Worker's history: Portuguese Revolution of 1974

25 April marks the anniversary of the "Carnation Revolution" in Portugal in 1974-75, which brought down a hated dictatorship and threatened the foundations of the capitalist system. In the end however, the movement was brought back onto the safe channels of bourgeois democracy. This article, written by Phil Mitchinson in 1994, explains what happened and urges us to learn the lessons from this great event.

"Capitalism is dead in Portugal" wrote the Times in 1975. And yet today it lives. How was it able to survive? What lessons can we learn from the Portuguese Revolution of 1974?

On the morning of April 25th 1974, as tanks rolled into Lisbon under the direction of the young officers of the Armed Forces Movement (AFM), hundreds of thousands of workers crowded the streets to celebrate the overthrow of the hated Caetano regime. This was no mere palace coup. In the words of The Sunday Times, "the crash made the statesmen and nations of at least two continents tremble. For like the single stone that starts an avalanche, Portugal's coup may be more a beginning than an end of things."

The fascist regime in Portugal had lasted longer than any other of its kind. How was it able to maintain itself and what forces finally brought about its downfall?

The pioneering days of the Portuguese slave traders of the 15th and 16th centuries we read about at school were doomed by Portugal's narrow home economic base. The struggle against piracy and contraband could not be sustained, and domination by Spain for 60 years up to 1640 strangled Portugal as a world power. Rapidly overtaken by Britain and Holland, the loss of Brazil saw the beginning of the break up of its empire, and throughout the 19th century it was racked by financial bankruptcy.

The great revolution of 1910 deposed the rotten Portuguese monarchy but inevitably broke down into its antagonistic class components. In the three years following the assassination of the dictator, placed in power by a military coup in 1917, there were no less than 16 governments. In just 5 years the currency fell to 5% of its previous value. Then, after years of coups, strikes, uprisings and repression, the heroic working class finally fell exhausted before the fascist thugs, who aped their victorious "heroes" in Italy.

In 1927 the fascists exacted a bloody revenge against the working class. As Minister of Finance, Colonies, War, Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister, Salazar succeeded in balancing the budget for the first time in a century by stamping on the faces of the workers.

A "corporate republic", a so-called "New State", was imposed, in which only the official Fascist party was permitted to exist. Trade unions and strikes were outlawed, workers were herded into State company unions, while sole negotiating rights and absolute arbitration powers were vested in official "corporations."


The President and government were "elected" exclusively by the so-called "educated strata". This regime came to rest increasingly on the Portuguese Gestapo, who were responsible for outrageous atrocities including beheadings, crucifixions, and mass executions against the African independence movements and opposition at home. At one time or another, up to 10% of the population "passed through their hands." In the end only this force was keeping the regime in power, until it burst like a pricked balloon after the April 25th coup.

Spinola Image Keystone Press Wikimedia CommonsGeneral Spinola was cast in the press as a knight in shining armour / Image: Keystone Press, Wikimedia Commons

Beneath the calm surface of tyranny, a tumour had been gnawing away at the vitals of the regime. In the end it disintegrated because it had lost its social base.Every revolution begins not at the bottom but the top. The first condition for revolution is a crisis within the ruling class. Feeling themselves to be in a blind alley, no longer able to rule in the old way, they cast around in a panic for panaceas, squabbling amongst themselves as disaster approaches.

General Spinola, placed in power by the April 25th coup, was cast in the press as a knight in shining armour. Yet in reality he was the son of Salazar's closest friend, he volunteered to fight for both Franco and Hitler. As Commander-in-Chief of the Portuguese forces in Guinea he earned the nickname "butcher." In addition, prior to the coup he was a director of two of Portugal's leading monopolies. He was the consummate representative of the Portuguese ruling class, right down to the toe of his jackboot.

That such a man could find himself at the head of a revolutionary junta can only be explained in the context of the crisis facing the ruling class.

War had raged in the African colonies since 1961 when the Angolan liberation movement was launched. This was followed by the revolt in Guinea in 1963, and Mozambique in 1964. To prop up this pretence of Imperial rule was costing Portugal 48% of its annual budget and thousands of lives.

African Wars

The African wars were a crippling cancer on society. After 13 years it was clear these wars were unwinnable. Gradually, the will of the ordinary soldiers was undermined. To avoid conscription of up to four years on starvation rations in the African jungles, a massive movement of desertion and draft dodging gathered pace.

Between emigration and conscription, Portugal lost half its labour force. The shortage of labour left the big estates of the south to run to waste and held back the development of industry. At the same time, Portugal was less and less able to exploit the resources of its own African colonies. At home, inflation soared to 25-30% and beyond.

Against this background, the monopolies pushed Caetano, Salazar's successor, into making some limited reforms. In 1969, officially approved "opposition candidates" were allowed to stand for election to the National Assembly. Only 20% of the population were allowed to vote however, and the Fascists with 88% of the votes took all 130 seats. In the 1973 elections the "opposition candidates" all withdrew days before the ballot.

It was at this time that General Spinola wrote his book "Portugal and the Future", arguing for finding a peaceful, safe way to extricate Portugal from the crippling African wars by placing in power a moderate black elite who could be split away from the nationalists, as had been done successfully in Zaire.

However, President Tomas, among others, remained convinced of "Portugal's Christian civilising mission." So fierce was the division, that in December there was an attempt at a right wing coup to prevent any move in the direction indicated by Spinola.

Heroic Strikes

Every section of the population was beginning to stir. The capitalists were bickering, uncertain of which way to turn next. The working class mounted a series of heroic strikes, which turned the Fascist law-books into so much scrap paper. In the face of an armed police operation the workers at Plesseys, ITT, Hoechst, Fords, Timex and many others, fought heroic, if often unsuccessful strikes.

The middle class, especially the youth, bitterly opposed the regime. From 1968 there was a rash of student demonstrations at Lisbon University, the Economics Institute, and even Lisbon Military Academy.

It was precisely these lower army officers from the middle class, who came to the fore in the initial stage of the revolution in the "Armed Forces Movement". Surrounding the Presidential headquarters, they received messages of support from garrisons around the country. Three waves of the Seventh Cavalry were sent against them, the first immediately rallying to their side, the second followed suit after the arrest of their commander and the third wavered then capitulated after a few minutes half-hearted resistance. Then the masses flooded the streets.

Caetano insisted on talking to a top ranking officer, and finally agreed to hand over power to his old friend Spinola. According to the Financial Times Caetano "sitting in a small room in the Central City Carno barracks, surrounded by rebel forces, begged Spinola to take the leadership of the country, as the only man who could save it. This coincided with the arrival at Spinola's modest apartment of emmisaries from the rebel HQ...asking him to assume the Presidency." Spinola in turn was forced to accept the democratic charter of the rebel officers, or, in the words of Caetano, "hand over power to the mob."

Secret Police

The dam had burst. Only one section of the Portuguese population was prepared to resist the coup, the secret police - out of sheer panic in the face of workers intent on vengeance.

On May 5th The Observer commented, "Portugal is a state with a head but no body." Similarly, when Lenin returned to Russia in April 1917 he described it as the "freest country in the world", not because of any faith in the democratic principles of the Provisional government but because temporarily the old state machine could not be used to defend the ruling class. The same was true in Portugal. The floodgates were open. The new junta promised a programme of national salvation, but at the same time appealed for "calm."

The news of Caetano's overthrow, however, had breached the dam and no warnings or appeals could shore it up again. Meetings occupied every town square or street corner. The workers also occupied the banks, factories, newspaper offices and radio stations. Workers' committees sprang up and began clearing away remnants of the old regime.

Without the permission or advice of the junta, workers exercised the right to strike; without waiting for lawyers verdicts they exercised the right to demonstrate with half a million marching through Lisbon on May Day. Newspaper staff purged the fascist editors and took over the running of the papers. The revolutionary spirit spread like wildfire through the armed forces, the soldiers turned out on parade with red carnations blooming from the barrels of their guns, the sailors marched alongside the workers on May Day carrying banners calling for socialism.

MS Image Claude Truong Ngoc Wikimedia CommonsMario Soares said he favoured "a programme of national salvation as the Junta describes it" / Image: Claude Truong Ngoc, Wikimedia Commons

At that moment no coercive force on earth could have held the workers back. With the leadership of a revolutionary, Bolshevik party, the workers could have taken power peacefully - reaction was impotent. The whole face of the globe would have been transformed. Spain, Greece, Italy, France and the whole of Europe would have followed the example of their Portuguese brothers and sisters. So would Brazil, Argentina and the rest of South America. A socialist future could have been assured. However neither the Socialist nor the Communist parties proved to be such a revolutionary leadership.

Following the April 25th coup SP leader, and later Prime Minister, Mario Soares said he favoured "a programme of national salvation as the Junta describes it. A front of national unity, an alliance of many forces. And so you will see conservatives, Catholics, liberals, Socialists, and Communists all working together in the new civilian administration." Even "progressive"(!) fascists were to be involved. Soares expressed the hope that "Spinola will be like a Portuguese De Gaulle."

The SP, unlike the "Communists", had no tradition of struggle under the Salazar/Caetano regime. It was a shell of a party comprised of a handful of lawyers, and yet on the basis of the events which were unfolding, it too grew rapidly into a genuinely mass force. The growth of the SP and the CP demonstrated the historical law that when the masses move into action they turn first to their traditional organisations.

CP Role

As these millions of "politically untutored" masses poured into the political arena, they didn't immediately differentiate between the different workers' parties. This made the role of the CP all the more vital. Their task should have been to patiently explain to the industrial militants who looked to them for a lead the danger of leaving economic and political power in the hands of the capitalists. That is precisely how the Bolsheviks in Russia were able in a few stormy months to win the overwhelming support of the Russian working class. But the CP leader Cunhal took not a Bolshevik, but a Menshevik position, "We need a union of all political movements to strengthen democracy in Portugal. United we shall crush the last of fascism and create a free democratic society."

Compare the Portuguese "Leninists" position with that of Lenin himself after the 1917 February Revolution, "Our tactic: no trust in and no support of the new government: Kerensky is especially suspect. Arming of the proletariat is the only guarantee: immediate elections to the Petrograd city council: no rapprochement with other parties."

In Portugal the "Communist" Party favoured such coalitions all along. The leaders of the CP and SP rushed into an alliance with Spinola, believing socialism to be a distant future.

In reality only a programme of workers' democracy, based on the nationalisation of industry and banks under the democratic control and management of the working class could defend the workers' gains and prepare the next step forward towards socialism. "Unity" with big business under the guise of a "fight against fascism" spells catastrophe for workers at a later stage. Soares, for example, ominously declared "the Portuguese army is not the Chilean army." Yet on the eve of that bloodiest of coups, Allende and Corvalan soothed their supporters with assurances that the Chilean army wasn't like others, had a democratic tradition and so on. Meanwhile, behind the scenes reaction was preparing a comeback.

Coalition Falls

The first of these coalition governments collapsed after just two months, with the resignation of the PM and four other minister-capitalists, in what Soares rightly described as an attempted counter-coup. The capitalists demanded the removal of the Socialists from the government. But the Bonapartist Spinola understood that his only hope of keeping the masses in check was the presence in the government of the leaders of the Socialist and Communist parties.

Spinola was performing a balancing act between the workers and bosses, promising liberty to the workers, at the same time, more honestly, promising the capitalists he would crush all "abuses of liberty."

These "abuses", the workers' strikes and occupations, were also denounced by the CP and SP leaders, as "ultra-left adventures" or even "imperialist plots." Only the manoeuvres of reaction and the response of the workers forced them to change their position. As Marx explained "the revolution sometimes needs the whip of counter-revolution." Each attempt of reaction was repulsed by the actions of the workers, which in turn pushed both the CP and SP further to the left.

The CP carried a heavy anchor in the shape of its heritage of struggle and its direct links with the Russian Revolution, but the SP was tossed around on the waves of revolution, forcing its leaders to swing left or be blown overboard.

Thus we saw the remarkable transformation of Soares declaring the SP to be a Marxist party, adopting a position far to the left of the CP.

December Congress

At the December Congress of the SP, delegate after delegate called for the nationalisation of industry and the banks, democratic workers control and a socialist plan of production. One delegate demanded an immediate end to capitalism like the Russian worker who demanded of his socialist leaders, "take the power when we give it to you."

However the Marxist words of Soares were just that, words, and the inaction of the workers' leaders again allowed reaction a breathing space to attempt to regroup.

In March 1975 it was Spinola himself who led a comic opera of a coup, with a few old Second World War planes and a handful of paratroopers, who were rapidly won over to the side of the workers.

The workers themselves responded to the coup attempt with massive demonstrations. Bankworkers occupied the banks, demanding their nationalisation. Previously the CP and SP leaders had opposed this, postponing the question to the indefinite future, but the bankworkers weren't to be bought with vague promises.

In the end the banks were nationalised, with no compensation for the big capitalists, in just one week. This was a major step forward. Because of their key position in the Portuguese economy this meant the AFM and the Provisional government, between whom a kind of dual power had developed, were forced to nationalise 50% of the economy. Eventually as a result of the actions of the workers, three-quarters of the Portuguese economy was nationalised. But nationalisation alone was not enough. What was needed was a programme of workers' democracy.

Revolução dos Cravos Image public domainThe presence of a Marxist tendency could have ensured that power remained in the hands of the working class / Image: public domain

A government based on workers' control and management, through workers' and farmers' councils would have been invincible. Measures such as the right of recall, no official to receive more than the wage of a skilled worker, the organisation of workers' militias, could have removed every point of support of reaction, and undermined the demagogic campaign for "democracy", which both the reactionaries and the SP leaders hid behind. But the CP leaders saw victory over the March coup as an opportunity to bureaucratically consolidate their positions in the local councils and trade unions.

The AFM too was pushed to the left by the movements of workers and rank and file soldiers. But instead of demanding the democratisation of the army, the election of officers and arming of the workers in defence of the revolution, the CP became an echo of the AFM itself. It looked not to the ordinary soldiers, but to the radicalised officers, and saw the opportunity to carve out in alliance with them a privileged position for themselves in a new bureaucratic regime.

After almost 50 years of fascism, however, the workers were rightly suspicious of any new totalitarianism. The SP leaders began to gain an echo for their abstract campaign for a "democracy." But democracy is a means to an end, if it does not lead to a solution of the fundamental problems of life, then it is worthless. Such a solution, socialism, is incompatible with the class interests of the bankers and industrialists, be they fascists or "democrats."

Workers' Democracy

Only a programme of workers' democracy, the organisation of revolutionary committees in the armed forces, the linking up of workers', soldiers' and farmers' councils at every level, the mobilisation of the working class in defence of the revolution could lead successfully to that solution.

Behind the skirts of this abstract "democracy" hid the forces of reaction.

While the AFM and CP leaders began carving up posts between them the SP walked out of the government. Again in November, the forces of reaction emerged from the cover given them by the SP leaders, and attempted to regain power, and once again they were beaten back by the workers. It had become a law of the Portuguese revolution that each attempt at open counter revolution provoked a massive counter attack by the working class. The ruling class came to realise this too, and turned away from such dangerous attempts, relying instead on the leaders of the workers' parties, to prevent workers going "too far." The counter revolution in Portugal took a democratic form, with the SP being placed in power by the working class, but once in office defending the interests of capitalism.

In 1974 "capitalism was dead" in Portugal, only the leaders of the workers' parties were able to revive it.

Not for the first or last time, the responsibility for the failure of the socialist revolution lay with the leaders of reformism and Stalinism.

With their assistance the capitalist class was able to gradually reconstruct its state machine, transfer ownership of the economy back into private hands, even organise a new political party and eventually win a national election again.

The presence of a Marxist tendency, rooted in the traditional mass organisations of the Portuguese working class, could have ensured that power remained in the hands of the working class, but time and again history teaches us that such a conscious Marxist leadership cannot just simply spring fully formed from thin air in the course of events, but must be consciously built up in advance

Phil Mitchinson

Socialist Appeal

May 1994

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