Portugal’s historic communist leader at 100th anniversary

June 13 — Catalinotto wrote this in response to a request by Portuguese comrades at odiario.info that he commemorate the 100th anniversary this year of the birth of Álvaro Cunhal, historic leader of the Portuguese Communist Party.

With my rudimentary Portuguese I had just struggled through the last chapters of “Ate Amanha, Camaradas,” (Until Tomorrow, Comrades*) on that June weekend eight years ago when I learned that the author of this powerful novel had just died.

I first learned about Álvaro Cunhal after Portugal’s April 1974 revolution, which overthrew the fascist dictatorship. I first learned about Manuel Tiago, his pseudonym, really his novelist alter-ego, more than 30 years later. In 2004, I had accepted an opportunity to contribute political articles from the United States to Avante, the weekly newspaper of the Portuguese Communist Party. I thought at the time that by reading Cunhal/Tiago’s novels I could both learn some Portuguese and get some insight into the PCP.

Nothing was better for this insight than Tiago’s classic novel. It told the story of the inner workings of a general strike in the Ribatejo province, northeast of Lisbon, in 1944, and of the human beings who organized and carried it out. They did this working under conditions of illegality imposed by a fascist dictatorship. It was easy to accept that Cunhal knew how his comrades performed their tasks. But was it possible that someone who was secretary-general of one of the largest and most effective European communist parties could have somehow found the time and energy to write a believable novel peopled by real human beings?

One can only assume that during the more than 15 years that Cunhal spent isolated in prisons — including from 1949 until the famous Peniche maximum security prison break that liberated 10 top-level political prisoners in 1960 — during that time when he was unable to do what party leaders do every day, Cunhal/Tiago planned out his novels, or so I imagine.

Unless someone has spent decades engaged in this kind of project, it is hard to understand what a sublime task those who build a communist party have to perform: Start out with human beings, with all their strengths and weaknesses, fears and courage, foibles and talents, and wind up with an effective implement to struggle against an oppressive ruling class that has centuries of experience dominating society. The challenge for the best organizers is to mesh these dedicated but imperfect individuals so that their collective whole turns out to be much greater than the mere sum of their parts.

In the novel, we are introduced first to the individuals. An utterly self-sacrificing and dedicated Communist organizer who, however, is incapable of tuning in emotionally to his comrades and understanding how to elicit their greatest potential. A young, dedicated party member, beginning clandestine life, who tells a very sneaky lie to the woman assigned to work with him because he is in love with her. A comrade completely devoid of party discipline — absolutely necessary for illegal work — who despite his flaws refuses to squeal to the enemy under torture. Agricultural workers without much formal education, even in party politics, but who have earned the confidence of their co-workers and are destined to lead them in struggle. A really annoying petty bourgeois, a lawyer, who despite his weaknesses and fears makes important material contributions. A woman who acts a little insane in order to divert the fascist political police — the PIDE — from capturing a leader of the agricultural workers.

We see how, in the course of the planning of a general strike in the region, these individuals work together, where they mesh, where they clash, and how the PCP earns the loyalty of the workers in that region of Portugal. I’m not going to try to tell this story, except to relate one anecdote that sticks in my memory and review one conclusion of the last section of the novel. I believe these lessons are important for anyone active in the movement today, at a time when the ruling class has succeeded in demonizing even the idea of a disciplined workers’ political party.

At one point, when the call for the strike has first gone out, two workers from the region are asking two of the organizers, both PCP members, who is behind the call. “Is the PCP organizing the strike?” they ask. The members are cautious, worried that they might frighten away the workers if they admit the truth. They try to avoid the question, but fail. Finally, they admit the PCP is behind the call. The workers are relieved; now they know that the strike will be serious and organized to the maximum of its strength. That is the PCP’s reputation even before the general strike.

The strike is successful in mobilizing the great majority of the workers in the region for weeks of struggle in the factories and the fields. It even wins some concessions for the workers. Nevertheless, the fascist police are able to crush the organization by force. Many of its leaders are captured, jailed, tortured. Some are killed, including the comrade who is probably the best all-around political organizer. Others have to flee or hide. The regional party organization seems completely broken. In this time before cell phones and Internet, there is no contact with the PCP leadership in Lisbon.

Months after the strike is broken, the party’s Lisbon leaders finally are able to make contact. They expect to have to send new leaders, to rebuild the organization. But the impact of the strike and repression is not what they expected. Despite the police terror, the masses of workers have more confidence in their own strength. They also have gained even more confidence in the dedication and seriousness of the party. The remaining party organizers have pulled themselves together and re-established the organization. They promote heroic and talented rank-and-file organizers to be leaders of the regional party structure. The party has taken heavy casualties … but it is stronger than before. It is not in avoiding casualties but in establishing the capability of the workers to wage an enormous struggle that the workers and their party have gained strength.

In addition, a woman comrade who had been frustrated by her role as helper and housekeeper of the clandestine household, and who suffers a personal tragedy worthy of any story of unrequited or impossible love, is recognized by the party as a leader. She is moved to a new area for training and for political leadership. Perhaps this marked the biggest gain of the strike — to recognize the contribution of women and double the number of potential political leaders.

Cunhal might have written those lessons in a pamphlet. Tiago’s novel makes them even more believable. It’s time to imagine how to apply those lessons here.

* For English readers, there is a Portuguese-language video from a TV series dramatizing the book, released with English subtitles, that presents the story of “Até Amanhã, Camaradas.” There are many other evaluations that can be done of Álvaro Cunhal’s life. I preferred to limit this memorial article to making people around the world aware of a different kind of contribution made by this communist leader, who only came out publicly in 1995 to admit he was indeed Manuel Tiago.