In European elections in June the Left Bloc in Portugal made the most significant gains of any member of the European Anti-Capitalist Alliance. In September, the Left Bloc made further advances in the Portuguese General Election. We asked Raphie de Santos, a supporter of the Fourth International, to analyse the evolution of the Left Bloc. Raphie’s mother escaped to Portugal in the 1930s from Franco’s Spain, only to seek refuge in Scotland during the 1950s from Salazar’s dictatorship. A shortened version of this article appeared in Scottish Socialist Voice, no. 348.

The Left Bloc (Bloco de Esquerda) has firmly established itself as the fourth largest party, just behind the Peoples Party (Partido Popular), in Portugal after their near 10% vote in the 27th 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 slate, the Unitarian Democratic Coalition (the Coligação Democrática Unitária or CDU bloc), as the largest left wing formation. The Left 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 establish this.

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 AD, it was at war with neighbouring Spain for centuries facing long periods of occupation, only freeing itself of Spanish influence in 1640 when John IV was proclaimed King. This dynasty – the House of Braganza – ruled until 1910 when a revolution disposed of the monarchy. During this period, Portugal had been one of the early imperial powers building up an empire in Brasil, Africa, India, China and the East Indies 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 activists to highlight what was happening to political prisoners in Portugal. This led to the establishment of Amnesty International.

The dictatorship was to last until the 1974 Red Carnation Revolution. Portugal was fighting anti-imperialist uprisings in Angola and Mozambique. Conscripted soldiers were inspired by the rebels they fought against and organised a left-wing coup. This coup took place on 25th April 1974, and six days later on May Day, millions took to the streets, for the first time in decades, to demonstrate their support for the coup which 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 on November 25th 1975 when an ultra-left coup was easily put down.

An ultra-left group, the Revolutionary Party of the Proletariat – Revolutionary Brigades (Partido Revolucionário do Proletariado – Brigadas Revolucionárias) (PRP-BR) and army officers, led by Otelo Carvalho, had been behind it. The PRP-BR had links to the UK’s SWP (then the International Socialists) who defended their comrades’ actions. The coup allowed capitalist politicians such as Mario Soares from the social democratic Socialist Party (Partido Socialista) 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 effectively came to an end.

The origins of the Left Bloc

The Left Bloc was formed by three currents that had emerged from the politics of 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 21 (Política XXI) a group of ex-Communist Party thinkers.

The PSR had stood for several years in elections and had gained no more than 2%, and then stood on a joint slate with PXXI gaining over 3%. The Left Bloc’s real success was attracting initially hundreds and then thousands of independent activists from the political movements.

The Communist Party (PCP)

Portugal’s left had been dominated for years by Europe’s most Stalinist communist party (Partido Cominista Portugues) (PCP) – for example it supported the unsuccessful coup against former Soviet leader Mikhael Gorbachev. They are unique amongst western communist parties in that they were clandestine until April 1974 and consolidated themselves 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 strategy and tactics had been visible to the working class since the end of the Second World War.

But the PCP played a key role between 1974-1976 in legitimising the capitalist democracy which was counter-posed to the developing revolutionary participatory democracy. However, they kept clear of the move to social democracy 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 elections in 2002 and 2004. They are now in a the CDU bloc with the Ecologist Party (‘Os Verdes’) and the Democratic Initiative (Intervenção Democrática). Both these organisations are PCP fronts under the complete control of the party.

A similar situation exists in the unions where the largest union organisation – the General Confederation of the Portuguese Workers – is under the control of the PCP.

Breaking the bureaucratic control of the PCP

This left nowhere for the activists 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, the UDP and PXXI took the first steps to reaching a basic political agreement and setting the basis for the new movement, without rushing into a fusion, without dissolving the existing organisations, and without requiring unity in all areas of activity. The presence from the beginning of independents, who supported the project, was a crucial aspect of the Left Bloc 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 organisational agreement between the organisations committed them to making the Left Bloc 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 become increasingly popular over the last ten years, especially amongst 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 in 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 Left Bloc is seen by some an alternative and refreshing “new” left political party compared to the older and more established PCP and SP. It is a diverse entity formed by people from multiple backgrounds.

The Left Bloc proposed Portugal’s first law on domestic violence, which was passed in parliament with the support of the PCP and the SP. It has fought for 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 women to decide what they want to do with their bodies.

Some 600 trade union leaders, at factory and national level, appealed for a vote for the Left 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 Left Bloc’s supporters are the majority.

As an example of the Left Bloc’s innovative campaigning style, they created a board game and circulated it amongst 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 avod a situation where the party depends on one or a few individuals. When the Left 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 % 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 (28th September 2009) the election has produced a hung parliament. The former incumbent – the Socialist Party (SP) – a centre social democratic 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. Unemployment is nearing 10% and all this has seen an erosion of SP votes amongst their working class base. Some went to the Left Bloc, but others went right to the Peoples Party.

Portugal is the poorest country in Western Europe with an average annual salary of 15,000 euros 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 Democratic Party (PSD) has 30% of the vote and it proposes a program of cuts in public services. As in Scotland, the SP may form a minority government and rely on other parties, such as the PSD, to get key legislation passed.

The Left Bloc will be in the forefront of the opposition, both within and outside the parliament, to the austerity plans of the major parties. They will focus their campaigning around opposition to privatisation, rights for part-time workers and defending public services and pensions, with a wealth tax to help redistribute wealth.

The Left Bloc is an inspiration to all of us with its high levels of organisation and creative campaigning. This has led them to become Portugal’s third major political force despite the dominant role of social democracy and a large influential communist party. This hints at the direction radical anti-capitalist left parties across Europe could take and how the Scottish Socialist Party could grow from its current position.

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 of 1974 will see its 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 across the globe.