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Ian Birchall

Social Democracy and the Portuguese ‘revolution’

(Autumn 1979)

From International Socialism, 2:6, Autumn 1979, pp. 71–84.
Transcribed by Marven James Scott.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

‘In Portugal, there is no possibility of evading for more than a few months (at most) sharp, armed clashes between the classes.’ [1]

‘The revolutionary left failed to take account of several factors. The first was the adaptability of existing institutions, especially of the reformist organisations within the working class movement. [2]

It is now four years since the hot revolutionary summer of 1975 in Portugal. The Portuguese experience (together with the Italian elections of 1976 and the ‘social contact’ in Britain) marked a crucial turning-point for the European revolutionary left, whose ‘crisis’ Chris Harman analysed in Number 4 of this journal. It may therefore be useful at this time to review some aspects of the Portuguese experience, and the attitudes taken to it by the revolutionary left, in particular our own tendency. What follows is envisaged only as an initial contribution to some aspects of the necessary discussion.

In particular this article will focus on the main agency of re-stabilisation in the 1975–76 period, namely the Socialist Party. This was a factor in the situation which we gravely underestimated at the time. Inasmuch as this article is an attempt to redress the balance, it will neglect other questions which would require extensive treatment in a fully rounded analysis. Two of the most important of these are the land question and the role of the Communist Party. It should therefore be stressed that the amount of space devoted to these topics is not intended to reflect their importance.

Another important question touched on only incidentally in this article is the role of the PRP-BR (Revolutionary Party of the Proletariat-Revolutionary Brigades). In the 1974–76 period the International Socialists attempted to develop links with this party, practical solidarity being complemented by fraternal criticism. A full critique of the politics of the PRP-BR (in particular its ambiguities on the role of the Armed Forces Movement and the nature of the revolutionary party) is needed, and hopefully will appear in a future issue of International Socialism.

One point, however, must be made here. It is easy to make retrospective criticisms of the PRP-BR and IS’s relations with it. But in 1975 time was short. Proletarian revolution was an objective possibility – however remote – and it was our clear obligation to try and assist what appeared to be the best organisation going. To have stood on the sidelines lamenting the absence of the ‘revolutionary party’ might have enhanced our reputation for ‘correctness’: it would not have assisted the struggle.

To begin with, what were we right about? We were right to see the working-class upsurge of 1974–75 as being (alongside Hungary 1956 and France 1968) one of the high points of class struggle since 1945, a rich fund of workers’ self-activity and creativity from which innumerable lessons can be drawn. We were right to see this situation as one which could, under certain conditions, have developed within a relatively short space of time into a conjuncture in which proletarian revolution was a real and immediate possibility. [3] We were right, therefore, to insist on the urgency of building independent workers’ organisations, and to reject any talk of ‘stages’ in the struggle for working-class power. As against those (soft Maoists and others) who had illusions in the revolutionary potential of the Armed Forces Movement, those (’orthodox’ Trotskyists of diverse varieties) who fetishised the traditional workers’ parties, and those (Lutte Ouvriere) who said nothing much was happening anyhow, our position [4] has stood the test of time well. But if we were 90% right, we made certain misjudgments.

Up to the 25 November 1975 the analysis that lay behind IS pronouncements on the Portuguese situation seems to have been as follows:

‘But the revolution cannot stand still. It can go forward to a successful overthrow of the bourgeois state, and the introduction of a workers’ democracy leading to a socialist society. Or it can go back to a brutal and reactionary dictatorship and the rule of capital. There is no middle way. Portugal is too poor, and the working people, too well organised, for there to exist the possibility of a “peaceful” introduction of Western European style “democracy”.’ [5]

Hence the situation in Portugal in the summer of 1975 was seen as being at ‘the same point as Chile ... two or three months before Allende fell’. Before the solidarity demonstration of 20 September Socialist Worker headlined ‘Portugal must not become another Chile.’ [6]

In such a crisis there could be no long-term role for the Socialist Party:

‘The Socialist Party is the party with whose aid capitalism preserves the hopes of the petty bourgeoisie and the backward workers in a progressive improvement of their situation. The deepening crisis of Portuguese capitalism will inevitably undermine the power of this party, and it will deliver its supporters either to the revolutionary proletariat or to the extreme right – to the fascist forces. So long as the masses hesitate between revolution and reaction, they continue to support the Socialist Party. But this situation of hesitation cannot last long.’ [7]

The IS analysis (though not the tactical conclusions) coincided with that of the PRP-BR which in November 1975 spoke of the imminent threat of ‘an authoritarian regime that will assume fascist forms’, but which then concluded that ‘for us, at this moment, there is no solution except armed insurrection’. [8]

What was missing in all this was the ability of Mario Soares and the Socialist Party to pull the bourgeoisie’s chestnuts out of the fire for them. Of course the role of the Socialist Party in the 1974 to 1978 period was less than a spectacular success, in anybody’s terms. None the less it was rather more impressive than any of us would have given it credit for in the Spring of 1974.

At the time of the overthrow of fascism in 1974 the Socialist Party scarcely existed:

‘As for the Socialist Party, it has virtually no base at all. It consists of a group of lawyers, doctors, etc, gathered around Soares. Soares himself is a moderate Social Democrat, distinguished by personal courage and honesty; he is un-compromised by fascism and has been jailed 12 times. His role will be to act as mediator between Spinola and the Communist Party.’ [9]

The Armed Forces Movement, anxious not to let either the CP or the SP build credibility for themselves in the working class by being in opposition, brought Soares and his followers into the provisional government. They resigned in July 1975 after the dispute over the paper Republica, demanding that the government use armed force against the workers occupying the printshop. By September they had rejoined the government under Azevedo, and lined up with the new government’s efforts to regain control over the press and broadcasting. In the elections of April 1976 the Socialists were easily the largest single party in Parliament; Soares then did a deal with Eanes, the general who had master-minded the right-wing crack-down of 25 November 1975; Eanes was elected President with Socialist as well as right-wing support and Soares became Prime Minister. Soares then introduced an austerity programme based on wage controls and ‘productivity’; he attempted to roll back the gains of the unfinished revolution by a policy of ‘ “pin-prick” attacks on the working class in the factories and on the land.’ [10]

The Soares government lasted sixteen months, till December 1977; Soares then cobbled together a coalition with the right-wing CDS, but this only staved off his own departure from power for a few months.

Soares’ achievement was modest but significant. Certainly there can be no suggestion that Portugal is in for forty years of ‘stability Swedish-style’. Neither the world crisis nor Portugal’s own underdeveloped economy can permit that. But a potentially revolutionary situation was defused; Portugal’s workers and peasants have lost many, though by no means all, of the gains of 1974-75; neither workers’ power nor fascism is on the short-term agenda; the Portuguese revolutionary left, which in 1975 was the strongest in Europe, is faced with the long task of slow patient reconstruction. The most likely prospect for Portugal, up to and probably after the, coming elections, is a prolonged period of political instability and coalition rule. But, as the post-war history of Italy shows, a ruling class can live with such instability for quite a long time.

An attempt to understand how the Socialist Party achieved as much as it did may be of some value in trying to evaluate the potential role of reformism in the present epoch of crisis. [11]

When Portuguese fascism collapsed in April 1974 the various classes of Portuguese society were united by at least one thing – a desire for the abstraction ‘change’. The bourgeoisie, sections of which had at least tacitly encouraged the coup, wanted to ditch the colonial wars, radically modernise the economy and prepare for Portuguese entry to the EEC. The working class sought rapid economic improvement and the right to take advantage of the newly established freedom to build its own independent organisations. Between them the petty-bourgeoisie had disparate projects corresponding to its disparate sectors, but all pointed roughly in the direction of ‘reform’. To the left there were two major reformist parties, the Communist Party and the Socialist Party. The Communist Party seemed to hold all the main advantages – it had both a well-developed political ideology (it was one of the most commitedly Brezhnevite parties in Western Europe) and a well-organised centralised apparatus with a real base in the working class. The Socialist Party had neither. Yet in the long term the disadvantages turned into positive assets.

In 1974-75 ‘socialism’ was very popular in Portugal. Parties of the left (SP, CP and various groupings to their left) got almost 60% of the votes in the 1975 elections for the Constituent Assembly, probably the highest such percentage in any West European election. Indeed the most right-wing of the major parties, with links with the British Tories, called itself the ‘Social Democratic Centre’ (CDS), and even the tiny Monarchist party professed to be socialist.

In such a climate the very name ‘Socialist Party’ offered a certain hegemony. The SP claimed to be ‘Marxist’ and took a class line on certain issues. Thus in September 1974 it attacked the government’s proposed labour legislation for making illegal ‘solidarity strikes and political strikes, the most important forms by which the working class demonstrates its unity and its strength.’ [12]

Yet at the same time the SP remained resolutely parliamentarist, with Soares claiming that ‘Elections, when they are free, are the direct expression of the will of the people, the only way of legitimizing political power.’ [13] And Soares could always find time to attack: ‘cafe revolutionaries, the word-mongerers, and adventurers whose irresponsible political practices could put obstacles in the path of the revolutionary process in our country.’ [14]

When logic proved inadequate to resolve the contradictions, Soares fell back on the last refuge of every pragmatist, the special; national conditions of Portugal:

‘We say that social democracy is not possible in Portugal. We said it before the proclamation of the land reform and before the nationalisations which affect 60% of our economy. The power of the big monopolies in Lisbon is broken. That’s a fact. We repeat the same thing: the methods used by our European social-democratic friends are not necessarily valid for us. What we want is to build a true democracy, respectful of the forms of political democracy but which would accept the very concrete forms of direct democracy, the experiences of self-management.’ [15]

This last reference to ‘self-management’ (autogestion) was a clever use of a concept which French Socialists have managed to deploy to the simultaneous pleasure of left and right (for after all it means nothing). Indeed, the Socialist Party was able to make calculated use of its ideological ‘flexibility’; during the 1975 election campaign Soares made right wing speeches in the conservative North, and left wing speeches in the industrial areas of Lisbon. (Perhaps the prize for two-facedness must go to Raul Rego, who as Minister of Information in 1974 fined the paper Republica, of which he himself was the publisher, for its reporting of a strike.)

Compared with the CP’s apparatus, steeled by clandestinity and rooted in the workplaces, the Socialist Party had little in the way of an organised base. In most situations this would not have worried the SP leaders. A social democratic party does not aim at mass mobilisation; if there are enough activists to collect subs and organise election propaganda, the rest of the class can be left in peace as voting fodder. But the peculiar circumstances of Portugal required the SP to mobilise on the streets, in particular in the period between the failed coup of 11 March 1975 and 25 November the same year. In this period the SP had to try to show that it was a ‘mass party’ able to rival the CP and the revolutionary left, though its leaders were always aware of the dangers of mass action.

During the summer and autumn of 1975 the SP mobilised several big rallies, first against the workers’ occupation of Republica, later in support of the Azevedo government. It is claimed that several of these attracted tens of thousands of participants, and some sources claim that the SP rally in Oporto of 25 October 1975 drew two hundred thousand. [16] But the numbers are not so important as the class composition of the demonstrations. It would appear that the SP demonstrations were not rallies of workers, but rather offered the opportunity for sections of the middle class to demonstrate for conservative policies without publicly aligning with the open right. An eye-witness report from Portugal in July 1975 puts it as follows:

‘We observed a demonstration called by the Socialist Party in Lisbon last week. It was overwhelmingly middle class. We looked closely and questioned many people. The only worker we came across was a Communist Party member who had come along, like us, to keep an eye on things. The mass of the demonstration was middle class to the backbone. It was made up of bank managers, senior servants, lawyers, doctors, with their expensive suits and carefully manicured hands.’ [17]

The SP attempt to win a trade union base likewise reflected its failure to win active working class involvement. In the summer of 1976 the Socialists launched an operation called the Open Letter designed to win away support from the CP leadership of the Intersindical. Initially this was quite successful, and at a conference held in August 1976 the Open Letter attracted unions representing about 350,000 workers, perhaps a quarter of the total forces of Intersindical. But workers fairly soon seem to have realised that a pro-governmental split in the unions could scarcely serve their interests. During the autumn many unions withdrew support for the Open Letter, and the movement collapsed by January 1977. Since the formation of the Soares government the previous summer, not a single union has elected an SP leadership.

On the electoral terrain things were very different. Here the SP were in their element. Their appeal, both to the middle class and to the non-militant sections of the working class, was considerable. In the April 1975 elections they took 37.87% of the vote, a clear 10% ahead of any other party; and in April the following year, despite the defeats and betrayals of the intervening twelve months, they held the vote at 34.97%. As committed supporters of parliamentarism the SP were streets ahead of their rivals as far as the politics of manipulation and demobilisation were concerned; in the 1975 elections:

‘The most sophisticated campaign was certainly that planned by the Socialist Party. Since 15 February the Portuguese Public Opinion Institute had carried out three polls, and the Socialists based their strategy on its findings. Three factors emerged as crucial. First, among those who would not admit their voting choice to the pollsters (most would not) the Socialist leader, Mario Soares, was by far the most popular figure in Portugal. Second, the Communist leader, Alvaro Cunhal, though far less popular than Soares, was more closely identified with his own party than Soares was with the Socialists. Third, the electorate’s main concern, after the cost of living, was not with the industrial aspect of the revolution – how well the workers were running industry, for example – but with the provision of a national health service and a proper pension scheme. Neither existed in Portugal before the coup. The Socialists therefore had to implant into people’s minds the fact that Soares was the party, which meant holding more rallies, including more outside Lisbon, than any other party.’ [18]

From the point of view of the ruling class, then, the CP and SP could be seen to be playing complementary roles. When the level of class struggle was high, in the factories or on the streets, then the CP was far more crucial as an instrument for disciplining and restraining workers. But when the focus shifted to the electoral arena, the Socialists were the more effective operators.

One important advantage which a social democratic party possesses over a Stalinist party is its ability to co-opt on its left. A Stalinist party can make left turns – as the Portuguese CP did to great effect at various points – but they must be bureaucratic and disciplined turns, which can be reversed the moment the tactical objective is achieved. What it cannot permit is individuals, let alone tendencies, acting freely to the left of the party line.

For a social democratic party, on the other hand, a left wing can be a positive asset. In a long-established party, such as the British Labour Party, the relationship between the leadership and the left is harmonious and functional. (When Callaghan attacks Benn he simultaneously (a) reassures the bourgeoisie that he will have no truck with leftist ideas and (b) reassures the constituency left that Benn is a threat and that it is worth their while staying in the party. When Benn attacks Callaghan he simultaneously (a) reassures the bourgeoisie that Callaghan is a ‘moderate’ and (b) reassures the constituency left that there is still a fight on).

In the hurly-burly of Portugal the relationship could not be so harmonious, but the ability to co-opt to the left was even more valuable in a situation where the workers’ upsurge was breeding leftism and ultra-leftism in growing quantities.

In the early months after the fall of fascism Soares made his left face by far the most prominent. The SP were noticeably more sympathetic to strikes than the CP, and it was the SP left who carried the main burden of building an SP base in the unions. The SP collaborated with the revolutionary left in some unions, and Soares spoke of a ‘multi-tendency party’ which might include the revolutionary left. Indeed, the SP maintained for quite a long time a sympathetic relationship with the Maoists of the MRPP (Movement to Reorganise the Proletarian Party) [19] whose hysterical Stalinism revived rhetoric of the Comintern’s Third Period and turned it against the CP, so that the SP seemed an acceptable ally against Cunhal’s ‘social fascists’. The SP youth was one of the few organisations to protest when hundreds of MRPP members were jailed in May 1975. [20] Undoubtedly this relationship with the MRPP formed a bridge over which the SP hoped to draw in sections of the radicalised left.

None the less, because of the volatility of the situation, Soares could not give his left too free a hand. At the December 1974 Congress of the SP the group around Manuel Serra accused Soares of rigging the leadership elections and left to form the FSP (Popular Socialist Front).

But when Soares formed his government in the summer of 1976, he again needed to show a left face. Two key ministries were given to figures identified with the left of the party; labour went to Marcelo Curto and agriculture to the party’s best-known left-winger, Lopes Cardoso. They would have to deal with the key struggles around wage control and the reversal of the land reform.

The tactic only half worked. By the beginning of November the SP left publicly denounced the austerity programme and Cardoso resigned from office. At the party congress, held at this time, the left were excluded from the SP leadership. The labour commissions of the party were suspended, and at one meeting the ‘leftist’ labour minister Curto was reported to have brought in security forces to break it up. [21] Cardoso subsequently left the SP and early in 1978 launched a new movement, the Socialist and Democratic Left.

Soares had one further asset, his close links with the major social democratic parties of Western Europe. He had these already during the years of exile (on 25 April 1974 Soares was in Bonn, dining with the West German Social Democratic Minister of Defence). [22] Soares undoubtedly benefited from these links; they provided him, not only with moral and political backing, but with practical and financial support. The image of being associated with the ruling parties of the prosperous Scandinavian countries may well have helped Soares with the poor voters of Portugal.

But it would be wrong to lay too much emphasis on outside influences. Such influences undoubtedly existed, but they were able to operate only to the extent that Soares built an initial basis of support for himself inside Portugal.

Likewise the EEC did not begin to offer the aid to Portugal that could reinforce Soares’ position until the internal conflicts were well on the way to resolution. The Economist commented on both the tardiness and the stinginess of the EEC’s offer:

‘After months of hesitation, and on the same evening as the agreement not to reopen trade talks with Spain for the moment, the Nine on Monday decided to grant emergency aid to Portugal at last. The arrival of a sixth provisional government under Admiral Pinheiro de Azevedo in Lisbon last month, pruned of radical officers and including the two main democratic parties, satisfied the Nine that Portugal was again on the democratic road, and so deserved the aid which had been dangled before it since the summer. The return as foreign minister of the pragmatic Major Melo Antunes, who was in Lisbon to meet the Nine, no doubt helped to push the EEC into coming up with an offer.

‘The amount of money involved – 180m units of account – is small, almost indecently so. [23] “So this is the price the EEC puts on pluralist democracy,” remarked one senior EEC aide who had closely followed the preparation of the commission’s own proposal for 700m units of account over three years.’ [24]

Likewise Philip Agee claimed at the end of 1975 that the CIA was ‘directly or indirectly, financing the two Christian Democrat parties, as well as the PPD and the Socialist party.’ In other words, it was hedging its bets. As Agee pointed out, ‘in any given country, the CIA cannot itself determine a chain of events, but only facilitate it.’ [25]

To sum up, then, Soares had a fairly mediocre hand of cards. A flexible ideology, enabling him to tack to left or right, a skilful election technique but no real working-class base, a limited success in co-opting to the left and a little – but only a little – help from his friends overseas – all this adds up to something very much less than a political triumph. The only plausible conclusion seems to be that Soares brought it off, not so much by his own merits as by the default of his rivals.

In underestimating Soares we tended to overestimate both the threat from the extreme right and the potential of the CP. It is certainly true that in the summer of 1975 various extreme rightists were regrouping, and the wave of attacks on the CP and other left-wing organisations was undoubtedly orchestrated by openly fascist elements. But the role of the extreme right was to harass the left and push it back onto the defensive rather than to pose itself as a direct contender for power. After all, the Portuguese ruling class had suffered the inconveniences of a right-wing authoritarian regime for decades before 1974, and had found them so intolerable that they had backed the military action that was to get rid of them; a reversion to fascism so soon was hardly an appealing prospect. For one thing it would have ditched Portugal’s chances of entry to the EEC for a very long time.

Nor was the Chilean example as inspiring to the right as many on the left tended to imagine. The coup of September 1973 had been a catastrophic defeat for the Chilean working class; but it had hardly been an unqualified success for the Chilean bourgeoisie and its American backers. The Chilean economy faced continuing chaos, and even conservative politicians found close association with Chile an embarrassment. Portugal clearly called for an alternative strategy if one could be found. As the New York Times put after the fall of Spinola in September 1974:

‘For the United States the only course is to respond with sympathy and generosity to the real needs for Portugal’s economic development and participation in the world trading economy. In the era of cold war there might have been a temptation to intervene, overtly or covertly, to counter “leftist” trends. Surely this country has learned enough from the recent and more distant past to understand that any such interventions would be foolhardy and futile.’ [26]

The Chilean model was real in the minds of many of the protagonists of the left. Thus for the PRP:

‘We have studied the Chilean situation. We detected crucial moments in the situation. The revolutionary process did not develop at these points and the working class was defeated. We think that we are in one of those crucial moments in Portugal now.’ [27]

And for Otelo de Carvalho:

‘But what worries me is the possible Chileanisation of Portugal building machines to kill. Machines for repression. With them they can set off a new Chile. I am haunted by that fear.’ [28]

Unfortunately the main effect of this preoccupation with the lessons of Chile was to distract attention from the source of the real threat.

Anti-communist sources inside and outside of Portugal suggested in 1975 that there was a real threat of a seizure of power by the CP. In fact such a possibility was never on the cards. It is true that the CP played a crucial role in 1974 by holding back workers’ struggles in a way that no other party could have done. But to convert their very real strength in the factories and on the streets into a potential for power would have meant a total transformation of their politics.

In fact the CP needed the SP far more than the SP needed the CP. At the time of the overthrow of fascism the CP was immeasurably stronger and better organised than the SP. On 25 April 1974 it had already five thousand members; it was the only party to have consistently organised throughout the period of fascism, and it had wide respect in the working class. It grew rapidly to a membership of 100,000; it had firm control of the central trade union body, the Intersindical, and soon took over the reins of local government in some two hundred municipalities. Thus its strength on the ground was immeasurably greater than was indicated by its rather meagre electoral performances. (In 1975 12.53% of the vote, plus 4.12% for its close ally the MDP.)

But to realise the political scenario to which it was irrevocably committed, that of the Popular Front, it needed a Socialist Party to act as a bridge between itself and the openly bourgeois parties. In the months after April 1974 the CP actively campaigned to build the Socialist Party, to give its leaders credibility, precisely in order to construct an ally for itself. Cunhal himself admitted this a year later:

‘I do not think that for the moment any governmental coalition linking the MFA and other parties could leave out the SP. Likewise the CP could not be left out. A coalition between the CP and what is called the left of the MFA is very unlikely.’ [29]

A similar piece of tailing was evident in 1976, when the CP stated they would have backed the right-wing General Eanes for the presidency along with the SP, if the right-wing parties had not been supporting Eanes.

In this situation, Soares could attempt to co-opt the CP, knowing that he was in the politically advantageous position. When asked by Marcel Niedergang of le Monde whether the CP was the main enemy, Soares replied:

‘Not at all. We have never considered the PCP as an enemy. The main enemy, the only one, is the right, which is plotting and waiting. The Communist Party must be associated with the government but it must be forced to play the democratic game. That is possible elsewhere in Europe. Why not in Portugal? I am personally very close to Santiago Carrillo, the general secretary of the Spanish Communist Party.’ [30]

The CP could not install state capitalism in Portugal. The establishment of state capitalism, as in post-1945 Eastern Europe, required not only the virtual absence of a native bourgeoisie but also the passivity of the working class. Nor was a Peruvian solution (a ‘left’ military regime without formal participation of the parties, but backed by the CP) possible. That too would have required a passive working class. So only the Popular Front strategy remained. But the result was the same as in France and Italy in 1944–47, (or for that matter as in the experience of the Union of the Left in the 70s in France); the social democrats use the CP as a means of building their own support in the class, then, when the time is ripe, they discard it.

There was, of course, one other alternative for Portugal in 1975 – proletarian revolution. Here it was the subjective factor that was missing; none of the revolutionary organisations in Portugal had been willing and able to build the mass party rooted in the class that was needed for a bid far power.

If this account of the Portuguese experience is correct (and if it is not I hope comrades with a closer experience of it than I will point out the errors) then some very tentative general conclusions may be drawn:

  1. Social democracy provided a more effective and economical way of defusing a potentially revolutionary situation than a Chilean-style coup. In future crises we may expect social democracy to be the preferred weapon of the ruling class.
  2. For the benefit of any malicious readers this does not mean that I am reviving the ‘social fascism’ theory. Social democracy is not the ‘main enemy’. What it does mean is that the revolutionary left has to be very careful to preserve its political and organisational independence from social democracy so as to offer a political alternative.
  3. In Portugal, social democracy succeeded by default rather than through the intrinsic merits of its programme, ideology or organisation. Workers accepted the SP pragmatically, for want of an alternative, rather than having any positive commitment to its politics. Therefore political strategies based on exposure of, or making demands on, the social democrats, are likely to be of little value. [31]
  4. This is not to rule out the united front strategy towards workers in or around social democratic parties. But it does mean such united fronts must begin with concrete day-to-day struggles, not with grandiose programmatic formulations or governmental slogans.
  5. The phenomenally high level of struggle in Portugal in 1974-75 came from a working class which, because of the long years of fascism, had been scarcely touched by reformism. (In Spain, where there had been a much more extensive development of working-class organisation under Franco, the transition from fascism to bourgeois democracy was less explosive). But the achievement of such levels of struggle did not mean that Portuguese workers had by-passed reformism or were permanently immune from it. Reformism’s power to co-opt should never be underestimated.
  6. There may be parallels with other aspects of the class struggle. For instance, in Britain over the last few years the highest level of struggle has come from sections of the class – women, blacks, youth – which have been relatively little touched by the reformism which is so deeply rooted in the British working class. Such struggles have been of immense importance. But we should beware of believing that any section of the class is permanently immunised against reformism. A revolutionary movement that underestimates the power of reformism will pay a heavy price for it.


1. C. Harman, Portugal: the latest phase, International Socialism 1:83, p. 9.

2. C. Harman, The crisis of the European revolutionary left, IS 2:4, p. 54.

3. I have phrased the point thus to avoid what seem to be me largely semantic arguments about what constitutes a ‘revolutionary’ or ‘pre-revolutionary’ situation. (Trotsky dealt scathingly with those who ‘have a thermometer which they place under the tongue of old lady History, and by this means ... infallibly determine the revolutionary temperature.’ – Whither France?, Colombo, 1961, p. 44.

4. Expressed in innumerable articles in Socialist Worker and International Socialism and various pamphlets. The most comprehensive single statement is T. Cliff, Portugal at the Crossroads, IS Special, 1:81–82.

5. Press statement issued after IS delegates withdrew from an international conference organised in early November 1975 by Lutte Ouvriere. Reproduced inter alia in Intercontinental Press (hereafter ICP), 2 February 1976, p,143.

6. Socialist Worker, 26 July 1975, p. 7 and 20 September 1975, p. 1.

7. T. Cliff, Portugal at the Crossroads, p. 17.

8. Revoluçao, 17 November 1975 and Isobel de Carmo at press conference on 10 November 1975; both cited ICP, 22 December 1975, p. 1804.

9. I. Birchall, April Dream in Portugal, IS 1:69, p. 17 (this piece, which appeared under my name, was in fact almost exclusively based on an interview with a Portuguese militant in exile).

10. Notes of the Month, IS 1:101, p. 7.

11. For some general thoughts on the problem, see I. Birchall, Social Democracy in Europe, SWP International Discussion Bulletin, 7/8, p. 21.

12. Diario de Lisboa, 3 September 1974, cited ICP, 14 October 1974, p. 1320.

13. Cited ICP, 3 February 1975, p. 132.

14. Cited ICP, 31 March 1975, p. 424.

15. Interview in Le Monde 4, 23 October 1975.

16. ICP, 17 November 1975, p. 1576.

17. Colin Sparks, Socialist Worker, 26 July 1975. Some readers may feel this report is not objective, being tainted by the ‘workerism’ commonly said to characterise the IS tendency. But compare the following account of the SP demonstration of 2 May 1975, by Gerry Foley, a supporter of the Hansenite wing of the Fourth International, which has been generally soft on the Socialist Party (see note 31 below):

’The class composition of the march seemed quite mixed. There were many youth, some workers, but the crowd seemed largely middle-class. Some of the men in the cordon ringing the crowd were carrying briefcases. The CP crowds I have seen have also been largely middle-class but seemed to have more worker activists.’ (ICP, 19 May 1975, p. 651)

18. Insight team of the Sunday Times, Insight on Portugal, Deutsch, London, 1975, p. 234.

19. Jean Pierre Faye, in his Portugal: The Revolution in the Labyrinth (Spokesman Books, Nottingham 1976), based on the work of the Russell Committee for Portugal, suggests obliquely that the MRPP was part of a conscious manoeuvre against the left (pp. 87–90). It is not necessary to accept this to agree that the objective role of the MRPP was certainly to weaken the revolutionary left and strengthen the SP.

20. ICP, 30 June 1975, p. 899.

21. ICP, 29 November 1976, p. 1717.

22. Faye, op. cit., p. 51.

23. Something of the order of £75 million.

24. The Economist, 11 October 1975, p. 50.

25. Faye, op. cit., pp. 190, 195.

26. Editorial, 2 October 1974, cited ICP, 14 October 1974, p. 1319.

27. Portugal: the views of a PRP leader, IS 1:80, p. 20.

28. Faye, op. cit., pp. 49–50.

29. Interview in Le Monde. 27 May 1975, cited ICP, 16 June 1975, p. 812.

30. Le Monde, 3 October 1975, p. 3.

31. A typical case is the response to the Portuguese events of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International. The USFI is divided into two major tendencies which may be described as ‘Hansenite’ (based on the American SWP) and ‘Mandelite’ (based on the West European sections of the USFI). The division between these two was sharpened by the dispute over the newspaper Republica. In Spring 1975 print-workers on the paper occupied the presses because the paper’s pro-SP line (though it was not the SP’s official paper) was leading to declining sales. While the MFA agreed that the paper should be handed back to its owner, SP member Raul Rego, they were unwilling – or unable – to accede to Soares’ demand for military force to be used to break the occupation. Soares then left the government and began to mobilise demonstrations against the government line. From this time on the Hansenite wing began to develop a position of almost uncritical tailing of the SP. A typical utterance was the following from one Gerry Foley:

‘What is certain is that the real vanguard of the Portuguese working class at the present time participated in the SP demonstrations. The proletarian vanguard is not to be found among the ultra-leftists who followed a shadow of “people’s power” into isolation and even allowed themselves to be used by military demagogues as pawns in a campaign to rob the masses of their democratic rights. Nor were the most intelligent, class-conscious, and courageous sections of the proletariat with the Stalinist myrmidons who were mobilised to sing the praises of military rulers and help deny the majority of the working class the right to demonstrate.

‘The most courageous and independent-minded sections of the Portuguese proletariat braved furious demagogy from the Stalinist-controlled media, physical threats from the military, and the demented anathemas of the ultra-leftists, to demonstrate their determination not to be intimidated or deluded into giving up their right to political freedom, their right to decide for themselves who will run the country and the workers organizations.

‘Since the Communist party is the main supporter of the military’s attack on the democratic rights of the masses, it was inevitable that such mass mobilizations. would express anti-Communist feelings. Objectively, this was certainly no more reactionary than the denunciations levelled by the Stalinists and the ultra-leftists against the SP supporters as “reactionaries”, “pro-imperialists”, “enemies of the people”, and so on.

‘In fact, the anti-Communist feeling in the SP demonstrations was less backward, since it was a reaction to real efforts at repression suffered at the hands of the Communist party and its allies. The dogmatic denunciation by the Stalinists and ultra-leftists amounted to a demagogic campaign in defence of military rule.’ (ICP, 4 August 1975, p. 1114)

Such sub-McCarthyism was too much for Mandelite stomachs. A veritable ‘battle of the giants’ erupted in the public press. The three major texts are: Pierre Frank, Livio Maitan and Ernest Mandel: In Defence of the Portuguese Revolution, ICP, 8 September 1975, pp. 1167ff.; Gerry Foley, Joseph Hansen and George Novack: For a Correct Political Course in Portugal, ICP, 13 October 1975, pp. 1355ff.; Frank, Maitan and Mandel: Revolution and Counterrevolution in Portugal, ICP, 15 and 22 December. 1975, pp. 1768ff.

Mandel and friends commented, with some justice, that the Hansenite line, ‘if persisted in, ... could seriously discredit Trotskyism in the eyes of advanced workers not only in Portugal itself; but throughout capitalist Europe.’ (ICP, 8 September 1975, p. 1167)

Hansen and friends replied, equally correctly, that in the current situation in Portugal, the two wings of the supposedly ‘democratic centralist’ party of world revolution might find themselves on opposite sides of the barricades:

‘... Inherent in such situations ... is the application of force. Skulls can get cracked.’ (ICP, 13 October 1975, p. 1392)

However, after the rhetoric was over it seemed that not so much separated the two tendencies after all. Both were prepared to go quite a long way in tailing the reformists. In Portugal there were two sympathising sections of the USFI, the Mandelite LCI (International Communist League) and the Hansenite PRT (Revolutionary Workers Party). In the elections of April 1976 the two organisations issued separate statements to the voters. The LCI declared:

‘We demand that the CP and the SP assume their responsibilities by forming a government without representatives of the bourgeoisie.’ (ICP, 26 April 1976, p. 713)

What those responsibilities were they did not specify. Were they the ‘responsibilities’ defined by the leaderships of the reformist parties, or rather the responsibilities incumbent on the ‘ideal type’ of a ‘workers party’?

The PRT had a slightly different slogan:

‘If you want a government that represents the will of the SP and CP comrades, if you want an SP government without capitalists or generals, vote for the PRT.’ (ICP, 26 April 1976, p. 714)

There was no advice for the simple-minded elector who might respond: ‘Wouldn’t it be simpler just to vote for the PS?’

Behind the different formulations lay the same preoccupation, namely, that the task of revolutionaries was to put the reformists in power precisely at a moment when the reformists were about to remove the vestiges of power that workers had won in their struggles over the two preceding years.

The grotesque conclusion came with the presidential elections. The LCI and the PRT united to present a candidate (who withdrew before polling for non-political reasons). In her programme ‘she promises that if she is elected she will call on the general secretary of the SP, Mario Soares, or an SP leader chosen by the party to form a government representing the will of a majority of the workers.’ (ICP, 24 May 1976, p. 847)

In short, in the unlikely event of a Trotskyist being elected president, she would have – give or take a little rhetoric – appointed the same Prime Minister as was in fact appointed by General Eanes. Further comments seems superfluous.

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