Original publication: anabarradas.com
Translation: Roderic Day

Communist Action in Low Tide (1991)

7 minutes | English Português

Francisco Martins Rodrigues (1926-2008) was a Portuguese communist. Here he reflects on various lessons from his lifetime of revolutionary experience (including a daring prison break!), and delivers advice relating to organizational discipline and communist self-esteem. [1]

How can communists ensure that the daily struggle of the masses towards their immediate demands grows into a revolutionary force, especially in this period of thoroughgoing bourgeois triumphalism? This is a central issue for Portuguese communists, scarred as they are by the successive infiltrations of reformism — always in the name of the best Marxist intentions.

The concentration of revolutionary forces is a phenomenon practically unheard of in Portugal. What we do have are many examples of forces being dispersed:

  • the Communist Party of Portugal (PCP), in line with its thorough work amid the proletariat in the companies and in the unions, waving the banner of “defending the conquests,” led the masses to defeat upon defeat, due to its superstitious respect for parliament and the bourgeois order;
  • in its wake, the “New Left” formed a bloc championing the alternative causes — “broaden citizenship,” “deepen democracy” — most dear to the young petty bourgeoisie now seeking their place in the political arena;
  • we also had FP-25 venturing into “urban guerrilla” actions as a means to “rekindle” the declining popular movement, which led to their predictable shipwreck and overall disrepute of the revolutionary road;
  • and there are yet other revolution-sympathizers who are disgusted with the reigning scene of class collaboration, for whom all immediate, piecemeal demands are unworthy of effort, and who therefore retreat into self-indulgent ultra-leftist declamatory inaction.

In this situation, what is to be done?

Communists, let us be clear, do not have to invent special struggles. We have to be present in the real struggles, however small and limited their scope: against unemployment, precarious work, constantly worsening health conditions, housing, education, and the overexploitation and oppression of women; in the movements against capitalist impunity and the corrupt mafia that is today’s bourgeois politicking; in protests against imperialist military expeditions and the build-up of the police state…

We know that revolution can only be built upon the real movement, not upon models that we invent. Outside of exceptional situations of revolutionary crisis, the masses carry out struggles in order to obtain small improvements within the limits of law and order. Only by participating in these struggles can communists help workers’ collectives review their own experiences to become aware of the antagonism between their interests and those of the bourgeoisie, to cultivate organizational discipline, and to gain confidence in their own power.

What, then, led to the failure of past Communist efforts? Why did their initial revolutionary intentions dissolve into the practice of small daily struggle, until they finally became reformists? I see at least four causes for this:

  1. The focus of effort, not on the proletarian layer where the antagonistic stress between the workers and established society is greatest, but on the semi-proletarian and petty-bourgeois layers, which are more educated and have better organizational discipline and who therefore achieve results more easily, but who also, on the other hand, always tend towards reformism.

  2. The very deeply-rooted tradition in our country of boiling down the proletarian struggle to economic demands, which hands over the direction of the political struggle to the progressive petty bourgeoisie. It’s time we all understand that the communist mobilization of the proletariat also involves the anti-imperialist struggle, solidarity with immigrants and the fight against racism, the struggle to free working women from their dual oppression, international relations, anti-capitalist propaganda, etc.

  3. Forgetting that trade unions, company committees, special interest associations, etc. exhibit their own contradictions between the interests of their bases and bureaucratic practice, which deals with power and sees radical mass action as dangerous. This is how many communists who went into these organizations with the intention of “serving the people” became hardened reformists.

  4. Giving into the mirage that visibility and political weight can be achieved through parliament, rather than through hard work towards direct mass mobilization. This is how, as the right-wing offensive destroyed the popular conquests of 1974-5, revolutionaries shifted the axis of their activity away from supporting the most advanced sectors and their organs (strike and occupation committees, workers’ and residents’ committees, agricultural cooperatives, etc.), and towards “the parliamentary battle.” Participation in elections may of course be necessary, but on one condition: we must be certain that we’re using the bourgeois institutions and not letting ourselves be used by them.

In short, communist work among the masses takes a lot of effort and doesn’t sparkle. We have to realize that, in a period of stagnant class struggle like the one we are living through, the authenticity of communists is measured by their ability to avoid the temptation to use media recognition as benchmark, to bask in “respectable party” status, etc. We should not be disturbed by reformist accusations of “sectarianism,” or by the impatience of militants who spurn behind-the-scenes work and want tangible results in a short time. The defense of the fundamental interests of the masses today entails a certain degree of isolation, of misunderstandings, of persecutions by the “democratic” powers, etc., but only by persisting along this course can we play our part in a future revolutionary crisis.

The Communist Party — a foreign body in the bourgeois society it aims to defeat — is under tremendous pressure to be destroyed and digested: police and military pressure are exerted when necessary, but political and ideological pressure is also part of legal everyday activity. This pressure comes not only from the bourgeois power apparatus, but also from the petty-bourgeois layers adjacent to the proletariat, and even from fluctuations within the proletariat itself — now largely disjoint and demoralized by its past defeats.

What is at stake in the current difficult period is fidelity to the general and long-term interests of the working class, which should not be sacrificed for the sake of short-term successes rewarded by co-option. It is up to us to create within the working class advanced bulwarks around which the resistance of the most rebellious can be harnessed. As for the meeting of the Communist Party with the masses of millions, this will only be possible in the hour of revolutionary crisis, when the masses, pushed to their limits, break with the bourgeois order and engage with the proposals of the communists. That time may still be far away, but that is the goal that should serve as our guide to action today.

[1] You can read about the prison break, known as the Peniche Fortress Escape of 1960, which involved Álvaro Cunhal and others, in Carlos Luís M. C. da Cruz’s article “Fortress of Peniche” (2013): “They descended to the outside also with the help of a rope made of sheets.” [web]