The ferment in Portugal reached its peak in summer 1975. The old top military command had been marginalised by the failure of its attempted coups on 28 September 1974 and 11 March 1975.
Power was in the hands of the loose-knit Armed Forces Movement (AFM), middle-rank officers, some close to the Socialist Party, some close to the Communist Party.
The Fifth Provisional Government, in office from 8 August to 19 September, was close to the CP.
Swathes of industry had been nationalised, and some was under workers’ control. Workers’ commissions and neighbourhood commissions flourished in the Lisbon area especially.
In the more conservative north, a right-wing campaign against trade union and Communist Party offices had developed.
In the midst of this, on 25 August 1975, the main left and revolutionary groups, including the PRP (to whom the British SWP, then called IS, were close) and the LCI (Mandelite), cancelled themselves out by joining a “United Revolutionary Front” (FUR), with the CP and in support of the CP-influenced government.
The CP soon quit the FUR (the other groups in it objected to negotiations the CP had opened with the SP!) On 19 September the Fifth Provisional Government was replaced by a Sixth, led by José Baptista Pinheiro de Azevedo, a conservative within the AFM who would later join the Christian Democratic Party. The CP participated as a minority in the Sixth Government.
On 25 November, Ramalho Eanes, another AFM conservative, organised a coup in which more radical AFM officers were jailed and more radicalised army units disbanded. The Sixth Government, with CP participation, remained in office, but the revolutionary ferment was decisively damped down.
The article below, from Workers’ Fight 108, 6 September 1975, was the comment at the time from the forerunners of Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty on the “United Revolutionary Front”.
In Portugal, where every party is “socialist” and “revolutionary”, where even the leader of the main liberal-capitalist party declares himself a “Leninist”, it is as obvious as it ever could be that simple leftwing good intentions are not enough.
No force or grouping is quite what it appears, and in any case it is likely to be different tomorrow from what it is today. To navigate a course to workers’ power through this maelstrom requires the highest possible degree of political clarity.
And if it is difficult to understand events and respond aptly on the spot in Portugal, it is doubly difficult to get a clear view from Britain. Yet in recent weeks Socialist Worker, the paper of the International Socialism group, has shown an extraordinary picture of confusion.
Column after column has been filled with hymns to the joys and beauties of revolution in Portugal; scarcely any attention is given to sober analysis of the problems.
In Socialist Worker of 23 August, they proudly boast that the PRP — the Portuguese group with which IS has links — helped to write the programme recently issued by Copcon, the internal security wing of the armed forces. On Socialist Worker of 30 August, that programme is referred to simply as “the revolutionary programme”.
It is certainly true that the Copcon document’s support for setting up popular assemblies has helped to advance the development of organs of workers’ power in Portugal.
Nevertheless, if these Popular Assemblies are to go forward to workers’ power, it is vital that they make a political break from left wing officers like Copcon commander Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho. Carvalho is to make the most revolutionary declarations one day, only to league with the right wing of the AFM the next day, as recently, for a brief period he attempt to combine with Major Melo Antunes and the “Group of Nine”.
By helping to write the Copcon document which Carvalho endorsed the PRP were in fact just helping to give Carvalho a more presentable left-wing “face”.
For the PRP to do this is logical. A PRP leader told a Workers’ Fight reporter recently in Lisbon that he believed the Otelo had “kept faith with the revolutionary left”. Even now, apparently, PRP members are saying that “Otelo” has assured them privately that he is still with the revolutionary left.
IS however, mumble occasionally in Socialist Worker about the need not to have illusions in “middle class officers” — which on other pages of their paper they spread those self-same illusions! What all this shows is that IS cares not two pence for political clarity, if there is a chance of doing a good “publicity job” for “revolution” and for IS.
Socialist Worker of 30 August hails as “historic” (no less) the “united front” between the Communist Party and various far-left groups that was formed last week. Now certainly revolutionaries in Portugal should try to form a united front against the right wing attacks on the CP: to hold demonstrations and rallies, and organise united vigilante squads on the specific slogan of defending the workers’ movement against reaction.
By approaching the leaders and members of the Socialist Party to join this united front, they could heal the vicious divisions in the working class or at least win over some of the misguided workers who still follow the SP.
But the “Revolutionary United Front” was not like that. According to Socialist Worker, the slogans agreed for its demonstration included some which, while not wrong were anything but precise in meaning: “for a front of popular unity”, “Workers, poor peasants, soldiers and sailors: together, we can win,” “Against fascism, against capitalism: popular offensive”; and one which in our opinion is very dangerous — “Dissolve the Constituent Assembly”.
Such a mobilisation could have no concrete effect in repelling the right. Its political logic was that of Popular Front ism — unity on a vague and minimal programme for the sake of preserving a capitalist “lesser evil”. That political logic would tend to make the “united front” not a body which would defend the CP against the right while allowing revolutionaries to condemn the criminal class collaborationist and bureaucratic policies of the CP, but a body helping to give credit to the policies of the CP.
And that’s how it turned out. The “united front” demonstration was manipulated by the CP into a demonstration of support for the Goncalves government.
Since then the CP has been expelled from the “united front”. MES and the FSP — two groups which up to now have been the CP’s closet allies — have condemned the CP vigorously, and even the MDP, a satellite organisation of the CP, did not oppose the expulsion.
The slogan “Dissolve the Constituent Assembly” as especially dangerous. If a government of workers’ councils were arising to replace the Constituent Assembly, clearly revolutionaries would favour the dispersal of the Constituent Assembly by workers’ action. But Portugal is not at that stage, yet.
The slogan “Dissolve the Constituent Assembly” can only help throw more backward workers and peasants into the hands of the right (by making it appear that the left want to deprive them of what they see as their democratic expression) and to give assistance to attempts to impose a more stable military regime of a left-wing variety.
In Portugal, the mistakes of the revolutionary left can have very immediate disastrous results. In Britain at the moment, IS can follow its course of tail-ending workers’ militancy with no worse result than embarrassment at its frequent 180º changes of policy.
But that makes it all the more important that we learn from the experience of Portugal the complete inadequacy of the IS method.