This appeared also in the Morning Star newspaper on Thursday 30 May 2020
Last Saturday, 25 April saw celebrations — necessarily muted because of the coronavirus lockdown — in both Portugal and Italy.
Italy’s Festa della Liberazione celebrates the defeat of fascism in Italy in 1945 and the country’s liberation. The victory of the resistance set the scene for what promised to be a radical transformation of Italian life.
On that same day in 1974 Portuguese fascism came to an end. The Carnation Revolution – Revolução dos Cravos – is seen as the last revolutionary transformation in Europe.
This year the celebrations included musical events online, virtual tours of galleries and historic sites and at three o’clock in the afternoon people took to their balconies to sing the haunting song Grandola Vila Morena the broadcast of which signalled the uprising by the revolutionary Armed Forces Movement in both Portugal and its African colonies where soldiers, disaffected by the failing anti-insurgency campaigns and suspicious of their senior officers rose up against the regime.
And in Italy people took to their balconies to sing the partisan song Bella Ciao.
A few days after 25 April 1974 the historic leader of the Portuguese Communist Party, Álvaro Cunhal, returned to Lisbon to a tumultuous welcome by thousands of workers. It was his first return to the land of his birth since the PCP central committee escaped from the fearsome Peniche prison citadel on the Atlantic coast.
May Day 1974 saw a mass rally addressed by Cunhal and the socialist leader Mario Soares and a fortnight later the PCP paperAvante– after near five decades of clandestine existence – was legally published.
The Portuguese revolution bound together the decolonisation of the African colonies and major assaults on the power and wealth of the capitalist and landlord class.
The central agrarian zone where big landlords had for generations exploited mostly landless labourers an Agrarian Reform saw many collective and cooperative farms established. The key sectors of the economy, transport, mining, steel and shipbuilding, telecoms and mines were nationalised. A counter-coup by right-wing military officers was defeated and a provisional government with Communist and Socialist ministers, including Cunhal, took the country to its first free general election.
The election took place amidst days of celebration, the first 25 April anniversary and May Day.
Everyone who was in Lisbon will remember that May the First. As massive columns of workers advanced on the city centre soldiers tossed red carnations from helicopters to the marchers below who in turn garlanded the soldiers who stood guard over the procession.
Twenty-nine years earlier on 25April 1945 the Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale Alta Italia (the National Liberation Committee of Upper Italy (CLNAI) broadcast its assumption of power and the death sentence on the fascist leadership.
In the following days, armed units of the resistance liberated the main cities and towns.
During the following year, a multi-facetted struggle for power took place leading to a referendum which by a narrow vote ended the monarchy and more substantially proclaimed Italy a republic based on the values of labour.
The post-1945 events in Italy are just about still in living memory and the consideration of Italy’s post war history is a study in how capitalist hegemony was challenged and how it drew upon US covert and overt intervention, mafia and criminal influences, the power of markets and the EU combined with the secret state and the Catholic Church to block system change.
The post-1974 events in Portugal form the political thinking of key generations who remain as principal actors in contemporary politics. The experience of the creeping counter-revolution which saw socialised agriculture return to the landlords, enterprises reprivatised and workers rights curtailed as Portugal was integrated more fully into the global capitalist economy and the eurozone poses special problems for the Portuguese left.
It is important not to draw superficial conclusions from these two experiences. But both Italy, in the decades after 1945, and Portugal in the shorter period since 1974 demonstrate that the defences which capital can rely upon are more deeply embedded in capitalist society than any insurgency might first imagine.
The challenge to capital that the prospect of a Corbyn government posed are less obviously direct than did the open fraternisation of revolutionary soldiers with May Day marchers or did the presence of armed communist partisans parading in the piazza.
But the ferocious and wide-ranging mobilisation of forces, open and hidden, that was deployed to destabilise Labour and thwart a second prospect of electoral victory after the near-miss of 2017 demonstrates that the ruling classes of capitalist states are very conscious of their collective class interests.
The Italian and Portuguese experiences suggest that the Atlanticist bourgeoisie – on both sides of the ocean – are considerably more ‘internationalist’ in their thinking than are the working-class forces.
In 1974 each of the class forces in contention could draw upon the experience of the murderous CIA organised military coup which overthrew the socialist government of Salvador Allende. Indeed, the US spook Frank Carlucci finished his spell as US ambassador to Chile soon after the coup and turned up as US ambassador to Portugal in the months preceding the April Revolution.
One of the more imaginative initiatives as the Portuguese situation developed was the so-called Movement for the Reconstitution of the proletarian Party, or MRPP, a nominally Maoist sect comprised of upper-class students which traded with the slogan “Death to Cunhal”. It was led by one José Manuel Barroso later to become Chairman of Goldman Sachs International, president of the EU Commission and prime minister of Portugal.
If there is one marker of a state-sanctioned psuedo-left it is the combination of ultra revolutionary slogans couple with support for imperial foreign policy. In Britain delusions about the EU and unprincipled concessions to Zionist thinking link the social democratic right with its ultra left analogues.
Just after the Chile coup one perceptive voice on the British left wrote:
“In so far as Chile was a bourgeois democracy, what happened there is about bourgeois democracy, and about what may also happen in other bourgeois democracies. After all, The Times, on the morrow of the coup, was writing (and the words ought to be carefully memorised by people on the Left): “… whether or not the armed forces were right to do what they have done, the circumstances were such that a reasonable military man could in good faith have thought it his constitutional duty to intervene”. Should a similar episode occur in Britain, it is a fair bet that, whoever else is inside Wembley Stadium, it won’t be the Editor of The Times: he will be busy writing editorials regretting this and that, but agreeing, however reluctantly, that, taking all circumstances into account, and notwithstanding the agonising character of the choice, there was no alternative but for reasonable military men … and so on and so forth.
For those too young to recollect these events the reference to Wembley Stadium recalls the imprisonment in Santiago stadium of thousands of Allende supporters many of whom were later imprisoned or killed by the forces under the command of Mrs Thatcher’s best friend General Pinochet.
In was in the wake of these dreadful events that Ralph Miliband then went on to argue:
“But even though the Chilean experience may not have been a test case for the “peaceful transition to socialism”, it still offers a very suggestive example of what may happen when a government does give the impression, in a bourgeois democracy, that it genuinely intends to bring about really serious changes in the social order and to move in socialist directions, in however constitutional and gradual a manner…”
The 2017 election in Britain showed how a progressive programme of measures of socialist and democratic inspiration can galvanise a mass movement and precipitate an electoral advance. Labour went from 20 points behind to deprive the Tories of their parliamentary majority and precipitate a slow-burn inner-party crisis in the government party.
Labour’s programme, radical by British standards in that it posited the public ownership of common goods like water, power, and public transport, still fell short of a full-scale alternative economic and political strategy to take the productive economy into public ownership.
If such goals were far from the minds of the great majority of people who voted for it the manifesto was actively opposed by very substantial elements in Labour’s parliamentary representation and its apparatus.
If the vast bulk of the people who were inspired to vote Labour in 2017 did so lacking any great insight into the possible consequences for profits and capitalist power the same cannot be said for the ruling class.
These people had a real fright in that a new type of Labour government might come to office determined to change the balance of power and wealth. Its ruthless response post-election was to purge their main party of government, marginalise the Lib Dems and mobilise every resource they had at their disposal to render Labour divided and powerless.
In this latter task they had willing, conscious and energetic accomplices within the Labour Party.
Our first step in understanding what happened is to be clear about how it happened.
Portuguese socialists and Italians will understand how ‘official’ social democracy – swiftly in the case of the Portuguese Socialist Party in the 1970s, with greater internal resistance on the part of the fifties and sixties Italian socialists – accommodated the demands of international capital, abandoned electoral alliances with the revolutionary and communist left and came to stand for a neo-liberal consensus.
The configuration of political forces in Britain is different, our working class lacks both the experience of fascist rule and armed resistance. The British bourgeoisie, apart from the special case of the local elites in the Channel Islands, were never fully exposed – as a class – as collaborators with fascism even though pre-war Britain was riddled with proto-fascist sympathisers in the royal, aristocratic and bourgeois elites.
But our working class is both a much greater and unalloyed factor in British politics and, compared to post-war Italy or 1970’s Portuguese capitalism the highly monopolised and financialised British economy is oven-ready for public ownership.
Our collective experience over the last three years must be analysed and dissected. We need to make a more thorough study of the real-life characteristics of British capitalism, understand more fully the character of the class structure and the divisions within our ruling class. We need to develop a form of working-class unity coupled with a political unity on the left that pays less attention to labels and more to ideas and commitment.
And above all we need to embed socialist ideas and real-life socialist activity much more fully in the daily lives of the working class, in communities, in workplaces, and in struggle.