Chris Harman



(May 1975)

From Notes of the month, International Socialism (1st series), No.78, May 1975, pp.5-6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Chris Harman writes: A favourite theme of western commentators on Portugal is that it is moving rapidly to a regime of the East European sort.

It is not only bourgeois writers who tend to this view. At least one of the Maoist-Stalinist sects in Portugal itself (the AOC) holds that the establishment of a ‘social fascist’ regime by the CP is the greatest danger, and therefore urges support for the pro-NATO Socialist Party as the lesser evil. And, it would seem from the coverage of Portuguese events in their paper Workers’ Power, that some sections of the American International Socialists hold a similar standpoint, seeing the CP in Portugal as on the road to establishing the rule of a new, ‘bureaucratic collectivist’ class.

The trouble with any such view is that it takes no account of the concrete balance of class forces in Portugal, and that it ascribes to the Portuguese CP, and to Communist Parties in general, an ability to act in a supra-historical manner.

Regimes of the East European sort have developed when the extreme feebleness of both the old ruling class on the one hand, and of the workers’ movement on the other (due to internal divisions, demoralisation, repression at the hands of occupying forces etc.) have enabled the leaders of Stalinist political parties to accumulate considerable political power into their own hands, and to use this power to ease out the old owners of industry, establishing their own bureaucratic control.

Conditions in Portugal today are quite different to these. It is true that the local bourgeoisie has been deeply fragmented in the period since the overthrow of Caetano. It has lost direct control of much of the media; key positions in the armed forces are in the hands of a relatively small group of middle ranking officers who are disenchanted with the main sections of the bourgeoisie; major parts of industry and finance have been nationalised.

But the other pre-conditions for a successful Stalinist takeover of society has been absent – the working class is not weak and demoralised, but militant and strong.

Far from being able to act independently of the existing classes, the limited successes enjoyed by the CP have depended upon its ability to balance between the classes, hitting out first at one, then at the other. It was originally allowed to enter the government and to take control of the trade union apparatuses because of its promises to the military Junta after 25 April that it would control the spontaneous militancy of the workers. By carrying through its side of the bargain and denouncing most of the major strikes of the last 12 months, it has lost much of its own base among the most militant sections of workers.

It now finds itself in the situation of trying to organise, under its own control, the bureaucracies of the media, the nationalised industries, and so on. But that control is threatened both by the CP’s military allies, who greet any extension of the CP’s power with suspicion, and by rank and file workers. Its problems are aggravated by the effects of the economic crisis.

Portuguese capitalism desperately needs rationalising. But that means wage cuts, speed-up and redundancies in the nationalised sector of the economy and the state bureaucracy, and the driving to the wall of many of the privately owned small firms. For the CP to support this programme would be to antagonise the workers in both large scale industry and the small enterprises, and to lose the base which the CP wants to build among the petty bourgeoisie.

It is worth remembering that the immediate aftermath of the full establishment of CP control in Eastern Europe was precisely such a massive programme of rationalisation, capital accumulation and wage cutting, a programme that finally destroyed the CP’s base among the working class and alienated wide sections of lower bureaucrats. In Eastern Europe the CP had full control of the state machine (and a Russian military presence) and was able (until the revolts of the mid-fifties and the late sixties) to carry through this state capitalist programme using physical repression.

In Portugal, if the CP loses control of the working class ideologically, then it Ioses the one thing that makes it important to the brigadiers and generals. Already, some of them are indicating that their own Bonapartist inclinations are driving them away from complete dependence on the CP.

In fact, it faces the classic dilemma of social democracy. The strategy which it believes will lead it to permanent power, in fact only serves to demoralise the class on whose shoulder it perches and to improve the prospects of forces to the right of it In this case the beneficiaries would not be the CP, but one or other section of the professional officer corps. Possibly the officers would still need the reformist organisations to play a subordinate role (as in the Germany of 1918-23 or in Peru today). More likely, they will try to destroy all working class organisations, including the reformist ones, in an effort to solve Portugal’s economic crisis.

There is another alternative: a struggle to form workers’ and soldiers’ councils, to destroy the existing hierarchies in the armed forces and the rest of the state, and to establish workers’ power. But this is not open to those who want to travel the road of creeping state capitalism. They are doomed to see their own aspirations smashed by the development of rival class forces that no political apparatus can control.

Last updated on 16 November 2009