The Solidarity 384 article on Portugal says the Portuguese SP is a “neo-liberal” party and seems to suggest that the Left Bloc shouldn’t have entered government with them. I think this misreads the situation.
Whilst the Portuguese SP back in 2008-2012 implemented harsh austerity, the programme the new leader of the SP Antonio Costa ran on in this election is not neo-liberal. It seems straightforwardly Keynesian and social democratic. So they promised to match the Troika’s targets for reducing the deficit but Costa pledged to do this not through austerity but boosting disposable income to households. Reuters reports “He proposed to boost incomes, hiring and growth in order to cut the budget deficits while scrapping austerity measures and cutting taxes, asserting that would still allow deficits to reduce in line with the Euro convergence criteria”.
Also, he pledged to roll back a hugely unpopular hike in value added tax on restaurants and reinstate some benefits for civil servants. Obviously Hollande’s Socialists in France stood on pretty much the same thing and then ended up imposing more austerity themselves. However there has been a rising tide of anti-austerity agitation in Portugal and the country is moving leftward. Costa himself seized the leadership of the SP from a neo-liberal former leader. Our article seemed to suggest the Left Bloc is mistaken to form a united front government with the SP, and it will end up behaving the same way as the left wing in Syriza did when the Tsipras governments caved and imposed the new memorandum.
I don’t think this is inevitable and given the Portuguese working-class desire for an anti-austerity government, left-wing deputies should support the formation of such a government. The nature of that government and the left’s intervention within it can be determined by struggle on the streets, in the unions and by struggle within the Left Bloc itself.
Reply: our programme is for when?
Dave Kirk argues that the Portuguese SP is not neoliberal, that the Left Bloc is right to form a government coalition with it, and that the nature of an SP-led government is fluid, indeterminate, determinable by struggle on the streets. Does he mean that with enough street agitation, it could become a workers’ government?
On Sunday 8 November I went to a session at the Historical Materialism conference where Mariana Mortagua, economic spokesperson of the Left Bloc, spoke. In response to questions, she made none of the claims that Dave makes. She defended the Left Bloc decision to ally with the SP with obvious unease, and only as a way to put a brake on the right-wing direction of Portugal under the PSD government.
There are variants within neoliberalism. The Portuguese SP’s current policy is a less harsh variant than the PSD’s, but, as Dave himself points out, it is “pretty much the same thing” as Francois Hollande promised when campaigning for president in France. Or as Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s Social Democrats promised in Denmark in 2011. Or, indeed, as Justin Trudeau’s Liberals promised in Canada’s recent election.
The Portuguese SP is different from the Canadian Liberals in having some links with the labour movement, but different also from the British Labour Party, or even the French SP, or even Greece’s Pasok, in the weakness of those links. It was founded only in 1973, as a small exile group. It built up support in the tumult of 1974-5, but as the “safe” option as against the revolutionary left, the Stalinists, and the supporters of the old fascist regime. After the Eanes military coup in November 1975, it became the major governing party of stabilisation, and of integration of Portugal into European capitalism. (Under the Salazar and Caetano dictatorships, Portugal’s economic orientation had been more to its then-surviving colonial empire, which collapsed in 1974-5).
Costa represents a nudge to the left compared to the previous SP leadership, but nothing anywhere near the Corbyn surge in the British Labour Party. Should the revolutionary left nevertheless merge with this not-so-bad neo-liberalism as the best available alternative to the harsh neo-liberalism of the PSD? I think that an independent working-class stance is both more likely to win concessions in the short term, and essential for the longer-term task of transforming the workers’ movement so that it can transform society.
The revolutionary left might well address itself to rank and file working-class supporters of the SP with a policy offering support to an SP government under certain conditions, but those conditions should include major steps to empower the working class rather than just a braking and softening of neo-liberalism. Otherwise our essential policies are relegated to a limbo of things to be pursued at another time — not in this crisis, not in this moment of uncertainty within the bourgeois order, not now when the working class is suffering and stirring, but at some quiet and ideal future time. An independent stance by the Left Bloc might well leave Portugal unable to form a government, and forced into new elections, or make “centre” elements of the old parties split away to form a new governing coalition. Those outcomes, with the revolutionary left standing clearly as the pole of working-class opposition, would be better than a peace treaty between the revolutionary left and modified neo-liberalism.