Portugal: the crisis and the left

An eyewitness report

Portugal: the crisis and the left

Marcio Torres, September 2014.

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Introduction: one of our members visited Portugal in September 2014 and wrote an internal report about the crisis in the country and also the Portuguese left. We decided to publish a slightly edited version adapted to the public.

[The Crisis]

Portugal was one of the European countries that was most affected by the first years of the world’s capitalist crisis. At first, the Portuguese government, which is led by a coalition of the [bourgeois parties] PSD [Social Democratic Party] and CDS-PP [Popular Party] spent almost all of the country’s savings to bail out the big private banks, creating an enormous debt. The bourgeois state gave the money extracted mainly from the working class families to bank owners. Now, while the bourgeoisie is doing better, the workers are facing several attacks on their living standards, as the government tries to solve its debt by cutting the budget on public services like education and health care, laying-off public workers, changing the rules of Social Security to reduce payments and require more working time before retirement etc. All this is known as “austerity package” and is imposed by the so-called “Troika” (the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund). To sum-up, the Portuguese masses are going through the second stage of the capitalists’ plan to deal with the “socialization” of the crisis. Some big capitalists were saved by the state and then used this money to buy the assets of capitalists who weren’t bailed out and went bankrupt, increasing the concentration of capital that had led to the crisis in the first place.

One of the most serious consequences of the crisis on workers’ lives is the insufficiency of their salary. With a 585 Euros national minimum wage (on which 15.2% of the population depend, according to a recent document from the Economy Ministry), the Portuguese have to face high prices for manufactured goods (most of them imported from large imperialist centers) and even food. In Lisbon, for example, it is hard to find a good meal for less than 5 Euros, which makes really prohibitive for the average worker to eat outside home, since in a month it would cost more than half the minimum wage (280 Euros). This obviously leads to an intensification of the domestic slavery which women are submitted to.

Other consequences of the crisis are easily noticeable by taking a look at any newspaper. With the beginning of the school year, the main topic on the news for the last weeks has been the crisis of the educational system. The September 9 issue of Metro announced a huge mass migration from private schools to the public ones, due the impossible situation faced by many parents and which makes it difficult to pay for the high tuition. Although the government officers claim the existence of a comfortable 10 students per teacher ratio in public schools, the national teacher’s union claims that this is false data and that teachers in public schools are facing an overload of work (compared to the previous standards), aggravated by the fact that teachers have to do many bureaucratic tasks that take a great part of their time.

Obviously, the deterioration of working conditions is not affecting only teachers and education workers. To raise one more example, many private companies have been assigning young trainees to do the job of a regular worker – which is very profitable for the bosses, since the trainees’ scholarships are paid by the state and that the former have not even the most basic labor rights. If they protest, they will obviously lose their jobs, which is a fearsome scenario for a youth which has been defining itself as the “precariada[precarious]. This word became popular in the several struggles of the unemployed that sprouted during the last few years.

Another hot topic during the first weeks of September was the situation of the “New Bank”. It was created as a state-owned company after one of the biggest Portuguese financial groups, the “Grupo Espírito Santo”, and its bank went bankrupt and its main assets were bought by the state. After using public funds to save the owners of the Grupo Espírito Santo, the government is now talking about privatizing the New Bank. This means that, after the government spent a huge sum of money to clean up the mess of the profit-hunger CEO’s and increased the public debt by doing so, the bank will be put again in the hands of those parasites – and will most probably be sold at a very a low price.

All these issues have been going on since 2009. The recent political upheavals that took place in Portugal as a protest to this situation, with massive street demos and several general strikes, still echoes in the streets of Lisbon. One can easily see stencils of radical slogans throughout the city, as well as big placards of different left groups, which call a lot of attention on the urban landscape.

The once Stalinist and now simply reformist Portuguese CP (PCP) recently ink-sprayed the entrance of the subway stations, demanding an “End with the massacre in Palestine”. Many of their placards can also be seen in different neighborhoods, announcing the big fest held in the beginning of the month by their publishing branch, Avante, which gathered many progressive artists. The much smaller Bloco de Esquerda [Left Bloc, BE] is an NPA-like multitendency party created in 1999 after the dissolution of USec‘s [United Secretariat of the Fourth International] Portuguese section. They periodically distribute their free bulletin at bus stops and subway stations. The recent issues of that bulletin are mainly dedicated to debating the ongoing effects of the austerity politics imposed by the EU, which were gladly accepted by conservative Portuguese parties. It is also easy to spot placards of the small Morenoite MAS [Socialist Alternative Movement, associated with late Nahuel Moreno], the Portuguese section of the [International Workers League] LIT-CI, which recently split from the Bloco de Esquerda. The posters by the MAS were mainly devoted to their candidate, who participated in the recent elections to the European Parliament, and whose main slogan was “No to the Euro”. Another group that had a variety of placards on the streets of Lisbon against the Euro and that were also announcing a “labor rally” which was held in mid-September was the Maoist PCTP [Portuguese Workers’ Communist Party], which is famous for their elaborated paintings on street walls.

Despite the variety of left groups, the Socialist Party (PS) is the one which has grown the most due to the popular dissatisfaction with the austerity policies. It’s easy to see Socialist MP’s on TV news and taking part in debate shows confronting the PSD and CDS-PP Government Ministers with a somewhat radical rhetoric. This “radical” character, though, is indeed limited to their speeches. The PS is a party with a somewhat mass influence, but its program is thoroughly bourgeois. It is a tool to maintain the workers within the rotten boundaries of capitalism and prevent any working class alternative to the austerity package imposed by the EU.

[The Left]

It is noteworthy that among the mentioned left groups, none presents a revolutionary solution to the workers’ problems. The PCP, although very big, is historically a class collaborationist group, responsible for several betrayals and which has presided over various provisional governments after the fall of the Portuguese dictatorship back in the 1970s. They had no problems in governing with the bourgeoisie. In their huge outdoors spread around Lisbon the CP proudly presents itself as a “patriotic” party as a way to profit from the dissatisfaction with the EU in the easiest possible way.

The Maoists, whose historical leader and founder left the group in the 1980s claiming that there was no more point for parties and unions and that the left was “pure shit” (but is still invited for the party’s rallies and public activities), despite their supposed “revolutionary orthodoxy”, claim the same rotten heritage of Stalinism, which should never be forgiven for betraying several revolutionary situations with their treacherous Popular Fronts. Following the Maoist guide book of class collaboration, the PCTP demands a “democratic and patriotic government” as a solution to the crisis, and raises the slogan for the “return of the Escudo” [Portugal’s currency before Euro].

Apart from the CP, the Bloco de Esquerda is the group that draws more attention at the moment. But its politics are very moderate, specially now that some left-wing tendencies left the bloc: the Morenoite “Ruptura/FER”, which formed the MAS, and the small “Socialismo Revolucionário”, associated with [Peter Taaffe’s] CWI. Now, the reformist majority is practically unopposed. This majority has its origins in the dissolution of the Mandelite PSR [Partido Socialista Revolucionário] in 1999, which created the BE [in a fusion with a then Maoist group and a group of former CP members]. The BE is hardly “Trotskyist” in any sense, not even in a purely formal one. Even the Mandelite grouping formally dissolved and those who want to be closely associated with the USec [in Portugal] have to apply for membership as individuals.

Although it has some union work and organizes some social sectors, the BE is too focused on electoral politics. On a June 2014 bulletin, a “Letter to the Left”, signed by its two national coordinators, expressed a huge disappointment with the results obtained by the entire left on the recent European Elections, assigning to that process a disproportional weight if compared to the little importance the Portuguese masses gave to it, expressed in an abstention of around 60%. The BE’s parliamentary cretinism is so deep that the bloc dropped historical demands of the radical left in order to gain “credibility”. In its most recent bulletin (September/October 2014), instead of demanding the canceling of the Portuguese international debt, which is an instrument of dependence imposed by imperialist powers, the BE demands only an “immediate restructuring of the debt” (that is, to make sure Portugal pays only a “fair” tax to its international creditors). Also, in face of the low national minimum wage, instead of putting forward a struggle for a minimum wage sufficient to put-up with the needs of a working class family, with further increases according to the elevation of prices, the BE merely proposes a 60 Euros raise.  Plus, in some of their placards spread around Lisbon, the BE demands “Down with the government – Respect the Constitution”. One could ask if those who disrespect anti-labor and anti-protest laws should also be called upon to “respect” the bourgeois law in the Constitution.

Left groups’ placards on a Lisbon square (click to enlarge). From left to right: “DOWN WITH THE EURO! Down with the Coelho/Portas national-betrayal government! Back with the Escudo! Hail the democratic and patriotic unity government!” (PCTP); “Jobs, rights, sovereignty. For left wing and patriotic politics! The people’s strength for a Portugal with future.” (PCP); “Save the education and defend the health care – tax the fortunes” (Bloco de Esquerda).

Claiming to represent “a new left alternative” against the insufficiency of the other groups, the Morenoite MAS [Socialist Alternative Movement] split from the BE in 2012. But there’s nothing “new” about it, since before joining the BE as the “Ruptura/FER” tendency, they already existed since the middle 1970s as the PRT [Partido Revolucionário dos Trabalhadores], which participated in the CIA-backed demos led by the PS [Socialist Party] against the PCP/MFA provisional governments – a position which they rapidly swapped for a characterization of the MFA as a proto-soviet formation and of the government as “Kerenskyite” (according to Moreno’s revisionist “democratic revolution” terminology) [see Moreno’s Left Face, written by the then revolutionary Spartacist League and republished in Moreno’s Truth Kit]. Also, the [immediate reason for the] Morenoites’ split from the BE was from the right, confirming that they indeed have nothing new to offer. Instead of being a left-wing split away from the BE‘s parliamentary cretinism, the reason for the 2012 split was that the Morenoites opposed the BE being against entering a government with the reformist and proudly “patriotic” PCP! [See the 2012 statement by the MAS Executive Committee]. What can we say of these “Trotskyists” who propose electoral lash-ups with the formerly Stalinist reformists [to run the bourgeois state]!? According to the tiny CWI group in Portugal, the MAS recent campaign in the European Elections was entirely centered around the slogansNo to the Euro”, “Jail those who ruined the country”, “End the politicians’ privileges” and “600 Euro national minimum wage now”, without even a mention to the necessity of a revolution to smash capitalism – an absence which is reflected in their street placards [see the CWI polemic].

Something worth mentioning is the absence of powerful youth struggles among the Portuguese left – with the important exception of the city of Coimbra, whose life is closely linked to the Coimbra University and, therefore, has a somewhat strong youth militancy engaged in students issues. That is comprehensible since in 2013 the National Ethics Council for the Sciences of Life stated that Portugal is the 6th country with the eldest population in the world, 42 being the average age of one of its citizens. Since the 2008 crisis, many young people have left the country in search for better job opportunities. Militancy and radicalization in the left are generally associated with an important element of youth among its ranks – so much that Lenin once jokily said that “every revolutionary should be shot after passing the age of 35”. Therefore, this is certainly a factor (among others) behind the lack of radicalization in the Portuguese left that we referred to.

Despite the deep crisis that the country is going through, the political situation is not as intense as it should be in terms of militancy and struggles, since the mass protests and strikes seem to have wavered. The crisis of revolutionary leadership certainly plays a role in it, since no group on the left was able to build a revolutionary movement against the effects of the economic crisis. This situation, on its turn, reinforces the workers’ lack of trust on ostensibly socialist organizations.

To end this short report with an anecdote, in the morning of September 11th the subway workers held a 1-day strike. Around 4 thousand workers (according to the Diário Nacional) marched to the Republic Assembly (the Portuguese Congress) demanding a 3% salary raise, but many others simply gathered in front of the closed stations, waiting until 11am, when the subway employees promised to reopen, allowing the normal routine to be carriedon. At the night of the same day, an enormous crowd gathered at the historical center of Lisbon for the 5th edition of “Vogue’s Fashion Night Out”, an event to stimulate shopping at street stores – a luxury that fewer and fewer Portuguese workers can afford. This absurdly contradictory scene only reinforces the urgent need of a struggle to build a revolutionary party capable of defeating the Troika’s austerity “solution” and putting forward a revolutionary perspective to the crisis of capitalism.