Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Class Struggle in Portugal

When workers go abroad and meet other workers it does not take long to discover they have an identical class interest and are involved in the same class struggle with employers over wages and conditions of work.

This economic and political reality was bought home on a recent visit to the city of Oporto in Portugal.

After finding no reference to the 15th century slave trade in the old port district we crashed out in a cafe to drink some coffee and a glass of local brandy.

Coffee beans along with sugar were one of the many commodities Portuguese traders exchanged for slaves. In fact the Portuguese were the first European power to enter into the African slave trade as early capitalism put down its primitive roots.

Oporto also produced a strong brandy where three ‘anchors’ (a measured unit) of the drink would buy a young male slave. The slave markets in the City were a source of considerable enrichment to local merchants a as well as providing domestic and commercial labour for the population (A SOCIAL HISTORY OF BLACK SLAVES AND FREEDMAN IN PORTUGAL from 1442 to 1551, A. Saunders, 1982 p. 53).

Oporto is now a UNESCO site of special historical significance but the heritage industry omits any reference to the slave trade which once gave the city its wealth and power. Portuguese slavery in Oporto has been conveniently erased from collective memory.

Today, chattel slavery in Oporto has been replaced by wage slavery. Slaves are no longer bought and sold in the Port’s slave markets (their geographical positions are now unknown) although migrant workers from Africa now pay smugglers to get into countries like Portugal as “free labour”. Primitive capital may have come into existence “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt” but modern capital has transformed the world into a global market of buying and selling commodities, including labour power.

What is bought by employers or capitalists is the labour power (the ability to work) of the working class in exchange for a wage and salary. The waiters in the caf้, the tour guides, the fishermen, most if not all the tourists found along the quayside cafes are all members of the working class.

The working class creates more social wealth than workers receive in wages and salaries. Marx called the surplus social wealth workers generated in the productive process “surplus value”. This surplus value or surplus unpaid labour time is the source of the unearned income stream of rent, interest and profit flowing into the capitalist class.

While we were waiting for our coffees and brandy, in the distance we could see a group of demonstrators coming nearer and nearer waving banners and blowing horns; a demonstration making a great deal of noise to bring attention to themselves.

Within about 5 minutes about 50 demonstrators, mainly women came up to our table. They asked if we would like a leaflet printed in English. They were members of the CGTP union striking for more pay against the employers' association APHORT who had refused to negotiate salary increases and improved conditions of work. The union had proposed a 3 percent wage increase of at least 30 euros in an industry where wages are generally low and hours long.

Portugal is still in an economic depression where there is high unemployment. Thousands of young workers have left to find work in countries like Brazil, themselves now entering an economic slowdown. Many buildings in Oporto are derelict and in ruins.

And there it is; the same class problems and the same class struggle in Portugal that faces workers in the UK and elsewhere in the world. A working class faced with the same daily problem of struggling to earn a living. Yet a working class seemingly going no further politically than past generations of workers; still fighting the same battles over and over again.

So what support can Socialists give? Socialists are members of the working class; we are exploited in exactly the same way as other workers. Many socialists have been or are members of trade unions.

However, socialists do understand capitalism. We also know that without socialists and a growing socialist movement, capitalism will continue to pass from one economic crisis to the next; from one war to the next; and from one strike for higher wages to the next.

Yes, it is important to act together in unions, to push for higher wages when trade conditions allow but the class struggle, as Marx noted, is a political struggle. The economic terrain is not in favour of workers. Periodic trade depressions and the economic and political power at the disposal of the capitalist class outweigh anything enjoyed by trade unions. Trade unions deal with the effects of the class struggle not the cause.

Workers are imprisoned in the wages system because they do not own the means of production and distribution. Employers are always trying to increase the intensity and extent of class exploitation. They use machinery to displace workers and competition between workers to bring wages down and they are forever trying to increase productivity with fewer workers. In the background the industrial reserve army of the unemployed also acts as a downward pressure on wages.

More importantly, the means of production and distribution, as private property, are protected by the machinery of government, including the armed forces. The leaflet we were given by the strikers mentioned the employers being supported by the state. Well, that is the function of the state in the class struggle, to support the capitalist class against the working class.

And workers still cling to the belief that they have a country. Some of the strikers carried Portuguese and Oporto emblems. Workers have no country. There is a world capitalist class facing a world working class over the control of the means of production and distribution.

To resolve this global conflict requires the formation of a class-conscious socialist political majority, a world-wide socialist movement and the establishment of the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society.

Then, and only then, will strikes become unnecessary and irrelevant to a socialist society where production will take place directly and freely to meet human need. With the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of socialism, wage slavery will pass into history just as the slave trade once did.

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