Manuel Tiago’s ‘A Line in the Sand’: How to beat back a fascist coup
Álvaro Cunhal in 1977. | Manuel Moura / via PCP

I remember reading accounts of Álvaro Cunhal, leading Portuguese Communist, in the U.S. after the 1974 military coup and popular uprising ended the long fascist regime of Salazar and his successors. Cunhal was often denounced as a rigid and dogmatic “Stalinist” and defender of the Soviet Union. Fortunately, I had already learned to question capitalist narratives of anything where open class and revolutionary struggles are involved.

Eric A. Gordon’s excellent translation of Cunhal’s novella A Line in the Sand, written, like all his fictional work, under the pen name Manuel Tiago, shows him to be a revolutionary intellectual and activist. He would use fiction written in a Marxist framework to interpret society and culture for his readers and pass on his hard-learned lessons.

In many of his previous works, “Tiago” would use his own experiences to look at Communist militants emerging from a life of underground struggle in prisons, factories, shops and streets in the last days of Europe’s oldest fascist state.

Let us begin with some history. Who was Álvaro Cunhal? The son of a bourgeois attorney, he joined the Portuguese Communist Party in 1931, and visited Moscow to participate in the 7th Congress of the Comintern (1935). Imprisoned for the first time in 1937, he wrote a thesis in law calling for the legalization of abortion and highlighting the evils of illegal abortions. After a brief period as a teacher of law, he went underground in the 1940s and emerged as the most important leader of the party.

Arrested by Salazar’s police in 1949, Cunhal served 11 years in prison before a stunning escape from a prison located in a fort on the seacoast that captured the attention of the Portuguese people. The fascist regime would even claim that he had escaped with the help of a Soviet submarine.

Cunhal lived in exile until the fascist regime collapsed, first in Moscow, where his daughter Ana was born, and then in Paris. As  the PCP’s General Secretary, he ardently opposed the “Euro Communism” advanced by Spain’s Santiago Carrillo and other European Communist party leaders in the 1970s, and the policies of Mikhail Gorbachev which resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many of the characters that Tiago highlights in his fiction are derived from his own experiences. But what was the Portugal that Cunhal fought to liberate?

António de Oliveira Salazar rose to power in Portugal in the 1920s, following Mussolini and preceding both Hitler and Franco. He pursued state capitalist policies similar to the other fascist regimes, proclaiming a “New State” around the slogan of “God, Nation, Family,” suppressing trade unions, farmers’ organizations, and all political opposition, establishing political concentration camps for his enemies.

Salazar strongly supported Francisco Franco’s 1936 fascist coup, supported by Hitler and Mussolini, against the Spanish Republic, launching the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War—treated in another Tiago novel, Eulalia’s House. Salazar kept Hitler and Mussolini at arm’s length—unlike Franco, who owed his victory directly to the fascist states and the appeasement policy advanced by the British Empire.

Portugal was officially neutral during WWII: Salazar maintained good relations with Churchill’s British government (at the same time making his own population go hungry because he was diverting large amounts of the agricultural crop to feed the German soldiers). For that reason, fascist Portugal became a founding member of the NATO alliance to “defend democracy” (aka capitalism) while Salazar’s regime continued its brutal oppression of the Portuguese people.

As the colonial empires collapsed, fascist Portugal, with the support of the U.S. CIA, sought to maintain its rule over its African colonies, Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Guinea Bissau, pursuing colonial wars whose savagery was if anything far greater than its suppression of the Portuguese people.

In the novella, Tiago encapsulates these events through a soldier, Corporal Santos, who had deserted from the war:

“Corporal Santos, always seen with his military shirt, used the lull to continue telling his story. He had already explained why he had rebelled against the colonial war. He reminded his listeners about the massacre of the population of a village—men, women and children— the way they set fire to the humble huts they lived in, and then the Portuguese soldiers laughing with the Black heads spiked on bayonets. It was then that he decided to desert, and he did. He retreated into the bush, always afraid of wild animals and snakes. He walked west to reach the ocean, and that’s how he reached the port of Benguela.”

As a  perfect example of Lenin’s portrayal of social democrats as capitalism’s “labor lieutenants,” take the case of Mário Soares who was, ironically, one of  Cunhal’s students when he taught law briefly in the 1930s. Soares was much more interested in preventing Communists and others from advancing a democratic, much less a socialist revolution in Portugal than he was in fighting fascism. As Eric Gordon notes in his fine Foreword, while the Communists were successfully halting the fascist forces from entering Lisbon, where was the “socialist” Soares? In Washington, D.C., consulting with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger!

In the aftermath of the defeat of the restoration of fascism, Kissinger directed the CIA to ally itself with South Africa, Joseph Mobuto’s Congo dictatorship, the Angolan adventurer Jonas Savimbi, and white mercenaries, to defeat the Marxist-oriented Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and other revolutionary movements in Portugal’s former African colonies. The  U.S.-supported neocolonial wars would last many years, claim hundreds of thousands of lives, and create devastation from which the former colonies have yet to recover.

Salazar was dead by 1974 when the fascist regime he created was overthrown in a military coup led by officers frustrated by both poverty at home and the colonial wars in Africa. When the military, containing reformist and liberal elements, initially refused to release Communists from prison or legalize the Communist Party, a mass revolutionary upsurge of workers and peasants followed, demanding a democratic republic. The landlords, factory owners, and petit bourgeois groups that had been  privileged by the fascist regime then sought to mobilize a coup to restore the fascist state.

Tiago’s novella tells this story from the perspective of Communist activists, some of them these recently released prisoners, in a newly created party headquarters in a dilapidated building. He also features a parallel story of a factory owned by a Swedish woman who responds to workers’ upsurge by cheating them of their wages and calling in police to suppress them.

The Communist activists themselves face great difficulties in daily life—a comrade released from prison after five years who searches for his daughter, who was a small child when he was imprisoned and who hardly knows him when he  finds her; tensions in collective work under stress, as the Communist activists try to both defend the immediate interests of the factory workers and the peasants and mobilize them to fought against the impending fascist coup.

They also have to deal with the small but destructive influence of the MR’s. Gordon’s footnote on them explains MR “is an abbreviation for MRPP, Movimento Reorganizativo do Partido do Proletariado, a small ultra-left pro-Chinese Maoist group composed mainly of college students. Positioning themselves militantly against the Soviet Bloc-oriented Portuguese Communist Party, they effectively served as provocateurs against the April Revolution.”

The experiences of daily life enrich the novella as comrades seek to renovate a broken building filled with trash into a community center for working people. There is even humor, at least for American readers. At one point, as a comrade gathers beverages to sell at the little snack bar, a conflict develops:

“The only disagreement had to do with drinks. After Joaquina received and arranged the cases of beer, wine and soft drinks, and was ready to provide service, a comrade made an unexpected request. Joaquina blurted out, “Coca-Cola? No! Drinking that junk only helps the Americans.”

What the fascist regime was that the U.S. and its NATO allies had welcomed with open arms (so much for “fighting fascism” in WW2!) is told powerfully in the novella in these words:

“Among that group of old-timers at the end of the reception hall there was one who, whenever he spoke, always told stories of life in the underground during the dictatorship. He lived or had personal knowledge of some of those stories. The PIDE torturing people, sometimes to the point of killing them. The assassination of leading comrades by gunshot. Prison sentences that ran fifteen, twenty years and more. The death camp at Tarrafal in Cape Verde, where the secretary-general of the Party, Bento Gonçalves, died.”

The comrades defend their party center from attacks by fascist thugs as the novella moves forward to the fascist “march on Lisbon” and pre-planned coup. The Communist Party and its allies mobilize the people to fight the coup. In an interesting turn of phrase for American readers, the supporters of the fascist restoration call their followers “the silent majority,” borrowing the term that Richard Nixon used in his administration against the civil rights, women’s rights, and anti-war movements of the 1960s.

And Cunhal, as Tiago, in hopes and ideals which were first born in the Soviet revolution, posits throughout his story the commitment of Communists to see, through the struggle for socialism, the emergence of a “new human,” cooperative and humane, working with and for their fellow humans, as the final answer to Salazar’s “New State,” Mussolini’s New Roman Empire, Hitler’s Third Reich, and today Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again (MAGA) fascist society.

Tiago’s powerful novella is both a work of history and a learning experience for all who want to fight neofascism in America today.

Manuel Tiago (Álvaro Cunhal)
A Line in the Sand
Translated and with a foreword by Eric A. Gordon
New York: International Publishers, 2022
113 pp., $15.99
SKU: 978071780032, ISBN-13: 9780717800322
Click here to order a copy.


Norman Markowitz
Norman Markowitz

Norman Markowitz is a Professor of History. He writes and teaches from a Marxist perspective, and has written many articles on a variety of topics, including biographical entries on Jimmy Hoffa, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the civil rights movement, 1930-1953, and poor peoples movements in U.S. history.