Portugal erupted in revolution 40 years ago this month. Hundreds of thousands of people became politically active for the first time.
Workers took over their factories. People transformed mansions into creches and cultural centres. They moved into empty apartment blocks to escape shanty towns.
Children taught adults to read. Posters adorned the streets and political discussion was rife.
The revolution swept away a rotten fascist regime and put socialism on the agenda in Europe for the first time in decades. Its dynamic holds valuable lessons for revolutionaries today.
In 1974 Portugal was the poorest country in Western Europe and its ruling class was in the grip of a deep crisis.
Uprisings in its African colonies of Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau and Angola were becoming too much to handle, even with a 200,000-strong army that sucked up half the state budget.
Much of the ruling class thought the colonies weren’t worth the cost.
A fascist regime had ruled since 1932, under Antonio Salazar and his successor Marcelo Caetano, with the help of international backing—particularly from Britain.
It opened up Portugal to foreign investors eager to take advantage of cheap, well-policed labour. But Portugal’s economy remained backward and its economic output per head was low compared with other European countries.
Discontent grew especially in the army. A grouping of 400 officers, the Armed Forces Movement (MFA), overthrew Caetano on 25 April 1974.
Despite MFA calls to stay in their homes, thousands of citizens took to the streets. Soldiers put red carnations in their guns to show their support.
The coup was bloodless and over in hours. It was backed by Portugal’s biggest monopolies, CUF and Champalimaud, who hoped for a restructuring of the economy.
The MFA didn’t want to run Portugal, and asked a junta headed by General Spinola to do the job instead.
Spinola was an admirer of Hitler with a bloody reputation as governor and commander-in-chief in Guinea-Bissau. He played no part in the coup against Caetano.
Yet the coup unleashed a wave of working class struggle.
Caetano had relied on the hated PIDE secret police and the terror they inspired.
But that fear was giving way to anger. So when Spinola curbed PIDE to lessen the influence of the old regime’s supporters, it emboldened workers and gave them a new space to organise.
As one Plessey worker put it, under fascism, “You have no information about what is going on in other factories or the world at large.
“You cannot speak freely. You have no right to hold meetings. There are no such things as unions. There are spies everywhere.”
The government was forced to abolish the PIDE altogether due to mass pressure from below.
Workers didn’t stop there. They set about “cleansing” fascists and elements of the old regime from control of workplaces and other positions of society.
They also struck for better wages and conditions. In factories across the country workers elected committees to lead the struggles.
Some began producing rank and file papers and bulletins.
During May 1974 over 200,000 workers were on strike across key industries including shipbuilding, textiles, electronics, hotel and catering and banking.
Around 1,600 miners in Panasqueira went on strike on 13 May.
They demanded a £100 monthly minimum wage, an annual bonus of a month’s wage, free medical care, the purging of everyone linked to the previous regime and one month’s holiday.
Within seven days they won all their demands.
The scale of workers’ activity terrified the ruling class. They went from celebrating “freedom” to warning of the need to protect “democracy”. By this they meant capitalism.
The right wing twice tried to impose a coup—first in September 1974 and then in March 1975. Both were miserable failures.
In September 1974 Spinola called on the “silent majority” to join a rally in opposition to the left. It was scheduled for 28 September. But workers organised against the rally and it never took place.
Instead a left protest of at least 40,000 gathered in the centre of the capital Lisbon and soldiers defied orders to remove the barricades, joining them instead.
Bosses also used economic blackmail, moving money out of Portugal and shifting production elsewhere.
A mass campaign grew against redundancies. Workers took over factories and their committees ran them.
One worker from the Nefil furniture factory said, “We do not have any illusions in workers’ management under capitalism. We are using it as a weapon, as an emergency solution.
“We are thinking about demanding the government nationalise the firm—under workers’ control. We do not want a phoney nationalisation which only helps the bosses.”
The Communist Party (PC) grew rapidly. Such was its respect among workers that Spinola’s first government had to include two PC members.
But the PC pushed workers to act in the “national interest”. This meant capitulating to the needs of the bosses.
PC general secretary and minister Alvaro Cunhal said workers weren’t ready for socialism and called some strikes “counter-revolutionary”.
Laws limited workers’ right to strike. The PC moved away from a previous demand for £100 monthly minimum wage, declaring it “unrealistic”.
Many workers ignored PC bans on protests and went ahead with strikes despite its denunciations.
Workers at the Portuguese national airline TAP published a leaflet in August 1974 arguing, “This government is not on our side. It is a government that sides with the bosses.
“For us, the workers, there are redundancies, a rise in the cost of living, repression. For the bosses, a free hand to exploit us better.”
The Socialist Party, formed in 1973, made gains as workers lost patience with the PC and sometimes seemed to be more left wing. But it was another reformist party and it didn’t take them anywhere.
There were attempts to build revolutionary organisation in the working class, such as the Proletarian Revolutionary Party and its Revolutionary Brigades.
But it was small and tended to focus too much on armed battles as opposed to the day to day struggles of workers.
Workers achieved many great things on their own initiative and learned from the struggle. But there was no effective leadership that could decisively move the revolution forward.
This led to political confusion. Many workers tended to see the army as on their side.
In July 1974 the government set up COPCON, a new army force it hoped would deal with workers’ struggle as it could no longer rely on soldiers to do so. But it refused to act against workers much of the time.
Many workers therefore didn’t see the need to set up their own organisations, such as workers’ councils. Their inexperience pushed them to look to others to act on their behalf.
For months the ruling class was unable to curb workers’ resistance. But workers made no move to take control—leaving the bosses free to take the fight to them.
On 24 November 1975 the Council of the Armed Forces replaced the head of the Lisbon military region, leading MFA member Otelo de Carvalho. They wanted to put someone in charge who would take the workers on.
Carvalho didn’t think he could oppose the move. But a group of officers disagreed. By morning paratroops had seized five bases. The government sent in army units. Isolated, the paras gave up without a fight.
The Revolutionary Brigades called for opposition. But as one Portuguese revolutionary explained, there was “no coordination” on the left.
Revolutionary socialist Chris Harman said the left had been disarmed “because the workers looked to the armed forces to act for them, and inside the armed forces the rank and file looked to the progressive officers for a lead”.
There was no going back to Caetano’s regime. The colonies gained their independence, and the ruling class put its hopes in a parliamentary democracy that could develop the economy and integrate more into Europe.
But long after Portugal’s bosses were able to retake control, the memory of 1974-5 continues to haunt them and inspire workers. For a moment it had opened up the possibility to go so much further.
Portugal at the Crossroads by Tony Cliff. Available online at bit.ly/1i23eIF
Revolutionary Rehearsals Edited by Colin Barker with chapter on Portugal by Peter Robinson, £9.99
The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After by Chris Harman, £9.95
Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to bookmarksbookshop.co.uk