Chris Harman


Portugal: The Latest Phase

(November 1975)

From Notes of the month, International Socialism (1st series), No.83, November 1975, pp.6-9.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Chris Harman writes: Portugal’s sixth government is already, at the time of writing, as impotent and isolated as the fifth government which preceded it. Formed with the aim of bringing some sort of bourgeois normality to the country, it has so far only succeeded in aggravating the political and military crisis. Its attempts to re-establish bourgeois authority in the army, in the press, in industry have had the effect of speeding up the self organisation of the workers and rank and file soldiers.

The sixth government began by removing various left wing officers from key military positions in an effort to restore full control over the armed forces. It only succeeded in giving the impetus to the formation, for the first time, of a rank and file soldiers’ movement more or less independent of the ‘progressive’ officers – SUV (soldiers united will win). It found how weak its hold over the army was when it sent troops to close down the radio and TV stations (on 29 September). Within hours the troops were solidarising with the broadcasting workers. Indeed, it was only the intervention of commandos newly-back from Angola that silenced the most left wing of the radio stations, Renascenca. By mid-October, joint meetings of delegates from all but four military units in the Lisbon area, made up predominantly of privates, were taking place regularly. Fabiao, the head of the army, acknowledged the impasse the military command was in when he intervened to make important concessions to the SUV led occupation of the heavy artillery (RASP) barracks in Oporto – although the military command is now attempting to renege on its promises.

While the right wing has found its plans for reimposing control blocked, the Communist Party has also suffered some damage over the month.

The Communist Party has been caught all along between its desire to be part of the government using its positions to push pro-Russian, state capitalist reforms, and its need to protect its political base within the working class. The more successful it has been in the governmental sphere, the more it has had to be directly responsible for procapitalist (or pro-state capitalist) policies that have alienated working class support The main effect of its success in indirectly dominating the fifth government (via pro-Communist Party officers) was to isolate it both on the social democratic right and within the working class.

With the sixth government it tried to solve this problem by following two contradictory policies simultaneously – by having a token presence in the government and mending its fences to the right, and by maintaining a presence in the working class opposition to the government (e.g. by leaving its front organisation, the Portuguese Democratic Movement (MDP) in the United Revolutionary Front (FUR) and by giving the go-ahead for limited strikes).

This has meant it has not incurred the odour of the most militant workers by denouncing their struggles, as under previous governments. Nor is it the butt for all the frustrations that result from the inability of any capitalist government to deal with the economic and social crisis (as with the fifth government, particularly in the traditionally anti-Communist north). As the crisis increases the unpopularity of the sixth government, the main party in it, the Socialist Party, will lose support – and in Lisbon that could well mean increased support among less politicalised and militant sections of the class for the Communist Party. Growing numbers of workers could come to look back on the ‘Vasco’ (i.e. fifth) government with growing feelings of nostalgia. Already, the coalition of the Socialist Party and the right moving Maoist group, the MRPP, which won a number of white collar union elections, is paralysed by its inability to respond to the economic and political crisis. By contrast, the Communist Party felt able to throw its support behind a token national stoppage and demonstration of metal workers (over the question of their wages contract), winning Lisbon metal workers’ union election four days later as a result (defeating the revolutionary left by 3-1, although on a poll of under 25 per cent). However, there are limits to the Communist Party’s ability to manoeuvre – and these are creating havoc among the members themselves.

The most important limit is that the Communist Party has not dared organise all-out opposition to the rightward swing of the government even when the situation demands this. It could not initiate SUV, because of its own involvement with a layer of career officers. It could only try, unsuccessfully, to build a rival to SUV and then, more successfully, to infiltrate SUV in certain localities.

Neither could it respond immediately to the government crack-down on the radio and TV.

For three days, all it did was put out leaflets saying it was ‘studying the situation’, while its members opposed strikes and demonstrations. The revolutionary left alone had to organise the revolts of the troops that made the occupations ineffective and to call the demonstrations of shipyard workers etc. On the fourth day the Communist Party issued an hysterical statement alerting its members to the dangers of a Socialist Party ‘march on Lisbon’ before once again lapsing into silence.

It was only after some days that it seemed to arrive at a unified response – to organise non-militant demonstrations to the various barracks, through the tenants’ committees it controlled, supporting the soldiers movement, but also praising the fifth government and demanding ‘no civil war’.

At these demonstrations, the party leadership has attempted to make a distinction between the ‘programme of the sixth government’ and the ‘personality of the prime minister’ on the one hand, and the ‘rightward drift’ of government policy on the other. But this distinction seems lost on some at least of the members, who know Azevedo himself has been personally responsible for the most important government decisions.

There are reports of all sorts of ructions inside the party. The leadership, apparently, is divided into three wings: a right wing group led by Pato with the approach of the Italian Communist Party and supported by the Party youth; the centre led by Cunhal; and a left identified with an old party member, Serra.

More significant there is considerable discontent among many of the Party’s militants in industry.

At a meeting of several hundred cadres in Lisbon shortly after the takeover of the broadcasting stations, a considerable number walked out. Such people are not clear what is wrong with the Party’s policy, but see a clear discrepancy between the leadership’s talk of a right wing offensive and its low key response.

It has been partly to retain the allegiance of such people, partly in order to exert pressure on the government to take in more Communist Party members (the Party talks of the need for ‘more left wingers in the government’ and ‘more revolutionaries on the Council of the Revolution’) that the Communist Party has organised its demonstrations to the barracks and has now allowed the unions under its control to re-open the economic struggle (going so far as to threaten a general strike in Alentejo unless the land reform is speeded up).

The Party’s desire for more positions in the government may even coincide with the need of the bourgeoisie to buy time, while the military command put together reliable military units (a Freikorps). In that case the result would be a sort of 5½th government, with a less pronounced rightward drift than the present government and some of the personnel of the fifth government It could not, however, last more than two to three months.

So far, each political crisis has presented the revolutionary left with opportunities to hold off the right wing offensive and to undercut some of the base of the Communist Party. With SUV, the revolutionary left has emerged as a major contender in the national struggle for power. The fact that the Communist Party has had to follow its initiatives (starting with the last minute support for a revolutionary demonstration on 20 August through to the Socialist Party’s belated support for SUV) is an indication of its growing impact.

But the revolutionary left faces major problems. Its impact within the army is still much greater than within the working class, outside a few major factories (Lisnave, Setenave etc.). The only place where anything approaching even an embryo of real organisations of workers’ power grew up during the crisis of 29 September was Setubal (where the Setenave shipyards are situated). And even the committee of struggle formed there, with representatives from all the major factories and from the local barracks was not able to oveicome Communist Party supported resistance to strike action in most of the plants.

The Communist Party’s influence in the class is being undercut – but not as fast as the revolutionary left would like.

This is bound to have a detrimental effect within the army. The army units cannot remain in a revolutionary ferment indefinitely, unless they gain protection from workers’ organisations. That is why more linkages have been formed at the local level between units and workers and tenants’ committees in the last month than in the whole period previously. These could be embryo of workers’ power. But while the Communists retain some influence in the workers’ movement, the linkages can have the paradoxical effect of undermining some of the revolutionary feeling in the military units. The Communist Party has certainly understood that it can use its hold over certain workers’ committees as a Trojan horse for regaining some of the initiative in the armed forces.

The revolutionary left is not compelled to sit back and, fatalistically, watch this happen. The Communist Party does not by any means fully dominate the workers’ movement in the Lisbon metal workers’ union, more than half the workers prepared to go on the streets shouting a mixture of Communist Party reformist and revolutionary slogans did not feel impelled to vote for either the Communist Party or the revolutionary opposition in the elections a few days later; in a Communist Party strong hold like Barreiro, the PRP could hold a meeting two fifths the size of a Communist Party meeting held on the same night, in Setubal, the revolutionary left-led Committee of Struggle was able to force a Communist Party front to call off a demonstration under reformist slogans and instead support a demonstration under revolutionary slogans (from the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ downwards).

Even the Communist Party’s demonstrations to the barracks have a double effect – its workers have diluted the militancy of the soldiers, but have also been exposed to speeches from left wing soldiers denouncing in no uncertain terms the policies of all the government parties (the Communist Party as well as the Socialist Party). As the revolutionary left continues to take initiatives, the Communist Party will continue to be polarised.

However, there is a great danger that the revolutionary left will not seize advantage of this situation as it should. Partly this is because of politics of the still quite sizeable Maoist chunk of the left, part of which is being driven into the arms of the right by its ‘social fascist’ analysis (the AOC and the MRPP; even the FEC is tending to take a neutral stand between ‘social fascism and fascism’) the rest of which (the UDP) is stuck on a stages theory which makes it support the slogan ‘No Civil War’ and talk of creating a ‘patriotic front’.

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

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

In Russia in 1905 Lenin stressed again and again the need of the Party to draw to it tens of thousands of workers, to grab at every single worker who in any way was drawing close to revolutionary politics. He recognised that if the revolutionary party did not seize on them and win them to its full position by joint activity in a common organisation, they could all too easily be pulled back into the orbit of reformism or even reaction.

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

His words apply absolutely in Portugal today. Everyone moving to the left who is not won to an organisation like the PRP will be pulled into the orbit of reformism, centrism or sectarian Maoism, and will present insuperable problems for the revolutionaries in the future. The antics of these organisations can be destructive even if the military balance of forces allows successful revolutionary insurrection. Between them, the elements of reformism. Maoism and centrism could wreck the work of workers’ councils, paralyse a revolutionary government and leave the way open (as in the Paris Commune or the Hungarian Soviet of 1919) for an advance of the right.

The danger can be avoided – but only if the revolutionary left, and the PRP in particular, sharply alters the priority which it gives to Party building. For instance, the fact that it does not even now produce a weekly paper (Revoluçao comes out at roughly three-weekly intervals) means that there is no pressure on its members to bring contacts closer to the organisation. They have no automatic organisational link with those who waver between them and the reformists, Maoists or centrists, not yet being willing to join the Party. They have no ready way of explaining the Party’s view of day-to-day events to the large number of workers attracted to the ideas of SUV or the FUR. They have no easy way to open up a dialogue with the dissident Communist Party members or even those Maoists and centrists bemused by the behaviour of their organisations.

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

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

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

Last updated on 16 November 2009