England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Reprint: The Portuguese Revolution 1974-75

On this day 50 years ago, a military coup in Portugal kickstarted the ‘Carnation Revolution’ of 1974-75. For over a year, capitalism in the country hung in the balance. We reprint below an article from 1994, outlining these revolutionary events and their lessons, from the Militant International Review – theoretical journal of Socialist Alternative’s predecessor organisation.



When Portugal went red 

Militant International Review, March-April 1994

On 25 April 1974, a revolt by junior officers overthrew the 48 year-old Portuguese dictatorship, ushering in a revolutionary period which was to last for over a year and a half. In that time, the working class had the opportunity to take power into their own hands and create a socialist Portugal. The international capitalist class more or less gave up hope of ever seeing capitalism there again. Yet after coming so close to carrying out a successful socialist revolution, the Portuguese workers ended up still so far away.

In 1974, Portugal was the poorest country in Western Europe. It was a society dominated by a handful of powerful monopolies, with trade unions outlawed and a vicious secret police force, the PIDE, to keep the workers in grinding poverty. Inflation was about 30% and accelerating. Unemployment was growing rapidly and industrial unrest was escalating.

Revolution starts at the top. The accumulation of opposition to the fascist Caetano regime permeated every layer of Portuguese society. It was the policy of trying to keep control of its African colonies in Guinea-Bissau, Angola and Mozambique that precipitated the downfall of the regime.

For thirteen years, the Portuguese army had been fighting the national independence movements, consuming almost 50% of government expenditure. The economic and social crisis provoked splits within the ruling class. The big monopoly capitalists objected to such an amount being spent on colonial wars which they, and sections of the armed forces, realised were unwinnable. Spínola, a senior army general, wrote a book, Portugal and the Future, advocating ‘federation’ with the colonies, but not independence, as a cheaper way to exploit their resources. 

Many young junior officers were also influenced by left-wing ideas picked up while students, reinforced by their experiences in the colonial wars and the situation back home. Disaffection spread through the armed forces and desertions increased. Junior officers set up a clandestine organisation, the Armed Forces Movement (MFA), and made preparations to overthrow the regime. On 25 April, the resistance song Grandola Vila Morena played over Rádio Remsença was the signal for their coup. Support for the regime evaporated and Caetano, left high and dry, was defeated.

With this act, the MFA had detonated a movement of the working class that was to push it further and further to the left in the months ahead. The working class took the dictator’s fall as the signal to wipe out all trace of the fascist era. Five thousand workers gathered outside the notorious Caxias prison and forced the release of all political prisoners. Their places were quickly taken by the PIDE agents and other fascist collaborators.

A process of ‘cleansing’ began, with former collaborators purged from the workplaces. In the schools and universities, students formed committees to support the revolution. Workers took over the press. Squatters from the shanty towns occupied empty living quarters in Lisbon. On May Day over half a million demonstrated in Lisbon. Sailors carried banners calling for socialism. Red carnations, the symbol of the revolution, sprouted from the barrels of the soldiers’ rifles.

A tidal wave of strikes and occupations swept the workers forward. Over 8,000 workers occupied the giant Lisnave shipyard. Hotel workers and miners, taxi drivers and university canteen staff stopped working. 1,800 workers occupied Timex. By the middle of May, over 200,000 workers were on strike in banking, textiles, chemicals, electronics and fishing. Train conductors let passengers travel for free.

20,000 metal workers marched through Lisbon demanding higher wages. 1,400 merchant seamen radio support from the ocean while 600 fellow on land occupied their offices. 

But all this was moving too quickly for the military junta set up on 25 April by the MFA, headed by General Spínola. Although Spínola had played no part in the coup, the junior officers, moulded by their military outlook, wanted the authority of the high command to sanction their actions. Spínola was a consummate representative of the old regime, a former director of the two biggest monopolies, a volunteer soldier for both Franco and Hitler, whose actions in Africa had earned him the title butcher of Angola’. Surrounded by rebel forces on 25 April, Caetano had begged Spínola to take over the country “as the only man who could save it”.

“A tidal wave of strikes and occupations swept the workers forward.”

But Spínola could do nothing faced with the eruption of workers’ militancy. To hold back the revolutionary flood he was forced to lean on the Socialist Party (SP) and Communist Party (CP) leaders.

Communist and socialist leaders betray

In the revolutionary atmosphere after 25 April, both the CP and the SP mushroomed. A host of other left organisations flourished. The CP had been the best organised left party under the dictatorship and was well placed in many workplaces. It controlled the newly emerged Intersindical trade union federation.

Had either the SP or the CP followed a Marxist approach to the revolutionary events unfolding, the Portuguese working class could have taken over society almost at will in the course of the following months. Instead, from the very beginning, both parties did everything possible to try to control any independent revolutionary initiative by the working class.

Socialist Party leader, Mário Soares.

Mario Soares, leader of the SP, and then Álvaro Cunhal, leader of the CP, returned from exile. What was needed was a call to step up the occupations, to build the workers’ committees springing up in the various workplaces, and to link these together through workers’ councils, or soviets, where the working class could weald the power it was beginning to realise, in order to bring the control of society as a whole within its grasp. Instead, both leaders slavishly presented themselves for duty in Spínola’s provisional government. The CP and SP leaders had learned nothing from history, especially the lessons of the defeat of the Chilean revolution at the hands of the military only seven months earlier.

The provisional government was a coalition of parties, including the newly-formed PPD set up by bourgeois politicians with ties to the old regime. This government, which attempted to unify parties representing irreconcilable class interests, was a new variant of the ‘Popular Front’. Spínola and the bourgeois needed the CP and the SP in the government to prove its commitment to ‘democracy’ and opposition to fascism. But by participating in this version of class collaboration, Soares and Cunhal, by giving the government their seal of approval, were providing a way back for reaction which had been thoroughly shattered by the events of 25 April. 

Communist Party leader, Álvaro Cunhal.

In the 1930s, Trotsky described the Popular Front as a ‘strike breaking conspiracy’, and now the CP leadership in particular played the role of strike breakers to perfection. CP member Avelino Gonçalves was made Minister of Labour. The CP proceded to attack strikers for adventurism, and on 19 June the government threatened to use troops against striking postal workers. The CP daily paper, Avante!, even criticised the bosses for conceding wage increases which were too high! A restrictive strike law was passed, curtailing the right to strike which workers had so recently assured for themselves in action.

The SP was pushed by events and the mood of the workers further to the left, and Soares declared that it stood on a Marxist programme. Party membership soared from 200 at the time of the coup to 20,000 by September. However, Soares always leant more to the leaders of international social democracy, like Willy Brandt, and to the wishes of imperialism than to the needs of the working class. But to satisfy his mentors in the Second International he had first to tame the revolutionary lion.

Spínola and the Junta were coming increasingly into conflict with the MFA. The Junta represented the remnants of the old regime while the MFA was feeling the pressure of the masses from below. When Spínola was denied greater powers by the MFA, the first provisional government fell. Spínola was forced to appoint a new premier, the pro-CP Vasco Gonçalves. There were to be six provisional governments in total, revealing the instability of the period. Spínola could no longer hold the line for the capitalists on the African colonies and on 27 July announced his “immediate recognition of their right to independence”.

A revolutionary guard, COPCON, was established under the direct control of the MFA and headed by Otelo de Carvalho, to counter the traditional line of command emanating from Spínola. The government was unable to implement its strike law effectively, as soldiers fraternised with workers when sent to deal with disputes. The workers’ confidence grew, but the participation of the CP and SP in the government, and the lack of a clear revolutionary programme around which the working class could organise, gave the right the illusion that the time was right to try their hand.

In any revolution, if the process is not carried through to a conclusion, with the working class organising itself as the new rulers of society, the old regime will attempt to make a comeback. Spínola decided on a show of strength to counter the swing of power towards the leftward-shifting MFA. He called a demonstration of the ‘silent majority for Lisbon on 28 September.

This was seen by the workers as a struggle over the direction of the revolution – forward to socialism or back to capitalist reaction. Workers, some armed, set up roadblocks to stop the demonstration from taking place. Spínola’s support inside the armed forces evaporated. The MFA and COPCON were in control, thanks to the workers’ actions. Spinola resigned. Widespread arrests of right-wing officers and civilians followed.

Opportunity to take power

From April to September, both Soares and Cunhal had backed Spínola as a defender of democracy. They now supported the MFA’s appointment of another General, Costa Gomes, as president. Yet a clear socialist call the armed forces’ rank and file and the radical officers could have won them over to the programme of workers’ democracy. The demand for the election of all officers, for a workers’ militia under democratic workers’ control, for councils linking the workers, poor peasants, soldiers and sailors, combined with a slogan of ‘take over the monopolies and the land’, could have forged a genuine, democratic revolutionary movement which would have been absolutely irresistible. A peaceful transformation of society could have been carried out given the strength of the working class and the weakness of reaction, revealed by their pathetic showing on September 28. Only the false policies of the workers’ parties leaders prevented the working class from power and constructing socialism.

In the absence of a determined move by the working class to consolidate the revolution, Spínola decided on a more decisive bid for power. On 11 March 1975 troops loyal to Spínola attempted a coup, but his forces crumbled in the face of opposition from the rest of the military and the working class. Spínola fled to Brazil to plan his return. In the face of the coup attempt, bank workers occupied the banks, refusing to leave until they had nationalised. The newly appointed Supreme Revolutionary Council had no option but to accede to their demands. In one fell swoop, the nationalisation of the banks brought up to 50% of the economy into state hands. This step enormously boosted the popularity of the MFA and strengthened its left-wing.

The MFA was playing a more central role in events than many of its members would have anticipated at the beginning, balancing between the revolutionary aspirations of the working class and the counter-revolutionary pressures of the weakened capitalist class. These forces inevitably manifested themselves within the MFA itself. A section was now undoubtedly leaning towards the idea of establishing a ‘workers’ state’ but ‘from above’, resting on the movement of the working class beneath it. Otelo de Carvalho, for example, was undoubtedly influenced by the example of Fidel Castro and the Cuban regime. The CP, trailing behind the radical wing in the MFA, also moved in this direction. For a period, it looked as though the MFA may well move to establish a regime like Cuba or the Soviet Union, where capitalism and private land ownership were eradicated but where the working class had no democratic control over production or society as a whole.

May Day, 1974, Lisbon.

As many workers worried at the prospect of a new dictatorship, this time of the Stalinist variety, support for the SP grew, reaching 60,000 in early 1975. However, not only was it winning support from within the working class but it was also utilised by the right, financed and advised by the CIA, who saw it as a weapon against both the CP and the revolution itself.

In elections held in April 1975, the SP emerged as the strongest party, winning almost 38% on a 92% turnout. The PPD won 26%, while further to the right the CDS received 7.6%. The CP won 12.5% and its ally, the MDP, won just over 4%. However, the MFA had made all these parties sign a pre-election ‘pact’, basically removing any power from the elected Constituent Assembly and accepting the leading role of the MFA.

A struggle began between the MFA radicals and the CP on the one side and the SP, which campaigned against the setting up of a ‘communist dictatorship’, on the other. But the SP failed to counterpose the programme of genuine workers’ democracy to the threat of Stalinist dictatorship. It backed a vague defence of ‘democracy’ which meant, in reality, a return to the dictatorship of capital which had been left suspended in mid-air by the revolutionary advances.

With the delay in completing the revolution and the worsening economic crisis, the right was gaining confidence. In the rural, Catholic North, there were violent attacks on CP offices. Support for such reaction could have been undermined with a socialist programme, cancelling the debts of the small farmers to the banks, guaranteeing them free credit and by explaining that the expropriations of the landed estates in the South did not threaten their small holdings or mean forced collectivisations. In the absence of this, opposition to the regime grew.

Fissures at the top 

Under the increasing class contradictions, the fisssures within the MFA intensified. Reflecting the differentiation taking place within the rank and file was the creation of the new radical ‘Soldiers United Will Win’ (SUV) and the more moderate United Military Front (FMU).

Still the forces of reaction were incapable of moving decisively, but the prevarication and lack of direction was playing into their hands. Against this background the ‘moderates’ within the MFA around Melo Antunes and others, were reasserting their position. Gonçalves was forced to resign as premier and the ‘Group of Nine’, supported by the SP and the PPD, emerged as leaders within the MFA, criticising the pace of nationalisations and opposed to any more taking place. However, their attempt to re-establish ‘orthodox military discipline’ was resisted by the ranks, now including conscripts who had experienced the revolutionary atmosphere in the streets and factories.

In the North, soldiers at a military driving school rebelled and occupied their barracks in defiance of their new ‘moderate’ regional command. On 27 September, COPCON refused to intervene when left-wing demonstrators set fire to the Spanish embassy in Lisbon. At the end of September, an open split developed between Otelo de Carvalho and the government.

Occupations of land and workplaces continued. In October and November 1975 the number of land occupations were twice that between April and September. The number of factories passing into self-management more than doubled. The struggle between the contending forces for control intensified. Throughout October and November, rumours circulated of coups being prepared by both the right and the radical units within COPCON. Demonstration and counter-demonstration were called by the CP and the SP. The government was purging the CP from the ministries. On 13 November 30,000 building workers surrounded the assembly trapping the ministers and delegates inside. COPCON troops, called by the government to disperse the workers, refused to intervene. After a day locked up the government capitulated and conceded all the workers’ demands, including the nationalisation of all building sites and higher wages.

Two companies of military police refused to embark for Angola, 1,000 rifles went missing from the stores and units were coming over to COPCON, swearing allegiance to the working class and to the armed defence of the revolution. On 21 November, the government signalled its own impotence by going ‘on strike’!

The right had to move now, or the momentum of events could soon deprive them of another opportunity. The Supreme Revolutionary Council dismissed Otelo de Carvalho and suspended COPCON. That in itself would have been meaningless if there had been a revolutionary understanding of the steps needed. But no call to arm the working class to defend the revolution was made. Instead everything was taking place above their heads.

Right-wing farmers set up barricades on 24 November in an attempt to isolate ‘Red Lisbon’ from the rest of the country. On 25 November, troops led by Lt. Col Eanes occupied the air bases, military police barracks and those of the radical army units. A state of emergency was declared and, offering little resistance, the radical forces were defeated. There was minimal response from the workers. They had been by-passed by the events. No serious attempt had been made by the CP or by the MFA radicals to involve them. They had been regarded as no more than an auxiliary in a struggle for power between factions at the top.

Had the working class been mobilised independently with strategy to carry the revolution to a conclusion, it could have won over the radical soldiers and squashed the right like a pea between a finger and thumb. The key element missing was a genuine revolutionary party capable of leading the working class to power. The CP was incapable of playing such a role because of its adherance to the ideas and methods of Stalinism, while the SP proved wedded to capitalism under the guise of ‘social democracy’. Despite the proliferation of left-wing organisations, including two which claimed to be Trotskyist, none proved capable of elaborating the necessary programme, strategy and tactics.

Pro-Communist Party Prime Minister, Vasco Gonçalves.

Counter-revolution gathers pace

After the November coup, the counter-revolution gathered pace. The coup confirmed the rule of the SP, but having dealt with the CP and the radicals its task was to gnaw away at the gains of the revolution to allow capitalism to operate freely once more. Such had been the inroads made since 25 April, however that this had to be done very carefully.

Purges began inside the armed forces and the collaborators of Caetano and Spínola were released from prison, including the former head of PIDE and many PIDE agents. But the weakness of reaction meant that the counter-revolution could not take the bloody form it had in Chile under Pinochet.

In the constitution approved on 2 April 1976, the nationalisations effected since April 1974, which had brought 75% of the economy into state hands, were deemed to be the inalienable conquest of the working class. But with the capitalists once more in the saddle this was nothing but a formal acknowledgement of how near they had come to losing everything. They were prepared to concede words what they would never willingly concede practice. In retaining power, the capitalist class, through the SP, laid the basis for the gradual handing back of companies to their former owners. Such an opportunity lost! 

At almost any time between, April 1974 and November 1975 the working class could have taken power peacefully, if only it had been conscious of the steps necessary. A socialist revolution would have had a dramatic impact on the working class in neighbouring Spain, then stirring against the rotting Franco regime, and much further afield. A small country with a working class numbering no more than three million shook the ruling class internationally as they saw their system teeter on the brink.

The betrayal of the Portuguese working class by the ‘Socialist’ and Communist’ party leaders saved Portugal for the bosses and consigned the workers and peasants to another two decades of struggle. In 1984 the SP-PSD (the renamed PPD) coalition invited Spínola to preside over the official 10th anniversary celebrations of 25 April!

Today, the Portuguese working class face rising unemployment, a pay freeze, and the continued privatisation of state assets, including the banks. Illiteracy is around 20%, reaching 40% in some rural areas. The tasks posed by the events of twenty years ago still confront the Portuguese working class. The one-day public sector strike in January this year indicates that Portugal is joining in the European-wide workers’ struggle. The lessons of the revolutionary events of twenty years ago will prove invaluable in the struggles ahead.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *