Celebrating the Carnation Revolution, Lisbon, Portugal, 2019 Celebrating the Carnation Revolution, Lisbon, Portugal, 2019. Photo: Pedro Ribeiro Simões / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0 DEED

The 1974 revolution against Portugal’s fascist dictatorship opened up the possibility of a workers’ revolution, but the left’s failings meant the opportunity was squandered, argues Chris Bambery 

On the evening of the 24 April 1974, Portuguese radio played a mournful romantic ballad, E depois do adeus (And After the Farewell) by Paulo de Carvalho. It was the green signal to a grouping of young Portuguese army officers belonging to the Movement of the Armed Forces (MPA) that a military coup was about to be launched. 

The signal to take action was the broadcasting of another sad song – José Afonso’s Grândola, Vila Morena (Grândola, Swarthy Town), about a poor town in the Alentejo where ‘the people hold the greatest power’ – broadcast at twenty past midnight on a Catholic radio station. The armed forces swept into action. 

As the military occupied key buildings, forcing the dictator Marcelo Caetano to hide himself away in the secret-police headquarters, the people of Portugal came out onto the streets to celebrate, presenting red carnations to the troops and sailors. The action quickly turned into the people’s ‘Carnation Revolution’. There were only four deaths, at the hands of the hated secret police, the PIDE, as crowds gathered outside their HQ. The Estado Novo (dictator António de Oliveira Salazar’s self-styled ‘New State’) was finished, going down with barely a whimper. Caetano was arrested and sent to Brazil, itself a military dictatorship. 

The military coup opened the floodgates of revolution, creating the most serious revolutionary crisis in Western Europe since that of Catalonia in the summer of 1936. This was to be the high point of the great working-class insurgency which swept Western Europe and North America between 1968 and 1975. 

Portugal, with a population of nine million, was the least developed country in Western Europe. It had been a dictatorship, Europe’s oldest, since 1932, until 1968 under Salazar, and then when the latter fell into a coma, Marcelo Caetano.  

Because of its role in the opening up of European colonialism in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries it still had a large empire in Africa – Mozambique, Angola, Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde – but was bogged down in an expensive and costly war against left-wing liberation movements there. Many officers in the army did not just oppose these wars but sympathised with those movements. The revolutionary Pan-Africanist, Amílcar Cabral, the leader of Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde, PAIGC, (African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde) was a big influence. 

The revolution 

The majority of Portugal’s people could not afford a refrigerator, telephone or bathtub. The regime required you to obtain a licence in order to have a radio. The majority of the population were peasants, land owning ones in the north, landless labourers in the south. The working class was a minority but concentrated both in the area around the capital, Lisbon, and the northern city of Porto, and in big workplaces like the giant shipyards of Lisnave, near Lisbon, and Setnave in Setúbal, where Ford and British Leyland had major car plants. Foreign corporations, such as Timex, Plessey, General Motors, ITT and Philips all had plants, investing in Portugal to benefit from cheap labour and the ban on trade unions. 

With the fall of the dictatorship, strikes began almost immediately for higher wages, a minimum wage and union recognition. Forty percent of them were for saneamento: the purging of those linked to the former regime, especially the hated secret police of the PIDE. In February 1975, official figures showed that 12,000 people had been removed or suspended. 

People from the shanty towns took over empty houses and the properties of the rich who had fled.  As many as perhaps 4000 workers’ commissions (comissão de trabalhadores) sprung up, made up of directly elected delegates, together with hundreds of neighbourhood commissions (comissão de moradores). There were 166 neighbourhood commissions in Lisbon. On 1 May, two million workers and peasants marched in Lisbon, together with units of the military. By now, both the Portuguese Socialist Party (PS) and the Communist Party (PCP) were legalised. In less than a year after the April revolution, more than 23% of Portugal’s land had been taken over and transformed into 500 collective and co-operative farms. 

In the Alentejo region in the south, dominated by giant latifundios, poverty-stricken landless labourers had gathered not just to voice support for the revolução, and to denounce fascism, but to demand ‘land for those who work it’. The first land occupation came in response to a decree by the first provisional government denouncing economic sabotage by big business and big landowners. In November 1974, the first estates were occupied, the labourers pointing to the large scale under-use of the land. By the end of 1975, over a million hectares of land from the largest estates in the Alentejo (around a quarter of all Portugal’s agricultural land) had been occupied and handed over to 500 newly formed Collective Production Units (UCPs).i 

My friends and comrades, Bruno Ponte and Clara Queiroz, had been in exile in Edinburgh, and told Socialist Worker in June 2005:  ‘“It was like an orgy of freedom,” [said] Clara… “It is the vision of freedom that I keep. It was beautiful to see the workers from the Lisnave and Setnave shipyards march in Lisbon in their helmets and work clothes.” 

“There were demonstrations almost every day,” said Bruno. “People occupied the land and the factories. There were mass meetings in which everyone could participate.  

“People had been silent for 50 years, now everyone was speaking. People had power, up to a certain point, in the streets and in the factories.  

“There was lots of contact between the workers and the soldiers. After a mass rally in Lisbon somebody said in their speech that we should go and liberate the soldiers held in a military jail.  

“Thousands of people moved to the other side of the river. People hijacked buses to get there and we liberated the soldiers.  

“The police were almost non-existent at this time. But the town was incredibly secure.” 

“There was such a friendly atmosphere. I crossed Lisbon at 4am a number of times without fear,” said Clara.  

‘Bruno said, “At the multinational Plessey factory the workers’ committee was comprised mainly of women, who before had never had any possibility of doing anything.” 

‘Clara said: “Illiterate women made speeches. People could express what they were feeling. We started to trust in ourselves. Women sensed they had a special role. We had a slogan that we were the slaves of the slaves. Women understood the situation and spoke out”.’ 

Obstacles to revolution 

But there was also another side to all this. Caetano had insisted he hand over power to a right winger, General António de Spínola, who was not a member of the revolutionary Armed Forces Movement (MFA), but having played a leading role in the colonial wars, had publicly come out in opposition to the wars, just in time, at the start of 1974. He formed a National Salvation Junta, made up of senior officers, and took on the role of President of the Republic. There were thus the outlines of two sorts of power; grassroots workers’ democracy and the Junta which sought to reform not abolish the old order. 

Spínola tried to delay granting independence to the colonies, but the intransigence of the liberation movements and their support among radical officers forced his hand. His goal was to turn Portugal into a standard Western European democracy and to encourage economic growth. On 15 May, the First Provisional Government, a government of ‘national unity’, was formed. Spínola wanted to defuse the growing working-class militancy, but realised that was beyond him. Instead he looked to the Socialist Party and the Communist Party to do so. 

The PS had only 200 members in April 1975. On the emerging far left, it was dismissed because of that. The PCP, which had played a heroic role in the resistance to the dictatorship, had considerable prestige. Both would grow very fast. The Social Democrats in West Germany and Sweden and the British Labour government of Harold Wilson did everything they could to build up the PS, providing funds, training its members and much else. 

The PCP was a conventional Stalinist party, accepting the line of the Soviet Union. It stood by Russia’s agreement with the USA and Britain in 1945 that Western Europe lay in their sphere of influence, while Eastern Europe lay in the Soviet Union’s. Moscow made it clear to the PCP that revolution was off the agenda. Instead its role was to help create a parliamentary democracy. The PCP stressed the backwardness of Portugal and the need to help build up the national economy by boosting production. 

There was another factor. The bloody coup in Chile in September 1973 meant the PCP was scared that if the Portuguese elite and their international allies took fright at events in Portugal, there might be a repeat of Chile. It, therefore, advised caution. The PCP accordingly saw its goal as strengthening its own position. One way was to build close ties to the MFA. The other was to build up its own trade-union federation, Intersindical, and thus it was hostile to the workers’ commissions, giving the far left the chance to win influence there. 

Spínola gave the PS three government ministers while the PCP got two, one being the Ministry of Labour. Once in office, the PCP denounced wildcat strikes. On 19 June, the government gave the order to call in the army against 1000 striking postal workers. Faced with this threat, the strike committee called the strike off. 

Revolutionary crisis and the far left 

However, Spínola could not keep riding the tiger and was ousted as President, replaced by a more left-wing senior officer. He then tried to rally popular support in September 1974, but the left blockaded Lisbon, preventing his supporters entering the capital. Radical army units mobilised too. Spínola accepted his ousting. His departure could not bridge the contradiction between the attempts by the government to restore ‘normality’, and the rising tide of revolution. 

A small number of revolutionaries at the Lisnave shipyard called a one-day strike and demonstration for the purging of Salazar supporters from the management that September. The government declared it illegal under legislation drafted by the Communist Minister of Labour. The PCP denounced the strike. On 12 September, some 5000 helmeted Lisnave workers marched in disciplined ranks to the Ministry of Labour. The shipyard was at a standstill. 

The government attempted to use troops to stop them but as one soldier explained: ‘Before lunch the rumour circulated that we were going out and we soon guessed it was to Lisnave … We formed up at midday and the commander told us that he’d received a telephone call about a demonstration at Lisnave, led by a minority of leftist agitators and that our job was to prevent it from taking place. We were armed as we had never been before with G3s and 4 magazines … As you know, the demo began and a torrent advanced with shouts of “the soldiers are the sons of the workers”, “tomorrow the soldiers will be workers” and “the arms of soldiers must not be turned against the workers”. The commander soon saw that we weren’t going to follow his orders, so he shut up. Our arms hung down by our side and some comrades were crying. Back at the barracks, the commander wasn’t too annoyed but told us that in future we would have to obey orders. The following day in the barracks, things were more lively. Before morning assembly many comrades were up and shouting the slogans of the demo, “the soldiers are sons of the workers”, “down with capitalist exploitation”.’  

A leaflet of the Lisnave strikers stated: ‘We support the Armed Forces as long as they support the struggles of the oppressed and exploited classes against the exploiting and oppressing classes.’ii April 1975 saw the first elections since 1925. To the surprise of all, the PS topped the poll with almost 38% of the vote and 116 seats. The centre-right favourite, the Democratic People’s Party (PPD) came second with 26.4% and 81 seats. The PCP achieved a surprisingly low total, just 12%. 

The International Socialists in Britain tried to explain the PS’s success by pointing out that reformism fitted the contradictory consciousness of workers. They wanted change, yes, but also accepted the dominant ideas of the ruling class that change had to come through parliament. In Portugal, a minority of workers looked to revolution. A majority saw parliamentary democracy as a great achievement. 

The revolutionary left had to win the majority over by siding with them in battles against the right, over pay and much else. Yet the new revolutionary left looked to the tradition of Che Guevara and, far worse, Mao Zedong, and saw themselves as military units who could win, making the revolution themselves without the masses. 


By now, the Portuguese bosses were prepared to sabotage the economy to undermine working-class struggle. They were aided by foreign corporations who began to pull out. This together with a failed right-wing coup further radicalised the revolution. On 11 March 1975, the right wing, led by Spínola, attempt a coup by attacking left-wing soldiers in Lisbon. 

However, workers surrounded military units loyal to Spínola, arguing with them and winning them over. Barricades were set up along the main roads, and soldiers fraternised openly with the workers who were manning them, and giving them weapons. Armed workers searched cars, while strikers at Catholic Church’s Rádio Renascença went back to work and occupied it to ‘defend the revolution’. The coup petered out and Spínola fled to Brazil.  

On that day, some bank workers occupied banks and demanded their nationalisation. The following day the MFA’s Revolutionary Council announced the nationalisation of the Portuguese banks, then the insurance companies. This opened the floodgates. There was a wave of further nationalisations of oil and petrol, electricity, gas, tobacco, brewing, steel, cement, marine transport, cellulose, shipbuilding and repair industries as well as trucking and urban and suburban collective transport. 

The neighbourhood associations were demanding basics like clean water, electricity and a sewage system but also childcare, and increasingly worked together with the workers’ commissions. The residents’ struggles and housing occupations had stimulated demands linked to water, electricity, sewerage and childcare (nurseries, etc) which evolved into the political questioning of state housing options and property. The takeover of properties which were empty, or whose owners had fled accelerated too. 

In the first week of May 1975, 150,000 workers went on strike for better pay and conditions. They were mainly from the chemical industry or from the hotel and catering industry who, as in Britain, are amongst the lowest paid sections of the working class. On 25 June, over 3,000 workers of TAP, the Portuguese airline, surrounded the main administrative offices and trapped the company managers in their offices, demanding the settlement of their fifteen-month-old wage claim. 

In September 1975, Tony Cliff brilliantly warned in his pamphlet, ‘Portugal at the Crossroads’ against relying on the MFA; arguing that by ‘acting as a surrogate, as a substitute’, the MFA prevented the workers and soldiers from developing real workers’ councils. The international Socialists had this translated into Portuguese and members travelled to Portugal to ensure it was distributed widely.   

The struggle rose still further in the autumn of 1975 with the rebellion of rank-and-file soldiers against their officers. They formed Soldados Unidos Vencerão, SUV (Soldiers United Will Win). By now, there was a proliferation of revolutionary groups. All young and inexperienced. The IS was seeking to influence the Partido Revolucionário do Proletariado – Brigadas Revolucionárias, PRP/BR (Proletarian Revolutionary Party/Revolutionary Brigades), which seemed to be the most promising of these. Hundreds of IS members made their way to Portugal to help in this. 

Peter Robinson, who would work full time there for IS, recalled: ‘In August 1975 … the International Socialists (IS), organised a cheap two-week trip for 70 comrades on a commercial flight. On our first night we stayed at the comfortable Hotel Ambassador which had been taken over by the workers. Naturally they gave a large discount to foreign revolutionaries. A member of the workers’ commission, the telephone receptionist, told us the story of the occupation. Much of that trip was spent on demonstrations, visiting workers’ commissions and various centres (sedes) of the left.’iii 

Revolution defeated 

The PRP/BR, and its rivals, could not match the PCP’s support in the working class, but they had a real presence, especially in the workers’ commissions and neighbourhood associations. However, the PRP/BR looked to the ideas of Che Guevara, and believed the time was right for insurrection, which they saw as being organised by themselves. To achieve that, it concentrated on building support in the military, often getting involved with in-fighting between radical officers, rather than developing still further the new organisations of workers’ power. 

The strength of workers was there for all to see but the revolution reached an impasse – the ruling class could not defeat the workers but the workers did not push forward to build their own insitutions of power. Things came to a head on 25 November when the left wing paratroopers staged an attempt at a coup. But it did not gain the wider support needed from the factories and other workplaces.  

On 25 November, the workers’ movement collapsed like a house of cards, after left-wing paratroopers seized a number of airbases and the national radio and television station, and the right wing staged a countercoup. Ultimately, the workers’ movement was never strong enough or sufficiently coordinated at the national level. The leading workers’ organisations, such as the Communist Party and, critically, the organisation of the Lisbon workers’ commissions, were not prepared to take on the state. Neither the officers ‘on the side of the people’ nor the left groups called for strikes, occupations or barricades. A strike and occupation by a powerful group of workers such as those at Lisnave could have given a lead to waverers in the armed forces and to other sections of workers.  

The government and a group of officers opposed to revolution now moved for a showdown by ordering the removal of the most left-wing MFA figure, Otelo de Carvalho, as commander of the Lisbon military region, which included the paratroopers, the supposedly crack left-wing unit.  

Troops loyal to the government moved on their barracks. Left-wing officers supposedly loyal to the revolution failed to act. The Paras surrendered. The far left failed to call for strikes or occupations. The Communists, putting their governmental positions first, said nothing.  

It does not sound dramatic but it was the end of the revolution. The reformist left, the Socialists above all, had acted in order to restore the state and to enforce ‘order’. Organisations such as the workers’ councils, the neighbourhood associations and SUV were the embryos of working-class power. They had begun spontaneously, but to go further and to create nationwide co-ordination so as to challenge and potentially replace the existing state, they needed to develop much more serious levels of organisation. The working class had to be won to that project by the revolutionary minority, and that required them being organised to carry that message. But to repeat myself, the young revolutionary left looked to other forces to substitute for the working class; either themselves or military units. These were fatal flaws. 

Nevertheless, Portugal’s revolution of 1974 and 1975 must be remembered and brought to life because, firstly, it is rich in lessons for us today, and secondly, it showed that revolution could be a reality in Western Europe. 

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.