Portugal 1975

Richard Swift on the Portuguese revolution.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on January 12, 2011

By Richard Swift

The revolutionary process in Portugal is not one that lends itself very easily to a coherent political analysis. Political leadership is quickly thrown up by the creative energy of the workers and peasants and as quickly discarded as its usefulness to them wears thin. In many ways it recalls the French revolutionary process of 1789. Like the revolt of the first estate in France, Portuguese events started at the top with the revolt of the Spinola group attempting to engineer a neo-colonial solution in Portugal's African territories. As in France, this created a dynamic in which more and more demands on the revolution were being made from below. The strongest similarity with France is in this political process whereby a political grouping reaches power (the Girondins, Jacobins, or the Directory) just in time to see the alliance of social classes which created it broken down by the emergence of new needs and fresh polarizations which rob it of its initial social support. In Portugal this dynamic has caught up with the original Spinola grouping of officers, the alliance of Armed Forces Movement and political party moderates and radicals and most recently the Portuguese Communist Party and its military allies. The present 'coalition' government is being subjected to the same pressures.

Each new regime has promised its own form of 'normalization' to meet its own ends. For this purpose a whole arsenal of repressive legislation such as the Censorship Law and the Labour Relations Act have been created but seldom applied. This legislation has remained on the shelf and normalization' has not proceeded very far because the initiative has not rested with these governments. The initiative rested with those workers who have taken over and are running their factories, the peasants who have seized the large estates, the tenants who have occupied and are co-operatively running vacant housing, neighbourhood committees, and perhaps most importantly the soldiers' committees which have challenged the whole hierarchical concept of a traditional army. Each political crisis has meant a new gathering of strength for the working class. In the last year and a half, Portugal has become a vast laboratory of experimentation and apprenticeship for large-sections of the Portuguese people in learning to run their own society. Whatever political arrangements are finally arrived at, this self-activity and the confidence it has created have become an integral part of Portuguese working class experience. It will not be forgotten.

The growth of socialist consciousness is widely evident all over Portugal but particularly in the urban areas and in the south. After decades of acute censorship the signs of intense political debate are everywhere; posters covering walls and monuments, posters on the inside of banks (Banco de Atlantico), insurance companies taken over by their workers, mass demonstrations, socialist literature on sale in the streets, and groups of men gathering spontaneously to discuss current political issues. The Chinese technique of communication by means of wall posters has been widely adopted. In Lisbon's railroad station workers gather to read the latest rumours of fascist political maneouvering or the political position of one of the myriad left groups. After years of enforced 'apolitical' existence under the Salazar and Caetano regimes there is little of the reluctance to view life in its political dimensions which characterizes many of the countries where the bourgeoisie have been able to establish a more effective cultural and spiritual hegemony. Although there is a healthy mistrust of political parties, it is not rooted in the same apathy, cynicism, and feelings of powerlessness which impede working class self-activity in much of Western Europe and all of North America. The ruling groups of Portuguese society have been badly compromised by their years of collaboration with the fascist dictatorship and its policies of colonial aggression. They are having trouble regrouping politically, let alone establishing their credibility as the legitimate powerholders. In fact the traditional instruments of their legitimation such as the press and the electronic media have become an important force in the struggle for working class control. It is in this light that the struggle for workers' control in the newspaper Republica and the Catholic Radio-Renaissance should be seen.

Many events in contemporary Portugal take on spontaneous political implications. A New Year's Eve celebration became a spontaneous festival of the "blaze of freedom". A village discussion of the lack of daycare facilities leads to the occupation of the local manor house. A factory discussion on increasing the wage levels of the lowest paid leads to an attempted takeover of production. There is also widespread awareness of the international dimensions of the class struggle. The liberation struggles in Africa have exerted a powerful influence in Portuguese society. This can be seen both in the 'models of socialism' debate and in the sentiments of indebtedness to and solidarity with the liberation movements. Rallies in support of the Chilean resistance and the recent sacking of the Spanish embassy in Lisbon to protest Franco's ruthless policies of repression are recent examples.

The revolutionary process in Portugal has been badly distorted in a well-orchestrated campaign by the interna-tional press. The cold-war lenses through which the wire services see the struggle for Portugal have little to do with Portuguese realities. The scenario is familiar. Any advances by the workers' movement or democratization of the army are seen as part of a Moscow-run plot carried out by the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) to usurp the newly-won freedom of the Portuguese people. The campaign centres in the leadership factions of the Portuguese Socialist Party (PSP) who have become the major rallying-point for international capital. This campaign, mostly in combination with economic pressures from the European Economic Community, are aimed at forcing a moderation in the process of democratizing Portuguese society both economically and politically. The international bourgeoisie is greatly concerned that the April elections failed to provide a parliamentary channelling of revolutionary energies. As always the focal points for the development of workers' power in everyday life lie outside the field of parliamentary representation. The 'plot' theory they are using to explain Portuguese events takes advantage of the well-known Stalinist proclivities of the PCP. However, it is based on a vest overestimation of the Communists' strength.

This situation has been further reinforced by the Communist Party and their allies abroad who have been quick to identify the party's fortunes with those of the revolutionary process as a whole. This has led to a very serious misunderstanding of the very ambivalent role the PCP has played in this process. To be sure, the Communist tenure in power was one marked by vast conquests of power by the workers' movement. This is particularly true in regard to the cultural dynamization1 carried out by the Armed Forces Movement in some of the most socially backward rural areas. It is also true of the emergence of political debate inside the armed forces and the beginnings of the struggle for democracy there. The Gonsalves regime allowed the breathing space for these things to take place. However, as often as not, factory occupations, land seizures, strikes, and the building of institutions of political power in the neighbourhoods were opposed by the Party. The Communists plainly saw that they were losing control of the mass movement. Things were getting messy. The movement could not be used simply as an instrument of party policy. Working people were developing needs and aspirations of their own. Not only that, they were acting on them.

This is perhaps most clear in the struggles taking place in the nationalized industries. According to the Communist Party, once an industry had been nationalized, the workers in that industry ceased to have any 'class enemy'.

This by now covers over 50% of Portuguese enterprises. Authoritarian relations of production were to be allowed to remain intact even though private property in the means of production had been abolished. This is perfectly compatible with the bureaucratic collectivist model of eastern Europe where both production and society are con-trolled 'for the workers' by a caste of professional politicians and bureaucrats.2

However, workers in the nationalized sector, starting with the steel industry, began raising their own demands and creating their own forms of organization. Demands for control over work conditions, wage equalization and a greater say in creating production policy were all important issues to the workers. Workers' commissions and councils were formed. These organizations and their counterparts in the neighbourhoods, army, and rural areas, represent a very high stage in the process of creating a self-managed socialist society. Because they are rooted in production and the daily life of the people, their capacity for mobilization is much greater than that of the "Committees for the Defense of the Revolution" envisioned by the Communists to be instruments of mass mobilization. These committees were to have a strictly ideological function.

The 'models of socialism' debate has been an important part of the developing political situation in Portugal. There is considerable dissatisfaction in Portugal with both western European Social Democracy and the eastern European model of socialism. Even the moderate 'Melo Antunes' group of officers felt it necessary to dissociate themselves from both these forms in their political statements. The influence of FRELIMO and the other liberation movements on sectors of the army has meant that their conception of socialism is one with a heavy emphasis on popular democracy and participation. This influence as well as the strength of several neo-Marxist currents in the Portuguese left has made the 'models of socialism' debate a particularly lively one.

This debate is closely tied to the analytical controversy over what kind of society Portugal really is. One position states that Portugal is a 'third world' society within Europe. This analysis concontrates on the rural nature of the country, the Portuguese workers who are forced into the western European labour market, and the authoritarian political forms that have dominated Portuguese society. The other view stresses the semi-industrial nature of Portugal (Paul Sweezy recently pointed out that only one-third of the population is in the agrarian sector) and the European traditions of the Portuguese.3

While it is not possible at this point to identify clear political conclusions and strategies which flow from these different views, they obviously relate to the economic and social needs and possibiIities on which a socialist strategy will be based. One of the most obvious issues facing any such strategy is the severity of regional disparities in Portugal. The relationship between the 'internal colony' in north-eastern Portugal and the industrial belt running from Lisbon down to Setubal has been reproduced on a political level in the struggle between the anti-Communist north and the Lisbon-area 'red' belt. Such uneven development leaves room for much reactionary maneuvering as recent events all too clearly show.4

A survey of the revolutionarv groups on the Portuguese left reveals the success of those political organizations which have developed a dialectical relationship with the popular movements. Those Groups have been able to relate to and play an initiating role in the formation of workers' councils, to help bring about the expansion of workers' power, and to understand and even learn from the emerging needs and aspirations of the people. The Revolutionary Party of the Proletariat (PRP), the Left Socialist Movement (MES) and the League for Unified Armed Revolution (LUAR) have all played an important part at different times and in different areas in this process of developing workers' power. In this way these groups have been able to grow and become rooted in the working class.

Those groups which have fetishized their own organization and political 'line' and have attempted to use the workers' movement as an instrument of their own party policy have not fared as well. This is illustrated by the several Marxist-Leninist (Maoist) groupings which have emerged mostly since the coup. The collapse of their politics has reached such a point that the two largest Maoist organizations, the largely student based Movement for the Reorganization of the Proletarian Party (MRPP) and the Popular Democratic Union (UDP) have engaged in gunfights with one another. The Portuguese Communist Party (M-L) which has official Chinese sanction, has been supporting the 'Melo Antunes' group of officers and the right wing of the Socialist Party against Communist Party 'social fascism'. These forms of authoritarianism and sectarianism have impeded significant growth and creative political activity. Of these groups only the Popular Democratic Union is of any size or consequence within the working class.

The recent rise to power of a western-backed Social Democratic coalition has brought renewed pressure to reverse popular conquests of power. The polarization of the army is reaching a point where the differences between radicals and moderates are becoming clearer and clearer. Top officers in all three services have been pushing for the exclusion of politics from the barracks and the isolation of the soldiers' movement from the workers' movement. Radicals in the army have shown a high level of combativity in resisting this process. The recent formation of a rank-and-file soldiers' organization, "United Soldiers Will Win" (SUV), and the continued refusal of the internal security force, COPCON, to support these repressive tendencies, have provided poles of opposition to this 'normalization'.

The new assaults on the popular movement demand a more consistent and co-ordinated response from the left. To this end, several organizations including the LUAR, the MES, and the PRP have formed the United Revolutionary Front (FUR) to improve the organization and stimulate the combativity of the popular response. It is hoped that this will help fill the void created by the vacillation and manipulative policies of the PCP and the decline of its working class support and capacity for mobilization.

The mechanisms of international counter-revolution are by now well-known. The economic pressures, massive misinformation campaigns, and straight counter-insurgency efforts exert a powerful influence. Only popular mobilization on the widest possible basis can ensure a level of combativity necessary to defeat these forces. This can only be achieved by organization which is a tool of working class needs and aspirations. To reverse this and make the working class a tool of organization can only lead to cynicism and passivity. Only a working class which sees itself as the subject of history can ensure that Portugal will not be the Chile of Europe.

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This article was written before the recent failure of left-wing military officers to seize power. The purges in the military and the press which have followed this ill-planned and defensive attempt are severe reverses for socialism and are likely to intensify the pressures for 'normalization'. The lack of co-ordination between the military and civilian left and the political vacuum created by the timidity and sectarianism of the PCP were obvious factors in recent events. The movement toward some form of social-democratic solution with authoritarian undertones will likely be accelerated.

There are, however, some factors that the new rulers must take into account in the long run. The intense politicization and "revolution of rising expectations" will create severe pressures for the Socialist Party both internally and externally. The internal tensions created in social-democratic parties elsewhere because of their failure to win concessions for their working class base within the framework of capitalism will be further intensified by Portuguese conditions. It is unlikely that an overtly authoritarian regime will emerge so that some room for organizing by the left will remain. In addition, the revolutionary left in Portugal are used to working in situations of extreme political repression, and at this point have over 20,000 weapons stolen from the military as insurance. But perhaps most importantly, the Portuguese working class has the experience and confidence gained through their own creative self-activity in struggling for control of society. This will be invaluable in buildina a working class 'culture of resistance'.

Published in Volume 1, Number 1 of The Red Menace, February 1976.
Taken from web-archived version of The Red Menace website.

  • 1On the culutral dynamization program and other articles on Portugal, see Fred Strasser, "The Cultural Dynamization Program", Liberation, Summer, 1975.
  • 2For a more detailed analysis of the creation of popular power and the struggle in the nationalized industries, look at Portugal: A Blaze of Freedom, published by Big Flame in England and available through Radical America (P.O. Box B, North Cambridge, Mass., U.S.A.) or from the Development Education Centre (DEC), 121 Avenue Rd., Toronto, phone 416-964-6560.
  • 3"Class Struggles in Portugal", Monthly Review, Sept. 1975.
  • 4For good background information on Portugal see Kenneth Maxwell, "The Hidden Revolution in Portugal", New York Review of Books, Apr. 17 and May 11, 1975.



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