After the military Coup of the 25th of April
In the aftermath of the coup, workers began to question the authority inside the factories, an authority that had always been structurally related to the fascist regime and it was in this vacuum that the Workers’ Committees came into being. Depending on the balance of forces inside the factories these Committees either limited themselves to exerting pressure on the bosses or else set up a parallel management structure alongside the boss’s administration, in many cases substituting it. In working-class areas Neighbourhood Committees were set up and Committees ran almost all factories and neighbourhoods for the period up to November 1975 when another military coup reinforced liberal parliamentary democracy and would bring
In 2006, very few people outside
In 1974, after the initial experiences of such companies like Sogantal and Charminha where factories were occupied by the workers and self-managed, the workers taking on all tasks inside the factory, the experience spread to hundreds if not thousands of factories. Actually, many bosses afraid of the boldness of the popular wave fled the country, leaving the factories abandoned and the staff without pay. The occupations started off as a survival mechanism for the workers. It was in this way that in industry and commerce self-managed companies came into being, from tiny units to large enterprises. Large estates (latifúndios) in the south were occupied and cultivated collectively. By mid
The first issue of Combate, along with the inaugural Manifesto is dated 21st June 1974 and the last number, Nº 51 is dated February 1978. The first 10 numbers of Combate were published weekly and widely distributed. Nº 11 (Nov 22, 1974) to Nº 47 (Oct 22, 1976) was almost fortnightly with some gaps. The counter coup of November 1975 which sought to establish constitutional representative democracy brought in policies which made occupations more difficult and the last four issues Nº 48 (dated Feb 1977) to Nº 51 (Feb 1978) became more and more difficult to organise and therefore more irregular.
The idea was to produce a non-doctrinaire newspaper that would publish reports about these occupations and experiences of self-management. Teams visited localities throughout the whole country, interviewing members of the Workers’ Committees or Neighbourhood Committees, frequently interviewing ordinary people involved and what they said was written out and published in full. While this led to certain repetitions and sometimes long-windedness as people reiterated points already made, it was considered useful since it was not up to us to make cuts or omit things that we didn’t agree with, although such things were discussed. There were never any complaints from Workers’ Committees about misrepresentation and all of them felt that what they said, even if it went against the orientation of the newspaper, was always faithfully reproduced. Also many of the occupied factories at this time, were producing their own bulletins and broadsheets discussing the issues that were at stake inside the factory and many of these bulletins were reproduced in their entirety and not just quoting certain sections, as other newspapers were doing, in keeping with their own ideologies. The members of Combate hoped that, through all of these reports, workers in similar situations could learn from their comrades and could contribute to more advanced experiences and form united fronts or at least stimulate relations between the various workers’ groups. With this aim Combate also organised various round table discussions between workers of various factories in struggle. These discussions were taped, transcribed and reproduced in full.
The aim of Combate was to publicize the struggles of the workers and their forms of organisation, whether in industry or commerce as well as the struggles in agriculture, both north and south of the country, as well as the Neighbourhood struggles. Also, Combate focused in on all struggles against military discipline which were especially important given the context that the armed forces were directly involved in the government and enjoyed enormous prestige for having overthrown the fascist regime. Combate also focused in on worker’s struggles in other countries and almost all issues contained news of these struggles.
The problems of the Workers’ Committees were highlighted in all issues. An example from Combate Nº 13 (Dec 1974) quoted a worker from Setenave, the big ship building company from Setúbal, south of Lisbon as saying “The last General Assembly had no interest for me. It just discussed a load of matters that had nothing to do with the problems at hand. Parties attacked parties, you’re MRPP, you’re PRP and so on…It shouldn’t be as a member of a political party that one attacks the Committee but as a worker.” Another worker interviewed pointed out that the Committee was recalled for “fraternising” with the management and said, “More members of the base committee must go on the Workers’ Committee. Everyone should know someone on the Workers’ Committee”. These were some of the nitty-gritty problems which faced the Committees and which Combate tried to call attention to.
The Portuguese revolutionary movement in any case, owed nothing to the leftist political parties, which on the whole were taken totally by surprise by events. The Communist Party, very influential in the military governments of 1974-75, tried to build up the embryonic trade union bureaucracies at the expense of the Worker’s Committees and tried to halt the self-management movements in a way that wanted to promote its own brand of State Capitalism based on nationalisations. Even in the large estates in the south where workers were generally supportive of the Communist Party the collective occupations of land came from the initiative of the farm-workers themselves. The Communist Party slogans were ‘for an increase in wages’ and where direct repression couldn’t work they tried to use the nationalised banking system to run the companies and estates in self-management through the granting of credit facilities and in this way control them. None of the other extreme left parties (like UDP, PRP, MES or MRPP) had any preponderant role in the self-management movement at the time. In reality, these leftist parties were the political arm of certain military factions, and this relation to the armed forces showed that they had not really separated themselves from the Capitalist State and were really only interested in their own brands of State Capitalism. Certainly the militants of these parties in the factories where they were present were very active and played a role in the Workers’ Committees. But at long as the workers’ movement remained strong these militants were confined to carry out the directives of the General Assemblies and not those dictated by the parties. Party banners were forbidden in many Assemblies and demonstrations by 1975 and the parties were relegated to a secondary position. And, of course, when the movement began to decline and the Workers’ Committees became more isolated, after November 1975, these parties too lost their usefulness to become mini-leftist organisations on the margins of society.
For Combate, it was the actual forms of spontaneous organisation of the workers rather than the particular demands made by them that were more important, since we saw this as the basis of workers’ democracy and the means to destroy the hierarchies of State capitalism. This is not to lessen the actual demands, which arise out of real situations, but to focus in on the dynamic between these demands and the democratic (or not) forms with which they were pursued. Some of the strike bulletins reproduced in Combate were written in a language and logic that put the problems of Capital in a nutshell and spontaneously expressed it. An Efacec-Inel strike bulletin wrote, “Our struggles are just and if we strike we shall be heard. This is why we must organise not only against this or that boss, in this or that factory, but against the capitalist system as a whole”.
By concentrating on the factory, barracks and neighbourhood struggles and examining its organisational forms, Combate was able, from very early on, to see the decline of the movement. The fact that a Committee was elected by a body of workers in an assembly in open democracy and that it had to, in principle, answer to those who elected it and could be substituted if their actions did not meet the demands of the base didn’t mean that things always happened this way. In Combate Nº 15 (17th Jan 1975) the members of the newspaper were already worried about the bureaucratisation of many Workers’ Committees and with the lack of a Federation of these Committees and tried to analyse the root causes of this negative situation. And in July 1975 when commentators were unanimous that we were living “the long hot Summer” the editorial of Combate Nº 27 pointed out the growing symptomatic signs of disinterest on the part of ordinary workers and the growing isolation of the Workers’ Committees and their inability to join up these Committees. When the military coup of November 1975 ended the hegemony of the Communist Party in the government and destroyed what remained of the revolutionary process, the editorials of Combate, unlike most of the leftist media at the time, said that this was a reinforcement of capitalist democracy and not a return to fascism. The political clarity, which Combate repeatedly demonstrated, was due to the fact that it was in close contact with the grassroots of the workers’ movement and cared most of all about the validity of its spontaneous forms of organisation.
The real dichotomy in the Worker’s Movement at this time was the split between the Workers’ Committees and the trade unions. The unions were little more than a conduit between the bosses and the workers. In 1974, there were some 4000 unions across the country, organised by trade and totally discredited by past links with the fascist regime. In Lisnave (shipbuilders) there were 13 unions, in Mabor (the tyre plant) there were
There were various attempts to forge a unitary organisation out of these Committees outside the political parties which clearly all wanted a piece of the action. Inter-Empresas, formed in December 1974, was to fragment into various Inters controlled by different political factions. Another attempt was the Congress of Factory Committees in Covilhã in September 1975, which elaborated voting rights dependent of the size of the Company (i.e. number of workers) with the political parties having no right to vote. This turned out to be a MRPP (a Maoist organisation of radical discourse but in practice allied with the extreme-right against the Communist Party) front and was boycotted by the PCP. The MRPP had infiltrated the original Inter-Empresas organisation (through such Committees as Efacec-Inel) and the Socialist Party was also supportive, hoping to gain some inroad into workers’ organisations. Such were the very difficult problems facing the self-management movement at the time.
The fundamental split in Portuguese society, for Combate, after the 25th April 1974 coup was between the various modalities of State capitalism and the attempt to increase the direct power of the workers from the bottom up, without recourse to the state apparatus, while developing organisational autonomy and economic self management. Of course, real power remained in the hands of Armed Forces Movement (MFA), which had carried out the coup of 1974. From the beginning, political forces tried to gain control of this influential body. General Spínola, the ex-fascist general who had criticised the former regime’s colonial policies, was only used as a convenient figurehead in the aftermath of the coup. But he had shown his hand in a September 1974 failed right wing counter-coup and resigned.
What remained were various factions within the armed forces, which mirrored the ambitions of the mainly State Capitalist political projects and parties. There was the faction of the army (based around the 5th Division) which was controlled by Vasco Gonçalves who himself was controlled by the Communist Party and through which successive military governments had installed State Capitalism (through nationalisations) and the various extreme leftist parties either actively collaborated with this project or at least went along with it. There was the COPCON faction, under Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho, which controlled the most heavily armed units around Lisbon (RAL-1, PM, EPAM) and were actively supporting many of the occupations of land and factories and were allied to extreme left political parties, like the PRP, UDP, MES etc. In practise this was the biggest military group and while they supported the state capitalist projects of the Communist governments generally, they also embraced a strategy of “popular power” which sought to speed up the process. It was COPCON who were called in to manage disputes and in the so-called “hot summer” of 1975 were the arbiters of civil society, its real police force at the time, often actively supporting demonstrations and occupations, like for example when three armoured cars turned up on July 16th, 1975 to support a demonstration of Inter-Comissões (shanty town dwellers) and declared that “Workers of field and factory, soldiers and sailors, united we shall win”. However, COPCON’s very existence as a left tendency within the MFA reinforced the whole MFA mystique. The “arming of the working class” was muted but it was always for tomorrow and while most of the left wing parties were mesmerised by the rhetoric, COPCON was a real obstacle; while it existed to defend the working class why should the workers even begin to think of arming themselves? COPCON would be disbanded, on military orders from above, on November 26th 1975 without as much as squeak from its leading personnel.
The Socialist Party, on the other hand, was divided between those who wanted to go along with the military governments and the Communist Party and those who wanted a European style liberal capitalism and thus conspired with the right and extreme right and with the United States Embassy. They too had their military faction, the Group of Nine, (centred on Melo Antunes and Vasco Lourenço), and it was this group under Ramalho Eanes who won out in November 1975. The Social Democrats (the PPD) while situated to the right of the Socialist Party did not raise huge obstacles to the successive military governments or the Communists but had an influence in many army barracks and amongst those officers who had never identified with the MFA. The commandoes in Lisbon were their main strike force but it also could muster support from the northern commands and amongst units in the Azores and Madeira. The army, which is always the final defence of the State apparatus, was politically divided along ideological lines and people at the time spoke of an MFA, an MFB and MFC.
By late summer of 1975, SUV (Soldiers United Will Win), a rank and file soldiers’ organisation came into being when some hundreds of soldiers and lower officers met in a pine forest, on August 21, near the northern town of Braga. How much this was the behind the scenes work of the extreme-leftist UDP party and just how spontaneous it was is still open to interpretation but it certainly showed the near total fissure of the backbone of the State apparatus.
Combate, at this time, considered State capitalism to be a bigger danger than private capitalism and this was the main emphasis in terms of its practical activity as well as its political analysis. This was the situation at the time and while, in hindsight, neo-liberalism and market economics have become the dominant ideology in the Portuguese (and world) ruling class, this was not the situation in 1974-75. There was a danger here of only criticising the left parties and regarding the right as being purely “repressive”. While one must never forget how horrific left capital has been historically it is necessary to see a rightist reformism that is equally horrific, though perhaps in a different way. It is interesting to note than similar types of splits in the military forces are taking place across Latin America these days (2006), with left and right groups in confrontation and there is probably much to be learned from a study of these experiences in Portugal. There are strong similarities to the way now used by Chavez and also by Morales to that then used by COPCON to absorb the grassroots.
Combate did not have any paid up members; it was open for anyone to attend as long as they adhered to the general principals of the Manifesto. Tasks were distributed equally and there were no management roles, even the name of the director which appeared at the head of the newspaper was fictitious and merely a requirement by law. All who were present could give their opinion and when it came to voting, anyone could do so on the condition that they took on some task. While there was a core group, who met at least once a week, there were others who drifted in and out or came along when certain struggles were being discussed. There was a group in the south (in Lisbon) as well as a group in the north (Oporto). Sometimes workers from a particular factory would turn up to discuss their own struggle and then would get involved in preparing the next issue.
Seven of the eight pages of Combate dealt with the ongoing struggles in the factories, on the land, the Army barracks and in the neighbourhoods and one page was devoted to an editorial. Although this was discussed by all present there probably could have been more democracy here but of course in the heat of the moment, the constantly changing political environment and the need to get something out, deadlines etc, meant that someone (usually the same person) took on this task. It might have been better, in retrospect, had we asked some of the workers groups to participate more and possibly write their own editorials on what was happening. In any case, if the experience is ever repeated in some form or another this is something worth considering.
Up to November 1975, despite the barriers put in the way of developing the struggles, the workers were able to muster up enough force to open up the factory gates and allowed a vast political movement to undermine the boss’s discipline. It was in these circumstances that Combate arose and could survive. When the workers’ movement collapsed Combate also collapsed amidst internal recriminations, which are usual in these matters and a certain amount (though not much) of bitterness followed. However, it can be said that on the collapse of Combate, the members all went our separate ways and followed separate paths. What is important here is not to dwell on this collective failure (a collective failure which was probably foreseeable anyway, given the weakness of the Portuguese economy and the pressures of world capitalism), but to dwell on the positive aspects of the experience which was a rich one and one which we offer here in retrospect so that others can learn from it. It is the workers’ movement that is important here and not the hurt egos of a few of Combate’s members, for whom the movement was one of the first and richest oral history experiences (albeit restricted to the written word), as well as being something they actively participated in.
Combate was a product of its time, there was no Internet, few video cameras, no mobile phones, and in many respects it seems old-fashioned and out-moded. And of course, it is. In today’s world, video and Internet and SMS may be a better means of communications (as in the French struggles in 2006) but in the Portugal of the 70s this was not available. However, it should be said that from the first issue (and the last one was a stencilled effort) Combate would not have survived without the help of the workers’ committee of the Mirandela print company and the self-managed workers in the printing press they ironically named Cooperativa Gráfica Confusão (The Graphic Cooperative Confusion) where it was published.
At the start of 1975 the northern members opened up in Oporto a bookshop called Contra A Corrente and started editing small pamphlets, either printed or stencilled. The bookshop was a meeting place for members of Combate but was also used by other groups of a libertarian or autonomist tendency without conditions. In October 1975 the Lisbon members also opened a bookshop, also called Contra a Corrente with the same objectives. Some 31 pamphlets were published in Portuguese as well as some in English and French.
What is certain is that in the pages of the 51 issues of Combate there is a repertory of all that happened within the workers’ movement in 1974-75. It is a goldmine for researchers and for anyone interested in the workers’ movement of this time, probably one of the great experiences of the end of the 20th century. It is in this vein that we put out these issues, in Portuguese only at the moment. A collection of Combate Manifesto and editorials, up to Nº 20 (Mar 28, 1975), was published in 1975 (Capitalismo Privado ou Capitalismo de Estado Não É Escolha!, Porto: Afrontamento, 1975). And it is worth noting that the book Portugal. The Impossible Revolution? (London: Solidarity, 1977; also now available on the internet, which was translated into Portuguese as Portugal: A Revolução Impossível?, Porto: Afrontamento, 1978), by Phil Mailer, one of the various foreigners who were directly involved in Combate right up to the end, contains many references and quotes from Combate.
José Elísio Melo e Silva
José Paulo Serralheiro