Tony Cliff &
Robin Peterson

The Last Three Months

(March 1976)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.87, March-April 1976, pp.10-9.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

“Many of the hundreds of bosses kicked out of their factories last year and others who deserted the factories, are now trying to get them back with a little help from their friends ...”

The events of the 25th November 1975 radically changed the situation in Portugal. Until then the revolutionary movement had been advancing powerfully: workers had taken over some 300 factories; there were massive occupations of latifundia; the army was racked by conflict between revolutionary soldiers and right wing officers; the government had so little control that it toyed openly with the idea of moving away from Lisbon to Oporto.

In October, we wrote in the Portuguese edition of Portugal at the Crossroads that the bourgeoisie would attempt to strangle the revolutionary left, “to provoke it to engage battle before there existed either soviets or a mass revolutionary party. The right will do everything in its power to dupe the revolutionary vanguard.” It succeeded on 25th November through the Portuguese Communist Party.

As soon as those sections of the Communist Party which started the rebellion had managed to force the extreme left to take sides, the Communist Party changed direction and did a deal with Costa Gomes, sacrificing some of its leading officers on the way. For example, on 25th November the CP-controlled Metal Workers’ Union called for strike action. On the 26th, the CP ignored this and did whatever it could to prevent workers moving to support the paratroops. Where workers did move, in Setubal for instance, CP officers prevented the soldiers from arming the workers.

In Lessons of the 25th November, published immediately after the events, we summed up the situation:

The capitalist class has regained a practical monopoly over armed power. One must not underestimate the defeat for the revolution. 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.

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

Since then the bourgeoisie has been more and more aggressive.

The right on the offensive

With power in its hands, the Right no longer needs the cover of socialist slogans, nor to hide behind the Socialist tParty. As the right-wing paper Expresso put it: “De facto, until the 25th November, the PS was the undisputed axis of Portuguese political life ... But subsequently, an accelerated turn to the right tended, dangerously, to shift this axis also to the right” (31st January 1976).

In recent weeks there has been a massive campaign for the removal of the PS Minister of Agriculture, Antonio Lopes Cardoso. He is now regularly reviled by the extreme Right as a “communist infiltrator” and KGB agent. Parties dominated by ex-fascists have told huge rallies of land-holding peasants from the centre and north of the country that unless they get rid of Cardoso and end the land reform, their own land will be collectivised. This is clearly the first step in the attempt of the big landowners to get back their land. The Socialist Party’s own paper La Luta has given favourable coverage to the anti-Cardoso campaign.

At the same time, the PS is forced to defend itself from the Right by showing a more “left” face. On the 27th January the PS leadership issued a platform containing:

  1. General reaffirmation of the programme of the PS.
  2. Posing deliberately as the main party responsible for the tasks of government.
  3. Total political support for Lopes Cardoso, and a frontal attack on his opponents, considered to be tools of the big landowners.
  4. Close links with military leaders, and their defence against unjust criticisms.
  5. General support for the process of decolonisation.
  6. A strong and virulent attack on the Right, identified as the PPD and CDS, for the danger they represent to the revolution.
    So as not to appear too far to the left, the communique goes on to attack the CP and extreme left.
  7. A parallel attack on the CP and sections of the revolutionary left for their adventurism.

The PS no longer needs the fig leaf of the Maoist groups, the MRPP and AOC, and so they have been expelled from their previous trade union alliances with the PS (Expresso, 31 January 1976).

But the Right is not easily satisfied, and the offensive against the PS and the nine officers, who a few months ago were on the right of the Fifth Provisional Government, goes on.

An attempt is under way to sack the editor of Jornal Novo, founded last summer as the most right-wing daily in Lisbon. The owners now regard the editor as too left-wing. The journalists and printers on the paper are backing him – some unconditionally but some critically. The defenders of “editorial freedom” in the British press are keeping very quiet about this affair. Even Mario Soares, leader of the PS and darling of the right-wing last summer, was shouted down by right-wing separatists when he tried to speak at a meeting in the Azores.

The right-wing parties, the PPD and CDS, are claiming that they will do better than the PS in the elections to be held before April 25th. The upper classes are under no illusions that they have solved all their problems, and the divisions between those who would like a near fascist state and those who want a more liberal regime are growing. These splits cast doubt on the possibility of forming a stable government on the basis of the April elections. (Socialist Worker, 14 February).

Small wonder then that the PS has to denounce the Right. It has criticised the atmosphere of repression in some firms in the North – sections of the PS in Vila Nova denounced “the physical threats and black lists” that are arising in many businesses, recalling memories of fascism. It said that PS militants can be relied on to support any struggles against victimisation and unfair dismissal (A Capital, 5th February).

Increasing right-wing violence

Despite its bias, the Portuguese press gave ample evidence of the ever increasing bombing of working class centres, now far more severe than in, say, May to August last year.

On 29 January A Capital reported six bombs in Braga and four left Party offices burned down in Covilha (MES, FSP, UDP, MRPP). A Capital of 7 February reports: Bomb blows up taxi of a member of Socialist Party in Viseu district.’ The offices of the PS in Evera reported two bombs in Oporto and firebombs which destroyed the printshops of both Jornal Novo and Expresso.

The CP paper Avanti of 29 January gave a detailed analysis showing that there were 145 bomb attacks and 149 other assaults on left-wingers in Portugal since last May, of which 108 took place in the last two months.

Between the failed Right-wing coup of 28 September 1974 and 25 November 1975, the number of left-wingers killed by police and army was practically nil. Now things have changed.

The 1976 New Year in Portugal began with a massacre. Demonstrations were called on the afternoon on New Year’s Day outside the prisons of Caxias and Custoias to demand the release of the revolutionary soldiers imprisoned after 25 November.

In Caxias 4,000 workers were dispersed by commandos who rammed the crowd with armoured cars. They hacked at the demonstrators with their machine-gun butts and ammunition belts.

At Custoias 20,000 were dispersed when the GNR police opened fire, some from their knq4, killing four and wounding seven. Two of those killed were workers as were five of the wounded. Many more were injured.

Political Demonstrations of the revolutionary left

Before November 25th, the revolutionary left and above all the PRP, led a number of really massive demonstrations. On 17 June 40,000 people participated in a demonstration called by the Revolutionary Council or Workers, Soldiers and Sailors, (CRTTs), initiated by the PRP. On 25 October, 12,000 soldiers and 85,000 workers, tenants and agricultural labourers marched through Lisbon in a demonstration called by SUV – the soldiers’ rank and file organisation again largely initiated by the PRP.

After the 25th November the revolutionary left was unable to launch demonstrations of anything like the same size, and it is clear that it become much more isolated. On 3 February a rally war organised to protest against the imprisonment of Otelo and others, but only 2-3,000 turned up. Out February, when the CDS organised a mass rally, the first since the fall of fascism, the revolutionary left organised a counter-demonstration that according to an eye witness “was closer to a funeral than anything else. Any attempts at harassment and chanting were broken up by the police forces armed with batons and sub-machine guns and wearing a nasty yellow bullet-proof vest, the same slimy yellow as the CDS literature and posters which are attempting to smother Lisbon.”

However, the economic policy of the government, with high prices and a wage freeze, has started to create an atmosphere of anger that has shown itself in a new rise of left-wing demonstrations in the past few days. On 20 February, the UDP, PRP and MES organised a demonstration of some 15-20,000 people against the imprisonment of left-wing army officers and soldiers.

The right-wing attack on agrarian reform

Recent weeks have seen a mounting offensive against land reform by rich farmers, mobilising behind them medium farmers and even poor farmers. On 14 December a mass rally took place in Rio Maier, which mobilised 20,000 farmers. It called for an end to all land occupations, and the return of all land to the former owners. The farmers shouted for the resignation of the Socialist Minister of Agriculture, Cardoso. This rally established the Confederation of Portuguese Farmers.

On 11 January 10,000 farmers rallied in the northern town of Braga and gave an ultimatum to the government to roll back the land reform. Before the rally began, the organisers said they would propose that farmers should cut off supplies to the capital by not selling their goods, if the government failed to heed their demands.

The farmers demanded that the government put an immediate end to illegal land occupations, suspend laws permitting land expropriations and pay compensation to farmers affected by seizures. They also demanded that the government crush any future attempts to occupy land, called for purges of Communists from land agrarian reform centres and passed a vote of no-confidence in Cardoso.

The rally was held despite government efforts to defuse the issue with a compromise formula offered by Mr Cardoso, restricting land reform to farms of more than 72 acres in the southern half of the country.

Cardoso promised that illegally seized farms would be returned to their own owners and assured farmers with small and medium holdings in the north and centre of the country that they would not be affected by land reform.

He also said Other farmers will be given compensation for their land. The farmers rejected the compromise and the crowd greeted the mention of Mr Cardoso’s name with cries of “Thief, Thief”. Banners in the crowd said: “Yesterday the Big Ones, Today the Medium Ones and Tomorrow the Small Ones.”

A Capital of 2 February reported five massive meetings of farmers against agrarian reform in Famalicao, Viseu, Castelo Branco, Bombarral and Loule on the initiative of the Confederation of Portuguese Farmers. “A motion presented at the end of the plenary session of the Confederation, approved by the vast majority of the thousands of farmers in Largo da Feira of Bombarral, preceded a vote of no confidence in the Socialist Minister of Agriculture Cardoso, as well as in the Prime Minister and the Minister of the Interior.

The Prime Minister says that he want to guarantee that no scrap of land will be nationalised, while the illegally occupied land still exists, and Brigadier Vasco Laurenco added that in the field of his jurisdiction he would order the end of occupations in all lands illegally occupied, and, if the occupiers refused, they would be imprisoned.

Those who voted for socialism did not know it meant collectivisation of the land.

We are spontaneously and sincerely frank, so we say it is a lie that we are against the revolution, against agrarian reform or that we are the tools of any party, but we do not want the pseudo- agrarian reform that is imposed. We condemn all wildcat occupations, all nationalisations with the cover of legality.

The government has made it plain that it is ready to retreat under pressure. “The law provides the mechanism for expropriation of lands under the control of the Agrarian Reform Institute, but unfortunately this didn’t happen and the workers took the initiative”, said Joaquim Guerra, an aide to the agricultural minister; “We are now going to revise all the cases”, he said, adding that land occupied illegally would be returned to the owners, and that work is under way to determine compensation. (New York Tribune, 29 December 1975)

Former owners of Industry trying to come back

Many of the hundreds of bosses kicked out of their factories last year and others who deserted the factories, are now trying to get them back with a little help from their friends – the so-called Socialists in the government.

On 5 February A Capital reported:

The return is expected today of the former administration of the textile firm Manuel Goncalves, the biggest exporter in the country, for whom 4,000 workers work. The last of the conditions imposed by the administrators for their return was satisfied by the government – the forcible exit of 17 workers, suspended till the end of an enquiry. This exit took place during a heated meeting of the whole factory which 3,500 attended, and which developed into disorder. In fact, the 17 workers in question, supported by others, expressed their dissatisfaction with their removal noisily ... not, however, convincing the others. After some heated moments over the choice of a method of voting – show of hands or secret ballot, the former winning – the atmosphere calmed down, but after the seventeen had been removed from the room by force.

After their exit the final vote was taken, split into two parts. In the first, the vast majority voted in favour of the sackings (one vote against, two abstentions); the second vote decided to seek the return of the former bosses, unanimously and with acclamation ...

The seizure of hundreds of factories In Portugal in 1975 gave international capitalism its biggest fright for years. But workers control without workers power has terrible consequences.

Lacking funds and markets, a number of workers, frightened, of the massive unemployment, have started to acquiesce in the return of the old owners. The problems are immense. International markets and supplies have been cut off: retail networks have collapsed; technical expertise has been withheld.

For more than a year the workers at the Pao de Acurcer (Sugarloaf) supermarket chain, the largest in the Lisbon region, have worked without any bosses.

A year ago, they combined with the workers from two other chains, A.C. Santos and Nutripol a Boa Aiuda Modelar. They had organised this without the blessing of the government. As Fernando Goncalves, representative for the co-ordinating committee of the workers said: “This integrated organisation was the first thing that the government didn’t like about us. Our other crime was that our wages have gone up 25 per cent since last March and the turnover has increased faster than inflation. We have employed another 100 people. The government refused to give us funds, but now it has made available £2 million for its own stooges.”

A good example comes from Codiproal, a Lisbon supermarket. Last week the police, accompanied by a former member of management, closed the doors. A year ago, the workers had occupied the firm and removed the bosses. At Martins and Rebello, which markets 70 per cent of the country’s packaged dairy products, the old boss was sent away last June, partly through the pressure of the workers. A new administration was set up to work out a plan to solve the I problems of the dairy industry. But the state has now put the old bosses in total charge of the works. (Socialist Worker, 21 February.)

A comrade writes from Lisbon: “At the Siderurgia National Steelworks the former directors are re-entering in another way. Two of the people in the Minister of Industry, and directly in charge of the 4,000 workers, were former directors. Brief examples from today’s Diario: In Porto at a papermill called Vouga some workers occupied the place calling for the return of the bosses. But the Ministry of Labour took the side of the workers’ commission and told the minority to get back to work.” Poder Popular reports: at Ovar Municipal Services of Electricity, Water and Health (SMEAS) pickets oppose the appointment of Joao Dias, a fascist, as head of. the administration by the Administrative Council (10 February). A Capital of 7 February reports: Workers of EPAL (Lisbon waterworks) rejected the Supreme Justice Tribunal’s handing back of funds to the administrative kicked out in June 1974.

As the government and the banks have control over credits, more and more co-operatives collapse and the workers cannot think of anything else to do but call on the former owners to return. This has been happening especially in the North. A worker in a small factory of 25 workers producing parts for the building trade wrote after a struggle against sackings: “We continue to occupy our business in the hope that we will find a solution for our case. Now they have cut off our water, light and telephone because of non-payment. We lack raw materials and the machines are out of order.” (Poder Popular, 13 January).

And of course international capital uses its power to blackmail Portugal to move to the right.

As long as the revolution was on the ascent international capital boycotted Portugal. But since 25 November it has changed course radically. The German Bundesbank gave a 250m dollar loan to Portugal. A similar 50m dollar loan was given by the Swiss National Bank. On 30 January the United States Embassy in Lisbon announced that provisional agreement had been reached on an aid package to Portugal which could total 100m dollars in the next 18 months (Financial Times, 31 January 1976). Some ten days later it was announced that the Bank for International Settlements was looking into giving a loan of some 25m dollars. France is also known to be considering like action to aid Portugal (Financial Times, 10 February).

“No socialism in Isolated factories”

The root cause of the number of workers ready to accept the return of former owners is that workers’ control has been tried at factory level, while there has not been workers’ power at state level, and this has led to an inevitable cul-de-sac. As a militant from Setenave shipyard put it:

Even at Setenave we don’t have workers’ control. How can we if we don’t control the banks. Our attitude is that we want to know everything ... We want to control decisions but we do not take responsibility. We don’t believe that we can have workers’ control alone.

The militant is completely correct – and a revolutionary.

Many workers fell into the illusion that they could exist as an island of socialism in a sea of capitalism.

In Britain, one of the saddest things we have seen in the Labour movement in recent years is the struggle of workers at the Scottish Daily Express and at Triumph Meriden, to take over unprofitable concerns and try to run them better than the bosses did. They are forced to run them for profit and the sacrifices have been tragic. At the Scottish Daily Express the workers put lifetime savings into the paper – and it still went broke. They cut manning levels, undercutting union agreements, and were used as examples by the bosses against workers in other factories. At Triumph Meriden the workers had to work much harder and cut the workforce, but the end result is that they are merely an efficient cog in the overall machine. The co-operative works, in effect, as a subcontractor to the original company (NVT) which also markets its output.

The seizure of hundreds of factories in Portugal in 1975 gave international capitalism its biggest fright for years. But workers’ control without workers’ power has terrible consequences. The fight for workers’ control tends to become control over the workers by the capitalist system.

We can see, the problems clearly in a recent interview given to an IS member in Portugal by a member of the workers’ commission of the haulage company Camiangen Estcves (a member of the Communist Party).

After 25 April there was the traditional divide between the boss and his administrators, and the workers’ commission. The workers’ commission represented the workers in discussion over wage levels and conditions of work etc. After the boss ran off with all the money the workers decided to maintain the two former administrators. They now form the technical management, or if you like, the administrative commission. They work in conjunction with the workers’ commission in discussing the problems and formulating policy. But it seems as if the managers have a monopoly of information concerning the operation of the company and in formulating policies which the workers are then asked to support.

Q What is the present state of the company’s affairs?

A We have many difficulties. The level of activity of a firm such as ours is totally dependent on the level of activity in the economy as a whole. The national economy is very slack at the moment. This means contracts from other businesses for road haulage are at a low level. We have only 20-30 lorries on the road in any one day out of some 250. As a result the money earned by our contracts is not enough to meet the wages bill let alone afford spare parts and replacement capital. To meet the deficit we have had to borrow from the government banks. We have enough reserves to meet the next wage bill and then will have to return for more loans. (Present monthly salary bill 4,200,000 escudos). If the banks were our banks, the workers’, there would be no difficulty. But we cannot be very happy about the present situation.

Q If this is the case do you foresee the need for great sacrifice on the part of the workers in terms of wage reductions or redundancies? At this moment the lorry drivers are underpaid, in terms of trade union agreements.

A If necessary the workers will recommend wage reductions, and then it will be up to the men. If they accept; if they don’t they don’t. It is of course impossible to sack workers. Therefore if we lower the wages, some will probably leave, and look for other jobs. But whatever happens the firm will go on.

Q How do you think the present political drift in Portuguese politics will affect the future?

A If the move to the right is consolidated in the elections, this perhaps will not be such a bad thing. It will encourage capital to flow again, especially from abroad, and this will improve the economy. Perhaps this would be the best thing in the short run.

Without state power, the lack of technical and administrative experience further weakened the confidence of workers in their ability to manage the economy.

On some workers’ commissions and in some factories the technicians are more than advisors. Their claim to be technicians, servants of knowledge and neutral, probably means that workers are less resistant than to the obvious administrative lackeys of management. For instance at OTIS elevator where a combined workers’ commission and administration runs the factory the technicians play a dominant role in the new management. It is no accident that the gap between the workers’ commission and the workers is growing here.

The following are extracts from notes of a meeting with the workers’ commission of Otis Elevator.

In May 1975 management abandoned its plant at Alverce on the grounds that pouring money into the plant would be subsidising socialism. The workers’ commission was not just in a position of controlling what happened on the shop floor but also in a position of managing Otis’s Portuguese operation in, all respects including advertising and financing.

Although only seven of the 16 members of the workers’ commission are from the offices and administration, they play a dominant role, with the plant workers only looking on.

But to compete successfully on the Capital market and to make the needed investments the managerial workers’ commission will have to rethink its policy of no dismissals. This will undercut the unity of the workers. Nationalisation should then be a prime target. The role of the technical advisor was more than merely advisory. Some gap between the administration and the workers.

The administrators and the technicians will lead the charge of the scared, and make coherent doubts which may be stewing in other people’s minds. The same people who will be talking about greater efficiency will be talking about the need to make greater sacrifices. They won’t be touching the real problem, that we live in a system that judges efficiency in terms of profit and that never dares look in the face the anarchy and waste created by its own system.

From workers’ control without workers’ power it is only .a short step to the workers returning control to the old bosses in despair. Many workers who were confused are now disillusioned with “socialism” or “workers control”, and instead of becoming revolutionaries, are listening to, and turning to, the right.

Empty stomachs may lead to rebellion, but they can also lead to submission. With unemployment running at 20 per cent, and inflation raging, many workers listen to the siren-calls of the Right which say the old days were better.

But of course there is still massive resistance by hundreds of thousands of workers to the right-wing offensive. In response to the return of the bosses a number of potentially important links have been made between different workers’ commissions. We have already mentioned the supermarket workers. The building workers have organised links between dozens of different workers’ commissions. Exact details are uncertain, but it has retained much of the organisation from the construction workers’ strike. The Siderurgia steelworkers are co-ordinating with many of the other important concerns in the Lisbon area, specifically to fight the vultures.

Numerous Industrial Strikes

The number of industrial struggles – small and large – has mushroomed in recent weeks.

A Capital of 11 February reports a strike of 40,000 shopworkers supported by all the big shops in Lisbon, following a two-hour strike on 21 January to force management to negotiate new contracts; a strike by workers of Guerin because the administration cut off the back pay of metalworkers; a meeting of TKP workers to elect a workers’ commission and discuss workers’ control; 400 farmworkers in Oporto call for a decree preventing unfair sackings; beer workers’ commission protests about the raising of beer prices.

Revolutionarles in Portugal must now, more than ever, remember Lenin’s teachings on “the duty of revolutionaries to participate actively in the trade unions. To refuse to work in the reactionary trade unions means leaving the insufficiently developed or backward masses of workers under the influence of reactionary leaders ...”

A Capital of 5 February reports a strike at Soda-Povoa that hits 45 per cent of national production directly and 90 per cent indirectly over the non-payment of wages; a strike by workers of Molaflex who wanted the administration to accept the new negotiating structures proposed by the government.

A Capital of 2 February reported a strike by local government workers of S. Joao de Madeira over wage rates; a one-hour strike by the textile union for the freeing of prisoners, democratic rights and against the wage freeze; a one-hour strike in protest against attacks on union offices by the Union of Lisbon Trade Unions.

On 17 January 75,000 workers demonstrated against the rise in the cost of living and the government’s wage freeze. Called by 13 unions in the Lisbon area, it was supported by 300 different workers’ organisations – workers and tenants commissions, other unions and co-operative farms. The crowd shouted “Out with wage Freeze”, “Down with the rise in the cost of living”, and hissed angrily as various government Ministers were mentioned in speeches.

Key tasks for the revolutionary left

Before the 25th November, when the proletariat was on the verge of the assault on state power, it was vital for revolutionaries in Portugal to do everything to unite all sections of the proletariat – the advanced and less advanced – by building organisations of the same character as the soviets of 1917.

At present, under conditions of a defensive struggle, when workers have to prevent a retreat from turning into a rout, the most important thing is to create and strengthen the united front in the economic field. As we wrote immediately after the events of 25 November:

The most important things for the recuperation of the forces of the revolutionary left will be to be able to relate to these struggles ... 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 recuperate its powers through economic struggle.

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

If under conditions of revolutionary advance the Soviet is the main organisational form of the united front of the proletariat, under conditions of proletarian defence the key form is the trade union. The workers need an organisation which has influence beyond the confines of the individual factory, yet they do not have the confidence to build new structures. This pushes the unions to the fore, however faulty their structures. In this period of attack from the Right workers have to hold on to their present organisations. It is for them to decide what is wrong with their own organisations and not for the capitalist. However faulty the unions are, they are still an umbrella against the bosses. They are the umbrella under which workers can build the anti-wage freeze struggle, the 40-hour struggle and so on. Admittedly the union may only be a bare skeleton of an umbrella and barely stop any rain, but if we dismantle the skeleton we will have drowned before we can build another skeleton, let alone put the protective covering over the frame.

Revolutionaries in Portugal must now, more than ever, remember Lenin’s teachings on “the duty of revolutionaries to participate actively in the trade unions. To refuse to work in the – reactionary trade unions means leaving the insufficiently developed or backward masses of workers under the influence of the reactionary leaders ...” You “... must absolutely work wherever the masses are to be found. You must be capable of any sacrifice, of overcoming the greatest obstacles, in order to carry on agitation and propaganda systematically, perseveringly, persistently and patiently in these institutions, societies and associations – even the most reactionary – in which proletarian or semi- proletarian masses are to be found.” (Lenin, Left Wing Communism – an Infantile Disorder, Collected Works, Vol.31, p 53)

Yes, the unions may be corrupt. But this is not an argument for not working in them. On the contrary, it has to be seen that the rank and file are attempting to run their own union, and arc being excluded by a corrupt leadership. The only way to break corruption is through the involvement of the membership. The union is most exposed when there is large scale activity around a struggle in which it is involved, and it is then that it makes the greatest concessions. It is no coincidence that in the telephone industry the move to unification and democratisation is taking place at the same time as there is a struggle.

The question is whether workers are better off with a bad union organisation or none at all. Strong sections of the class might argue that unions are not needed, but we have to consider the weaker sections, where militants may be just beginning to argue against the wage freeze and for collective organisation. Two years ago it was the Intersindical which was arguing for the minimum wage. Undoubtedly it was not the unions which initiated the recent building workers’ strike, and they did their best for a time to stop it, but the effects of the struggle were widespread because the union structure. One can only work. inside the unions with a programme of reform; to make the unions our own. Political corruption is a serious problem, but the argument against corruption, for control from the base, is the way to overcome merely abstract support for unions. No matter how corrupt and bent the union, a perspective of agitation for mass involvement in regular meetings, control by the membership, full-time officials on the same wages as the people they represent, for a rank and file paper and so on, can only add to the process of workers controlling their own future. This argument is as relevant in the works canteen as it is in the union headquarters. One cannot afford to ignore working in the unions, if only to deflect the knife when it is about to stab you in the back. The main emphasis must of course be placed on the workers’ commissions and the genuine organisation of the base.

But let us repeat. Workers require a wider framework than that provided by individual workers’ commissions. This is particularly true of workers in small factories and without any long tradition of struggle. They will look to the unions – and it is up to the more experienced militants active in workers’ commissions to take account of this and to fight for control of the unions.

Alas, over the last three months, the revolutionary left in Portugal, and its best section the PRP, did not show any clear radical change of direction towards the industrial struggles, towards active participation in trade union affairs, and towards fighting for the leadership of the workers’ commissions.

An analysis of five recent issues of Revolucao, the PRP weekly, shows that out of 72 pages, only six and a half pages dealt with industrial struggles (covering only six strikes in total) as against 15 pages devoted to the military!

Union elections are completely left to other parties. The Communist Party continues to control the manual workers overwhelmingly. For instance, in the elections in the Lisbon District in the metallurgical unions in October 1975, List A (CP) got 68 per cent of the votes cast; List B (UDP/MES) 25 per cent and List C (PS/MRPP) 7 per cent. (Republica, 13 October 1975). In Oporto metallurgical union elections the CP got 77 per cent of the votes cast, List B (PS/MRPP/AOC) 23 per cent. (A Capital, 6 October 1975) In the elections of the textile union in the South the CP list got 82.2 per cent of the votes. (O Seculo, 27 October 1975) In the print workers’ union in the Lisbon district, the CP list got 58.3 per cent of the votes cast. (A Capital, September 1975) The building workers for greater Lisbon had elections. List A was CP. It won unopposed. (A list B was presented by the PS but was ruled out of order because submitted too late.)

The PS controls the leadership of the white-collar unions. The pro-PS unions are in banking, journalism, insurance, the merchant marine, aeronautics, fishing, shop workers, designers, nurses, silversmiths.

Elections to Union of Lisbon Office Workers
(24,000 electorate)

List A (Intersindical)



List B (PS)


List C (MRPP)


List D (Revolutionary Left)


(Expresso, 10 January).

The PRP is paying a very high price indeed for its failure to understand the central role of trade union activity, and its avoidance, in the name of “anti-Partism”, of the struggles for the leadership of the workers’ commissions. The recent history of Setenave, which used to be one of the workplaces strongly influenced by: the PRP shows this clearly.

Setenave is one of the most modern shipyards. in the world, employing 4,009 workers, and has been for a long time one of the bastions of the working class. On 16 December .1975, after a long discussion, voting took place on a programme of action for the workers’ commission. Proposal A, put forward by the CRTSM (backed by the PRP and others) got only 142 votes as against 862 votes for the CP programme, 240 for the PS/MRPP programme, 240 votes for the UDP programme and 18 for the LCI programme.

When a new workers’ commission was elected for Setenave on 7 January, the CP gained 32 seats, the PRP 1, FEC-ML 1, and UDP 1. This was a crushing defeat for the PRP. The main cause was simple: the PRP called on workers to vote for the best militants without paying attention to their party affiliation, while the CP in its plant newspaper put forward an unofficial slate. The PRP did not even present a list of whom it thought the best militants were.

The thrust of the work of the PRP factory cells seems to be to push the politics of the organisation rather than to take on the economic issues that now interest the workers.

This is not just a matter of grafting a bit of economics onto a political demand, e.g. adding the demand for a 40-hour week to “only one solution, revolutionary socialism”, nor is it a case of grafting a political face onto an economic solution. When we emphasise a tactic we must be prepared to bury ourselves in it. The revolutionary must be the finest fighter in the economic struggle.

In a crisis situation, concrete demands may be more revolutionary than any abstract political line imposed from outside. Many economic shells hide a political kernel.

Paradoxically the reaction following the defeat of 25 November, a defeat largely caused by the betrayal of the CP, has improved the position of the CP relative to the revolutionary left, at the cost of a big shift to the right in the general balance of forces. The may have lost many individual militants to the revolutionary left; it has gained the support of vastly larger numbers of other workers who see it as the main bulwark against the Right.

Programme of immediate economic demands

The revolutionary left must put forward a clear programme of immediate demands in the industrial field.

Of course revolutionaries abroad can not presume to formulate precisely such a programme. The following is a list, certainly not comprehensive or exact, of demands, that is offered only by way of illustration.


1000 escudos across the board cost of living increases.
Maximum wage 20,000 escudos a month.
Guaranteed working week, no overtime.
40-hour working week for same money.
No time limit to any agreement.
Strike against any further freeze of wages.


Nationalisation under workers’ control of all firms employing more than 100 workers. Smaller firms should be syndicated for the same purpose. Nationalisation of foreign capital. No compensation.
Immediate erasing of all debts to banks where the workers are running the plants. Administrators and technicians only to advise the workers.
No state interference in workplace and union organisations.
Workers control of Previdencia. State benefit to all unemployed.


All mass meetings (assemblies) in works time.
Power to the workers commissions and workers assemblies.
Voting only at the meetings.
For bold executives of workers commissions and linking workers commissions.
Workers commissions to fight for representation and workers control in unions.


Yearly elections for all positions.
All positions subject to instant recall.
Union delegates to have regular meetings with their sections; sections having the right to put resolutions to/at executives.
The right of 10 per cent of members to call meetings.
All negotiations to be subject to ratification at base.
One union one industry-immediate provisional links.
The executives to record publicly all resolutions and their answers.


For the building of real workers councils (delegate) of workers, armed forces, tenants and landworkers.
These to be built out of the:
Support of all workers in struggle.
Defending the agrarian reform; all factories to look into ways of supporting.
For local factory committees to fight for above demands. (“anti capitalist committees at base”)

The parliamentary battlefield

Within the next few months elections to Parliament will be held, and the campaigns have already begun. In an atmosphere of hysterical anti-communism, with the deepening crisis and with workers being pushed into retreats, the general election may well lead to a landslide victory for the extreme Right – the CDS and PPD.

Of course one can argue the general principle that in our epoch not a single serious issue can be decided by ballot. In the decisive class battles bullets will decide – the capitalists will be counting the machine guns, bayonets and grenades at their disposal, and so will the proletariat. But to decide the immediate tactical tasks directly from this general statement of principle would be a serious error. A mountaineer who thought that since climbing means going up, one must always go up, would soon break his neck.

Abstentionism is the last thing workers will fall for. The higher the left vole the more confident workers will be in the next battle beyond the electoral one. If the revolutionaries do not put their candidate forward the reformist CP will have a clear field for the workers’ attention.

Lenin, who, more than any other revolutionary, exposed the capitalist nature of parliamentarism, repeatedly argued revolutionaries should participate in parliamentary elections.

Parliamentarianism is of course “politically obsolete” to the Communists but – and that is the whole point – we must not regard what is obsolete to us as obsolete to a class, to the masses.

Whilst you lack the strength to do away with bourgeois parliaments and every other type of reactionary institution, you must work within them ...

... participation in a bourgeois-democratic parliament, even a few weeks before the victory of a Soviet republic and even after such a victory, actually helps the proletariat to prove to the backward masses why such parliaments deserve to be done away with ... (Lenin, Left-Wing Communism – an Infantile Disorder, Collected Works, Vol.31, pp.58-60)

Parliament can be used as a platform without falling into parliamentary illusions. Right now it is vital for revolutionaries in Portugal to participate actively in the election campaign. Abstentionism is the last thing workers will fall for. The higher the left vote the more confident workers will be in the next battle beyond the electoral one. If the revolutionaries do not put their candidate forward, the reformist CP will have a clear field for workers’ attention.


Watching the events in Portugal one has the uncanny feeling of having seen it all, before. The attitudes of the PRP demand comparison with those of the German Communist Party (KPD) at its founding conference in December 1918.

On the question of participation in elections to the National Assembly Rosa Luxemburg argued:

In order to mobilise the masses against the National Assembly and lead them in a decisive struggle against it, we must utilise the elections and the platform of the National Assembly itself ... Our aim in participating in the National Assembly must be to expose and. roundly denounce all the tricks and machinations of this fine assembly; to reveal its counter-revolutionary activities step by step to the masses, and to appeal to them to intervene and force a decision.

But the delegates to the KPD Congress were in no mood to accept her advice and decided to boycott the elections. The mood of the majority of the delegates was expressed by the former Social Democratic MP, Otto Rühle. He insisted that they did not need to use the Assembly as a tribune. “We have other tribunes. The street is the great tribune that we have conquered and that we will not abandon, even if they shoot at us.”

The same impatience was shown in the discussion on the economic struggle. Lange, who introduced the session for the leadership, did not take a position on whether or not revolutionaries should remain in the old unions.

Many other delegates expressed the opinion that it was incompatible with being a revolutionary communist to remain in the unions. Paul Frölich raised the slogan “Out of the unions”, calling instead for “workers’ unions”, which would end for once and for all the distinction between the party and the trade unions. He was attacked by Rosa Luxemburg for not putting the stress on building workers’ councils. She was not happy with the slogan “Out of the unions”, but went so far as to suggest that the “liquidation of the unions” was on the order of the day. Only Heckert pointed out that the unions were far from finished, that they were still embraced by vast numbers of workers and that the slogan “Out of the unions” was extremely dangerous.

The discussion on the trade union question at the Spartakist conference was, in reality, one more expression of the impatience of the delegates, of their inability to take seriously the task of winning the broadest layers of the masses for the revolution.

Rosa Luxemburg, conscious of the seriousness of her defeat at the Congress on the question of elections to the National Assembly, still believed that it was a symptom of youth and inexperience of the Party, and that the Party would be able to outgrow this immaturity. “Our defeat”, she wrote to her old friend Clara Zetkin, “was merely the triumph of a somewhat childish, half-baked, narrow-minded radicalism. In many cases, that happened at the beginning of the conference. Later contact between us (the leadership) and the delegates was established. The Spartakists are a fresh generation, free from the cretinous traditions of the ‘good old party’ (the SPD) ... We decided unanimously not to make the matter (of the boycott) into a cardinal question and not to take it too seriously.”

What mattered most for Rosa was that the newly founded Communist Party was attracting the best of the younger generation to its ranks. Their inexperience and their “ultra-leftism” was the other face of their youth and fighting spirit. However, she underestimated the impact of this inexperience in a party that lacked a reliable experienced cadre. This was to prove fatal in the days that followed, despite the fact that the old leadership was re-elected in its entirety.

This lack of cohesion within the Party was aggravated by another consequence of the ultra- left positions adopted at the Congress. The most experienced and influential group of workers militants in Berlin itself, the revolutionary shop stewards from the large factories, had been expected to join the Party on its foundations. But discussions between a delegation from the new party, led by Liebknecht, and the leaders of the shop stewards soon ran into an impasse. Their most influential figures mistrusted the impatience of the Spartakist majority.

The outcome was to be disastrous in the weeks that followed. The new Communist Party was to be faced with massive struggles, without some of the best and most influential workers’ leaders in Berlin in its ranks. The shop stewards, on the other hand, were to be plunged into, a complex and rapidly changing situation without the immediate guidance that figures like Luxemburg, Radek and Jogiches could have given them. As a result they were to fall into the same disastrous “putschism” that they had denounced in Spartakism.

But history gave the KPD the opportunity to grow up through great events and mass struggles and to become a mass party that could have taken power (but did not largely for reasons we cannot deal with in this article).

To chart the chronology of events in Germany. in 1919-20: in January 1919 Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and hundreds of other revolutionaries were massacred – the January 1919 defeat of the German proletariat was incomparably more costly than the defeat of the Portuguese on 25th 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 14th 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 Socialist Democratic Party) joined the CP en bloc and thus transformed it from a small organisation of a few tens of thousands into a mass party.

Time to change course

In Portugal at the Crossroads we wrote the following:

The PRP is an authentic revolutionary marxist organisation which argues for the need for armed revolution, stands squarely for the dictatorship of the proletariat, and believes in the need for autonomous organisations of the proletariat-councils – (soviets).

The PRP is very clear in grasping the nature of the Communist Party. It refuses to speak of “social fascism”, hence its superiority over the Maoists. At the same time it recognises that. although the Communist Party has a base in the class (unlike the Socialist Party) it is a reformist party that cannot be pressurised into revolutionary actions.

It understands the need for a united front in defence of workers’ organisations.

The healthy emphasis on self-activity by the proletariat, however, is accompanied by a certain lack of clarity about the relations between the revolutionary party and the proletariat.

Since these lines were written some five and a half months ago the PRP has changed: it moved to the wider recruitment of workers, it publishes its paper more regularly and so on. But the changes were too slow for the needs of the time. The revolutionary party must be able to change tack very swiftly as the struggle changes. One of the decisive lessons of history is that if a revolutionary party does not take, advantage of a pre-revolutionary situation, that situation can rapidly change into a counter-revolutionary one. We must expect many fluctuations in the struggle, from economic strikes to political battles and back again, from a semi-revolutionary situation to its opposite, from lulls to mass strikes whose scope and temper is insurrectionary. The unevenness between sections of the class, between different factories and industries, is going to continue, sometimes levelling up, sometimes down, and any equilibrium will be temporary.

What is necessary under these conditions is a revolutionary organisation that can distinguish not only between a revolutionary situation and a counter-revolutionary one-which is quite easy-but between all the nuances of the transitional stages in between. Such an organisation can take initiatives, being stringent in its principles and highly adaptable and elastic in its tactics, always aware of the sharp turns in the struggle.

Revolutionaries like the comrades in the PRP need a serious analysis of their own actions, measured against the activities of the class. Revolutionaries need neither optimism nor pessimism but a sober appraisal of the real forces in conflict, and fervent dedication and perseverance in the struggle. We, revolutionaries outside Portugal, have an international duty: fundamental solidarity and support for those attempting to build a revolutionary workers’ movement, and clear criticism of those policies we regard as mistaken.

Before the 25th November the Portuguese working class was not far from power. Since then – over the last three months – it has been pushed back a long way. But still the situation is not irreversible. As we wrote in International Socialism in December 1975:

... 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. If revolutionaries are successful in relating to these battles, they can raise the working class to challenge for power once more.

But if the opportunities are missed, the consequences will be very grave. A defeat for the workers in the economic battles will destroy the ability to resist the political offensive of the right. If management in any factory are successful in forcing workers to expect wage reductions, speed ups and increased unemployment, they will be able to break the solidarity of the work-force, to pick on individual militants and to sack them. In such a situation thousands, tens of thousands of militants can find themselves thrown out of the factories. The workers commissions would be effectively destroyed and the unions reduced to powerless bodies.

Once that happened, there would be no force left capable of stopping the advance of a vast section of the employing class that has grown bitter and viciously angry over the last two years as it has seen its power threatened. The latifundists would demand their land back-and there would be no one capable of resisting their demands. The monopolists would want their factories again-and no one would have the force to resist them. The employing class as a whole would want the return to the low wages and unorganised workforce of the Salazar era-and would find themselves all powerful.

Certainly, the social democrats who constitute so much of the present government would have no forces to resist them. Already they are being pushed on the sidelines by the right wing generals to who they delivered power when they smashed the left in the armed forces on 25th November.

The only thing which leaves the social democrats with any role at all is the generals who do not yet know if they are strong enough to take on the unions and workers commissions frontally. They are dimly aware that the employers have to win a whole series of humdrum economic battles if they are to move successfully to an all decisive confrontation on the political front.

The reformists are unable to fight the successful rearguard action that is necessary if the working class is to recoup its energies for a further advance. Their tendency to compromise with the enemy, to substitute token actions for real struggles, to tell the workers to look to backstage manoeuvring, are just as dangerous in retreat as when the workers are on the advance. If it is left to them, the retreat can all too easily turn into a rout. And then Portugal really can become the Chile of Europe, with all that that implies.

It is up to the revolutionary left to take the lead in organising for the defensive struggles all those workers that- are harmed by the economic offensive of the employing class. And that means vast numbers of workers at present subjected to the influence of the reformist and even social democratic parties. It means proposing to the leaders of those parties with influence within the working class particular defensive actions in relation to the workers they claim to organise. If they support those defensive actions, all to the good – the ruling class offensive will be checked even if only among a small front. If they refuse support, then they will be exposed in front of their supporters some of whom will want to fight despite them.

In Portugal at the moment it is only a very short step from defensive and economic struggles to offensive and political struggles. But that step can only be taken if revolutionaries take the lead in the defensive, economic struggles. If they do not do that more and more of the concrete, material gains that accrued to workers in the period up to 25th November will be lost. And the more these gains are lost, the less will be the will to fight of the many workers without traditions of militancy. The effect of two years of struggle will have been to have angered Portuguese capitalism, so that like a wounded animal it strikes out in rage, without destroying its destructive powers.

That is why the whole revolutionary process is in the gravest danger, despite the continuing strength of large sections of workers.

Revolutionaries should never forget the warnings of the Jacobin Saint Just – underlined a hundred times by the experience of Chile, “Those who make revolutions halfway only dig their own graves.”

Our thanks for research by Robin Doughty and Donny Gluckstein.


Last updated on 19.10.2006