Spain, Portugal and Ethiopia

Chapter Eleven


WHILE HIGHLIGHTING the turbulence within the British labour movement, Militant never hesitated to draw the attention of workers in Britain to the even greater upheavals taking place on a world scale.

 For instance, at the Labour Party Young Socialists national conference a demonstration of 600 Young Socialists, Militant reported, marched “through the streets of Blackpool in the direction of the Norbreck Castle Hotel where an exhibition called ‘Spain ’75’ was being held.” (1)

This was part of the Spanish Young Socialists Defence Campaign, which was a big feature of the LPYS’s work at that time. Indeed, important industrial workers had been won to the ranks of Militant through its internationalist approach on issues such as Spain.

Underpinning this campaign was the perception that Spain stood on the eve of revolution. In 1975 Franco was still alive, just about. No other organisation looked more towards the colossal changes which loomed in Spain. Militant’s analysis posed the need to prepare for a revolutionary general strike to overthrow the weakened dictatorship. 

Moreover, basing itself upon the experiences of Greece and Portugal, the paper predicted that following the overthrow of Franco or any successor, new mass organisations of the working class would emerge. A new mass socialist party, for much the same reasons which led to the formation of Pasok in Greece, would inevitably take shape. The Communist Party would also grow.

Interestingly, in opposition to Militant, Tribune and the majority of left Labour MPs, never mind the Labour right, supported the old exiled leadership, the so-called “Historico” wing of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE). They opposed the wing of PSOE led by a young lawyer, Felipe Gonzalez. Militant alone predicted that the ‘Historicos’ represented a dead end and that the internal leadership of the Gonzalez-led wing of PSOE would become a mass formation, attracting significant support from the Spanish workers.

Militant’s prediction was borne out. But the very same forces which previously pilloried the paper’s position, and by implication Gonzalez, switched. The Historicos were dropped (eventually merging with PSOE) and Gonzalez was embraced. Gonzalez then claimed to be a ‘Marxist’ like his counterpart Soares in Portugal. 

However, once he became the leader of a significant mass force, he sought to root out and expel those Spanish Marxists who were linked to Militant in Britain. Thus those who derided the idea that Gonzalez would lead a significant force in Spain became his new ‘friends’ and those who predicted that PSOE would become the major force of the Spanish working class were rewarded with expulsions. Truly there is no gratitude in politics!

Nevertheless, in 1975 the explosive revolutionary situation unfolding in Spain allowed the rapid crystalisation of a Marxist cadre rooted within what was the outline of a future mass organisation. Spain was considered by Militant to be a key country in the unfolding revolutionary wave sweeping through Europe. Therefore a number of attempts had been made to establish a group of co-thinkers in the country. 

All were unsuccessful until a delegate from the Spanish Young Socialists visited the British LPYS National Conference. This individual was Luis Rodriguez, who because of the repressive regime in Spain, went under the pseudonym of Rati. He had discussions first with myself, then at the LPYS conference with Ted Grant and Alan Woods. 

The latter played an important role in laying the basis for the creation of what became an important Marxist force within the Spanish Young Socialists and PSOE. Alan Woods went to live in Spain for a number of years, which effectively cut him off from playing any role in the decisive events of the 1970s and 1980s which were to put Militant at the centre of events, particularly in the Labour Party. 

However, the force which he helped to create in Spain was able to play a role in 1975, and 1976 and in the school students’ strike in 1986. Tragically, like their counterparts in Britain who split from Militant in 1992 (see chapter 36), they have been incapable of facing up to the changed situation resulting from the collapse of Stalinism and the 1980’s boom. 

They have converted the ideas which justified work within PSOE, entirely correct in 1975 and later, into an ossified dogma. They are incapable of adopting the flexible tactics demanded by the new situation. Fortunately, new youthful forces, adhering to the internationalist approach of Militant Labour, have begun to develop in Spain to continue the tradition which began in the period 1975-76.

In Portugal, also, 1975 was a decisive year. An attempted coup by Spinola in March 1975 resulted in a counter-movement from below which pushed the Portuguese revolution even further to the left. This development gave the capitalists nightmares. The Times concluded that in Portugal “capitalism is dead”.

This did in fact appear to be the case. Spinola’s coup, with similarities to the counter-revolutionary attempt of Kornilov to derail the Russian Revolution in August 1917, had provoked massive opposition from the workers. Even the conservative paratroopers refused to accept his counter-revolutionary orders. During these events, Militant reported:

Many soldiers handed out guns to the workers. The magnetic pull of a working class determined to defend its liberties was enough to win over the most brutalised section of the armed forces. In embryo, an armed workers’ militia already exists. (2)

More than 50 per cent of industry was taken under state control through the decree issued by the ‘Supreme Revolutionary Council’. They ordered the state takeover of the finance houses and the banks. And yet capitalism, as subsequent events demonstrated, was not yet dead. Unless the working class organises its own alternative state, sets up workers’ and farmers’ committees with democratic control and management – in other words, establishes a democratic workers’ state – capitalism, as all revolutions have demonstrated, can always make a comeback.

This is precisely what happened in Portugal. But, given the overwhelming relationship of forces in favour of the working class, this could not, as even Militant expected at a certain stage, take the form of open reaction. As with the German revolution in 1918, counter-revolution was forced to don the mask of the Social Democracy. Through the medium of the Socialist Party leader Soares, capitalism gradually reassembled its shattered state machine. And then it began to claw back the gains of the revolution which resulted, in the 1980s, in the handing back of industry, the banks, and the land to their former owners.

The twentieth anniversary in 1994, rekindled interest in the Portuguese revolution, showing that an indelible stamp has been left on the consciousness of the people of that country. A revival of the aims of the Portuguese revolution is inevitable in the next period.


In Ethiopia, on the other hand, 1975 saw a further push towards the left by the Derg, the military government installed in power after the overthrow of Haile Selassie. It was compelled by the pressure of the situation to nationalise the land and commercial assets formerly belonging to the Emperor and to bring under state control the banks and insurance companies. 

Moreover, it announced it was about to take over 72 foreign and locally controlled companies and a majority shareholding in 29 others. Ethiopia represented an important development for the colonial and semi-colonial world. It was the last example in the post-1945 period of the process which led to the establishment of what Militant had characterised as ‘proletarian bonapartist regimes’, i.e. planned economies but with one-party totalitarian regimes.

Similar tendencies had been evident earlier in other parts of the colonial and semi-colonial world. The most notable development in this respect was the victory of the Chinese revolution in 1944-49. Breaking with capitalism, nationalising the land and beginning to establish a planned economy, the regime of Mao Zedong, however, had nothing in common with the regime of workers’ democracy of Lenin and Trotsky in 1917. 

Mao began where Stalin ended, as a one-party totalitarian regime. Although resting on a planned economy, right from the outset, the Chinese Revolution established a ‘deformed’ workers’ state. Even during the postwar economic boom the former colonial and semi-colonial world faced social and economic catastrophe. A combination of factors (which space does not allow us to fully examine here)  pushed Castro, originally a liberal democrat, into breaking with American imperialism. 

The armed revolution against the Batista regime, the mistakes of the Eisenhower administration as well as Kennedy, in taking reprisals against Castro, because of his limited action against foreign capital and the pressure of the armed masses, all acted to push Castro into taking over the majority of industry. Faced with an embargo from the US, the Russian bureaucracy stepped in to provide huge financial support. They supplied oil to the Cuban regime, to the value of $2 million a day. Thus right under the nose of American imperialism a ‘proletarian bonapartist regime’ was established.

Militant pointed out that something similar was now unfolding in Ethiopia. Terrible famines, a constant feature of Ethiopia, the callousness and ineptitude of the corrupt previous regime laid the basis for big changes. Mass demonstrations and strikes of the workers of Ethiopia shook the country to its foundations. The lower officer caste, from middle-class economic and social backgrounds, were affected by events around them. Seeing the progress made in the totalitarian states of Russia and China, which also guaranteed the privileges of the elite, they used this as a model for Ethiopia. Tragically, this prediction of Militant was borne out.

Tactics for the Struggle

In 1975 the seeming success of the Ethiopian regime, the alleged triumph of guerrillaist methods elsewhere, the outbreak of assassinations, kidnapping, and terrorism internationally compelled Militant to devote attention to opposing the ideas of terrorism.

Marxists oppose the hypocrisy of the ruling class who denounce ‘terror’ yet employ terror on a world scale in defence of their system. Terrorism, particularly individual terrorism, was proving to be attractive to a layer of predominantly middle-class youth internationally. Militant argued: “In common with liberals the individual terrorist believes that the capitalist system rests on individuals.”

The assassinations of the most brutal representatives of a regime do not lead automatically to its downfall. There are more than enough candidates in the ranks of the capitalists to replace those struck down by the assassin’s bullets. ‘Individual terrorists’ – or urban guerrillas – substitute themselves for the masses. They believe that it is their actions and not the conscious organisation of the masses which will effect the necessary change. 

As Trotsky wrote, they actually “lower the masses in their own consciousness, reconcile them to their impotence and direct their glances to the great avenger and emancipator who will some day come to accomplish his mission.”3 It was not terrorism but the mass mobilisation of an armed working class which carried through the greatest overturn in history, the October 1917 Russian Revolution.

Not only in Ireland, but, even more importantly from an international point of view, also in Argentina, a big layer of the youth were directed towards urban guerrillaism. They were cheered on by some so-called ‘Marxists’, usually from the sidelines. A tragic example of this was found in Argentina. A section of the Peronist youth, in the ranks of the Montoneros (representing about ten per cent of the Peronists, i.e. 300,000), had originally deployed terrorist methods against the military dictatorship. Following the overthrow of the Argentine dictatorship and its replacement by Peron, the Monteneros could have become a weapon to help to transform the outlook of Peronist workers in a socialist direction, particularly in the trade unions.

This was the perspective sketched out by Militant. But some alleged ‘Marxists’, some even claiming to be ‘Trotskyist’, reinforced the guerrillaist and terrorist illusions of the Montoneros and even more so that of the ERP (People’s Revolutionary Army). That chapter of guerrillaist and terrorist illusions, so evident in the late 1960s and 1970s, was a symptom of the crisis of world capitalism. At the same time, these false policies led to the elimination and the wastage of the revolutionary energy of a generation who could have become an important lever for transforming the labour movement.