Portugal: The Unfinished Revolution


Ronald H. Chilcote.  The Portuguese Revolution: State and Class in the Transition to Democracy.  Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2010.  xix + 316 pp.  $79.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7425-6792-4.

The Portuguese Revolution that brought regime change on April 25, 1974, did not bring about a revolution: the popular revolutionary elements that tried to move the events of 1974-75 toward Socialism only challenged the capitalist mode of production.  This is the thrust of Ronald H. Chilcote’s important new work.  Chilcote’s previous work has spanned the Lusophone world, beginning with discussions of Portugal and Portuguese Africa, to publication of documents of the Luso-African national liberation movements and later commentary on Amilcar Cabral to studies of the Brazilian Communist Party and northeastern elites to his best-known works on comparative political economy.  This new work continues an exploration of the themes of authoritarianism and resistance and applies the conceptual apparatus prominent in his later texts.  What Chilcote clearly shows is that historical forces favored dismantling the Portuguese world economy based on African exploitation in order to facilitate Portugal’s integration into the European Community.  Prominent among these forces was the state bureaucracy in alliance with the modernizing, internationally connected segment of Portuguese capital.  Nonetheless, the revolutionary moment of resistance had import and impact far beyond 1974-75 and Portugal.

The fall of Fascism, subsequent nationalizations, the entrance of the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) into government, the rise of workers’ commissions, the mobilization of urban and rural protest, and land occupations held the world in thrall, if only for a short time.  In the end, the corporatist bureaucratic state apparatus and its economic partners emerged renewed, chastened, and not unscathed.  Chilcote singles out the durability and continuity of the state apparatus as a major factor in the prevailing hegemonic bloc and blames the fractiousness of the Left for failing to replace it.  Nevertheless, in the final analysis, the attempts to create a counter-hegemonic bloc paved the way for democratic, pluralistic politics in Portugal.

This review focuses on those aspects of Chilcote’s research and analysis that this reviewer considers relevant for scholars of Luso-Africa, leaving others to examine it from different perspectives.  In the introduction to part 1, Chilcote outlines the theoretical concepts that frame his investigation.  He draws primary inspiration from such political thinkers as Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Antonio Gramsci, and Nicos Poulantzas, who have also pondered other historical transitions.  Central to his analysis are such issues as the relationship of state power to class relations, ruling class hegemony, and counter-hegemony posed by revolutionary struggle.  In chapter 1, he traces the emergence of capitalism in Portugal against the backdrop of European history by delineating the major debates among Portuguese historians around the timing, motivations, and principal factors in the transition from feudalism to capitalism.  In later chapters, he repeats this exercise as he assesses the possibilities for a transition from capitalism to Socialism during1974-75 and after.

While a commercial bourgeoisie had developed relatively early in fourteenth-century Portugal, its evolution into an industrial class was delayed because of its alliance with the landowning aristocracy.  In the nineteenth century, British domination and the imposition of free trade further reinforced Portuguese export agriculture at the expense of incipient industry.  Later in the century, however, Brazilian and colonial markets as well as the development of an internal market opened the way for capitalist relations of production in industry.  In 1910, the monarchy was overthrown and a short-lived liberal regime was established; it gave way to an alliance between industrial and rural bourgeoisie under Fascist rule.  Chilcote concludes: “Thus, the delay of capitalism in Portugal appears to have been the consequence of a floundering liberal bourgeoisie made up mainly of under-capitalized small- and medium-scale commerce and industry with some concentration in urban areas but insufficient political power to bring about full industrial capitalism” (p. 16).  This changed under António Salazar, who rose to power after the 1926 coup that laid the foundations for Fascist rule under the New State regime.

Throughout part 1, Chilcote focuses on the dominant role of the state across Portuguese history.  He finds a remarkable continuity of authoritarian structures even at the turbulent end of the twentieth century.  Drawing largely on the works of Manuel de Lucena (1967-91), he shows how Salazarian corporatist forms survived the 1974-75 revolution.  Students of Lusophone Africa will be familiar with the durability of the authoritarian model of governance in postindependent Angola, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique, described in the case of the latter two countries by this reviewer among other scholars.1  Just as Portugal, in the mid-1970s, Lusophone Africans experienced a kind of Socialism without a solid Socialist movement and still, in the era of liberalization and structural adjustment, their governments retain corporatist features.  For example, a recent compendium documents how, in post-Socialist Mozambique, the FRELIMO (Liberation Front of Mozambique) government maintained its monopoly position through tight control over civil society by limiting political space and, consequently, political participation.  One of the essays reveals how, even after the abandonment of mass organizations, the government still subordinates newly formed youth groups.2

Another area of particular interest for Luso-African scholars is Chilcote’s description of the prominent economic groupings linked to Salazar’s New State (1926-74) as many of them dominated colonial economies over nearly five decades.  Some, especially in the banking sector, reappear not only in postrevolution Portugal but also in post-Socialist Lusophone Africa.  Some examples are the Grupo Entreposto, Banco Português do Atlântico, Seguros Mundial-Confiança, Marconi, Grupo Champalimaud, and Grupo Espírito Santo.  Several of the largest groupings represent international as well as national capital.  From Chilcote’s perspective, the corporatist state has provided the order and stability necessary for the rise and development of capitalism and its endurance even in times of “revolution.”

Part 2 is an examination of the failure of the Portuguese Revolution to lead to Socialism and opens an enquiry into the latest political-economic configuration.   Chapter 5 describes the April 25 coup led by the Movimento das Forças Armadas (MFA) in 1974, but Chilcote disclaims trying to write a definitive account.  Two MFA officers of my acquaintance attributed the movement’s origins to a clandestine meeting of middle-level officers in the military headquarters in Bissau during the war for national liberation.  Yet Chilcote makes clear that there were a number of meetings among different dissident groups in the military in different places beginning in 1973.  Without a doubt, the battles for independence and the realization that the war in Guinea-Bissau, where most of the fighting took place, was being lost were important factors in the officers’ decision to try to transform Portugal.  The change they sought was made explicit in the MFA’s political program: it “aimed at democracy, decolonization and development” (p. 93).  By 1975, one of these goals was accomplished, decolonization.  The MFA split over the issue of support for radical popular movements ready to go forward toward Socialism.  Chilcote sees the November 25, 1975, countercoup as a reaffirmation of the Portuguese state over the economy and society, including the military.

In the chapters that follow, 6 through 8, Chilcote deepens the analysis by looking in detail at the MFA, the political parties, the popular movements, and their struggle with the older order.  Chapter 8 is particularly interesting as it dissects the class origins of the state apparatus and the various elements of Portuguese capital in battle to maintain power and influence.  The discussion also examines the complex class relations in rural society and the labor movement.  In chapter 9, Chilcote tackles the intriguing question of whether Socialism could have provided the structures and strategies to balance these class relations.  He notes the many forms of Socialism that have been tried historically and concludes that, even during the most revolutionary moments of 1974-75, there was little advance toward a Socialist mode of production.  The “islands of Socialism” favored by the PCP underestimated the strength of capitalist control over markets.  The Left, in general, was too focused on nationalization as the primary road to Socialism.

Chapter 10 looks at the period of parliamentary democracy since November 25, 1975.  It shows the gradual return of moderate and conservative forces that eliminated any vestiges of a Socialist future.  What, then, are the lessons of the Portuguese “revolution”?  In his final chapter, Chilcote draws these lessons, some of which are pertinent to the Socialist experiences of Lusophone Africa.  First of all, a revolution cannot proceed from the top-down unless the leadership is fully committed to popular aspirations.  In the case of Portugal, maneuvering rather than unity among the Communist and Socialist parties led to popular distrust.  Moreover, the parties chose to work through existing state structures rather than to transform them.  Their leadership was unprepared for revolutionary practices and propagated “ideological mystification,” which undermined popular initiative (p. 262).  Finally, the experiments with socialized forms of production within rural and industrial cooperatives, including self-management, led to super-exploitation of producers.  In closing his book, Chilcote gives the last word to Maurice Brinton, as quoted by Charles Reeve (pseudonym Jorge Valadas), on these so-called islands of Socialism: “In Portugal the price paid for the enhanced internal democracy of certain workshops or farms was often a lengthening of the working day, or an intensification of the labour process to ‘allow’ the self-managed unit to remain economically viable.  In this sense islands of self-management became islands of capitalist recuperation” (p. 262).3

In The Portuguese Revolution, Chilcote has presented not only a wealth of information including the debates inside and outside of Portugal on the events of 1974-75 and its impact but also a model of how to analyze the dynamics of revolutionary struggle in the context of an enduring yet changing political economy.


1  Particularly noteworthy is the work of M. Anne Pitcher, who in the 1980s noted the continuity between colonial and postcolonial governments in Mozambique and has traced the history of the postcolonial state in Transforming Mozambique: The Politics of Privatization, 1975-2000 (New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).  See also Rosemary Elizabeth Galli and Jocelyn Jones, Guinea-Bissau: Politics, Economics and Society (London and New York: Frances Pinter, 1987); and Rosemary Elizabeth Galli, Peoples’ Spaces and State Spaces: Land and Governance in Mozambique (Lanham and Oxford: Lexington Press, 2003).

2  Luis de Brito, Carlos Castel Branco, Sergio Chichava, and Antonio Francisco, eds., Cidadania e Governação em Moçambique (Maputo: IESE, 2009).  The essay referred to is by Adriano Biza on youth associations and the state in Mozambique.

3  Charles Reeve, L’experience portugaise: la conception putschiste de la revolution sociale (Paris: Spartacus, 1976), 21.

Rosemary Elizabeth Galli.  This article was first published in H-Luso-Africa (June 2010) under a Creative Commons license.

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