even the right-wing labour leaders – the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries – had to accept the need for soldiers’ committees to control the officers. The revolutionary mood among the troops was such that the compromisers thought it impossible to simply preserve the old disciplinary set-up. The result was a compromise, Order number 1, issued by the Petrograd Soviet on 1 March:

“In all companies, battalions, regiments, parks, batteries, squadrons, in the special services of the various military administrations, and on the vessels of the navy, committees from the elected representatives of the lower ranks of the above-mentioned military units shall be chosen immediately.

“In all its political actions, the military branch is subordinated to the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies and to its own committees.

“The orders of the Military Commission of the [government] shall be executed only in such cases as do not conflict with the orders and resolutions of the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.

“All kinds of arms, such as rifles, machine-guns, armoured automobiles and others, must be kept at the disposal and under the control of the company and battalion committees, and in no case should they be turned over to officers, even at their demand.

“In the ranks and during their performance of the duties of the service, soldiers must observe the strictest military discipline, but outside the service and the ranks, in their political, general civic and private life, soldiers cannot in any way be deprived of those rights that all citizens enjoy. In particular, standing at attention and compulsory saluting, when not on duty, is abolished.

“Also, the addressing of officers with the titles ‘Your Excellency’, ‘Your Honour’, etc., is abolished, and these titles are replaced by the address of ‘Mister General’, ‘Mister Colonel’, etc. Rudeness towards soldiers of any rank, and, especially, addressing them as ‘thou’ [ty] is prohibited, and soldiers are required to bring to the attention of the company committees every infraction of this rule, as well as all misunderstandings occurring between officers and privates.

“The present Order is to be read to all companies, battalions, regiments, ships’ crews, batteries, and other combatant and noncombatant commands.”

Within a matter of days officers were faced with committees which presented demands, requested explanations, countermanded orders, and instituted controls over arms and ammunition. Not infrequently officers were requested to recognise the committee structure by issuing special orders. All attempts by officers to explain that the Order was unofficial, and in any case applied only to Petrograd, were in vain. [51]

A clear dual power situation appeared in the army: in every unit of it. On the one side the officers, with hardly any real power, on the other side – the soldiers’ committees.

With the army so clearly divided vertically between officers and men, no wonder the latter found it natural to combine together and send delegates to the Soviets (or Councils) which were formed as Soviets or Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.

The Bolsheviks, who detested equivocation, came out clearly for the abolition of dual power in the army, by getting rid of the appointed officers.

Thus Lenin posed the question, “Should officers be elected by the soldiers?” And he answered, “Not only must they be elected, but every step of every officer and general must be supervised by persons especially elected for the purpose by the soldiers ... Is it desirable for the soldiers, on their own decision, to displace their superiors?” And he answers, “It is desirable and essential in every way. The soldiers will obey and respect only elected authority”. [52]


In the Portuguese army up to now there has been no clear vertical division between officers and men. Nor has there been a horizontal one, between a clearly defined body of revolutionary officers and men on the one side, and a reactionary body of officers and men on the other.

In the coup of 25 April 1974 two very different military bodies collaborated. On the other hand the Junta, on the other the MFA.

The senior officers who ran the Junta had, by and large, risen to their present positions by currying favour with the Salazar and Caetano regimes. Spinola himself had identified sufficiently with Salazar’s fascist goals to fight for Franco in the Spanish civil war and for Hitler on the Russian front.

But the Junta had not made the coup d’état. It had only benefited from its outcome. The main force in carrying through the coup had been the middle rank officers of the Armed Forces Movement, some 400 in number. Their attitudes and goals were by no means identical with those of the generals.

Among the junior officers a large number were conscripts. In the Portuguese armed forces anyone who is conscripted after being a student is enrolled as an officer (unless he has committed some political or criminal offence).

Since 1962 Portuguese university students had been involved in effective and organised anti-regime activity. Since 1968 Portuguese universities have been in continuous turmoil. Practically no student could have avoided participating at one time or another in these activities. Thus these conscript officers, ex university students, brought into the army a degree of political experience which was shared by only very few of the career officers. Most of the ex-students resented being dragged off to fight in a futile war in Africa and many continued to retain some of the left-wing ideas picked up in their student days.

More significant, however, was the development to dislike tour after tour of duty in remote parts of the colonies, fighting an unwinnable war, on behalf of privileged groups of white settlers who had much higher living standards than themselves. Their resentment led to organisation against the regime when it became clear that the war was threatening their own career prospects. The turning point for many was a proposal in 1973 to change the training programme for officers which they saw as threatening the established career structure through “dilution”.

The middle-rank officers on the Coordinating Committee of the Armed Forces Movement found that their goal of breaking the hold of the old political elite and ending the African wars could not be guaranteed merely by relying on the generals of the Junta. They maintained their own organisation, the Coordinating Committee of the MFA, to act as a watchdog on the Junta.

The overall result was that Portugal emerged from the coup with at least three centres of power: the Junta, the Provisional Government and the Coordinating Committee of the MFA.

Spinola tried to reconcile these different forces by the establishment of a new organ, the Council of State, made up of equal numbers of representatives of the Junta, the MFA and civilians appointed by Spinola. This was given the power of vetting all governmental decrees and new laws.

But the new arrangement never worked perfectly. From the first days after the coup of 25 April the mass pressure of workers affected the MFA. Portuguese workers immediately demanded and got, with the support of sections of the MFA, the immediate abolition of the hated secret police, the PIDE/DGS. The attempts by the generals to restrict the scope of the purge of the old regime led to clashes with the MFA. In one incident, for instance, the generals arrested an officer who refused to stop examining secret files on the connection between the PIDE and the CIA. Representatives of the MFA went to the barracks and released him.

With the repressive apparatus of the PIDE/DGS broken, the working class continued their offensive through strikes, occupations and demonstrations. They demanded an immediate improvement of their desperately low standard of living and the widening of their democratic rights. This led to increasing resistance from the capitalists, gathered round General Spinola. The sharpening class struggle was reflected immediately in the armed forces and within the MFA itself, some sectors being drawn towards the bosses and some towards the workers. The Coordinating Committee of the MFA was only able to maintain a semblance of unity by alternately supporting and repressing the working class.

In July 1974 the leaders of the MFA joined the government, and the chairman of the movement, General Vasco Gonçalves, became the Prime Minister. Other key posts taken by the MFA were Labour (replacing the Communist Party Minister of Labour in the first Provisional Government), Defence, and Economics – seven in all out of a total cabinet of 16. By entering the government, the MFA hoped to be able to control the situation more effectively and avert increasing class conflict. But they failed to achieve this. For the same reasons on 8 July the MFA created COPCON – Continental Operation Command. COPCON is a separate military establishment whose task was to “intervene directly in support of the civilian authorities and at their command”, under General Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho, the mastermind of 25 April.

Over many months the military have been balancing between left and right, trying to avoid coming down decisively on one side or the other.

Troops were used last summer to break the strike of the postal workers, to attack strikes at TAP, the Portuguese airways, and Journal do Comercio, and to attack demonstrations of shipyard workers from the huge Lisnave yards.

COPCON supported the strike law passed in September, which virtually eliminated the legal basis of the right to strike, and was a determined attempt to break the strength of the growing independent rank-and-file working-class movement.

The coup of 28 September was a turning point in the role of the MFA and COPCON. Since then – until August this year, by and large – the MFA in general, and COPCON in particular, sided with the left against the right.

Take the case of the Corane strike. The 300 workers of this factory, which makes metal equipment for heavy industry, decided to occupy the plant. They had voted unanimously at a mass meeting to do this because they had evidence of consistent sabotage by their boss, ex-air-force commander Dos Santos Nogueira.

Simoa, a member of the workers’ committee, explained how they organised the takeover:

After the decision in the mass meeting, we telephoned the workers’committee in the bank and explained why we wanted them to freeze the accounts of the firm. They agreed to do this.

We then telephoned COPCON, and told them we had taken over the factory and that we were going to occupy the parent company SAPREL. COPCON said: “OK, it’s your problem – this is revolutionary legality.”

The laws here mean nothing, because in a revolution the only laws are those made by the revolutionary process. [53]

Then again, both at the 28 September coup and the 11 March coup, as we have seen, the MFA sided with the workers.

Everything to paper over the cracks ...

Since 25 April the main political parties have tried to outdo each other with declarations of support for the MFA. As a matter of fact, the talk of Communist Party leaders, as well as of Socialist Party leaders, about the need for “national unity”, “sacrifice and austerity”, were echoes of what the MFA leaders said, and vice versa.

One need but compare the words of the Communist Party leader, Alvaro Cunhal, quoted earlier, with the words of Vasco Gonçalves.

On taking office as Prime Minister of the Second Provisional Government on 18 July 1974, Gonçalves said:

This must be the motto for us all: without arduous work by the Portuguese, without a gigantic effort at all levels (the State, management and working class) in national reconstruction and modernisation we will never end the underdevelopment of the country. At the same time, we must all, during this period, live in an atmosphere of real austerity, wasting less on unessential goods and saving as much as possible in a universal effort of investment. This, I repeat, must be the concern of everyone. [54]

A few weeks later, on 30 September, Gonçalves made it clear that in the national unity all classes had to be included: “It should be understood that, as we understand it, an anti-monopolist strategy does not mean an attack on private property”. [55]

And again: “The people, and by that I mean the population of the whole country, workers, peasants, intellectuals, students, small businessmen, small and middle-sized industralists – all, all of us must be on the alert against demagogues and reactionaries”. [56]

Under the slogan of “Unity of the People and the Movement of the Armed Forces”, he went on to say, “You must be patient, because being impatient today means being a fascist” [57], a position which is indistinguishable from that which the Communist Party has taken up since 25 April.

Split in the Supreme Revolutionary Council

At the beginning of August Major Melo Antunes, former Foreign Minister and a leading supporter of the Socialist Party, together with another eight members of the Supreme Revolutionary Council of the MFA (out of 28) issued a document called It is a Time of Great Decisions, a Time to End Ambiguity.

This has become a war statement of the right wing of the MFA

Antunes’ document argued that nationalisation had “gone too far – at an impossible speed”.

From day to day an open rift is appearing between a very small minority social group (part of the proletarian zone of Lisbon and the south), who support a certain revolutionary project, and practically the whole of the rest of the country, who are reacting violently to the changes that a certain revolutionary vanguard is trying to impose without thought for the complex reality of the Portuguese people’s historical social and cultural life.

We see a progressive decomposition of state structures. Everywhere wildcat and anarchistic forms of the exercise of power have taken over little by little, reaching as far as the Armed Forces.

The Antunes document called for a “social bloc encompassing the urban and rural proletariat, petty bourgeoisie and broad strata of the medium bourgeoisie”.

And as regards foreign policy, the document called for the “maintenance of links with Europe, reinforcing and deepening relations with certain economic bodies (EEC, EFTA)”. [58]

Antunes’ document became the rallying call for a massive campaign against the left wing of the MFA leadership identified by Antunes as being front runners of the Communist Party.

In reply to the nine who signed the Antunes document, a group of officers in COPCON published a counter-document arguing that the crisis in Portuguese society was a result of the country not going far enough in the direction of overthrowing capitalism and fighting imperialism:

The degeneration of the economic situation and its effects on the political and social life of the broad masses of the people is due above all to a failure to define an objective political line and a consequent governmental programme. It is futile to believe there is a combination of economic measures that can solve this degeneration within the existing capitalist structure while at the same time maintaining total dependence on imperialism and all its consequences, such as the closing of factories, the flight of foreign exchange, unemployment, scandalous political pressure on our sovereignty.

The solution for the present situation, for which the MFA is heavily responsible, cannot be found in right-wing palliatives as the aforementioned document proposes. The maintenance of the coalition government will certainly not lead to the construction of socialism.

The proposal put forward led to the Right advancing, opening the way to the destruction of the revolution.

The proposed economic perspective of links with the EEC and EFTA will reinforce the country’s subjection to degrading economic and political dependence.

How can a project calling itself left wing miss out the role of the masses and reject the action of its vanguard? How can it criticise the rate of nationalisation? If the bourgeoisie keeps possession of the means of production what will be left for the people?

The signatories of Antunes’ document did not know or hide the fact that is “the central point of the current political situation – the growing activity of fascism.”

The COPCON document suggests a number of reforms: financial and technical aid to the peasantry, public works to help the unemployed, cutting down and limiting house rents, socialisation of the health service, nationalisation of the drug industry.

Unfortunately the COPCON document is far from adequate to deal with the crisis. For instance, there is no reference in it to the need to expropriate foreign capital that dominates the key positions in the economy. Above all, the COPCON document is defective in its kernel – the organisational suggestions regarding the armed forces themselves. It states:

(a) Organised form for ranks:
The military people must be organised in accordance with existing different ranks, freely debating problems in their rank and democratically electing their representative to the ADU [59] who will transmit the decisions taken. Decisions taken by the AGU [60] with bearing on the collective life of the unit must be debated in the ADU to form a general consensus – this is the indispensable basis for cohesion and discipline.

(b) Social privileges:
Immediate measures must be taken to cause a visible rise in the private’s standard of living, in particular by the modernisation of facilities, substantial pay rises, general distribution of the family subsidy and family bonus, etc.

(c) Reinforcement of discipline:
Expanding the internal dynamisation of the units, debating and collectively analysing without restriction, consolidating cohesion through a voluntary discipline leading to a clarification of ideas – only this will make the military man dedicated to his patriotic mission of unyielding defence of the interests of the Portuguese people. [61]

No dealing with over-representation of the officers in the army assemblies, no election of officers by the rank and file, no equality of pay between officers and men, no abolition of the separate messes.

Middle-class revolutionaries

The leaders of the MFA are middle class through and through. One of the characteristic features of the petty bourgeoisie is its lack of clear political-social physiognomy, as it is suspended between the capitalist class and the proletariat.

Practically all the officers of the MFA come from sections of the middle class. Their fathers are small businessmen, better-off peasants, teachers, and so on.

The officers can therefore be quite hostile to the big monopolies, while supporting the capitalism of the myriad of small firms in Portugal.

They did not benefit from the African wars and so opposed Caetano and then Spinola when it looked as if he might prolong the wars. But they also have cause to fear the effects of the growing workers’ movement on the property-owning middle classes. After all, the worst wages are usually paid by small firms, not big ones. And they cling to the ideas of military discipline and rank that provide them with their own privileges. That is why the first economic plan of the MFA leaders (February 1975) did not propose any nationalisation at all – although it called for economic reforms which proposed limited state intervention into key industries.

In general the army officers have a hierarchical concept of society. Only in very few cases are officers of the Portuguese army elected. One soldier told an IS member visiting Portugal in August this year:

There are no elections in my barracks. I can only give cases of very left-wing officers who were sure of support from their men, and therefore probably submitted themselves for election before accepting a post they had already been appointed to.

The soldiers’ commissions have a preponderance of officers, as members of the commissions are elected according to rank: officers elect officers, sergeants sergeants, other ranks other ranks.

In the 240-strong Assembly of the Armed Forces Movement there are very few soldiers, as opposed to officers. And of the 28 members of the Supreme Revolutionary Council of the MFA not one is a private.

In their material conditions the officers are far apart from their men. Thus a soldier told a couple of IS members that a private earned 500 escudos a month, a sergeant 6,000 to 7,000, a captain 10,000. As regards accommodation, he said:

The sleeping quarters of ranks are separate. We sleep 24 to a dormitory (200 in training), while officers sleep three to four to a room (I’m not sure because I’ve never been there).

To identify officers with soldiers is to harbour illusions.

A worker from TAP put it in a nutshell:

It seems to me important to stress our mistake in looking at the MFA as a whole, when it is certain that within it a class struggle is also developing. The MFA does not exist in isolation from a national context, from the society in which we live. In the MFA there genuinely exists a progressive faction of petty-bourgeois revolutionaries, but it is not capable of heading the revolution. This is because the only true revolutionary class is the working class, and it alone can therefore take command of operations. Besides, the MFA reflects the contradictions of the petty bourgeoisie as a class, inasmuch as it is unable to really break the hold of dependence on imperialism. In these conditions the question that is already being posed, the question of workers’ control, has decisive importance in the direction of the revolution. [62]

The question is not whether one should have complete trust in the officers or not. In politics, blind credulity is stupid; never to trust is no better. One must simply learn to compare words with deeds. By putting clear demands on the officers, while keeping the independence of the rank and file, one can attract the honest, revolutionary officers and expose the others.

In this respect, the programme of demands put by the second CRTSM Conference of 2-3 August 1975 is a big step forward from what exists, but not enough:

Armed Forces:

(1) Election of Unit delegates in a general assembly of the unit, representation being by rank (privates, sergeants and officers) in proportion to their respective numbers.

(2) Frequent convocation of general assemblies of the unit to discuss all political and military problems.

(3) Convocation of assemblies of privates without sergeants and officers present.

(4) Convocation of assemblies of members of the Armed Forces and workers for discussion of common problems.

(5) Management of human, physical and technical resources in the service of the collective.

(6) Abolition of privileges and subsidies that benefit sergeants and officers (separate messes, expense subsidies (ajudas de custo), various subsidies, canteens, etc).

(7) Free transport to privates.

(8) Establishment of a minimum salary for privates of 1,250 escudos a month.

(9) Contraction of the hierarchical spread. [63]

But this programme does not go far enough, as can be seen clearly if one compares it with the programme put forward by Lenin in 1917.

To point to a few items:

Lenin demanded equal pay for soldiers and officers. The CRTSM programme demands pay of 1,250 escudos for soldiers. At present captains get 10,000! And generals? ...

Then again, the CRTSM programme does not say a word about the election of officers.

Army committees should be elected without difference of rank, argues Lenin; not so the CRTSM programme.

The role of the army committee is not clearly defined by the CRTSM. Order Number 1, issued by the Petrograd Soviet on 1 March 1917, made it clear, as we have seen, that the Army Committee should have the supreme political power in every army unit, and that all weapons should be in its control.

It is quite important that army committees should have the right and the duty to meet rank and file delegates from the factories, to plan joint training and joint guard patrols; that all army committees should have the right and duty to link up with rank and file soldiers outside their own unit.

Finally, the CRTSM document failed to raise the basic demand of the right of all members of the armed forces to belong to political parties. This is an extremely important demand. At present, as an inheritance from the Salazar era, members of the armed forces are banned from belonging to political parties. This situation is very dangerous for the revolution: it prevents revolutionaries from organising openly, while at the same time it allows the reactionary officers to hide their political views until a time when they will find it convenient to declare themselves. The revolution needs the truth, needs to throw light over all corners of life.

During a revolution half-measures, lacking precision or failing into equivocation are very dangerous. The weapons of the revolutionary army – above all its political ones – must be ship-shape.

Peruvian solution

Very few of the MFA officers would like a Chilean solution to the Portuguese crisis. Many may be attracted to a Peruvian solution.

In Peru the military government took certain measures benefiting the local middle class while breaking strikes and shooting trade unionists. The regime is highly nationalist, and to some extent has popular support.

But a Peruvian solution is not on in Portugal. The working class is far too strong, too assertive, to be put in its place except through very extreme measures.

That some officers in Portugal – however, not in the MFA – would not abhor the Chilean way is quite obvious. One must remember that the President of Portugal is none other than Costa Gomes, who was Secretary of State for the Army under Salazar, commander of the National Republican Guard (one of the pillars of the Salazar and Caetano regimes) and Commander-in-Chief of Caetano’s forces in Mozambique. The strength of the MFA lies largely in the key positions its members occupy. The saneamento in the armed forces was very shallow indeed. Only in the navy, traditionally the most radical of the forces, did any significant saneamento take place. On 29 April 1974 a meeting of 700 naval officers voted for the programme of the MFA, and sacked over 80 admirals and vice-admirals. The purge was supported by mass meetings held throughout the fleet, and since then councils including career and conscript officers have been formed on a number of ships.

After the coup the MFA had a list of at least 400 senior officers of known fascist sympathies, but under pressure from the right wing it decided not to sack them. [64]

The majority of the 10,000 career officers can lie low for a time, but the “silent majority” waits for an opportunity to raise its ugly head.

Then again there are two paramilitary police forces which remain strongly right wing: the PSP (riot police) and the GNR (the National Guard).

Revolution deflected from soviets

The activities of members of the army and especially of COPCON, when they come to the aid of workers, tenants, schoolchildren, etc, are very similar to many activities of workers’ councils in previous revolutions.

First of all the central role of the councils in a revolution is the generalisation of the struggle of the workers.

Workers’ councils have in fact developed in almost all cases in this century where a revolutionary situation in which the working class has played a big part has developed.

In Russia in 1905-06 the soviets (the word means council) sprang up for the first time. In 1917, after the overthrow of the Tsar in February, they reappeared on a vastly greater scale and soon there were also soldiers’ soviets, peasant soviets and, most important of all, workers’ and soldiers’ soviets. As everybody knows, the October Revolution was made under the slogan “All power to the Soviets.”

These soviets were made up of elected delegates from workplaces, regiments, and so on, and also representatives of those political parties that were based on the working class and the peasants. They represented the active force of the working class and, to a lesser degree, the peasantry. Because they were created from below by workers and by peasant soldiers, and not from above by bureaucratic decree, no two soviets were exactly alike in their composition and structure. They were living, changing organisations evolving to meet particular needs and under the influence of different political ideas.

They were not, however, a response to peculiarly Russian conditions. Germany in 1918 was, in some ways, almost the opposite of Russia. It was a heavily industrialised country as opposed to largely agricultural Russia. It had had, for a long time, a powerful labour movement operating under legal conditions, conditions quite different from those of workers under the Tsar. Yet the German equivalent of the Russian soviets – Arbeiter and Soldatenräte – came quickly into being as the Kaiser’s regime cracked. “During the first days of the November [1918] revolution workers’ and soldiers’ councils were elected in all workshops, mines, docks and barracks”, explains a history of the time. [65]

In Spain in July 1936 workers’ and peasants’ committees were created as the military and fascist forces under Franco tried to overthrow the Popular Front government and smash the workers’ and peasants’ movements:

In all the towns and most of the villages in Spain, similar committees were operating under various names ... They had been appointed in an infinite number of ways. In the villages, the factories, and on the worksites, time had sometimes been taken to elect them, at least summarily, at a general meeting. At all events, care had been taken to see that all parties and unions were represented on them ... because the committees represented, at one and the same time, the workers as a whole and the sum total of their organisation. [66]

In the quite different conditions of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, workers’ councils again played a central part.

By the third day of the revolution, 26 October, people everywhere were establishing institutions to give expression to their new power. They formed “Revolutionary Councils” in the towns, the villages and the quarters of the cities, in newspaper offices and government ministries, in colleges, on collective farms and, above all, in the factories. [67]

These examples, which are not of course exhaustive, show that workers’ councils (and workers’ and soldiers’ councils, workers’ and peasants’ councils, etc.) have been created in widely different conditions which have, however, one thing in common – a revolutionary situation. Clearly they meet some need in a revolutionary situation which is not met by other forms of working-class organisation.

It is not difficult to see that one aspect of this is the need that is felt to create representative, class-wide organisations that can, in some measure, unite the workers as a whole and the sum total of their organisations. Workers’ councils can indeed overcome the isolation between workers in different workplaces, different industries, different trades and occupations.

As the workers’ councils have to generalise the struggle, and as in a revolutionary situation there is no abyss between economic struggles and political ones, the workers’ council of necessity impinges on every aspect of the workers’ struggles, be it small or big.

To give only a couple of examples from the working of the Soviet of Petersburg during the 1905 Revolution:

A few years after the events, its former chairman, Trotsky, wrote, “The Soviet was the axis of all events, every thread ran towards it, every call to action emanated from it”. [68]

The Soviet acted first of all as the general strike committee of Petersburg both in October and December. It organised the arming of the workers. It organised food supplies for the city. It organised mass demonstrations. It led the campaign for amnesty for political prisoners. It organised a campaign in defence of freedom of the press. It led the struggle for the eight-hour day. It “intervened in disputes between individual workers and their employers”. [69]

Even the smallest issues affecting working people were taken up by the Soviet:

The Soviet’s premises were always crowded with petitioners and plaintiffs of all kinds-mostly workers, domestic servants – shop assistants, peasants, soldiers, and sailors ... An old cossack from Poltava province complained of unjust treatment by the Princes Repnin who had exploited him as a clerk for 28 years and then dismissed him without cause; the old man was asking the Soviet to negotiate with the Princes on his behalf. The envelope containing the curious petition was addressed simply to The Workers’ Government, Petersburg, yet it was promptly delivered by the revolutionary postal system. [70]

Obviously the mass of the working class can only be won to the idea of a council in a very practical way: the council has to be seen as an essential means of solving all the immediate problems of the class as well as the great political issues of the day.

The MFA, obviously, is not as consistent, effective, directly rooted in the masses, as a workers’ or soldiers’ council. But acting as a surrogate, as a substitute, the MFA prevented the workers (and soldiers) from making the effort to build a real council for quite a long time.

In the last 18 months the working class has thrown up very strong local organisations, the workers’ commissions, in each factory. Up until now these commissions have been able to win most of the simple economic battles that workers have faced, particularly because the bosses have in many cases fled the country, and the state, for other reasons, has not been able to intervene on the bosses’ side. In one sense, the Portuguese workers thought they did not yet need soviets.

The fact that the state, and in particular the army, has not been powerful enough to intervene against workers has further added to the confusion. The state is so weak that the workers have, in practice, been able to force major concessions from the state, e.g. Republica.

The fact that the MFA has been forced into concessions has fostered the belief in the minds of many workers that it is somehow on their side, and that they can rely on the army to solve their problems for them rather than seeing the need to rely on themselves.

So although Portuguese workers see themselves as a class, with interests of their own to defend, they do not all see these interests as sufficiently different from those of other classes to demand the creation of their own class organs.

An example of that is the coup of 11 March. When the news reached the factories, workers rushed to the barracks and demanded arms to defend themselves. However, the attempt petered out, and it was possible to believe that the left-wing officers in the army had been responsible for the defeat of the coup. Had the fighting lasted a few hours longer, then conditions would have forced the workers in Lisbon to begin to organise themselves on a class basis.

Because issues have not yet been posed starkly in class terms, many of the most active militants in the working class, in particular the members of the PS and PC, have seen political problems in the light of the interests of their parties, both of which have managed to combine the interests of different classes. Thus inside the unions and factories militants have argued over the respective merits of their parties rather than over the needs of the working class.

The revolutionaries in Portugal, who see the need to build embryonic organisations of the proletariat, are not yet strong enough where it counts – in the key factories – to take the initiative in building soviets.

In the army too, although the soldiers in some units have a very strong voice, the left moves of the officers have meant that the issue of democratic elections of delegates and officers has seemed unnecessary to the mass of less politicised soldiers.

Not an act of god

The central importance of the MFA for so many weeks and months was not an inevitable phenomenon, supra-historically ordained.

It was the product of defects in consciousness and organisation of the working class. Above all it was the product of the activities of the CP [Communist Party] and SP [Socialist Party] leaders, who prevented the rise of an authentic, independent proletarian movement.

The working class of Portugal, without doubt, has the power to build a mass rank and file movement capable of overthrowing capitalism and shaping the future. The Communist Party leaders, with their heightened prestige through years of struggle against fascism, certainly had the trust necessary to build such a movement if they so wished. But they did not. Instead they manipulated the masses, injuring the self-activity, self-confidence and self-consciousness of the masses. The Communist Party leaders wanted the combination of Bonapartism at the top with centrism on the ground.

The predominant role of the MFA in the political life of the country created an impasse in which politicians of the predominant parties can play with politics without being forced to a real test in meaningful struggle. Manoeuvring and intriguing came to the fore. This disenchanted the mass of the workers, including the vanguard.

Such a situation, of course, can strengthen the bid of leaders of the MFA to try a Bonapartist solution in order to solve the crisis: to raise the army above society and control it with guns. However, no social stabilisation along this road is open in Portugal in the foreseeable future. The government of Portugal today is as unstable as that of Kerensky in Russia in 1917. When Lenin called the Kerensky government a Bonapartist government, he made it quite clear that it was very different from that of Napoleon I (1799) or his nephew, Napoleon III (1849). Kerensky’s Bonapartism was much less stable and enduring:

The Russian Bonapartism of 1917 differs from the beginnings of French Bonapartism in 1799 and 1849 in several respects, such as the fact that not a single important task of the revolution has been accomplished here. The struggle to settle the agrarian and the national questions is only just gathering momentum. [71]

Kerensky’s Bonapartism was very unstable as it did not solve any of the fundamental social problems facing the country, and as the power of the proletariat was far from exhausted. The same applies to Portuguese Bonapartism.

The Socialist Party leaders had had an even more disastrous effect upon the MFA. If the Communist Party leaders are reformist, aiming to strengthen the mild left wing of the MFA, the Socialist Party do their best to strengthen the Right of the MFA. This is the meaning of Antunes’s document.

The slogan “Unity of the people and the MFA” can be double edged: it is not only that the army can influence the people, but that it can also be affected by them. Hence a mass right-wing movement must have a deleterious effect on the officers and men in the army. This is the thinking behind the fascist-inspired attacks on Communist Party offices in the North over recent weeks. Hence the dangers in the Socialist Party’s nursing of reaction, and the Communist Party manipulation and maneouvring that plays into the hands of reaction. It seems that, as at present in the North, a considerable number of officers and soldiers are influenced by right-wing ideas, and stand aside when violent attacks are made on offices of the Communist Party and other left-wing organisations.

Neither the Communist Party nor the Socialist Party leaders understand the real dangers in their concentration of all their efforts on officers while saying little about soldiers. Both groups of leaders seek illusory strength by identifying themselves with one group or another of army officers. Military reformism accompanies Parliamentary reformism. The leaders of the Communist Party and Socialist Party forget that their Chilean counterparts, for three long years, preached “the unity of the army and the people”.

The duty of revolutionaries is to subordinate all to the collective will of the rank and file of the workers, soldiers and sailors. This can be best expressed through the autonomous organisations of the working class – the councils.

The process of disintegration of the MFA will aid the revolutionaries if they are clear about the need for proletarian independence and sensitive to the changing situation. The MFA is less and less able to control the officer corps, so that its control over the rank and file of the army is slipping. Military discipline has become more and more difficult to enforce, as troops have been joining demonstrations, refusing to take action against workers, and often, when sent against workers, joined the crowd, giving the clenched fist salute.

The options before the MFA officers are wide open. Some can be integrated into the workers’-soldiers’ councils. Others, unfortunately, will move to the right,

As a matter of fact the paper unity of the MFA is no more. The MFA has always been split – even in the immediate period after 11 March. However, a radical change took place recently. Until the last couple of months the MFA was, by and large, divided into the following four groups: (1) Right, (2) Bonapartist, (3) Communist Party and (4) Revolutionary. As the Bonapartist and Communist Party roads proved illusory, the MFA has been polarised between Right and Left, the majority of officers joining the Right.

As class conflict sharpens, the armed forces will be drawn more and more into it. The MFA will increasingly be pushed out on a limb, as it mirrors the divisions in society. The working class will realise more and more that “Unity of the people with the movement of the armed forces” is not an adequate slogan; that the only alliance that can win and defend the revolution is the revolutionary alliance of workers and soldiers, organised in democratic councils, that the dictatorship of the proletariat is the weapon of real freedom and socialism.




49. B.V. Stankevich, Vospominaniia 1914-1919 gg, (Berlin 1920), p.72.

50. B.V. Stankevich, Vospominaniia, p.77.

51. A. Wildman, The February Revolution and the Russian Army, Soviet Studies, July 1970.

52. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.34, pp.100-101.

53. Socialist Worker, 10 May 1975.

54. V. Gonçalves, Citaçãos (Portugal 1975), p.17.

55. V. Gonçalves, Citaçãos, p.72.

56. V. Gonçalves, Citaçãos, p.88; speech in Oporto, 5 October 1974.

57. V. Gonçalves, Citaçãos, p.74.

58. Expresso, 9 August 1975.

59. ADU – Assembly of Delegates, according to rank.

60. AGU – General Assembly of the Unit.

61. Expresso, 15 August 1975

62. Expresso, 23 August 1975.

63. Revolução, 22 April 1975.

64. J. Rollo, International Socialism, April 1975.

65. E. Anderson, Hammer or Anvil (London, 1945), p.43.

66. P Broué and E Témime, The Revolution and the Civil War in Spain (London, 1971), p.127.

67. C. Harman, Bureaucracy and Revolution in Eastern Europe (London, 1974), p.137.

68. L. Trotsky, 1905 (New York, 1971), p.104.

69. L. Trotsky, 1905, pp.105-112, 155, 107, 109, 136-137, 124, 125, 140-146, 179-186, 252.

70. L. Trotsky, 1905, pp.222-223.

71. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.25, p.221.


Last updated on 6.10.2003