More hopeful for Left Bloc?

Submitted by Matthew on 20 November, 2015 - 11:40 Author: Dave Kirk and Martin Thomas

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.

Dave Kirk

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.

Martin Thomas


Submitted by david kirk on Tue, 24/11/2015 - 16:30

Events in Portugal since I wrote my original letter have moved on. The deal that the Left Block signed with the Communist Party and the Socialist Party was not to enter a governing coalition but for its deputies support a Socialist minority government led by Antonio Costa that pledges will "turn the page on austerity".

Even though this deal has been signed and the "left" parties have a majority in parliament a rightwing conservative caretaker government remains in power. The President Anibal Cavaco Silva is putting pressure on Costa and the Socialists to repudiate the agreements signed with the Left Block and CP or water down the anti austerity measures and promise to repeal anti worker legislation the SP stood on. It seems unlike Martin, Silva is sure a Costa government dependent on Left wing votes would not simply be another species of "neo liberal" government.

Martin asks me if "With enough street agitation, it could become a workers' government?". Obviously I do not think that. Portugal is not in a pre revolutionary situation and none of the parties in the potential governing block including the Left Block want to go beyond anti austerity reformism.

However such a government could provide much more favourable conditions for a working class to make real advances in power and confidence. The Portuguese working class has being showing a increase in combativity and assertiveness. The result of the recent election is part of that. It’s a clear signal that the majority of Portuguese workers want an end to austerity and reversal of the anti worker legislation the PSD had brought in. The failure to form a anti austerity government against Silva's machinations will do nothing to advance working class confidence.

Martin is right is to point out the danger any kind of peace treaty between the left in the left block and a Socialist Party government. The history of other "Parties of the European" left is not encouraging on. However it does not seem that is what the Left Block has signed and there refusal to take roles in the government even though these were offered is a good sign.

The method revolutionary socialists in Portugal should adopt is the one developed during the first four congresses of the 3rd International and re-iterated by Trotsky once in exile - the United Front. To "join with all workers belonging to other parties and groups and all unaligned workers in a common struggle to defend the immediate, basic interests of the working class against the bourgeoisie". Its pretty clear that the immediate struggle to form an anti austerity government against ruling class opposition even on the weak lines of Costa's programme is in the immediate interests of the Portuguese and European working class. For the Revolutionary Socialists in the Left Block at this point to argue for a course of action that will endanger the fulfilment working class's sincere wish for a government alleviating austerity would be wrong. For revolutionaries to do this on the hope the Left Block may pick up votes in any future election is a sectarian dereliction of their historical duty.

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