Learning the lessons of Portugal’s Left Bloc

Interview @ The Exchange, published 12 October 2013

Towards the end of the 1990s the Portuguese Left found itself increasingly fragmented, low in numbers and unable to intervene in the mainstream political sphere of debate. Discussions, not to dissimilar to the ones we see on the British Left today, around the nature of socialism and the ways in which left-wing politics can, but have not been able to, relate to the lives and experiences of workers today.

Grassroots and social movements had then taken the forefront of radical politics, successfully campaigning and gaining increasing support for the legalisation of abortion, the decriminalisation of certain class B drugs, and battling homophobia and racism. However, they lacked an electoral structure through which put forward their arguments, as both the centre left Partido Socialista (Socialist Party) and the Stalinist Partido Comunista Português (Portuguese Communist Party) seemed reticent in fully embracing the politics and policies proposed by said movements.

In 1999 three larger left organisations agreed on joining forces, creating a party, which, despite allowing platforms and currents, implied for all the dissolution of their former structures. Importantly these groups came from what one could perceive as fundamentally different traditions: the União Democrática Popular (Popular Democratic Union) had strong Maoist influences; the Partido Socialista Revolucionário (Revolutionary Socialist Party) was an orthodox Trotskyist organisation and the Portuguese section of the Fourth International; lastly Política XXI (Politics XXI) was itself already a regroupment of Communist Party dissidents, old members of the Movimento Democrático Português (Portuguese Democratic Movement – legendary regime oppositionist organisation) and general activists. The unification project attracted several famous Portuguese activists and intellectuals, as well as many of those organised in the grassroots movements, granting the newly born Bloco de Esquerda (Left Bloc) heterodoxy, political flexibility and assuring internal democracy. Its general appeal was immediately noticeable and a definite breath of fresh air into Portuguese politics. At its very first electoral campaign the Left Bloc secured 2.4% of the votes, winning thus two seats in parliament.

Interview with Tiago Esperança from MAS (Movimento Alternativa Socialista – Movement for a Socialist Alternative)

TE: Well, you do ask a lot of questions. It would be easier to speak personally than through Facebook but given the distance … To me it seems that this new organiza-tion [Left Unity] is an attempt to create a BE [Bloco de Esquerda]. In other words, join a series of reformist currents for a project/electioneering. However it seems to me that it would be interesting to participate.

JR: But what about the haemorrhage in the Left Bloc? Was it worth in the end to have spent all those years inside?

TE: Unlike Portugal, where there is a space to grow outside of the BE and PCP, it seems to me that in the UK there are several vital reasons why to enter this new project. Here in Portugal the MAS could not have prevented leaving the BE (though we were driven out in the end). Our characterization of the BE was from the beginning that his direction was reformist. We thought we should go into the BE because, at the time, to be outside would marginalize us. And besides, being inside the BE had very positive aspects: it brought us closer to the reality on the ground and we built networks with a number of activists. Furthermore, we learned a lot both about election campaigns, as about internal political intervention, due to the bitter discussions that we were holding in the Bloc. If it is true that the design of the BE was from the beginning to become an electoral party it is nonetheless true that at first it was a quite different organisation than it is now.

Mainly after going from 2 MPs to 8 [it changed a lot], because from that moment the money coming from the state increased which further softened BE leaders who started accommodating themselves to the lifestyle. Youth started looking at the Left Bloc as a way of making a political career either as an MP or as a full-timer, and as you know with the increase to 8 members there were many people who became full-timers. Therefore, if there were a decrease in votes, it would mean a decrease of party-staff and MPs, and the bureaucratization of the BE and its compromises to the regime increased exponentially.

JR: So maybe MAS is an example to follow or one to keep an eye out for, in case Left Unity follows the Left Bloc’s more glum steps?

TE: I believe, if you don’t mind me bragging, that MAS is growing. But you are right to join Left Unity.

JR: So is there another way of doing anti-austerity politics? Could there have been an MAS from the start?

TE: MAS only has had its space now. In 1999 there was no room for the MAS. But there was room for the BE represented. An anti-capitalist scene, partly in the abstract, that high¬lighted the divisive issues [for instance, LGBT campaigning].

This time, the context is completely different, worldwide… But in Portugal, because the Troika is so strong, it made space for rising political forces that have as main aim changing the system. I do not remember a time in which so many people approached me and talked politics with me. It is another context…

JR: But the political and economic context in the UK is not much better than in Portugal.

TE: It is certainly better in the UK. Although in decline, Britain is a much more developed country than Portugal. But the point is: in view of the fact that unity is [being called for] it hard to stay out.

In Portugal it’s easier because people have been having the BE experience for 13 years now. And even so there are still a lot of illusions regarding the Bloco.

I think it is right to be inside Left Unity. Now giving your convictions, a revolutionary line (but not an ultra leftist line, because otherwise you gain nothing from being inside). I tell you this because looking back I think the Ruptura-Fer [IWLfi section in Portugal] was sometimes ultra and did not deal properly with some activists in the BE it could have won over to a revolutionary project.

The MAS was a trend of 50 people and now it is a small party, but which is very well inserted in reality. Be it in the work places, be it the student and social movements. We have headquarters in Lisbon and another three larger offices in Braga, Coimbra and Amadora. [He wouldn’t say how many members the group has registered, though unconfirmed reports say something around the 200 to 300 people have joined].

JR: We have been hungry for a larger organisation but I think we are also fearful of opportunism and cheap parlamentarism.

TE: Sure, but it is important not to give in to opportunism or sectarianism. It’s a very difficult line to follow but that’s what you should try to achieve. Anti-partisanship alone is bad for those who want to transform reality, since the masses still have illusions in elections. A revolutionary party not being present and putting forward its policies means putting yourself out of the field of struggle. Lenin explained it very well, indeed the Bolshevik party took part in the Czar’s in Duma – what I mean by this is that it is important to have the correct characterization of what Left Unity is before reaction falls into sectarianisms.