Ralph Blake, a supporter of the Fourth International whose mother escaped to Portugal in the 1930s from Franco’s Spain – only to seek refuge in Scotland during the 1950s from Salazar’s dictatorship, takes a look at the evolution of Portugal’s Left Bloc.
The Left Bloc (Bloco de Esquerda or BE) has firmly established itself as the fourth largest party, just behind the Peoples Party, in Portugal after their near 10% vote in the 27 September 2009 legislative elections up 3.5% from 2005. This consolidated their 10.7% vote in the 2009 European elections when they displaced the Communist Party (CDU block) as the largest left wing formation. The Bloc now has 16 members of the Portuguese Parliament, 350 local councillors, 3 members of the European parliament and over 4,200 members.
How did the Left Bloc in the ten years since its formation becomes Europe’s largest far left party? This article sets out to try and establishing this. But you cannot understand the Left Bloc’s emergence as a major political force without first having some background to Portugal’s history and that is where we will start.
A Brief History of Portugal
Portugal (from the Latin Portus Cale which means port of the Celts) is a country of 11 million people descended from the Celts, Germanic peoples, Moors and Romans. First formed as country in 868 it was at war with neighbouring Spain for centuries facing long periods of occupation only freeing itself of Spanish influence in 1640 when John 1V was proclaimed King, This dynasty – the House of Braganza – ruled until 1910 when a revolution disposed of the monarchy. During this period (1640-1910) Portugal had been one of the early imperial powers building up an empire in Brasil, Africa and India only to see it decline.
The 1910 revolution ushered in a period of financial hardship which was exacerbated by participation in the First World War. A military coup took place and over a number of years Salazar, an economist, who offered solutions to Portugal’s bankruptcy, took sole power and established a military dictatorship. Opponents of the regime were murdered or put in concentration camps. A campaign was started by exiled dissidents in Britain and human rights activist to highlight what was happening to political prisoners in Portugal that led to the establishment of Amnesty International.
This dictatorship was to last until the April 25 1974 Red Carnation Revolution. Portugal was fighting anti-imperialist uprisings in Angola and Mozambique and conscripted soldiers were inspired by the rebels they fought against and organised a left-wing coup. This coup took place on 25 April 1974 and six days later millions took to the streets, for the first time in decades, on May Day to demonstrate their support for the coup in what was evolving into a revolution.
For over a year it was not clear which direction the revolution would end up facing: a capitalist democracy or a revolutionary participatory democracy. All over the country there were land seizures, the establishment of workers peasants and community councils. A situation of dual power was emerging between the capitalist parties that had emerged after the fall of dictatorship and the new forms of popular power. The decisive event came in November 1975 when an ultra-left coup was easily put down.
An ultra-left group, Revolutionary Proletarian Party-Proletarian Brigades (RRB-PB) and army officers had been behind it. The PRB-PB had links to the UK’s SWP (then IS) who defended their comrades’ actions. The coup allowed capitalist politicians such as Mario Soares from the social democratic Socialist Party to say you can either have a capitalist democracy or a communist dictatorship. The revolutionary process in Europe that started with May 68 in France had effectively come to an end.
The Origins of Left Bloc
The Left Bloc was formed by three currents that had emerged for the revolution. These groups were : the People’s Democratic Union (União Democrática Popular, UDP) a pro-Albanian maoist group (Portugal has a large peasant population);the Revolutionary Socialist Party (Partido Socialista Revolucionário, PSR) the Portuguese section of the Fourth International ; and Politics XXI (Política XXI, PXXI) a group of ex-Communist party thinkers. The PSR and had stood for several years in elections and had gained no more than 2% and then stood on an joint slate with PXXI gaining over 3%. The Left Bloc’s real success was attracting initially hundreds and now thousands of independent activists from the political movments.
The Communist Party (PCP)
Portugal’s left had been dominated for years by Europe’s most Stalinist communist party – for example it supported the unsuccessful coup against former Soviet leader Mikhael Gorbachev. They are unique amongts western communist parties in that they were clandistine until April 1974 and consolidated itself as a pole of resistance during the dark years of the dictatorships. Therefore, they had and have a credibility which did not exist amongst other European communist parties whose policies startegy and tactics had been vissible to the working class since the end of the second world war.
But the PCP played a key role during 1974-1976 in legimising the capitalist democracy which was counterposed to the devoping revoltionary particpatory democary. They however, kept clear of the move to social democary and Eurocommunism in other European communist parties and this saw their vote decline from a peak of 19% in 1979 to around a 7% in the two legislative elctions in 2002 and 2004. They are now in a a block called the Coligação Democrática Unitária (CDU) with the Ecologist party and the Intervenção Democrática or (ID). Both these organisatiosn are Communist Party (CP) fronts that are under the complete control of the party.
A similar situation exists in the unions where the largest union organsiation – the General Confederation of the Portuguese Workers – is under the control of the CP.
Breaking The Bureacratic Control of The CP
This left nowhere for the activisits in the many political movements and the smaller left groups to go. The solution to this was the formation of the Left Bloc.
Discussions on the formation of the Left Bloc began in mid-1998. the PSR,UDP and PXXI took the first steps to reaching a basic political agreement and setting the basis for the new movemen, without rushing into a fusion, without disolving the existing organisations and without requiring unity in all areas of activity.
The presence of from the beginning of independents who supported the project was a crucial aspect of the Block and gave it a much broader appeal than that of a simple electoral alliance of the three organisations.
At the same time a political and organsisational agreement between the organisatiosn committed them to make the Block a space for the convergence of positions and practices, not an area for political disputes, thereby enabling rapid progress in building the structures needed for the electoral and political campaigns that followed.
The Left Bloc has beome increasingly popular over the last ten years, especially among youth, with imaginative campaigns and dynamic proposals, the majority of its support comes from colleges, cities and educated youth or adults from the countryside, gathering both urban educated communities and dynamic labor unions, together with defenders of human rights and women’s rights, the rights of immigrants and minorities (they are especially involved in supporting a strongly multicultural society), and also many ecologists. At this point the Bloc is by some seen as an alternative and refreshing “new” left political party to the older and more established Portuguese Communist Party and the Socialist Party. It is a diverse entity formed by people with multiple backgrounds.
The Bloc proposed Portugal’s first law on domestic violence, which was passed in parliament through the support of the Portuguese Communist Party and the Socialist Party, and other important laws on civil rights and guarantees, including the protection of citizens from racism, xenophobia and discrimination, gay marriage laws, laws for the protection of workers, legalisation of drugs and anti-bullfighting laws. They have also campaigned for free legal safe abortion laws, allowing womne to decide what they want to do with their bodies.
Some 600 trade union leaders, at a factory level and at national level, appealed for a vote for the Bloc in September 2009’s elections. In Portugal they still have workers’ commissions (a remnant of the 1974 revolution) that are directly elected in each workplace. In Portugal’s biggest workplace, Ford-Volkswagen in Setubal, the Bloc’s supporters are the majority.
As example of the Bloc’s innovative campaigning style they created a board game and circulated among young people. If the dice fell on a social problem you had to move back, if it fell on one of the Left Bloc’s proposals you could move forward and win. It was a big hit.
Collective Revolving Leadership
The Left Bloc operates a policy of having a revolving collectivist leadership.
This is to avoid a situation where the party depends on one or a few individuals. When the Bloc first had members of the Portuguese parliament it revolved the representatives every 5 months. The National committee of 80 people meets every two months. It is elected in proportion to the voting on the major resolutions at the annual conference.
Women must have minimum of 30-40 percent of all positions in the party. This goes right down to the election to the NC based on support for resolutions.
Prospects After the Election
At the time of writing (28 september 2009) the election has produced a hung parliament. The former incumbnet – the Socialist Party(SP) – a centre social democartic party has the largest share of the vote at 36.6%. But they have overseen rises in taxes and cuts in pay to try and reduce Portugal’s budget deficit which stands at 6%. Unemployment is nearing 10% and all this together has seen an erosion of their votes amongst their working class base who went to left with the Bloc also to the right with Peoples Party.
Portugal is the poorest country in Western Europe with an average annual salary of Euros15, 000 and a third of workers taking home less than 600 Euros a month. There have been large demonstrations with up to 100,000 teachers protesting and a general strike across Portugal. The right wing Social Democrats has 30% of the vote and they propose a program of cuts in public services. The situation may exist as in Scotland with the SP carrying on as a minority government and relying on other parties to get key legislation. The Left Bloc will be in the forefront of the opposition within the parliament and outside it to the austerity plans of the major parties.
They will focus their campaigning around opposition to privitisation, rights for part-time workers and, defending public services and pensions and a wealth tax to help redistribute wealth.
The Left Bloc are inspiration to all of us with there high levels of organisation and creative campaigning that has led them to be Portugal’s third major political force despite the dominant role of social democracy and large influential Communist party. They hint at the direction radical anti-capitalist left parties across Europe and how the Scottish Socialist Party could grow from their current positions.
A Beacon of Hope
The slogan of the resistance to the dictatorship which my mother applied to struggles everywhere “O povo unido jamais sera vencido” – a united people will never be vanquished – is embodied in the Left Bloc and offers us hope that the unfinished revolution 1974 will see it’s successful completion with the replacement of capitalism with a just and open multicultural society that can inspire all of us to strive for the same result all across the globe.