Building New Workers’ Parties: The example of Portugal

Portugal, just like Ireland, is facing a colossal failure of capitalism, IMF rule and a unbearable state debt resulting from bailing out of the bankers and speculators. Just like here, this failure of right wing policies is providing huge opportunies, but also huge challenges, for the left. Very important debates are taking place within the Portugese left, which socialists and working class activists in Ireland should pay attention to.

Here we post a report of Socialism Revolucionmario (our sister group in Portugal, part of the CWI) from the recent conference on the “Left Block” ( Bloco de Esquerda, BE) which looks at some of these issues.

In light of the important steps the United Left Alliance (including the Socialist Party) is taking towards building a new mass left party of workers and young people, the points raised in this article about the need for a clear socialist programme for the left are particularly important. In Portugal, as in other countries, attempts to water down the left alternative to be more ‘acceptable’ to the media, or cosying up to the old Labour and ‘left’ parties which have completely sold out, are undermining the ability of the left to differentiate itself from the sell-outs of the past, and attract the most combatitive and energetic workers and young people. These dangers, discussed in the article do and will increasing face the United Left Alliance in Ireland, making it all the more important that we discuss, debate and study these examples

Portuguese Left Bloc dragged to the right at convention

The recently agreed EU/IMF aid, and its plan of austerity over the next years -which will be inevitably added to- lays out quite clearly what workers and youth can expect from capitalism. It was in this context that the Bloco de Esquerda (BE, Left Bloc), a left-wing formation with an impressive level of electoral support – 16 national MPs and 3 MEPs – met in Lisbon for a national convention, with well over 500 delegates and visitors present. Elections will take place on 5 June which will see the policies and programme of the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) and the BE tested before working people.

A good vote for the PCP and the BE in the elections will be wholly positive for the working class and the CWI. It will show a substantial section of society in conscious opposition to the austerity policies of the main parties and the diktats of the markets, rejecting the EU/IMF intervention and in favour of an alternative left response. But for the CWI, the question is one of what type of strategy, programme and party is necessary to carry through the completion of the aims of the heroic left and communist workers of Portugal – the socialist transformation of society.

Debt: “renegotiation” or no payment?

Unfortunately, the convention of the Left Bloc did not represent a step forward in this sense. On the contrary, while Portuguese workers and youth have engaged in very militant actions in the recent period, the BE convention saw the leadership drag the party further to the right. Much of the convention seemed like more of a public electoral rally than a genuinely open and democratic decision-making event. However, the positions put forward and proposed by the leading members of the BE during the convention itself reflected the political approach they have adopted to the key questions of the day.

First among these is the question, which forms the basis for the nightmare situation of the Portuguese economy and the intervention of the Troika, of the national debt. The neo-liberal policies of successive governments, as well as the multi-billion bank bailouts, guaranteeing the gambling losses of the speculators, are wholly responsible for this debt. Leading figures in the BE have effectively exposed this, explaining the link between the orgy of privatisation, de-industrialisation, and tax breaks for the rich, and the ballooning national debt. Tax evasion by the rich is at phenomenal levels. In the island of Madeira, a well known tax haven on the Atlantic Ocean alone, annual tax evasion is more or less equal to the state’s entire education budget for 1 year!

So why should working people suffer to pay the debt off? They benefited nothing from the racking up of the debt. Therefore, to accept the premise that the debt should be paid out of public money, and the resulting austerity, is an erroneous position for the left to take. Any government operating within the framework of paying the debt (i.e the frame work of the dictatorship of the markets) will be a government of attacks on public spending and living standards. Including the interest on the agreed package, the troika “loan” alone will cost every Portuguese citizen an average year’s salary! This is an unbearable burden which must be rejected. “No to the payment of their debts”, must be the slogan of the hour for the left.

But the “Motion A” policy document submitted to the convention and supported by the entirety of the BE’s public leadership made no such call. While acknowledging that “the debt is the key political question”, they called merely for a “renegotiation” of the “unbearable” debt to lower the interest rates. But the debt is unbearable, even without the interest rates! In accepting implicitly the debt, the left feeds the arguments of the right wing, to the effect that there is “no alternative” to cuts, to pay the debt off. Supporters of an alternative document, “Motion C”, correctly argued against this position, however not on the basis of a clear call for non-payment, but for “suspension” of payment, followed by a democratically controlled audit. Nonetheless, the adoption of motion C by the convention (not only on the question of the debt) would have represented a left turn towards a socialist and fundamentally alternative position to the right. In the end, despite numerous harsh polemical attacks on this motion by leading figures throughout the convention, it won over 70 votes from delegates, around 15%, with Motion A winning a heavy majority. Other motions, “B” and “D”, which emphasised the need for greater internal democracy, also received a handful of votes from delegates.

What is a left government? What attitude to the PS?

“Socialism” in Portugal can be equated with many things. Many speak of it, but few explain what they mean. The “socialism” of the “Socialist Party” is that of attacks on the poor to save capitalism. Therefore, an explanation from the genuine left as to what real socialism is is doubly important. “Socialist policies” was a regular refrain at the BE’s convention, but from leading figures there was little content to accompany the phrase. In his keynote address, BE’s main public figure, Fransisco Louçã (who, along with many other BE leaders, is part of the “Fourth International” / USFI) confined his description of socialism to “intervention to protect the people” and “a fairer tax system”. Under what type of economy or government such measures could be achieved was left in the air.

After all, how can higher taxes be imposed on the rich, or their assets be confiscated, without the banks and the financial sector being democratically controlled and managed by working people, through their nationalisation, and without the introduction of capital controls and State monopoly on foreign trade, in order to prevent capital flights? Some delegates, again in support of the alternative C motion at the convention, correctly raised the need for the Left Bloc’s “socialism” to be brought to life through genuine revolutionary socialist proposals to transform society.

A widespread sentiment among left leaders of this type is a hesitancy or unwillingness to raise the question of socialism as a fundamental alternative to capitalism, based on a fear that such a stand will “lose votes”. The CWI fundamentally disagrees with both this sentiment and its supposed justifications. In fact, the history of such an approach being adopted by left parties around Europe tells a different story. Louçã’s co-thinkers in the French NPA leadership have presided over an extremely unfortunate decline in the party’s poll support and profile using a similar method. The reality is that a clear and well-explained alternative to capitalism, taking proposals and individual economic policies to their logical conclusion – a break with the dictatorship of the markets and its replacement by democratic socialism – can win the left votes, by giving its programme a new consistency and viability.

Such is the type of programme that would make a prospective “left government” a real and viable alternative. The new slogans of for ‘left governments’ put forward by both the the PCP and the BE are definite steps in the right direction. But neither party explains what such a government would do, or who would make it up. Socialismo Revolucionario also demands a left government, but on clear terms. We demand that the PCP and the BE form a united left front on the basis of democratic socialist policies as outlined above as an alternative to market / Troika rule, linked to a mass struggle by workers and young people.

Louçã and other leaders were repeatedly asked at the convention to clarify their proposal for a left government. Why were they not explicitly mentioning the PCP and campaigning to make a government of these two significant forces a reality? Louçã answered these questions with some clarity later, but not before the convention. In an interview with the press and TV stations on the night of the convention’s first day, he told the press that there was “no left without the PS”! The workers who have mounted massive battles against the current PS government will be surprised at the insinuation that they were fighting a left party in government. Louçã went on to condition his remarks by saying that no government led by the current PS leader and Prime Minister, Socrates, could be really left. But whether this implies that a PS government led by another one of their leaders or MPs would be “left” was not made clear. However, this position seems to represent a continuation of the approach of the BE’s leadership over the last period, after its support for Manuel Alegre, the candidate supported by the ruling PS in the Presidential elections last year, justified by the need for “unity” against the PSD and PP.

Such a position can serve to counteract any hopes among Left Bloc supporters and voters that the party represents a real alternative to the main parties and will fight for a government based on different policies. Tail-ending the PS in its playing-up of “lesser evilism” to fight against the conservative PSD will not serve to attract disgruntled PS voters towards the Left Bloc, but on the contrary could aid a shift in support and votes in the opposite direction! Clearly there is a need to win over those workers still supporting the PS, but if a vote for the Left Bloc could bring the PS back to power, why not just vote for the PS? The near-identical approach and policies of the capitalist parties, and the increasingly probable prospect of a grand coalition government between both (or all three) of them presents the left with an opportunity to fight for an alternative bloc, in opposition to the troika and austerity of the “bloco central” (name given to the consensus between the 3 main capitalist parties). This could bring about a fundamental re-alignment in Portuguese politics, with a strong anti-capitalist left struggling for power against a unified right-wing government.

The current positions being taken up by the BE raise a worrying spectrum. Following on from the support of the Alegre candidacy, the BE’s parliamentary group’s support for the Troika “bailout” of Greece and their MEPs’ votes in favour of the imperialist military intervention into Libya. Such a mistaken and inconsistent approach does not augur well for the elections. Opinion poll figures seem to confirm this. From around 10% two years ago, they are now on as low as 4% in recent polls. Moreover, these were 2 years of intense capitalist crisis and class struggle. The way forward for the BE can only be charted by basing itself on the impressive struggles of workers and youth, putting forward a clear political programme for the movement to take up. We understand there can be no “straight line” development from capitalist crisis and struggle to a mass understanding of the need for socialism. But at the very least the discrediting of capitalism opens a huge opportunity for the left to make big gains and popularise the demands and ideas of socialism.

In the current situation in Portugal, in which the future seems so bleak and uncertain to the majority, the position taken by political forces is of the utmost importance. The questions of austerity, of the debt and above all of what government is possible or desirable have become questions of “life and death”, of bankruptcy and poverty, or of an alternative. But these questions, and how they are responded to, also mean life or death for the left! A profound debate is necessary, both within and outside the ranks of the BE, but also in the Communist Party and trade unions about what approach and programme is necessary. Socialismo Revolucionario fights to organise workers and young people around a fighting and revolutionary socialist programme for the left and workers’ movement.

Article initially published on, website of the Committee for a Workers’ International, an excellent resource for international news and analysis from a socialist perspective.