Never Has a Winter Been So Long: On “Scenes from the Class Struggle in Portugal”

Set in the middle of the long wave of social struggles and political conflict of the 60’s and 70’s, the Portuguese revolution was the single moment in which state power almost entirely collapsed and left the space open for grassroots movements and political radicalism. “Your letter magnificently describes the very atmosphere of a revolutionary crisis, which the newspapers here hide to the maximum, but it is nevertheless possible to read between the lines”, Debord wrote to Afonso Monteiro (his Portuguese translator) in the beginning of June. And so it was that all political organizations were witnessing events taking shape in front of their eyes, without any of them being capable of controlling them.

While facing the euphoric crowd from his balcony window, Marcello Caetano, the deposed dictator, wrote the last lines of his political testament, surrendering to the uprising military officers “to prevent power from falling into the streets”.  And yet, he appeared to be already late. In the weeks following the military coup of the 25th of April, while the young officers who formed the Armed Forces Movement (MFA) were settling in their newly appointed cabinets, a wave of wildcat strikes and building occupations took shape, against the will of the traditional democratic Opposition (basically, the Communists, the Socialists and the progressive Catholics). Bosses and managers were kidnapped by workers, huge palaces left vacant by fleeing fascists were quickly filled by numerous poor families from Lisbon’s immense shanty towns. The trade unions, which had been asked to cooperate with the new authorities, lost track of the pace of the movement and ended up opposing the irresponsible strikes, denouncing the far-left organizations as “provocateurs” and saving bosses from workers anger. 48 years of repression were suddenly vindicated in two months that shifted the balance of power in a decisive way.

The first coalitions for provisional governments (there were six in 19 months) rapidly evolved to a struggle between the Communist Party along with its leftist military allies, against the conservative General Spinola, the President originally appointed by the MFA. When the far-right tried to stage a coup in his support, the entire popular movement and the parties of the Left ran blockades in the main roads, while the most radical leftist military officers started to come out as the political leaders of the MFA. After September, the main political conflict opposed the Communist Party to the Socialist Party, with its latest leader, Mário Soares, becoming the US’s strongest bet in Portugal.

The revolution was the stage for more than one play, with tragedy, drama, comedy and farce succeeding and combining, actors and directors changing roles, writers and public discussing, actions and dialogues taking place in an endless succession. There was the cold war farce, along with the revolutionary epic tragedy, the everyday people’s drama and the obviously comic episodes that come along when time speeds up its pace. Under the appearance of a democratic transition haunted by the menace of a communist takeover, an unstoppable revolutionary process made its own way, questioning state power, capitalist accumulation and the geopolitics defined in Yalta on the aftermath of World War Two. In his White House office, Kissinger struggled to understand events that defied all that he knew about politics. Something similar was probably happening inside the Kremlin.  Abroad, the revolution was mostly represented as a conflict between East and West, with a strong communist party aiming to take power. And yet, neither the Left nor the Right (and even less NATO or the Warsaw Pact) could ever control a situation in which every major decision was first debated in factory or barrack meetings, laws were mostly dependent on the outcome of demonstrations and nobody trusted their own fate to politicians or military officers. Back then, “future was now”, somebody remembered saying.

Obsessed by the mythology of the Russian revolution, the far left organizations were mostly impotent to understand the nature and reach of workers autonomy, inside the biggest factories of Lisbon’s industrial belt, but also outside of them. Dreaming of a winter palace storming, a “Portuguese path towards socialism”, most of these micro-Bolshevik sects, formed during the illegal struggle against dictatorship, thought of nothing else than leading, controlling and managing workers struggle. Their rivalries and maneuvering were but an element of stall, paralyzing the movement more often than pushing it forward. From the early days of 1975, each of these self-elected avant-garde had its own points of influence in the army and in the popular movement, dividing it along artificial borders and preventing the fundamental truth contained in workers autonomy to express itself. By the summer of 1975, the profile of the menace had been identified by the socialists and the Right: beneath the communist menace, there was “anarco-populismo”, that is, what happens when common people take hold of their own lives. Nothing stroked more fear in the conservatives and reformists minds than the prospect of a working class that allowed no government to survive.

Kramer’s film expresses the complexity of this revolutionary maze, in which all tried to guide themselves without any reliable map. Scenes from the class struggle in Portugal was shot as a solidarity gesture with the revolutionaries in Portugal. It sought to bring abroad the images of a country in which the fate of world revolution was momentaneously at stake. A country set in a semi-peripheral position, halfway between the first and the third world, that was “simultaneously a colonizer and a colony”, as classically described by the communist party to solve the riddle of a European imperial power that was completely dependent on England (first) and the USA (later) to keep its formal independence. Such was the Portuguese Revolution: all the contradictions of modern capitalism in a country that quite resembled l’ancient régime in more than one way. A European working class movement, facing the problems and tasks of an underdeveloped social formation, in the context of a non-conventional conflict between two world superpowers, while state power collapsed and the Army crumbled in multiple political factions.

“All this world looks like this town called Lisbon”, wrote Debord’s friend Jaime Semprún (Social war in Portugal), detourning an old song from the Lincoln Batallion during the Spanish civil war. And the city could in fact simultaneously resemble Paris in ‘68, Prague in ’49, but also Santiago in ’73. The imminence of a military coup supported by foreign secret services, to put an end to the Lisbon Commune, hovered like a specter in the Autumn of 1975, when most of the action in the film takes part. Kramer decided to openly take sides with one of the far-left organizations (the Revolutionary Brigades) and their main military ally, the Brigadier Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho. The viewer is faced with their interpretation of the process, but also with their mythic narrative of Otelo’s commitment to the cause of the people, as if the fate of the revolution depended only on his ability to command some strategic regiments based in Lisbon.

And yet, the main strength of Scenes from the class struggle in Portugal, three decades after all this is done and buried, resides precisely in the moments in which Kramer let his militancy lay down low and, instead, chose to film the faces and capture the voices of anonymous actors of the revolutionary process: the workers rage while holding a siege to the Parliament, the peasants attempt to comprehend the events unfolding in front of them, the strength and weaknesses of the popular movement, as shown in the face of an old lady that sells newspapers on the street. All these beautiful faces of working people talking about their hopes and dreams, these aesthetics of the revolutionary process, remind us of young Marx’s words on the humanity of communism: “In this practical process the most splendid results are to be observed whenever workers are seen together. Such things as smoking, drinking, eating, etc., are no longer means of contact or means that bring them together. Association, society and conversation, which again has association as its end, are enough for them; the brotherhood of man is no mere phrase with them, but a fact of life, and the nobility of man shines upon us from their work-hardened bodies”. 

Such was the glory, but also the shame, of this powerful social movement: to have survived the counter-revolutionary offensive, because it was too strong and widespread to be defeated by repression alone; to have left the field to its opponent without a decisive battle, in which to carve the main division between revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries, leaving no doubts on the nature of the “democratic” regime that was the outcome of all this. Lenin once wrote that the Portuguese were incapable of accomplishing revolutions to their very end. And we all know, since Saint-Just, what becomes of those who leaves revolutions half-done.  If anything, Scenes from the class struggle reminds us that our time was forged in those dark November days, in which the Portuguese bourgeoisie and its foreign allies proved themselves capable of doing everything to prevent the future from arriving. Portugal was neither the Chile nor the Cuba of Western Europe, but a country where a velvet counter-revolution was more useful and successful than ever before. Original in its own way, such an outcome has allowed all the following and progressive defeats of the workers movement. Beaten by its own fears, imprisoned in its own history. Never has a winter been so long.

 Ricardo Noronha