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Portugal’s forgotten revolution

Originally published: Red Pepper on February 29, 2024 (more by Red Pepper)  | (Posted Apr 26, 2024)

By the early 1960s the Portuguese empire was almost as big as western Europe—22 times the size of Portugal itself. Then, protests and confrontations in its various territories metamorphised into anti-colonial wars, led by the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola, Frelimo in Mozambique and the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde.

The toll was immense: nearly half of the Portuguese government budget went to the military, at the cost of education and the public services. A country of nine million inhabitants was supporting an army of 200,000, which suffered 8,300 casualties over 12 years. At least ten times that number of Africans were killed.

Junior army officers from the clandestine Armed Forces Movement (MFA), sick and tired of the failing wars, organised a coup on 25 April 1974. In overthrowing António de Oliveira Salazar’s Estado Novo regime, they toppled 48 years of authoritarian fascist rule. The importance of the coup can hardly be exaggerated. It put a question mark over not only the future of Portugal itself but also that of its neighbour Spain and the whole of southern Africa.

People power

From the outset, people poured onto the streets despite being ordered to ‘go to their homes and remain in the utmost calm’. They clambered onto tanks and inserted red flowers into rifle barrels, giving the carnation revolution its name. People met and talked where they lived and worked, and fraternised with the soldiers. Confidence grew daily as people organised everywhere, in all sorts of ways.

First, they occupied housing. Previously, the authorities had distributed housing based on loyalty to the regime and bribes. Within the first 15 days of the revolution, thousands of people who lived in shacks or bedsits seized 2,500 units around the country, mainly in large blocks of new public housing. There were 97 workplace strikes in the first week—more than in any one-year period under the old regime. Significantly, two-fifths of the strikes demanded saneamento—the purging of those who had links to the former fascist regime. More than 12,000 people were purged or suspended.

Workplace occupations followed, almost immediately at Timex and at the enormous Lisnave shipyards—multinational corporations that had set up gigantic complexes around Lisbon and sourced cheap labour under Salazar’s rule. The scale of factory occupations, at least 600, recalled Italy in 1920 and Catalonia in 1936.

Several thousand workers’ commissions (comissões de trabalhadores) and more than 100 residents’ commissions (comissões de moradores) emerged simultaneously across cities and towns. Workers connected with one another. In one small example, half a dozen women who had taken over their firm, which produced children’s clothes, went to the bank and asked for a loan, whereupon the bank workers gave them access to the English- owned firm’s deposits.

In some workplace occupations the workers became depoliticised because, as new managers, they struggled to make ends meet. In others, the workforce used occupation to control and monitor the owners and managers. In 1975, I visited the Edifer construction company offices in Lisbon. A workers’ committee member took me into the boardroom and gestured to the drinks’ cabinet. ‘We don’t drink this,’ he said.

We are keeping it so that people can see what the managers did. We run the place but we keep the managers here to make sure they do their job.

Shipyard workers at the foreign-owned Setenave put it another way:

We don’t have workers’ control. How can we if we don’t control the banks? Our attitude is that we want to know everything. We don’t believe that we can have workers’ control alone.

Democracy from below flourished. People learned how to govern themselves. They set up and even built health centres, community organisations and cultural centres. One organiser, Maria, told how she and other women had persuaded the military police to help occupy an empty villa and set up a creche for working mothers. The military police fitted it up with electrics, provided a stove and furniture. When the local priest gave a sermon about the creche, warning it would poison people’s minds and decrying its meetings about family planning and abortion, Maria struck back and forced the priest to let her talk from the pulpit. Her speech on abortion and contraception raised 800 escudos for the creche.

The army and the people

Throughout the whole period, indeed until April 1976, there was no stable government. There were six provisional governments. The MFA revolutionary council appointed the presidents and prime ministers, all members of the military, and created uneasy partnerships with the conventional political parties to form the governments. Much to the dismay of western capitalism, the Communist Party always had representatives.

The impact of the people’s movement on the armed forces—and vice versa—came to be an integral part of the Portuguese story. The interaction drove a wedge between the MFA on the one hand, and the ‘civil’ authorities, including the main political parties, on the other.

Workers’ commissions, the main drivers behind the strike waves, were a thorn in the side of successive governments—who tried to contain them by using the military. But at times the MFA, and even more often ordinary soldiers, sided with those in struggle—notably when defending the country from right-wing coup attempts on 28 September 1974 and 11 March 1975.

The rebuffing of the latter precipitated large-scale nationalisation. Bank workers occupied branches and demanded the nationalisation of Portuguese banks. The MFA’s revolutionary council announced their decision to do so the following day. Next were the insurance companies. Then, on 15 April 1975, the fourth provisional government nationalised dozens of companies in sectors including petroleum, electricity, gas, tobacco, breweries, steelworks and cement. Some nationalisations were used to stop the exodus of capital and risk of bankrupting the country, however, and to avoid direct workers’ control.

By this point, Portugal’s traditional conservatives were in disarray. Their strategy of coups and authoritarian modernisation was not working. For Portuguese capitalism an alternative line of attack was emerging: that of installing a west European-type social democracy within a parliamentary framework. This agenda was spearheaded by the Socialist Party, which talked of abolishing capitalism while undermining popular forms of power by insisting that only parliamentary politics were legitimate.

Parliamentary democracy, alongside direct democracy, attracted many. The first anniversary of the overthrow of the old regime, 25 April 1975, was chosen for Portugal’s first ever election based on universal suffrage. Nearly 92 per cent of the electorate turned out to vote. The Communist Party, cautious and conservative in its strategy and highly authoritarian in its internal regime, polled a meagre 12.5 per cent. The real victor was the Socialist Party, which won 37.9 per cent. Its status was transformed: from having just 200 members in April 1974, it had grown to become the leading parliamentary party in Portugal within a year.

Constitutionally, however, the ultimate power still lay with the MFA. The Socialist Party relentlessly pursued the interrelated themes of ‘socialism’, ‘power to those elected’, ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom of speech’. Both the NATO powers and the Portuguese ruling class now preferred the option of building a ‘stable’ bourgeois parliamentary system. Progressive sections of Portuguese capitalism wanted to join the EEC (forerunner of the EU), which demanded democratic credentials.

The election results and turnout were a humiliation for many MFA officers, who had naively called for an election boycott and were suspicious of the mainstream political parties. In response, the MFA forged a new ideology, poder popular (popular power), through a national network of popular assemblies, comprising delegates from workplaces, barracks and residents’ commissions, as an alternative to parliamentary democracy. The MFA’s conception also included arming the people.

At least 100 embryonic popular assemblies were set up in urban areas over summer and autumn 1975. However, they tended to see themselves as subordinate to the military—which is how the MFA saw them too. They also set out to be ‘above parties’ (apartidária). For some, this was a licence to be ‘anti- party’, which led to an overestimation of the role of the movement and dismissal of how political parties could contribute to it. These proposals led to the Socialist Party, followed by other key parties, walking away from the government in early July.

New forces emerge

The Socialist Party grew in confidence over the ‘hot summer’ of 1975. In tandem with the Catholic church, it led a violent suppression of the left, trade unions and the Communist Party in the north. This fostered renewed self-assurance and even arrogance among the many career military men who, although not fascists, had largely remained outside the MFA. Their innate conservatism had been obscured since the revolution by the sheer prestige of the MFA.

At the same time, soldiers began to demand redress of the inequalities between them and the officers and agitated for pay increases and free transport—for many, a single visit to their families could cost almost a month’s pay. In September, conscript soldiers formed a rank-and-file orgnisation, SUV (Soldados Unidos Vencerão—Soldiers United Will Win), which shifted dynamics enormously.

By the autumn of 1975, troops in other European countries were also becoming restless. In Italy, more than a thousand soldiers, in uniform with handkerchief masks, demonstrated in support of Portuguese workers and soldiers. The rebellion of rank- and-file soldiers scared the Portuguese—and wider west—establishment like nothing else.

On 25 September 1975, the SUV held a 100,000-strong demonstration in support of the Lisbon residents’ and workers’ commissions. A group of 4,000 demonstrators requisitioned buses to drive 15 miles and free soldiers imprisoned for possession of SUV leaflets.

The revolutionary process continued to ebb and flow as different groups led acts of dissent. The same month, for example, a group of disabled soldiers occupied the Abril 25 suspension bridge, diverting the day’s toll charges to República newspaper, which was then under workers’ control.

That autumn, another group, the rural proletariat, joined the fray. Most of the large latifúndios (privately owned landed estates) were taken over by the workers. Tellingly, they increased the number of tractors from 2,630 to 4,150, and of harvesting machines from 960 to 1,720. There had been nothing like this in Europe since Hungary in 1956.

The most impressive example of a workers’ council was the Comité de Luta (Committee of Struggle) in Setúbal, 30 miles south of Lisbon. It included residents and representatives from the two local barracks. Here, the revolutionary left set the pace, united in common activities such as encouraging workers to take over the local paper and distributing food from agricultural co-operatives.

Portugal’s retreat from the colonies, meanwhile, meant that over half a million bitterly disillusioned ‘retornados’ had to be re-integrated into a population of nine million. These right-wing exiles would have a similarly toxic effect to the ‘pieds noirs’ in French politics. Nonetheless, the movement from below continued to challenge the state.

Perhaps the most powerful example came late in the process, in mid-November 1975. The Portuguese parliament had been held hostage at São Bento in Lisbon by a rally of almost 100,000 people, mostly construction workers, demanding a wage rise. The besieged prime minister, Admiral Pinheiro de Azevedo, asked the commandos to rescue him and his ministers. They refused. He then requested a helicopter to rescue just a few of them. The military police overheard the request and alerted the building workers, who prevented the helicopter from landing.

After 36 hours, the prime minister conceded all the workers’ demands, to take effect by the end of the month. The paralysis of formal government was so total that, on 20 November 1975, the government declared it was not going to do anything ‘political’, announcing:

We are on strike, everybody is on strike, the government is also on strike.

Understanding the collapse

Portugal’s carnation revolution ended five days later when a group of reformist officers, by means of a small new elite unit, quenched a number of insubordinate barracks. There was remarkably little bloodshed. It did not mark the return of fascism—an enemy that had united everyone. But fear of fascism also blinded many in the movement, leading to an underestimation of the capacity of capitalism to adapt and reform.

On 25 November 1975, neither the officers ‘on the side of the people’ nor the multiple and varied left groups called for strikes, occupations or barricades. Such action—especially by a powerful group of workers such as those at the Lisnave shipyards—might have inspired waverers in the armed forces and other workers’ groups to follow. The leading workers’ organisations, most notably the Communist Party, were however not prepared to take on the state or give full support to the radical demands of factory and rural workers. The popular power movement was never strong enough nor sufficiently coordinated at the national level.

Some argued that the lack of a revolutionary party had been the left’s downfall. A proliferation of grupúsculos had aspired to become such parties, but they were young and unschooled—and some became too embroiled in the intrigues of the military. The lack of a reformist tradition in Portugal had allowed the left to flourish, but without the experience of how to work alongside reformists—who some called ‘social fascists’. The anti-party ideology, as articulated through the pact known as the Aliança Povo-MFA, had meant that it was difficult for those involved from the far left to comment on or even discern the variety of views and weaknesses that existed in the ‘movement’.

The slogan ‘Unity of the people and the MFA’ was also double-edged. Not only did the people influence the army, but the revolutionary movement’s reliance on radicals in the army proved part of its undoing. As Tony Cliff put it in ‘Portugal at the Crossroad’, by ‘acting as a surrogate, as a substitute, the MFA prevented the workers (and soldiers)’ from developing real workers’ councils. The ‘brilliant’ achievements of the struggle did not mean that Portuguese workers had by-passed reformism or were permanently immune from it, however—simply that many workers lacked the experience, organisation and judgement to prove otherwise.

Legacies and lost memories

Fundamentally—although by no means clear at the time—the revolution was not defeated through violence or the imposition of dictatorship. It was ended by consensus and with very large social reforms won by the working class. Despite Portugal’s new leaders arresting hundreds of soldiers and militants from the left (usually only briefly) and denationalising some of the bigger corporations, the end of the revolution did not pave the way for neoliberalism, thanks to the enduring strength of the movement from below.

A national health service was entrenched. Everyone retained free access to school and university. Many cooperatives continued operating. Social rights, including universal suffrage, were extended. Portugal joined the EEC. Conscription was abolished. Rents were capped for many years. Women’s rights were also established—although it took another 32 years to legalise abortion. The revolution ended the colonial wars and led to the independence of Portugal’s colonies in Africa. It inspired the strikes against Francoism in Spain, those combating the military junta in Greece and those fighting apartheid in South Africa

Over subsequent decades, the victors have airbrushed the revolts by working people and their creation of power from below. The ‘official’ narrative focuses on representative democracy, flaunted as part of modernisation. The fact remains, however, that during those 19 months, hundreds of thousands of workers took over their workplaces, land and houses, and tens of thousands of soldiers rebelled.

It was an astonishing period, captured by the sign put up on an exclusive golf club in the rolling hills outside Lisbon: ‘This golf course is now open to everyone—except members.’ Yet this revolutionary turmoil has almost been forgotten, dismissed as a dream. Fifty years on, the carnation revolution should serve as an inspiration for all of us who want to change the world.
This article first appeared in Issue #243 Palestine.

Peter Robinson worked in Portugal in 1975-6 as an organiser for the British International Socialists. He is author of Portugal 1974-75: The Forgotten Dream (Socialist History Society, 1999) and editor of A People’s History of the Portugese Revolution (Pluto, 2019)

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