Workers' Councils in Portugal

There are those who understand, and others who do not, that the class struggle in Portugal was principally and from the beginning dominated by the direct contention between the revolutionary workers organized into autonomous assemblies and the Stalinist bureaucracy enriched by generals in flight from defeat. Those who understand this are the same people who are able to understand my film; and I am not making a film for those who do not understand or who feign not to understand even this. Guy Debord, Refutation of all judgments, whether for or against, that have been brought to date on the film 'The Society of the Spectacle' (1975).

On 25 April 1974, the Armed Forces Movement or MFA (a group of middle-ranking officers in the Portuguese military) overthrew the Salazar-Caetano regime, which had ruled Portugal in an authoritarian manner for 48 years, in a bloodless coup. The motivations of the MFA were both patriotic and selfish: its members believed that Portugal was engaged in colonial wars in Africa that it couldn't possibly win, and that both the prestige and the financial rewards of making a career in the military were suffering severely as a result. To the MFA, the only way to stop the colonial wars was to topple the existing political regime, which had shown itself to be stubbornly committed to them. Once the Salazar-Caetano regime was overthrown, Portugal did indeed end its military actions in Africa. Unable to decide what to do next, the MFA disbanded and its members allied themselves with one or several of the many political parties that had formed and were jostling for power.

Six provisional governments were formed between 25 April 1974 and July 1976. The first three (May 1974 to March 1975) were liberal governments in which civilians from a variety of newly formed political parties created the beginnings of a Western democracy. Freedom of speech became protected, union activity was legalized, and political prisoners were released. In March 1975, far-right forces staged an unsuccessful coup against the third provisional government. A fourth provisional government was established, but this time it was a radical one, a government committed to changing Portuguese society, not just the Portuguese state. And so the political revolution in Portugal was expanded to include the beginnings of a social revolution.

The fourth and fifth provisional governments, which lasted from March to September 1975, witnessed the first stages of the biggest mass seizures of land in European history. Though the fourth provisional government, as well as both the Socialist and Communist Parties, were advocating the expropriation of large areas of abandoned land (that is, seizures of land through "legal" actions taken at the national political level), the peasants and rural proletarians of Portugal acted directly and locally. "Illegally," they occupied the abandoned but arable lands and established collectives to operate autonomous farms on it. Moreover, the revolutionary peasants and rural proletarians acted with full knowledge of the significance of their actions. A good number of these presumably "backward" rural workers, who had looked for work and lived in the urban areas of Portugal and in foreign countries, had either experienced unionized labor first-hand or had at the very least heard about the great seizures of land by autonomous collectives of rural workers in Spain in 1936 (and again in the aftermath of the death of Franco in 1975), in Italy in 1945, and in Chile in 1970.

The revolutionary peasants and rural proletarians of Portugal, some of whom were anarchists, timed their occupations very carefully: they acted at precisely the times and places at which neither the police, the regular army nor the MFA would try to stop them. Indeed, not a single participant in the occupations movement was arrested or detained. Because of the inaction of the armed forces and the revolutionaries' sense of timing, these mass occupations continued all through the fifth and sixth provisional governments, despite the fact that the latter was a moderate and not a radical government. At its height, the occupations movement -- and the network of worker-controlled farms that grew with and out of it -- seized and controlled a fourth of the total of the nation's arable land.

The Portuguese Revolution came to an end in April 1976, when the Socialists -- covertly backed by the CIA and NATO, among others -- won the election and established the nation's first constitutional government. In July 1977, the Socialists restored large sections of occupied land to its "lawful" owners, thereby effectively reversing the gains the revolutionary peasants and workers had made "on the ground" (to use a current military expression).

Drawing upon extensive research she did while in Portugal from 1977 to 1980, Nancy Gina Bermeo (then Assistant and now Full Professor of Politics at Princeton University) wrote The Revolution within the Revolution: Workers' Control in Rural Portugal, which was published by Princeton University Press in 1986. The book is still in print (!) and priced at $49.95 a copy, hardcover only (!). A sober scholarly work, The Revolution within the Revolution is full of footnotes, tables, charts, and graphs. Each chapter begins with an introduction and ends with a summary. Apparently politically neutral, despite its subject matter, the book seems to hazard no assertions that it can't back up with the facts.

If it is indeed a reliable source of information, Bermeo's book has some very interesting things to say about workers' councils. (How reliable can this book be, if it contains no references to or discussions of the great council communists such as Rosa Luxembourg, Anton Pannokoek, and Cornelius Castoriadis?) The Revolution within the Revolution reminds us that several of the great workers' councils -- Petrograd in 1917, Kiel in 1918, Kronstadt in 1921 -- were actually or originally councils of soldiers, not civilians. But, military or civilian, these councils all struggled with the inter-related problems of specialization and hierarchicalization. "The members of the new collective units differ greatly in both their ability and their willingness to assume managerial tasks," Bermeo writes, "and as a consequence decision-making power often remains concentrated in the hands of a stable enterprise subgroup." Though we wouldn't phrase it as crudely or naively as she does, we tend to agree with Bermeo when she writes that "this is not [so much] the result of machiavellianism or opportunism within the firm but simply a legacy of social inequities that predate the revolutionary period." Innate or "natural" ability is not the question here: unequal degrees of education is. Workers' councils must therefore be classrooms in which each and every worker is trained to do all the jobs that the enterprise as a whole requires. The effective education of each by all can be the tool that breaks the hierarchical chains of specialized knowledge and privileged experience.

No doubt few people outside of academia -- outside of a few specialists in agrarian movements and modern Portuguese history -- have probably taken note of The Revolution within the Revolution. And yet, despite or precisely because Bermeo's approach to and her attitudes about the Portuguese Revolution are thoroughly Marxist, The Revolution within the Revolution is paradoxically quite useful to anarchists and other anti-authoritarians. It can serve as a kind of guide to things not to do when thinking about modern revolution, as a kind of anti-guide to the subject.

Bermeo's purpose, ultimately, is to demonstrate the necessity of hierarchical Leninist political parties to modern revolutions in general.

Lenin was not the last party leader to recognize that workers' control and party control could be linked [she writes]. Structures of workers' control provide a natural environment for party activity everywhere. Initiatives for workers' control can erupt autonomously, as they often did in the Portuguese countryside, but initial autonomy does not mean perpetual organizational independence. If the leaders of the movement are not linked to parties from the outset, they are natural targets for party recruitment. If the structures of the movement are not linked to parties from the outset, they are natural targets for party assistance. Troubled by the private sector, and troubled by forces associated with the state, the structures of workers' control are likely to accept assistance from any friendly sources, and political parties are a likely source indeed. Historical experience illustrates these points [...] [In Portugal] once the land changed hands (and the worker-controlled section was thus expanded), the party could assist the new production units through the indirect provision of technical advice, legal defense, organizational skills, and funding. [Emphasis added.]

According to Bermeo, the problem with the Portuguese Revolution -- the reason why it failed -- wasn't the facts that it received little or no assistance (direct or indirect) from friendly, anti-authoritarian foreign sources and that the revolution's enemies were among the most powerful forces on the national and international scene. For Bermeo, the Portuguese Revolution failed because the Socialists (relatively powerful at the national level) and the Communists (relatively powerful at the local level) couldn't get their shit together (yet again!). "Refusing the risky option of articulation [with the Communists]," Bermeo writes, "the PSP [Portuguese Socialist Party] moved against the worker-controlled farms," which were incorrectly associated with the Communist Party. Precisely because she is a Marxist and not an anarchist, Bermeo is able to find comfort in the awful facts that, as a result of the Socialists' all-too-predictable turnaround, "workers' control began to disintegrate, but the national democracy itself was preserved. . . . The social revolution receded but the gains of the political revolution remained."

Let us return to what Bermeo said about the necessity of receiving "aid" from the Leninist party, now exposed as the kiss of death. The autonomous peasants and workers can (spontaneously) "erupt" and take the initiative (someone has to do it, so it might as well be them), but they can't protect and retain their "independence" on their own for long. The party targets the revolutionary peasants and workers in need. Sooner or later, they will run out of technical advice, legal defense, organizational skills and money. Then the party has got them. Ominous and typical Marxist propaganda!

Everybody capable of thinking for themselves knows that you don't need technical advice from anyone else but your fellow workers if you are running a farm you've been working on for years. You don't need legal defense in an area in which the only courts are those established by your own collective. You don't need lessons in organization if you are already skilled enough to seize an abandoned farm and then collectively manage it. You don't need money loaned or given to you from a benefactor: you can seize a bank and use its money, or you can print your own paper money.

(The only reason you might need leaders -- otherwise undesirable or unnecessary in collective endeavors -- is if you want to get "help" from the party [the Communist Party, that is, and no other]. The Party is, shall we say, a tad uncomfortable about the prospect of dealing with revolutionary groups that have no leaders or a system of temporary, rotating leaders. The Party, uh, finds the absence of hierarchy too strong an indication that these groups can't be "articulated" (subsumed) into The Party's own very formal hierarchy. And The Party always gets its way, at least according to Nancy Gina Bermeo. It's inevitable that the autonomous peasants and workers will need, ask for and get the help and protection of The Party -- so why not get it over with at the outset? That's right, you dumb peasants: to protect your independence, you should give it up as soon as you win it!)

Bermeo's comments on what she calls the "articulation" between the leaders [sic] of the autonomous collectives and the national government -- on what she deems the necessity of there being such an "articulation" in the first place -- can be productively re-cast as follows. Political parties, but especially the Communist Party, will target autonomous workers' collectives from the outset of their existence because these collectives are a direct threat to the monopoly The Party needs to maintain over the revolutionary movement, and because, once domesticated, these collectives are excellent sources of recruits, militants, and cannon-fodder. To defend themselves and thus protect their independence, the revolutionary collectives must, right from the outset, refuse all "aid" from and association with both the Communists and the Socialists. In addition to protecting themselves against the big landowners, the deposed fascists, and the state (if it should decide to act), the collectives must also protect themselves from the "leftist" political parties. As Bermeo herself reports, over and over again (in Russia in 1917, in Germany in 1918, in Chile in 1970), the "socialist" state has eventually turned upon and suppressed the very same autonomous collectives of laborers that it had previously lauded and offered to help. Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it, eh wot?



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