Boston U. symposium:
US. left debates issues in Portuguese revolution
January 16, 1976
By Steve Clark
Every socialist current has been put to the test by the revolutionary upsurge in Portugal following the April 1974 coup by the MFA-Armed Forces Movement that toppled that country's decades-old fascist-like regime.
At each decisive fork in the road, every workingclass party-inside Portugal and out-has had to take a stand on vital questions of strategy, tactics, and political program.
At a December 14 symposium on Portugal at Boston University, representatives of five tendencies on the U.S. left participated in a debate on this central development in the international class struggle. The symposium, sponsored by the campus student government, was attended by 300 people.
Speaking on the panel were Arthur Simson, a frequent correspondent from Portugal for the U.S. Communist party newspaper, the Daily World; Barry Sheppard, Socialist Workers party national organization secretary; Joan McBride, of the International Socialists; Patrick Smith, a writer for the pro-Maoist Guardian newspaper; and Dan Burstein, of the Maoist October League.
Also on the panel were Mario Castanheira of the Portuguese Committee for Democratic Action and two Boston-area journalists who have recently visited Portugal-Danny Schechter of WBCN radio and Boston Phoenix reporter Sid Blumenthal.
What kind of revolution?
An obvious first question in a serious discussion of revolutionary prospects for Portugal is: What kind of revolution are we talking about?
SWP leader Barry Sheppard offered his answer to this question in opening remarks. "The mass upsurge in Portugal during the past year and a half," he said, "has placed the socialist revolution on the agenda.
"The Portuguese masses, whose democratic rights had been suppressed for forty-eight years, very swiftly came to the conclusion that the correct name for the opposite of what they had lived under for so long-the correct name for what they wanted-was socialism."
Hundreds of thousands of Portuguese workers joined the previously illegal trade unions, Sheppard explained. Tens of thousands joined the political parties they believed to be socialist, especially the Socialist and Communist parties. The deep radicalization could be seen in the outbreak of strike struggles and factory occupations; the election of workers commissions in many plants; the breakdown of military discipline among rank-and-file soldiers; and the enormous mobilizations that blocked rightist coup attempts in September 1974 and March 1975.
"It was also reflected in the elections to the Constituent Assembly last spring," Sheppard said, "when all the parties-even the capitalist parties-claimed to be socialist and when the majority of votes were cast for the two big workers parties-the Socialists and Communists."
Joan McBride of the International Socialists, while differing with Sheppard on many crucial questions of strategy and tactics, agreed that the fundamental dynamic of the Portuguese events was toward a socialist revolution.
Now or later?
Other panelists, however, disagreed.
Patrick Smith of the Guardian, for example, did not believe that the socialist revolution was on the agenda in Portugal for some time to come. "In the context of the present situation," he said, "the principal battle is between neo-fascism and democracy." .
Smith was not referring here to the struggle for democratic rights, a key aspect of the struggle to make the Portuguese socialist revolution. He was talking about "democracy" on a capitalist basis, postponing the struggle for socialism to a "stage" in the indeterminate future.
Communist party spokesperson Arthur Simson sidestepped the issue, as he did most other disputed questions throughout the symposium. The CP's position was clarified several days later, however, in a December 17 Daily World account of a meeting of the Central Committee of the Portuguese Communist party (PCP). According to this report, the Central Committee "said that a democratic regime, developing toward socialism, remains a long-term objective of the Portuguese revolution."
On this point, the Guardian and Daily World are in close agreement.
Both the Guardian and Daily World also share the view that the Armed Forces Movement is the leading force in the unfolding Portuguese revolution. Before the Socialist party became the favorite of the MFA government this fall, the Portuguese Communist party for eighteen months had loyally helped the generals and admirals attempt to impose their stiff austerity measures on Portuguese workers. The PCP served as the MFA's policeman in the labor movement. .
Simson spoke in particularly glowing terms about Portugal's fifth provisional government-headed by Col. Vasco Goncalves-which was replaced in late August. The PCP had achieved its greatest influence in this cabinet. Panelist Mario Castanheira also praised Goncalves, saying that his was "the government that for the first time in 800 years did something for Portugal."
Smith from the Guardian gave his seal of approval to the fifth government too, contrasting it favorably with the current Lisbon regime.
Despite the fact that both Simson and Smith were highly critical of the current SP-backed sixth MFA-dominated provisional government, the Guardian and Daily World have sounded the alarm against what they believe to be-as the Guardian put it-the threat that "the MFA would be eliminated as a political force." The Daily World wrote recently that the MFA's dissolution could be "the most reactionary move in the last 19 months.
Sheppard differed sharply with these estimates of the Armed Forces Movement. The MFA, he insisted, was and remains a capitalist political instrument. "It was forced to use socialist rhetoric and demagogy to maintain its support," he said. "If it could just maintain support during the mass upsurge, it could hope for eventual restabilization and the reimposition of bourgeois 'law and order.'"
The MFA could not successfully carry out this strategy without the help of the leaderships of the Communist and Socialist parties, which exercise significant influence among Portuguese workers. "The leaders of these parties," Sheppard said, "subordinate the interests of the Portuguese workers to one or another wing of the MFA.
"They have had a rivalry between themselves over which party could do that best, which would get the most cabinet posts, and so on. Last summer during the Goncalves government, the Communist party was the favored junior partner of the MFA; this fall it has been the socialists."
Sheppard pointed out that many Portuguese organizations to the left of the PCP and SP have failed to provide a clear alternative to the class-collaborationism of the two reformist parties. These centrist groups tended to look to the most radical-sounding officers, such as Gen. Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho and Adm. Rosa Coutinho.
The views of the Revolutionary party of the Proletariat (PRP), a small group championed in this country by the International Socialists, provide an example of these illusions. PRP leader Isobel do Carmo told panelist Joan McBride in an interview recently published in the IS newspaper, Workers Power: "Some of the people in the [Goncalves] government were to the left of the CP. The head of the cabinet was of the revolutionary left. But that was the peak.''
Sheppard said that such illusions were common among those taken in by MFA phrasemongering. "One of the demagogic things that the MFA did in order to win support," Sheppard explained, "was to call itself a national liberation movement.
"But the problem with that is that Portugal won its independence-from Spain-several centuries ago! Today, Portugal is not an oppressed nation. It is an imperialist power, albeit one of the weaker ones.''
The MFA's "national liberation" demagogy, Sheppard pointed out, helped mask its true aim, which was to protect Portuguese capitalist interests in its African colonies. "We're a national liberation movement, therefore we're anti-imperialist, therefore we can no longer oppress other people," was the MFA's argument, Sheppard said. It helped the generals explain why they kept Portuguese troops in Angola for nearly a year and a half after the April 24 coup.
The MFA's real plan, however, was to shift from direct colonial domination of its colonies to the type of neocolonial arrangement worked out by most other imperialist powers.
There was a lively discussion of revolutionary strategy and tactics during the symposium, despite the opinion of several panelists that such a discussion within the American left is inappropriate. Simson excused his reluctance to discuss the CP's position on many questions by remarking, "In this room we are not going to decide today the fate of . . . Portugal." Blumenthal of the Boston Phoenix called such discussions "counterproductive" and "hairsplitting."
Sheppard explained why he believed such discussions are extremely important. "Parties and factions," he said, "represent different policies for the road ahead-different strategies and tactics.
"Because Marxism is internationalist in its perspective," Sheppard explained, "the discussion of strategy is necessarily also international. It's not enough to say, 'Let's leave it to the Portuguese.' No, the lessons are international, and we must take stands on questions of broad strategy and program in all countries-in order to even understand our own.''
Earlier in the symposium, Sheppard pinpointed the central axis of a revolutionary socialist strategy for Portugal: political independence of the working class from all capitalist forces, including from the MFA. "The whole question of strategy at every turning point of the Portuguese revolution," he said, "has been how to organize and help lead the spontaneous upsurge of the masses of working people, students, and others in an independent direction to establish their own power."
Sheppard stressed the need for powerful, united actions of the Portuguese workers to fight for higher wages, against inflation and unemployment, against government strikebreaking, and for full democratic rights.
"A central aspect of MFA strategy," Sheppard said, "was to divide the working class.'' This summer, for example, the PCP spearheaded-for the MFA-a concerted attack on the democratic rights of the Socialist party. Many of the centrist groups in Portugal supported this sectarian vendetta.
The Socialist party-backed daily newspaper Republica was taken over by a small group of printers, who objected to the paper's occasional mild criticisms of the MFA regime. The MFA backed up the take-over.
"Workers democracy," Sheppard pointed out, "does not consist of fifty printing workers censoring the views-no matter how wrong they are-of millions of Socialist party workers. That is not workers democracy; it is capitalist repression-capitalist censorship.
"You can't make a socialist revolution," he said, "by putting yourself in the position where you look like you are suppressing democracy. The MFA, the Communist party, many of the Maoist groups, and the centrist currents identified socialism and communism this summer with the suppression of democratic rights, thereby bolstering one of the props of capitalist rule in the world today: the fear among the masses of people that socialism and communism will mean an end to their democratic rights."
By cheering on the CP's sectarian campaign, Sheppard explained, the centrist groups played into the hands of Mario Soares and the other class-
collaborationist SP leaders. During that period, these misleaders were able to pose as champions of
democracy in the face of capitalist repression. At the same time, the centrists failed to see the SP's real crime against the Portuguese workers: its political support to the capitalist MFA regime and its subordination of workers' struggles to that regime.
Even right-wing forces were able to cloak their reactionary aims in democratic verbiage during the summer. "Revolutionists should not give the powerful issue of democracy to the right wing," Sheppard said. "That strategy will never lead to victory.''
Simson tried to defend the PCP's attitude toward the SP by quoting the assertion of a leading Portugues Stalinist that "Mario Soares is now part of the right.'' Castanheira called the SP a ''right-wing party." The Guardian and IS spokespeople echoed tills characterization. Many Portuguese centrists, for example the PRP, even said that the SP is fascist.
Sheppard pointed to the dangers of this kind of slander campaign inside the workers movement. "Do you think you can win over the workingclass majority from the wrong policies of the SP leadership by telling them, 'You belong to a fascist party'?
"These radicalized workers who have joined the SP don't think that they belong to a fascist party. And they're right.''
October League representative Dan Burstein added another dimension to this discussion, hurling the accusation of "social fascism" at the PCP. This refrain is a favorite of most Portuguese Maoist groups as well.
Burstein said that there are two types of fascism in Portugal today: "the fascists of the old Salazar-Caetano-Spinola type, who are tied directly to U.S. imperialism," and the "new type of fascists-the social fascists of the Cunhal [Communist] party.'' The PCP, he said, is merely the agent of "Soviet social imperialism," which he called the "main danger to the people of Portugal. . . . "
Smith of the Guardian agreed that the PCP might be social fascist in the abstract, but insisted that in the concrete situation in Portugal it has been a "representative thus far ... for the establishment of progressive and democratic rights." He failed to explain how "social fascists" could play such a role.
The potentially disastrous results of sectarian campaigns like these are amply illustrated by the very origins of the term "social fascism." In Germany in the early 1930s, Hitler rose to power on the crest of just such a campaign by the German Communist party against the German social democrats. Stalin's theory of "social fascism" and refusal to call for a united front with the German SP blocked the ability of the German workers to mount a united fight against the Nazi threat.
Why don't the Communist and Socialist parties form a government-a workers and peasants government? After all, they won the majority in the elections last spring.
Sheppard continued, "We should ask them, 'Why do we need the MFA-this self-appointed group of military officers? Let's form our own government and begin the construction of socialism.' "
To IS spokesperson Joan McBride, all these questions of strategy and tactics seemed irrelevant.
"People there [in Portugal] don't need analysis," she said. "They don't need long discussions on the problems. They don't need long discussions on the answers. They know the answers.''
McBride said, "What we have in Portugal is a situation of dual power ... workers commissions, soldiers committees, neighborhood committees, and other organizations of working people. They have linked up in major cities and are governing cities and entire areas." She identified this "dual power" with the small sectarian "soviets" set up by the PRP.
Sheppard said that this utterly fantastic exaggeration of the political situation in Portugal has led the IS, following the PRP in Portugal itself, to totally disregard the question of winning the masses of working people to a revolutionary perspective.
"The problem with groups like the PRP," Sheppard said, "is that winning power is not yet on the order of the day in Portugal. The vast majority of the Portuguese workers still follow either the misleadership of the Communist or Socialist parties into support of a capitalist government.
Ironically, Simson referred to this historical analogy in his closing remarks, of course without referring to Stalin's disastrous policies. "If there had been unity between the Communist party of Germany and the Socialist party of Germany-with all the weaknesses of that party-in 1933," he scolded, "the road to power for Hitler would have been successfully barred.
"The important thing to remember is that working-class unity, and only working-class unity, is going to bar the present threat of fascism in Portugal. ... "
Sheppard pointed out that leaders of both the PCP and SP had torpedoed this much-needed unity in Portugal through their attacks on the democratic rights of each other.
Sheppard also explained that the concept of working-class unity advanced by the PCP was in reality a policy of unity with the capitalist MFA.
"The Portuguese Communist party," as Simson put it, "would like to participate in a government on a principled basis in which the PCP and PSP are represented. . . . " He stressed the leading role that the MFA must lay in any such government.
Sheppard differed fundamentally with this class-collaborationist perspective. "We have to unite the working class around the idea that they should have their own government." he said," and not "Revolutionists must win the majority to a revolutionary course before winning power is on the agenda. The PRP calls for 'insurrection' helped set the stage for the adventurous coup attempt on November 25.''
That was the day that radicalized rank-and-file soldiers at several Portuguese military installations were misled by the ultraleft rhetoric of the Stalinists and centrists into trying to change the government by the determined action of a handful. This attempt was rapidly quelled by progovernment troops.
Since the aborted coup attempt, the MFA has stepped up its repressive campaign against democratic rights in the military and in other sectors of Portuguese society. The MFA has intensified its austerity campaign, rebounding from the blows it suffered only a week earlier from a militant strike and demonstration by construction workers. This action had won a much-needed wage hike, which has since been rescinded under the wage freeze proclaimed by the MFA government after crushing the November 25 adventure.
But Sheppard did not agree with the moderator of the panel, who in her opening remarks said, "After the recent events in Portugal, I feel as if I am presiding at a funeral.''
"I think it is far too premature to draw an 'X' through the Portugveae revolution," Sheppard said.
"The workers, the masses, have not been defeated. They will have the final word."