The Political Crisis in Portugal

By Sam Marcy

February 4, 1975

As the political crisis in Portugal deepens, a classic showdown of unprecedented dimensions seems absolutely inevitable Certainly all the signs point in that direction.

The Oporto events of January 25, in which left-wing militants broke up the convention of the so-called Social Democratic Center Party (a neo-fascist organization) and in which the delegates had to be rescued the next day by government paratroops, is only one symptom of the temper of the mass movement of the working class.


The Oporto demonstration was not composed merely of MRPP (so-called "Maoists") militants but encompassed a considerable spectrum of others, even including youths from the Socialist Party, which felt obligated to publicly disavow them. But most important, all accounts in the Western capitalist press, including Le Monde, the London Economist, and the international weekly edition of the Manchester Guardian, show that the soldiers were friendly to the demonstrators and well-nigh fraternized with them.

The London Economist goes so far as to state that "there are unconfirmed reports that the police were fired on by conscripts (soldiers) sympathetic to the rioters, which may be partly borne out by the fact that five policemen were admitted to hospital with bullet-wounds that night. At any rate, it appears that the soldiers, who moved about haphazardly without any apparent direction, made no attempt to disperse the crowd." (London Economist, February 1)

The Manchester Guardian weekly of February 1 confirms that "the conference had to be abandoned after left-wing demonstrators besieged the hall while police and troops stood by."

Thus, while the government sent troops to defend the neo-fascist conference, the soldiers, at least to a limited degree, fraternized with the demonstrators. Alvaro Cunhal, the CP leader, of course denied that the CP had anything to do with the demonstration and condemned it as a "provocation by reactionaries and networks of agents of foreign services." He characterized it as a "valuable contribution to reaction."

Of course, it is entirely possible that there were agent provocateurs in the midst of the demonstration and, in the light of the general political situation, the CIA might very well have been interested in converting it into some sort of a frame-up to utilize it for purposes that would undermine the revolutionary struggle. This could happen at any demonstration, but, it certainly would not, and does not in this case, detract one iota from the political significance of the demonstration which overpowered the neo-fascist conference so that it had to be rescued by government paratroops.


In the background of the political crisis are matters of broader social significance which are responsible for the growing acuteness of class antagonisms. In the first place, the number of estates abandoned by landlords has vastly increased and all the indications are that the abandonments are by no means voluntary acts of the landlords. They have fled, in many cases, for fear of their lives. Many are in Brazil, Paris, and London, and a good many are lobbying in Washington -- as if the Pentagon and the State Department would need any nudging to intervene.

But the same story is also true of the abandonment of industrial enterprises. Many capitalists have fled the country. It is well known that agricultural workers have taken over the tilling of the land on many estates and that workers are doing the same thing in some establishments which have been vacated by their employers. It is needless to state that the banks are sabotaging the economy and while the government tries to give the appearance of normalcy, the fact of the matter is that the possessing classes and their representatives as well as sympathizers in the courts, the police, and the military -- are not viewing the matter with equanimity at all.

On the contrary, the most frantic efforts are being made by the battered possessing classes to regain their standing, they feel themselves endangered, notwithstanding the assurances of the government.


The fear of the ruling class has manifested itself in a virtual split in the coalition forged by the CP with the SP (Socialist Party) and the PPD (Popular Democratic Party). It, explains why the latter two organizations have moved swiftly towards the right at a time when popular sentiment among the masses has shifted to the left. This is a characteristic frequently seen in a revolutionary situation. The masses move sharply to the left while the leaders, frightened by the hostile pressure of the possessing classes, move to the right.

The CP position from the very beginning has been a gradualistic approach towards the economic problems of the working class and the reshaping of capitalist society in general. Its conception of the developing struggle was limited to the framework of bourgeois democracy. It therefore most enthusiastically pushed the broadest possible united front which included the SP and the PPD.

But the course of the struggle has shown that the possessing as well as the non-possessing classes in Portuguese society (as in any society divided into classes) have entirely different, opposing, and antagonistic conceptions of democracy. Each must try to defend its own class interests. In the present critical situation in Portugal, the kind of popular democracy envisioned in the CP program is utopian. The possessing classes are out to fight tooth and nail to regain and enlarge their property, which to them is the essence of "democracy."

Salazar and Caetano defended that kind of "democracy" and a return to those "happy days" is certainly what they have in mind. This is what's at the bottom of the continuing series of political shifts at the top echelons of the Armed Forces Movement and the government.


The most recent crisis over the trade union law gave the SP the opportunity to try to bolt from the coalition because the law would give a tremendous advantage to the new trade union confederation, which has an overwhelming predominance of CP influence.

Wilfred Burchett ( Guardian, February 3) states that the antimonopoly bill the terms of which apparently limit the capitalist monopolies, is the real heart of the dispute. But it does not really matter. Nor does it matter that Cunhal has in his latest pronouncement spelled out, more specifically than at any other time, economic measures for a restructuring of Portuguese society which are far more attractive than originally stated in more vague and general terms.

For instance, he is quoted as saying in a January 27 press conference, "It is necessary to limit, then to neutralize and finally suppress the control of the national economy by the big industrialists and estate owners," militant words, indeed, coming from him. Although this gradualist approach is said to be already drafted into the new economic law, it is nevertheless significant that Cunhal should now bring it up, bearing in mind that he himself has said that the country is now going through a "decisive stage" of the Portuguese revolution.


But the larger question, the one that towers over everything else, especially over programmatic announcements of what will be done, is who is going to do it? This is the key to Portuguese politics at the present time. The CP's strategy of coalition with the SP and the PPD is one thing -- and for the moment that coalition is all but broken up. The basic coalition, the key to CP politics, is its alliance with the Armed Forces Movement.

Unquestionably the CP has friends, sympathizers, and members in the armed forces, but its alliance with the AFM is an alliance with a section of the officer corps.

An army is a faithful replica of class stratification in capitalist society. It would be a renunciation of Marxism to deny this elementary truth. The peasants and the workers are among the conscripted soldiers; the officers generally come from the middle class and the bourgeoisie. In a broad way they represent and respond to the class interests from whence they came. Of course, here and there officers, even in the American army and especially during the Vietnam war, have turned against the military brass, against the government, etc. Individual members of the officer corps, especially in a country which has such a vast number of Communists, inevitably are drawn to the side of the oppressed.. But class groupings as a whole in a showdown crisis respond to their class.

For this reason, to rely solely and so heavily on the AFM in a time of crisis is to surrender the initiative of the masses and depend on maneuvers in the military, banking on individual military leaders -- and in the end to succumb to paralysis in the event of a right-wing coup. But Cunhal, like the rest of the CP leaders, sees "cooperation between the popular movement and the AFM as the dynamic element" -- as the only guarantee against a fascist coup. "Isolated from each other," says Cunhal, these two movements would be powerless to carry out the fundamental transformation of Portuguese society which is on the order of the day.


There is no doubt that Cunhal relies completely on the unity of the two movements. But suppose there is a break in the AFM, as the capitalist press is daily rumor-mongering. Then what? There is no evidence, at least none available in this country, which would indicate that the party is making any independent preparation or arming the workers for that eventuality.

One can only hope that, given the gravity of the situation and the long suffering of the masses under the Salazar and Caetano dictatorships and the sense of self-confidence obtained since the April 25 coup, any attempt to reestablish a fascist regime will arouse the instinctive and spontaneous drive of the workers and the popular masses generally, and force the working class organizations into a combative, militant, united front for a victorious socialist revolution.

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