Portugal: 1974-5

Issue: 142

Bob Light

Just after midnight on 25 April 1974 a Lisbon radio station played a song called Grandola Villa Morena and Portugal was changed forever. The song was the agreed signal for a coup by junior officers to bring down the authoritarian and geriatric government of Marcello Caetano but it was also the start of an intoxicating period of 18 months when Portugal would sashay to the very brink of a working class revolution.

Last time I checked there were not any league tables for revolutionary near-misses, but if there were, what happened in Portugal from April 1974 to November 1975 would be right up there close to the top. It is arguably the closest we have come to real workers’ power since the Spanish Revolution in 1936.

Several things made what happened in Portugal 40 years ago so special and so politically exciting:

It was sustained. Unlike the French événements of May 1968 the Portuguese Revolution was not up like a rocket and down like a stick. It sustained for over 18 months. Moreover it faced down and defeated two serious attempts at right wing putsches before finally being outflanked by a third coup in November 1975. There were periods of calm, and periods of retreat but each time the pyroclastic flow would start again.

It was driven by the industrial working class. Unlike the Arab Spring the Portuguese revolution was driven by the urban working class. The initial move was made by a cabal of junior officers, but it was very soon that the workers in Lisbon, Setubal and Porto who drove the revolution forward. At first the demands were for higher wages and the purging (saneamento) of the agents of PIDE, the detested secret police. But these struggles soon went into bullet time to become a more visceral contest for economic power. There were uncountable workplaces that were taken over by their workers (and this included not just factories but offices, hotels, clinics, nurseries and even Lisbon airport). By October 1974 there were 4,000 workers’ commissions (Commissoes de Trabalhadores) and many of these fused together to form what in a few cases were outline soviets (Inter Empresas). From the very beginning there was a very high level of struggle. On my first trip four or five weeks into the revolution I went along to the giant Lisnave shipyard which I knew was under workers’ occupation. Immediately the guys on the picket line realised that I was English I was the object of much excitement and I was led further and further into the massive shipworks. There on a nearly completed bulk carrier a group of British contract spot welders had continued to work and the strike committee tasked me with trying to persuade them to join the occupation. I clambered down the ship’s ladder deep into the main hold and I did my best to reason with these Brit scabs. But they were on loadsamoney fixed contracts and didn’t give a fuck about the Portuguese or their occupation. So I climbed back up. The strike committee went into a huddle and then asked me to try again but this time they gave me a written message and a small parcel wrapped in an oilcloth. I climbed back down, to be met with derision—but this time I told the scabs that the workers’ committee wanted them to know that they had imprisoned their management in their offices. And just in case the seriousness of the strike committee’s determination was in any doubt, I unwrapped the oilcloth parcel to reveal a large pistol. I have never been sure whether the gun was loaded—but the bold scabs got the message and pissed off back home.

The ruling class lost control. In one of his many brilliant aperçus Tony Cliff characterised the situation in Portugal in 1975 as “dual powerlessness”. The crucial point was that the Portuguese ruling class lost control of the two essential levers of state power—its capacity to lie and its capacity to kill. Firstly, the working class movement neutralised the machinery for lies and ­misinformation (mockingly known as the “free press”) as newspapers like Republica and radio stations like Renascenza were placed under workers’ control and turned into voices of revolution. More seriously, the ruling class visibly lost control of its weapon of last resort—its bodies of armed men. This was obvious even in the first weeks of the revolution; in June 1974 I joined a demonstration by striking postal workers through Lisbon. The first surprise for me was that our seeming destination was an army barracks; my second surprise was that there were several tanks parked in the road—with their guns pointed inwards at the barracks; my final surprise was that, despite the tanks on the lawn, leaning out of every single window in the barrack block there were uniformed soldiers giving the clenched fist salute and waving red carnations. And when the army powers tried to correct this loss of power by establishing new, professional elite brigades under their control—frequently these regiments (most famously COPCON) declared for the revolution.

There was a process of profound political ferment. The playbook for recent revolutions involves the mass occupation of single public spaces (Tahrir Square, Maidan), yet the Portuguese Revolution ran so much deeper and so much further than that. When Lenin wrote about revolution as “the festival of the oppressed” he might have been writing about Portugal. As I write these words I can turn round to see a poster on my wall from the wonderful Movement of Portuguese Plastic Artists affirming: “Art for Revolution—All Power to the Imagination!” The sense of political exhilaration started even before you landed, as the standard message from TAP aircrew was “Welcome to revolutionary Portugal”. Get on a Lisbon bus and the tickets had revolutionary slogans; Lenin’s State and Revolution was on sale at every street newsvendor you passed in Lisbon; the walls of every building were covered by slogans and posters—some pasted so high it must have involved a hot air balloon. And the political demonstrations, rallies and meetings were frequent, massive and exuberant—and always, always late in starting. But for me the single irreducible image that summarises everything that happened, and everything that might have happened in Portugal is the sign that I saw (and photographed) outside an exclusive golf club: “This club is open to everyone—except members”.

And yet when 25 April 2014 comes around you can be more or less certain that the anniversary of these epic events will be met with a resounding “meh” by the left. There will be no special editions, no commemorative articles, none of the familiar “I was there when…” travelogues. The wonks from the “leftist” think-tanks will not be interrupting their burgeoning TV careers to write about Portugal, that’s for sure. Portugal 1974-5 is not so much the Forgotten Revolution as the Ignored Revolution.

Why? I would suggest that the answer to that question resonates in every sentence of Tony Cliff’s Portugal at the Crossroads. Portugal 1974-5 was a revolutionary situation—the Portuguese working class were serious contenders in a struggle for state power. And that—of course—is the Possibility that Dare Not Speak Its Name on the left today. There simply is no conceptual language with which reformism can make sense of Portugal 1974-5 except as an embarrassing political “moment” best ignored.

However, it is important to remember that Cliff didn’t write this to be read in 2014. He wrote it to be read when it could affect events—on the streets of Portugal in 1975. Cliff didn’t write for history; he wrote to shape history and his pamphlet was translated into Portuguese as it was being written. I know there is a danger of political elephantiasis in saying this, but I have always seen this article as Cliff’s State and Revolution. What I always find so inspiring is its sat-nav fusion of strategy (socialism as a living achievable possibility) with the more humdrum stuff of tactics (what simple steps needed to be done). Like all the great revolutionaries Cliff had his heart on fire, but his head on ice.

But there is at least one lacuna in Cliff’s analysis that we need to recognise. Writing in the autumn of 1975 Cliff poses the alternatives facing the Portuguese Revolution using the classic Rosa Luxemburg binary—socialism or barbarism. In the event the coup that derailed the Portuguese Revolution was not barbaric—it was ruthless, it was cynical but it was (relatively) bloodless. Western capitalism preferred not to let its butchers loose in the heart of Europe.

Yet Cliff’s fears were entirely understandable (and very widely shared in Portugal) given that barbarism is exactly what had been unleashed on the working class of Chile less than a year earlier in September 1974.

At that fateful Crossroad in 1975 the Portuguese working class were channelled into a dead end. Looking back we can surely see that the promises that justified the 1975 counter-revolution were not so much broken as vaporised. Today the Portuguese economy has once again tanked. Economic growth after 1975 was mainly generated by servicing the tourist industry, but to drive down the Algarve coast road today is to drive through ghost towns of half-finished buildings and boarded up shops. You fully expect tumbleweed to come blowing down the street at any moment. Unemployment among under-25s is edging towards 40 percent and once again young people have become Portugal’s biggest export. London is now the third biggest Portuguese city in the world (Paris is the second).

Yet, while Cliff might have misjudged the likelihood of barbarism, he understood in a way that so very few then and even fewer today understand that in Portugal in 1975 there was a very real chance of the working class taking power and creating real socialism.