The communist and the general depart

By John Catalinotto, Workers World, 18 June 2005, 10:56 PM

It was just a funeral procession. But it proved conclusively that the reports of the death of communism in Europe were false.

Hundreds of thousands of workers, farmers and Communist Party activists from all over Portugal marched in Lisbon on June 15. They carried scarlet banners with hammers and sickles, forming a vast sea of humanity as they marched behind the hearse carrying the body of the late communist leader Alvaro Cunhal. An observer remarked that, for three miles, from the Avenida da Liberdade to Lisbon's Morais Soares cemetery, the “streets of Lisbon were dyed red.'

Cunhal, who died June 13 at the age of 91, had spent 74 years as a leading militant of the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP). He was its secretary general from 1961 to 1992, played a major role in the 1974–75 revolution that freed Portugal from a four-decades-long fascist dictatorship, and was a towering figure in 20th-century Portugal. To his last days, he helped ensure that the PCP he had done so much to build would remain true to the struggle for socialism.

As Cunhal's body entered the crematorium, tens of thousands of party militants, tears in their eyes, held their fists and their red banners in the air as they sang the hymn of the world communist movement—the Internationale. And they chanted the slogan made popular by the liberation movements in what were once fascist Portugal's African colonies: “The struggle continues.”

That slogan was also chanted at the funeral of another Portuguese revolutionary who had died two days before Cunhal. General Vasco Gonçalves was a leader of the Armed Forces Movement that overthrew the fascist dictatorship on April 25, 1974. Gonçalves, who was 83 when he died, had led the Portuguese soldiers who were refusing to fight against the liberation movements in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau.

Under Gonçalves' turn as Portugal's premier, Portugal recognized the liberation of the colonies and began within Portugal the most wide-sweeping land reform in Europe, relieving the lives of millions of Portuguese farmers and rural workers. Workers in Portugal refer to Gonçalves as “my general.”

Gonçalves was the highest-ranking officer and one of the few Marxists to join the “revolt of the captains” against the fascist regime in the early 1970s. He embraced the revolutionary process in Portugal, and even in recent years contributed with his writing and speaking to the defense of socialist ideals.

Gonçalves and Cunhal, the general and the communist, fought shoulder to shoulder during the most progressive phase of the Portuguese revolution, which went to the brink of a workers' seizure of power before counter-revolutionary forces inside and outside Portugal were able to stop its progress.

It was a sign of the influence of Cunhal and his party that Portugal's capitalist government was obliged to declare June 15 a day of mourning and that the most vicious and obstinate enemies of Cunhal and communism had to acknowledge his courage, honesty and devotion to the cause of the workers.

Cunhal's life entwined with the PCP

Like many other 20th-century communist activists and leaders, Alvaro Cunhal drew his political inspiration from the world-shaking 1917 Russian Revolution, which for the first time in history put an oppressed and exploited class in the seat of state power. Born in 1913, he had already joined the PCP by 1931. By 1935 he was elected to lead the party's youth organization, and was soon underground carrying out the struggle, as so many Portuguese communists had to do.

Clandestine organizing, exile, jail, torture by the hated fascist political police, a role in the Spanish Civil War—that was what so many European communist leaders experienced in the 1930s and 1940s, and Cunhal saw it all.

As a youth organizer he was jailed in 1937 and again in 1940, each time for a year and each time tortured. At each release he immediately rejoined the struggle. Through the early 1940s Cunhal became a senior party organizer, playing a role in three major regional general strikes, until he was arrested in 1949. In 1950 before a tribunal he turned the tables on his accusers, attacked the fascist government of Antonio Salazar and defending the PCP's program and actions.

This time the fascist regime tried to put him away for good. Indeed, he stayed until 1960 in the feared Peniche prison, spending eight of those years in solitary confinement. Then he and eight other communist leaders climbed down from a window on sheets tied together in a dramatic prison escape, one that undoubtedly relied on the skillful organization of the clandestine PCP apparatus they had helped to build. Soon after this escape, Cunhal was elected the PCP's general secretary, a post he held until 1992.

While the PCP was deepening its roots with the Portuguese city and rural workers, especially those in the Alentejo region south of Lisbon, it was also aiding the revolutionary struggles for national liberation in the colonies, building close working relations with Agustino Neto in Angola, Amilcar Cabral in Guinea-Bissau and Samora Machel in Mozambique.

Under the impact of the interaction between the liberation struggles, the turmoil in the colonial army and the workers' struggle against fascism, the revolutionary situation developed rapidly. It ended with the overthrow of fascism and the liberation of the colonies.

This is a historic lesson the Bush administration will probably ignore as it pursues its program for U.S. domination of the world. With incidences of “fragging” now reported in the U.S. military in occupied Iraq, all who want to stop U.S. imperialism's irrational drive for conquest should pay close attention to the Portuguese experience.

Alvaro Cunhal had distinguished himself as a graphic artist and, under the pseudonym of Manuel Tiago, as an accomplished novelist. But his major life's work was the party itself.

In the period after 1975, Cunhal was one of the few communist leaders in Western Europe who refused to fall into the trap of so-called Eurocommunism, which really meant turning away from class struggle and becoming a social-democratic electoral party no longer oriented toward a struggle for socialism. Even after the counter-revolution in the USSR had made a tactical retreat inevitable, he continued to insist that his party fight every inch of the way and never give up the eventual goal of socialism.

The corporate-controlled media in the United States and even in Western Europe gave almost no coverage to the tremendous march in Lisbon. Some of the more influential newspapers did run obituaries that at least hinted of Cunhal's real role and influence. But the imperialist ruling class hates to pay respect to a workers' leader, and they tried to demonize Cunhal by using the terms “Stalinist” and a “rigid hardliner” to describe him.

As Workers World Party wrote in its condolence statement to the PCP, these attempts at insults simply meant that Cunhal “was unwilling to give in by one centimeter to the capitalist class, and for that he has kept the loyalty of workers and communists worldwide.”

If the media withheld all publicity, it was because the ruling class was concerned that this open display of pro-communist sentiment by hundreds of thousands of workers in a country of 10 million was not simply a last cry of nostalgia for 20th-century communism.

The funeral march was also the strongest pro-communist demonstration in Western Europe since 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Along with the recent defeat for the European Union constitution in France and The Netherlands, it was another sign that the capitalist offensive that has been going full blast since 1989 may run into a wall of workers' resistance.

Farewell, comrade Gonçalves, farewell comrade Cunhal. The struggle continues.