The Portuguese Revolution needs to be studied more thoroughly, and Varela’s book is good place to start, finds Orlando Hill

Raquel Varela, A People’s History of the Portuguese Revolution (Pluto Press), 334 pp.

Forty-five years ago, in 1974, Europe experienced its most profound revolution since the Second World War. It caught the US state department by surprise and had the European and American ruling class worried that the Mediterranean would turn Red. It was a revolution in Western Europe, ‘within the NATO sphere, which took 19 months to defeat.’ And it was not defeated by violence and restoring the dictatorship, but ‘instead by consensus and with very large social reforms won by the working class’ (p.266). Yet it is one of the least studied and most overlooked of revolutions. That is a shame for it has many lessons for revolutionaries in Europe and in the world. Raquel Varela’s book is an excellent start in filling this lacuna. 

As a young activist in Brazil, the Portuguese Revolution was an inspiration. Portuguese revolutionary songs such as Grandola Vila Morena (the song that was used as a signal for the beginning of the revolution) and Somos Livres were the sound track of the student movement. This was a revolution spoken in Portuguese. No subtitles were needed. If they could do it so could we. As Chico Buarque, one of Brazil’s most famous song writers, sang in Fado Tropical, we wanted to convert Brazil into an immense Portugal. We were still under the boots of a military dictatorship when Buarque wrote another song, Tanto Mar, lamenting how much sea there was between us and how much we still needed to navigate to be able to join the party. When the revolution changed course, he changed the lyrics to express his sadness that the party was over, but left hope for the future. The party might have wilted, but a seed was left forgotten in a corner of the garden.

The Portuguese Revolution did not only galvanise young Brazilian activists. It was a sign of hope that only seven months after the bloody defeat of Allende’s government in Chile, workers were once again winning. By the end of the revolutionary process over 10,000 foreign activists had visited Portugal. Among these revolutionary tourists was twenty-five-year-old Bob Light. He joined a demonstration by the striking postal workers. He was surprised to be among workers marching towards the army barracks, and then to see uniformed soldiers ‘giving the clenched fist salute and waving red carnations’ (p.48).

Revolution, Europe and empires

The Carnation Revolution was the latest of a line of workers’ movements starting in May 1968 in Paris, continuing into the 1969 ‘hot autumn’ in Italy, strike waves in Germany and Britain in the early 1970s and the struggle in Greece against military rule in 1973-4. Tony Cliff argued that ‘Portugal, the weakest link in the capitalist chain in Europe can become the launching pad for the socialist revolution in the whole of the continent’ (p.220).

So why didn’t it? Instead of becoming ‘the launching pad of the socialist revolution’, the Portuguese was to be the last revolution in Europe before the onslaught of neoliberalism. Varela tells the story of the revolution from the events that led to the coup of 25 April 1974 to its defeat in November 1975 while pointing out important lessons that we should all heed.  

Revolutions are about the state. They happen at a moment when the state can no longer govern as it used to, and those underneath are no longer willing to be governed. They erupt at the point where the tensions are concentrated. In the Portuguese case it was the colonial war in Africa. Portugal was the first and the last colonial power in Europe. It hung onto its colonies well after other European powers had relinquished theirs. If the revolution seemed like a big party in the metropole, a revolution without deaths, it was because of thirteen years of horror in the colonies. The revolution began in Africa. 

A revolution cannot be understood outside the context of global capitalism. In the late 1960s, Europe’s oldest dictatorship recognised the need to modernise and reorganise its economy. Multinationals attracted by cheap labour and a friendly regime were invited to set up plants mostly in the industrial belt of Lisbon. The offer of jobs attracted migrants from the impoverished countryside adding to the urban working class and the shanty towns. Portugal became a semi-colony of Western imperialism. By 1968, foreign direct investment accounted for 52.2% of Portugal’s total manufacturing investment. As the weakest capitalist economy in Europe, Portugal was the worst hit by the crisis of the 1970s. 

The Carnation Revolution

On 25th April, the Armed Forces Movement (MFA) opened the gates of the revolution. Initially the masses, described by Varela as ‘not organised groups with a political program, hence … a disoriented, disruptive mass’ (p.257), were not invited to participate in the party. The first MFA communiqué appealed ‘to the residents of the city of Lisbon to go to their homes and remain in the utmost calm’ (p.19). But the population didn’t listen, and gate crashed the party. Young people rode on the back of tanks. Carnations of all colours and other flowers, along with soup and ham were handed out to the soldiers. Since red is the colour of the left and more photogenic than other colours, the red carnation became the symbol of the revolution.  

Revolutions since the Paris Commune have been described as the festival of the oppressed; it was no different in Lisbon. It empowered people. Confidence grew daily. People who for decades were forced into silence started discussing the situation of workers in Europe and South America. ‘Even the prostitutes of Lisbon organised and campaigned to sack their pimps’ (p.26). What began as a democratic revolution evolved into a social revolution.

Over forty years of dictatorship had left a vacuum of organisations. Workers’ commissions (comissões de trabalhadores) and residents’ commissions (comissões de moradores) emerged to occupy the vacuum. Residents’ commissions represented the occupation movements which started in Porto and quickly spread to Lisbon and other cities. Workers occupied factories, farms and shipyards. Some of these could not really be considered occupations simply because the owners had abandoned their properties and fled to Brazil. However, Varela stresses that the occupations were about workers’ self-management and not workers’ control. She quotes a worker from Lisnave Margueira shipyard: ‘There will not be workers’ control if we merely intend to run the bosses’ businesses’ (p.144). The occupations and workers’ self-management rose awareness among workers of the importance of taking over political power. The Portuguese was the last revolution in Europe, and maybe in the world, to call into question the private ownership of the means of production.

Defeat of the revolution

So, what went wrong? Using the Russian Revolution as a metaphor, why didn’t February metamorphose into October? Why was the April 1974 revolution defeated in November 1975? Varela discusses some factors that contributed to the defeat and lays a large part of the responsibility on the broad shoulders of the Communist Party (PCP). In an attempt to contain the widespread political activity from below, the pro-Soviet Communist Party was invited to take part in the First Provisional Government in May 1974 and took part in all the six provisional governments thereafter.

The Communist Party was ‘the only force that effectively resisted fascism’ (p .45) and paid a heavy price with many members in prison. In April 1974, the party had no more than three thousand militants. A year later it had grown to 100,000. The Communist Party shared the Soviet cold-war view of the world as one of peaceful co-existence. Supporting this policy was the idea that the division of the world between the socialist and capitalist bloc should be respected. The strategy of the PCP was to win rights for the workers, not to seize political power.

Revolutions will always reach a point when the issue of power comes to the forefront. By the summer of ’75 the country had become increasingly divided. The Socialist Party knew that the favourable outcomes in the elections for the Constitutional Assembly and in the trade unions were not enough to defeat the workers’ control movement which had spread since February. A clear alliance was formed with the Church, the upper hierarchy of the armed forces and the moderates in the MFA, known as the Group of Nine.

On 25th November, the Group of Nine moved against a group of left-wing soldiers organised in the Soldados Unidos Vencerão (Soldiers United for Victory or SUV). The SUV was a rank and file organisation that aimed to prepare the ‘conditions that would permit the destruction of the bourgeois Army and the creation of the armed wing, the Power of Workers, a People’s Revolutionary Army’ (p.225).

Previously, the fear was of a Chileanization of the Portuguese Revolution. The fear was that the counter revolution would be inspired by fascism and would come from outside the MFA, and not from those who had supported the 25th April. The workers and soldiers were not prepared for a social-democratic counter revolution. Too much trust was put on the officers of the MFA and ‘no real structure of organisation of the rank and file existed able to lead at the testing time’ (p.245).

The need for revolutionary organisation

There was resistance against the coup and in support of the soldiers, mainly by groups of building workers who used walkie-talkies, and commandeered enormous earth-movers and concrete-mixers, in order to block the advance of commandos of the Group of Nine who were on the road to arrest members of the SUV. The problem of the 25th November was that there was not a centralised command that organised the resistance, and neither the unions nor the workers’ commissions, controlled by the PCP, were interested in resisting. 

The fact that the Communist Party agreed not to resist the move against the SUV weighs heavily on their shoulders. The Socialist Party and the Church initially did not want the Communists in the government, but sectors of the military knew of the strength and influence of the Party among the soldiers and demanded it:

‘The Portuguese Communist Party was prepared to abandon its radical army supporters (and a great many others) in exchange for a continued stake in government. The military left had become a burden on the Communist Party because its performance undermined the balance of power with the Nine and peaceful coexistence agreements between the USA, Western Europe and the USSR. Some 200 soldiers and officers, plus a handful of building workers, were arrested’ (p.246).

Forty-five years after the Revolution its memory is in dispute. The Socialist Party and the establishment will try to portray it ‘as a long process of extending democracy, of the accumulation of forces and rights and the convincing of or neutralisation of social enemies’ (p.254). Representative democracy is thus shown as the destination of the revolution. According to Varela, by contrast, representative democracy defeated direct democracy. In her book launch in the Marx Memorial Library in London, Varela described the Portuguese ruling class as being forced to give their rings so as not to lose their fingers. 

This 25th April should be celebrated and remembered as a moment when the working class attempted to seize power and show the world that an alternative is possible.

Orlando Hill

Orlando was born in Brazil and was involved in the successful struggle for democracy in the late 1970s and 80s in that country. He teaches A level Economics. He is a member of the NEU, Counterfire and Stop the War.