Socialist Worker

'I went to factories under workers' control'

Issue No. 1898

THIRTY YEARS ago this week officers in the Portuguese army overthrew the country's fascist dictator, Caetano. The coup triggered a rash of strikes, demonstrations and factory occupations, as workers began to seize the opportunity to air long-suppressed grievances. The explosion from below led commentators to begin talking of the "Portuguese Revolution".

Over the following 18 months great waves of struggle raised the prospect of a radical transformation of society, while the right repeatedly tried to end the radicalisation.

DAVE HAYES, now an industrial organiser for the Socialist Workers Party, witnessed the impact of the revolution first hand.

What was it like to visit Portugal in 1975?

As soon as you touched down at the airport you got a sense of the atmosphere around the Portuguese capital, Lisbon. Normally when you go through an airport there are immigration controls and police in the airport, but none of these existed in the main international airport. You just walked straight through. The workers were very well organised. They had their own workers' committee which controlled the airport.

There was a real sense in Lisbon that something was beginning to change. There were posters and murals painted on nearly every wall celebrating the revolution and the demise of the fascist regime. That was what struck me first. The other thing that struck me was the number of bookstalls on street corners-everywhere you would see people setting up bookstalls with Marx, Lenin and other classics on, and people would gather round.

There was a definite sense that Portugal had been liberated. There was a flourishing of all kinds of literature that had been banned under the old Caetano regime. People discussed all kinds of issues. Central to this were the army units around Lisbon-nearly all of them were supporting the revolution.

We visited the Relais army barracks. I saw a photograph of the Relais barracks where soldiers were lined up and, instead of saluting their officer, they had clenched fists and were saying, "All power to the Portuguese Revolution."

Why were you in Portugal, and what did you do while you were there?

The impact of the Portuguese Revolution in Britain was immense. No one had expected to see the Caetano regime collapse overnight. At the time I was a postal worker. We had suffered a major defeat in 1971. But when the revolution broke out we started having regular collections in the Gateshead post office where I worked. We sent the collections off to a solidarity fund.

There were regular delegations of trade unionists who twinned their workplaces with Portuguese ones. I travelled to Portugal on 1 November 1975. When I got to Lisbon I did two things. Firstly I tried to make contact with various workplaces-for example Massey Ferguson, which had the same management in Britain and Portugal.

When you went to factories under workers' control, the union rep would come out and meet you and take you into the boardroom. You got a real sense of the power and ability of workers to start organising. The second thing I did was to try to meet representatives of the PRP, which was one of the revolutionary socialist groups in Portugal and which had a number of worker militants in crucial workplaces.

Portugal's revolution ended in 1975. How was the ruling class able to regain the initiative?

The right tried to crush the revolution several times, launching attempted coups in September 1974 and March 1975. Each coup attempt provoked a great upsurge of workers which saw off the coup and also radicalised the revolution to the left.

Sections of the armed forces were also radicalising, traditional army discipline began breaking down and you saw the emergence of rank and file soldiers' organisations. Within the working class a great debate and battle was going on.

The Socialist Party had won elections in April 1975 and had real mass influence. The Communist Party was huge and a key force among the working class, especially in the crucial Lisbon area. They both stood for limiting the revolution, confining it within the limits of capitalism and with some form of parliamentary system, with their leaders as ministers in a government.

There was a big far left which stood for building on the impulses you saw in the factories, the workers' committees, the army rank and file, and was for a more far-reaching transformation of society. On 25 November, a week before I left Portugal, there was a coup to restore the government's power.

Only a week before that coup Portugal's largest ever demonstration took place. Some 300,000 took to the streets out of a population of just eight million. Being on that demonstration and being there when the coup took place allowed me to draw some lessons about the missed opportunity.

The Communist Party had established workers' commissions, organisations based in individual factories, in the Lisbon belt-the key industrial area of Portugal. They drew together 2,000 delegates from the area to a general assembly. When you think of the power that general assembly represented you saw the possibilities. A revolutionary strategy would be for every group of workers under the influence of revolutionaries to engage with that assembly, to get as many workplaces as possible represented, to send revolutionary delegates.

They should have tried to turn that assembly into something much closer to the workers' councils in the Russian Revolution. But the PRP, for example, sent just one person to that meeting. They didn't see it as a forum in which they could unite with and influence other workers who looked to the Socialist or Communist parties.

If the revolutionaries didn't find a way of doing this and of pushing the revolution forward, at some point the right would be able to regain the initiative.

How did rank and file soldiers respond to the coup?

The soldiers had moved to the left, but there was a problem. During the Russian Revolution soldiers set up their own committees and started trying to control things themselves.

But the Portuguese Revolution was led by a layer of army officers who had removed Caetano-they still had a lot of credibility among the soldiers. Although there was a move to set up rank and file soldiers' committees, the dominant view was to look to officers like General Otelo de Carvalho as the leaders of the revolution.

During the November coup one small group of commandos moved against the entire Lisbon barracks. Because there was no rank and file organisation of any real influence among the soldiers, after the leading left wing officers had been arrested, there was no organisation that could coordinate the different units to fight off the commandos. It was a real defeat for the revolution. But the Portuguese ruling class had to be very careful. They were frightened of the power of the working class and didn't dare try and turn the clock back completely.

They didn't dare carry through anything like the coup in Chile in 1973. Instead they had to concede the sort of political and trade union rights we had in Britain, and look to the Socialist Party to try and restabilise capitalism under a parliamentary system.


Timeline

1932

The fascist Salazar takes power in Portugal.

1961

Portugal faces rebellion in its African colony of Angola. Similar rebellions in Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau place increasing strain on Portuguese economy. By 1974 Portugal's colonial wars are consuming half the country's state budget.

1968

Caetano succeeds Salazar as head of the fascist regime.

1974

25 April: People awake to find tanks on the streets of the capital, Lisbon. A group of 400 middle-ranking army officers have overthrown Caetano and handed power to the right wing General Spinola. Sections of the ruling class want to see Spinola resolve the colonial conflict.

26 April: The hated secret police are disbanded, and people begin to purge society of fascist agents, hated factory foremen and others associated with the old regime.

1 May: Growing strike wave involves 200,000 workers in 158 workplaces. 100,000 march through streets of Lisbon to celebrate May Day.

9 May: Spinola sets up provisional government involving the right wing PPD, the tiny Socialist Party and the Communist Party.

June: Strikes now involve nearly every major group of workers. Communist Party attacks many of the strikes.

27-28 September: Spinola plots a right wing coup to halt the revolution. Workers build barricades in Lisbon and other cities. Railway workers strike. Workers and rank and file soldiers defeat the coup plan.

30 September: Spinola resigns as president. Replaced by another general, Costa Gomes.

1975

7 February: Delegates from 38 factories organise a 40,000-strong demonstration against rising unemployment and a visit by the NATO fleet.

11 March: Another attempt at a right wing coup. Workers strike, build barricades and demand arms from soldiers. August: Rival groups of army officers put forward different documents with proposals on how to reorganise Portuguese society.

24 November: Carvalho, one of the army officers who led the coup against Caetano, is removed as head of the Lisbon military. Seen as an attack on the left.

25 November: Left wing units of the army take control of radio and TV stations and barracks around Lisbon. Revolutionaries are unprepared for a serious confrontation and the Communist Party acts to stop workers taking action. Eventually a Socialist Party government under Mario Soares is able to restore capitalist normality in Portugal.


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Article information

Features
Sat 24 Apr 2004, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1898
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