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Portugal ’74—When workers and soldiers fought for real power

Half a century ago this month millions took part in a revolution that brought down a brutal dictatorship and opened the possibility of fundamental socialist change. Dáire Cumiskey looks at the revolution and talks to author and historian Raquel Varela
Issue 2901
Portugal revolution

Workers joinrebel soldiers for the 100,000 strong May Day demonstration

It’s 50 years since a revolution swept Portugal, catapulting around three million people—a third of the entire population—into political activity, most for the first time. 

Workers took over their factories. People transformed mansions into ­creches and cultural centres.
It showed revolution was possible in Europe and overthrew the fascist regime begun by António de Oliveira Salaza in 1932 and carried on under Marcelo Caetano after 1968.

This regime, known as Estado Novo (New Stare), 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 amongst the Portuguese people had steadily grown in opposition to those in charge, seeping even into the ranks of the army.

The Portuguese army was largely a conscript army, where the rulers sent young men to kill and to die in the colonies that were still part of a decaying empire.

The risings in Angola, central Africa, in 1961 temporarily destroyed Portuguese control in much of this colonial outpost. But instead of pulling out, Portugal’s rulers plunged into a doomed effort to regain full domination.

Anti-colonial forces also fought back in Mozambique, south Africa, in 1964 and in Guinea Bissau in west Africa. Realising they were being sent to be slaughtered, disgruntled officers began to plan for resistance to the fascist regime.

A group of 400 officers, the Armed Forces Movement (MFA), overthrew the prime minister Caetano on 25 April 1974.

They removed 100 generals and general Antonio de Spinola became president despite playing no part in the coup.

The divisions and the tumult at the top opened the way for much more profound resistance that could offer real social change. Workers supported the armed forces’ actions but then went further.

Workers occupied factories and joined enormous demonstrations. Some 260 families from a shantytown in the capital, Lisbon, moved into an empty apartment block near the city. The military ordered them out but was forced to back down when the families refused.

The “Carnation revolution” ­underlined that the global ­revolutionary wave of 1968 was not finished and the methods of class struggle based on workers’ power were not outdated.

The Portuguese events rekindles the hope that workers could transform the economy but also change themselves and challenge oppression in the course of the revolt.

During the month of May 1974, in a country of nine million, over 200,000 workers were on strike across key industries including shipbuilding, textiles, electronics, hotels, catering and banking.

The ruling class went from celebrating “freedom” from fascism to warning of the need to protect “democracy”. By this they meant saving capitalism.

In September 1974, Spinola called on the “silent majority” to join a rally opposing the left.

It was set for 28 September—but workers organised a counter rally and it never took place.

Instead, at least 40,000 people ­protested in the centre of Lisbon, and soldiers defied orders to remove the barricades, joining them instead.

The revolution set up workers’ and neighbourhood councils nearly everywhere. The ruling class found it impossible to contain the revolt for many months.

But crucially the main left forces—the social democrats and the Communists who were emerging from their underground organisation—held back the attempts to deepen the revolution further.

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.

Interview with Raquel Varela— ‘History of the revolution told from below matters’

What does your book tell us about the mass participation in the revolution?

I estimate that three million people were involved in the protests, strikes, and workplace occupations. At the time, around 600 workplaces were self‑organised or were workers’ cooperatives.

In the big factories, the workers’ councils did not want to take ownership, but they did control how they functioned.
There was also land reform with cooperatives and workers management in hospitals, schools and across the public sector.

In schools teachers directly elected their representatives and they debated a new curriculum. Agreement was made that all children up to 16 years old should have the same quality of studies with a unitary education.

How did workers take over the media during the revolution?

Portugal had one of the greatest anarcho-syndicalist movements in the history of Western countries. Those in these movements were some of the most militant fighters, but often, their politics isolated them.

From the turn of the 19th century to the 20th century, there were more than 300 workers’ newspapers. And one of them, called The Battle, had 25,000 copies printed each day.

Workers’ councils during the revolution meant that newspapers were run amazingly democratically. I have studied this for a book I’m collaborating on, The People’s History of Portugal, which has not yet been translated.

There was a moment when committed journalism was born during the revolution.

There were massive strikes among journalists and newspapers between 1974 and 1975. But today, that journalism is totally destroyed. There are no workers’ journals today, creating a massive crisis in that worker voices and debate is simply not heard in society.

How did the revolution relate to the revolts for liberation in the colonies?

The two struggles are absolutely connected. The anti-colonial revolutions started among the forced labour workers. Revolts prompted what the Portuguese state calls the Portuguese Colonial War in 1961.

The Portuguese state calls them colonial wars, but for us, they were anti-colonial revolutions. A cotton worker strike in Angola led the Portuguese army to take revenge.

The Portuguese army used Napalm to kill Angolan people. After this the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola started the armed struggle. The same happened in Guinea Bissau and Mozambique.

Portuguese dock workers were fundamentally supportive of the liberation movements. The liberation movements and the army were at a stalemate when the generals in the army organised the progressive coup.

They sought a political end to the fighting in the colonies that saw thousands of Portuguese men die in defence of a dying empire.

How did a military coup lead to workers’ involvement on such a mass scale? When they organised the coup, middle-ranking army officers got messages out asking people to stay at home and wait.

They repeated ten times that they could arrest people if they were out and about. Despite these warnings, people began to go out to work.

Because there were no unions and no political parties, there was no mediation between the state and the workers. The workers very spontaneously self-organised in thousands of workers councils and neighbourhood councils.

Immediately, these councils did away with the leaderships of the municipalities and the fascist unions, and the companies that were attached to the regime.

They began to self-organise society.

In my book I argue that we shouldn’t view the military coup and workers’ self-organisation as two separate moments but one continual revolution that starts in 1961 and goes until 1975. It’s all one single revolutionary process.

We have to look much further than mainstream understandings to assess the history of such a revolution. This is why a people’s history is so important because its history is told from below. 

A Marxist approach to history must consider the work of the working class. It’s about studying the process, not just the results.

After 1975, how did those in charge succeeded in their counter revolution?

Out of necessity the social democratic rulers that ushered in the counter revolution had to give many concessions to the workers.

The first thing the counter revolutionary forces destroyed were the soviets in the barracks, dismantling dual power in the army on 25 November 1975. Then, in 1978 and 1979, they removed the workers’ councils. Later, in 1982, the land reforms was destroyed.

Lastly, in 1989, they began to privatise banks on a large scale that had previously been under workers’ control.

All of this was only possible because the ruling class had worked hard to destroy the shipyard workers’ organisation in a similar way to how Margaret Thatcher destroyed the miners in Britain.

They had been the vanguard of the revolution. It was a slow process to bring the working class to accept a neoliberal capitalist system made up of companies, the state and the union.

They had to destroy the more combative trade left wing trade unions, which were ran by the rank and file and largely those who were influenced by the ideas of Maoism.

  • ‘Everything was possible’, 50 years since the Portuguese Revolution, Saturday 27 April, 6pm, London Welsh Centre, 157 Grays Inn Road, London, WC1X 8UE Speakers—Raquel Varela, Bob Light and Hector Sierra
  • People’s History of the Portuguese Revolution, By Raquel Varela, £19.99,
  • Portugal at a Crossroads by Tony Cliff (Written in 1975)
  • Portugal 1974-5 by Bob Light

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