‘Until Tomorrow, Comrades’: Manuel Tiago asks us to examine ‘the woman question’

Manuel Tiago’s classic novel uses the political thriller form to teach us the history of Portugal’s anti-fascist struggle. If you enjoy reading books by Graham Greene, John Le Carré, or Dan Brown, you will relish the taut action of Until Tomorrow, Comrades even more because its protagonists are fighting fascism, capitalism, and imperialism. They are on the “good” side of the class divide.

Manuel Tiago was the pen name of Álvaro Cunhal, longtime leader of the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP), who wrote fiction in order to convey political lessons that the working class needed to absorb. His Until Tomorrow, Comrades is widely considered to be a masterpiece of modern Portuguese literature. In 2013 it was made into a popular limited television series.

Set in the 1940s somewhere in the Portuguese hinterlands, Until Tomorrow, Comrades fictionalizes the PCP’s struggle to build the trade union and peasant forces against the fascist regime. The dangerous undertaking involves clandestine meetings, hotly contested political debates on theory and action, secret signals, underground distribution of the Party’s paper, cross-country flights from fascist cops, and the creation of networks for organizing, information, and the distribution of resources. Because the fascist danger lurks around every corner, leaders of different types of work and geographical sections of the Party must often be kept in the dark about one another to protect the security of the collective.

Will the uprising bring the people some leverage against the capitalists, or will it be met by the brutal iron heel of the fascist regime?

There are many ultimately intersecting dynamic plot lines, protagonists, and antagonists. Karl Marx famously wrote that the wealth of capitalist societies inaccurately “presents itself as an immense accumulation of commodities.” In truth, the wealth of a society lies fundamentally on the shoulders of the workers’ capacity through their labor power to mix nature, goods, and labor to make value and wealth. Marx proved that because of this, workers transformed themselves into a struggling class seeking to create a just and free society. In one basic way, people, not stuff, are the real source of wealth and social progress.

This fact is a central premise of Tiago’s novel. Individual characters who play positive and negative roles in each of these collectives are presented as “typical” (though neither flat nor uniformly positive) characters. The author adopts the Marxist concept of locating recognizable individual characters in the realistic field of class, democratic, and anti-colonial struggles. Readers will easily identify with—even given the national, linguistic, or epochal peculiarities—people like Vaz, Maria, Rosa, Isabel, Paulo, António, Afonso, Manuel, Marques, Gaspar, Ramos, and others.

As we read, we discover that each of these people—sometimes deeply flawed, sometimes impossibly good—is vital to the liberation of the working class, peasants, and the whole people. Over-reliance on the heroic and the charismatic personality dooms portions of the struggle to failure; while successes depend on those who patiently and persistently organize and refuse to give in. Personal conflicts, desires for glory and leadership in the movement, and a refusal to accept the Party’s rules and policies worked out through experience and debate in trying times dissolve the unity and fearlessness of the class.

Discipline, collective discussion, and a revolutionary theory guide the Party workers and cadre in their decision-making and choices of action. The struggle to survive under the fascist regime, its manufactured famine, rampant corruption, and terroristic violence, motivates the solidarities of the working-class and peasant forces that participate in the strike and general uprising.

The “woman question” in 1940s Portugal

One important feature of this story that deserves scrutiny is its treatment of “the woman question” and gender issues. The story faithfully depicts the Party’s use of “underground” households as safe houses. In many of these houses, male and female comrades lived together as “companions” pretending to be married or in romantic relationships. These households functioned as a base for secret meetings of leadership, distribution centers for the party’s newspaper, the point of contact among various sections of the party, and similarly sensitive duties that required high levels of security in a fascist-dominated country.

Often, women comrades recruited for these roles, like their male companions, were longtime Party members who had reputations as effective organizers of trade union activity or democratic struggles. But exposure to the fascist police forces in one place usually meant they had to go somewhere new and work in secret. In the role of safe house companion, they often encountered serious constraints on their creative and leadership capacities as they found themselves stuck in secondary roles performing the “dutiful housewife” for the sake of organizational security. More insidiously, as the story depicts, they were relegated to secretarial functions, typing reports and fliers, running the copy machines, maintaining the household space, preparing meals, and the like.

At one point, Rosa, a Party worker recruited to the companion role, approaches an unnamed male comrade to discuss her dissatisfaction. “All these important struggles are being waged,” she notes, “and you guys are going around so exhausted, while I’m sitting here idle.” Rosa had been pulled out of the organizing work in the jute factory, which employed mostly women workers, to run the safe house.

“You make a good point friend,” he responds. “Not that you’re sitting idle, because you well know the use and need for your presence in this house. But the truth is we haven’t given due regard to the work of our comrade women Party workers, whose job has almost exclusively been to ensure the integrity of the Party houses. There are women Party workers we seriously need to draw into the work of the organization, and we’re now confronting that problem in earnest.”

The scene suggests that the male comrade delivers a theoretical statement, putting the issue to rest. This supposed resolution is further signified by the fact that Rosa sits there next to him for another hour as he finishes writing a manifesto calling for an all-workers and peasants strike, including women industrial workers and peasant women, to demand wages and bread. He never asks her for an opinion; Rosa simply watches. In other words, one reading of this scene suggests the comrade’s words function as an affirming statement of non-action, the performativity of correct theory without practice.

A handful of pages and several rapidly transitioning scenes later—the Party is deep in a mass organizing drive with swift-moving action—Cesário, whose role as union and Party leader was beginning to develop, takes in a discussion among various Party cadre on political issues. At one point, he thinks, “[w]ords that don’t correspond to action and ideas with no intention of being realized were losing all enchantment and traction.” In other words, our unnamed comrade’s reliance on well-meaning, but empty platitudes in his response to Rosa, offers no correspondence between action and words.

By contrast, in a scene that echoes the Rosa-unnamed comrade interaction, Maria, another Party worker who is a “companion” within a safe house, approaches Paulo with similar doubts. “I’m so unhappy. So unhappy,” she reveals to him. The narrator steps in: “Paulo remained silent. What could he say? He knows only to speak about the struggle and the Party. And what good is that now?”

After a pause, Paulo searches for meaningful words for his friend. “You’ll live, you’ll realize all your dreams,” a claim he repeats like a mantra. Usually a person of few words, he delivers a speech that reverberates across time: “We all dream, friend, all of us. We dream of a better world where some will not live off the suffering of others, where they don’t kill children with machine guns, where you can breathe the air of freedom. That’s the dream that gives us the strength to struggle and to suffer…. But that is not our only dream.” We also dream of love, bonds of family, comfort, and personal happiness. To pretend otherwise is to deny humanity. He offers no statements about resolving the woman question; he offers only dreams, struggle, and the example of elevating and uplifting the work of women comrades who are leading the struggle in the factories, in the fields, and yes, even in the theater of the safe household as a “companion.”

In addition to the dynamic history of the Party’s struggle against fascism, Tiago’s work offers a narrative space to study the harm male supremacy has on the working class and its leading revolutionary movements. It also gives an advanced, for its time, peek into how the working-class movement depends on centering the struggle against patriarchy and heteronormativity while mobilizing the whole class to win economic demands and social power. The unity of the democratic questions with the economic demands of the class and its allies is crucial in the anti-fascist struggle and is foundational to the power of the whole class.

This novel comes with a helpful Foreword by the translator, an essay by Portuguese critic Óscar Lopes that situates the book in its literary context, and, as with all the previous entries in the Manuel Tiago series, a set of intriguing Questions to Ponder and Discuss well-suited for students or book-club readers.

Publication of Until Tomorrow, Comrades brings to a close an eight-book series issued by International Publishers of the complete fictional work of Manuel Tiago in English. In fact, translator Eric Gordon’s tenacity in completing this project is unequaled anywhere in the world: To date, relatively few of these works have been translated into any other languages. It must be a source of deep satisfaction to reach this final stage, not only for him, but for International Publishers, for the original Portuguese publishing house Avante!, and for English-language readers worldwide and admirers of proletarian literature who now have access to this significant body of work.

Manuel Tiago (Álvaro Cunhal)
Until Tomorrow, Comrades
Translated from Portuguese by Eric A. Gordon
New York: International Publishers, 2023
ISBN: 9780717809387

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Joel Wendland-Liu
Joel Wendland-Liu

Joel Wendland-Liu teaches courses on diversity, intercultural competence, migration, and civil rights at Grand Valley State University in West Michigan. He is the author of "Mythologies: A Political Economy of U.S. Literature, Settler Colonialism, and Racial Capitalism in the Long Nineteenth Century" (International Publishers) and "The Collectivity of Life" (Lexington Books).