On the death of a portuguese “revolutionary”: Mario Soares and the inseparability of ideology and reality

For every image of the past that is not recognised by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.

Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History

It is a mistake to understand ideology as something that merely covers over reality, an instrumental lie that blinds us to the truth, and that once swept away, that we will see things as they are and be liberated.  Ideology is constitutive of social relations.  It is as much a part of reality as any other social agency or force.  Social reality is therefore intrinsically ideological, insofar as beliefs and ideas of different social actors struggle to mould it.  In other words, rather than being two distinct dimensions of social life, with ideology the simple servant of power, they form an inseparable whole.  And in the age of generalised capitalist spectacle, ideology is the principal mechanism of social reproduction.

The death of portugal’s Mario Soares, anti-fascist militant, political prisoner and exile, a founder of the country’s socialist party (1972), prime-minister and president of the republic (holding both offices on two occasions: 1976, 1983; 1986, 1991, respectively), and a major protagonist in the political events following the 25th of April, 1974, “Carnation Revolution”, has prompted a parade of media-political consensus around his role in these events.  It is the extent of this saturating consensus that begs comment.

We are today presented with the story of a man held to be the essential founder and indefatigable defender of the country’s modern democracy against the relics of a 48 year long fascist regime and a national communist party, that with the connivance of the soviet union, sought nothing more than the imposition of a single party dictatorship.  The military coup d’état of the 25th of April, that brought the fascist authority to an end, opened the door to political forces and events that the original military operation neither foresaw, nor desired, nor controlled.  Formerly proscribed political parties and leaders reappeared, new parties emerged, to act out on a political stage that served as the setting for deciding the nation’s fate.  And it would be Mario Soares’ courage, determination, and intelligence, that would lead the country’s people through the maelstrom towards the freedom of democracy, against revanchist fascism, colonialism and authoritarian communism.

He was the “symbol of Portuguese democracy”; the “titular head of our modernity”, “a political colossus”, for whom “freedom was the ultimate meaning of his actions and governance”.  “He was never confused as to which side of the barricade he should be on.  He was always on the side of freedom.”  His political engagements proved that it “was possible to transform a revolution into a democracy.”  Having begun his militancy briefly in the then clandestine communist party, in the early 1950s, after 1974 he would struggle against the “revolutionary ‘drift’ of events”, “mobilising an impressive coalition to contain the communist taking of power.”  The coup of November 25th, 1975, would bring the menacing “drift” to an end.  And with Soares’ successful efforts to integrate the country into the EEC (today EU) in 1985, portugal’s nascent democracy would not only be consolidated, but would act as the first cause of what Samuel Huntington called the “Third Wave of Democratisation“. (Público 08/01/2017)

“At the ‘end of history’, revolution became democratic, and this transformation marked the peaceful end of the Cold War and closes the 20th century, whose story would have been other without Mario Soares.” (Público 08/01/2017)

The almost incredible national narcissism of these comments and eulogies might strike the outsider as incomprehensible.  But their excess can easily be testified to in other national settings.  And what is of importance politically is the breadth of the media-political consensus, not only around the figure of Soares (something unimaginable in 1974-5), but in the erasure of the past and its possible rebellious memories.

Absent from the narrative being diffused today are the many thousands who resisted the fascist regime in a great variety of ways, and who in many instances would be tortured and die in the regime’s prisons, the many africans who would take up arms in the colonies against the regime, leading its military to the verge of collapse and the country to bankruptcy, and the many more, anonymous thousands who would occupy lands, factories, houses, media outlets, and the like, in the wake of the 25th of April (and which the portuguese communist party, along with all other political parties, had little or nothing to do with and which today is simply dismissed in the media-political consensus as “uncontrolled madness”: Público 10/01/2017).  It was this revolution within the “Revolution” that Soares would struggle against (“To defeat [Alvaro] Cunhal [leader of the communist party at the time] was essential for the consolidation of the democratic regime”: Público 10/01/2017), and yet it was this non-consensual, repressed and now almost forgotten revolution that made possible whatever did emerge politically at the institutional level subsequently.

The sacralising celebration of Soares today, with his death, may be deemed an ideological exercise.  But it is equally testimony to the loss of the social movements that render the exercise almost too easy.  If the exercise is in other words possible, it is in part because of the “normalisation”, the violent normalisation, of the country’s social and political life.  And if Soares is described as the embodiment of the 25th of April Revolution, it is because that revolution is dead, or never was – the ideology now speaks the current truth – and that it is the other, rebellious revolutions that erupted with it that must be made anew.

“In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.” (Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History)

To keep a past alive as present possibility, Robert Kramer’s Scenes form the class struggles in portugal

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