The hope of Portugal’s revolution

February 11, 2011

In 1974 and 1975, Portugal came closer to a successful socialist revolution than any other country in Western Europe for many years. Here, we reprint an article by British socialist Chris Harman from the December 1985 Socialist Worker that discusses what happened, and draws out the lessons that this amazing struggle holds for socialists.

PORTUGAL WAS ruled by a full-fledged fascist regime for half a century, longer than anywhere else in Europe.

Opposition parties were banned. The only unions permitted were small, state-run craft associations. Armed police were used to break any strike. Working-class leaders were consigned to the jails of the PIDE secret police for 10 or 20 years.

The fascist state ruled not only over Portugal, but also over an immense empire in Africa. The colonies of Angola, Guinea Bissau and Mozambique provided abundant profits for Portugal's giant monopolies and jobs for its middle class.

On the morning of April 25, 1974, the citizens of Lisbon arose from their beds to find tanks patrolling the streets and normal radio broadcasts replaced by military music. Was the coup from the left or the right? The answer came when the radio broadcast a popular anti-fascist song.

People rushed out into the streets to fraternize with the soldiers, handing them red carnations. Together, they tore down the emblems of the fascist regime, opened the prisons to free political prisoners and arrested known police informers.

A celebration rally in Portugal's capital of Lisbon during the revolution of 1974-75
A celebration rally in Portugal's capital of Lisbon during the revolution of 1974-75

The new government was headed by Gen. António de Spinola, an old reactionary who had fought as a volunteer in Hitler's armies during the Second World War. But his government members were made up from all the underground anti-fascist parties, including the Communists.

And it soon became clear that power in the armed forces lay not with him, but with 400 junior officers who had actually organized the coup--known as the Armed Forces Movement, or MFA. The army had turned against fascism for one simple reason--it was losing the colonial war in Africa. But there were big differences on how to react to this.

Spinola put forward the line of the big Portuguese monopolies. Their aim was to replace direct Portuguese rule by indirect rule based upon "moderate," CIA-financed movements in the colonies, even if this meant continuing the war for the time being.

The junior officers wanted to end the war at all costs, and knew only one way to do so--to hand over power to the real liberation movements, like the MPLA [People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola] in Angola and Frelimo in Mozambique.

The divisions were soon increased by something else. Portugal had undergone considerable industrialization in the last decade of fascism. It was because big business wanted to prevent action by workers that Spinola took the Communists, by far the largest underground party, into his government.

They told workers to trust Spinola, and the Communists minister of labor framed a new anti-strike law. But the workers were not to be held back in this way.

THE GIANT Lisnave shipyard began a wage of strikes that swept the country in the early summer of 1974. These workers faced opposition from all the government parties. Yet the workers succeeded in forcing massive improvements in pay and conditions and a general "cleaning out" of reactionary managers in industry and the media.

All this was too much for Spinola, big business and the Portuguese right. He tried to stop the revolution in its tracks in September with a fascist-style rally. But a mass mobilization of workers stopped it from taking place, and he was forced to resign.

In March 1975, he tried again, this time with a military coup. But workers argued with soldiers who had been sent to seize the approaches to Lisbon and persuaded them to turn against their reactionary officers.

Instead of stopping the revolution, the actions of the right spurred it forward. The banking unions closed down the banks until the government agreed to nationalize them--and with them some 60 percent of Portuguese industry. Workers occupied more than 300 factories.

The old generals lost their control over the armed forces to the junior officers of the MFA. And there was a growing tendency for rank-and-file soldiers to organize politically for themselves, joining left-wing demonstrations and siding with workers to industrial disputes.

Foreign socialists who visited Lisbon in the summer of 1975 underwent an experience that they would not forget. Here was a city where the majority of the working class wanted socialism and where the old obstacles, in terms of the police, the army and even a well-organized capitalist class, seemed in complete disarray.

Yet other obstacles, just as dangerous, continued to exist. Within the working-class movement, the two main parties were the recently reformed Socialist Party of Mário Soares and the Communist Party.

THE SOCIALIST Party had gone along with he first popular mobilizations against the right. But its leaders took fright at the further development of the revolution. They were soon trying to whip up a lynch-mob atmosphere against the left.

In northern Portugal, they encouraged right-wing rioters who burned down the offices of unions and left-wing parties. Within the armed forces, they began to plot with the old right-wing general to oust the junior officers who had overthrown fascism.

But the Socialist Party alone could not have saved Portuguese capitalism. It only had support from a minority of workers in the key Lisbon industrial belt, and in the unions. The majority party of the workers at the time of the overthrow of fascism was the Communist Party. If it had fought for socialist revolution by leading the wave of strikes and occupations that began in the early summer of 1974, it would have been unstoppable.

But it followed a different tack. It denounced the strike wave, while attempting to get control of the existing state by secret plots with opportunist politicians and army officers. Its leaders believed this would enable them to establish an Eastern European-type society.

The high point of their success was the summer of 1975, when an officer thought too sympathetic to the party, Vasco Goncalves, formed a government. But this soon proved incapable of effectively ruling the country. It refused to unleash the revolutionary energy of the workers and it could not deal with a wave of sabotage and unrest in the rural areas of the north. Goncalves soon quietly abandoned power to those to the right of him.

A quite considerable minority of workers turned to genuinely revolutionary ideas. The small revolutionary parties mushroomed in size until they exercised considerable influence.

YET THE far left had a major fault. Although they talked about the working class, they all acted as if some other social force could substitute itself for the class. They devoted as much attention to courting left-wing army officers as to trying to win factory workers away from the Communist Party.

Time was running out for the left-wing officers. They could dominate Portuguese politics while the old ruling class was demoralized and divided. But once it began to get its act together--with a lot of help from Western governments and from the Socialist Party--the army officers became more and more impotent.

By November 1975, there were only two choices: either the working class took things into its own hands, or the old ruling class would stage a comeback.

The right struck on November 25. The pretext was the occupation of TV stations by a group of left-wing soldiers. Right-wing officers moved their troops quickly to disarm all the left-wing soldiers in the Lisbon area and to restore the power of the old generals.

They met very little resistance. It required only a couple thousand troops to disarm the much larger left-influenced forces in Lisbon.

The reason lay in the way the left had put its faith in maneuvering by army officers, rather than in mass workers' action. The Communist Party, which only the day before had organized a successful two-hour general strike, refused to take action against the advance of the right. It seemed to think it would be able to plot its way to power regardless.

The left-wing officers were not ready to wage what might well be an armed confrontation against their fellow officers, and made no move. The revolutionary left had neither the will nor the influence to move rank-and-file workers in the face of the Communist Party's opposition, or rank-and-file soldiers in the face of opposition from the left-wing officers.

The right wing was careful not to use its newfound control of the army and police to attack workers' conditions immediately. It knew that to do so might rekindle the fire of the revolution.

But the more the revolutionary years of 1974 and 1975 receded into the past, the more such gains were taken back by the employing classes. The fact that most of the time the Socialist Party was in the government did not make any difference,

A decade later, average wages were 10 percent lower than they were in 1973, the last year of fascism. Hundreds of thousands of workers have to wait six months or more for wages owing to them. Lisbon is once again a city noted for the large number of people begging in the streets.

Portugal showed the promise of a very different sort of future in 1974 and 1975. That did not materialize because there was not a powerful revolutionary socialist party to challenge the hold of the Communist and Socialist Parties. This is a tragedy from which we must all learn.

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