A review of Raquel Varela, A People’s History of the Portuguese Revolution (Pluto Press, 2019), £19.99
Portugal’s revolution of 1974 to 1975 was the most powerful and inspiring example of a revolutionary process to have taken place in Europe since the Second World War. It is part of our heritage and we must not allow it to fade away. That is why Raquel Varela’s book A People’s History of the Portuguese Revolution is so important.
When I visited Lisbon in 2014, hers was the only book on the shelves in the bookshops that took as its starting point the workers’ movement. Last year I managed to meet the author and we agreed that I would edit the English version. About 200 pages have been cut, more background information has been incorporated and we have added an index. I have also drawn upon some of my own experiences as an organiser for the International Socialists (IS) in Portugal and research I did subsequently.1 I have to declare the edit is by no means perfect.
This book sets out to tell the history of resistance, of the “voiceless”, those who have been habitually absent in history books. It is structured as a narrative history of the events, focusing inevitably upon the working class in the broadest sense. Varela skilfully intertwines this with more thematic chapters, including ones on the anti-colonial movements, women in the struggle, residents’ struggles, artists and the revolution, the birth of the welfare state, the agrarian reform, and Spain and other “Links in the Chain” (which includes a look at the part played by the IS). Others have written about some of these aspects already,2 but there is very little in English. Varela has done us an immense service by bringing all these themes together. The breadth is impressive and the detail often graphic. Many of the chapters deserve to be expanded into books of their own.
By the early 1970s, Portugal, with a population of 9 million, was the least developed country in Western Europe. It was Europe’s oldest dictatorship and still had extensive colonies such as Angola and Mozambique. Unlike those in Spain and Italy, the regime never considered itself to be fascist, indeed anyone caught calling it fascist could be arrested. The majority of the population did not have a refrigerator, telephone or bathtub. One needed a license to own a lighter or a transistor radio. Coca-Cola was prohibited. Portugal had a large peasantry in the north, landed estates in the south and relatively small, concentrated industrial centres around Lisbon, including Setúbal, and along the north coast in the Porto region. But, despite being on the edge of Europe geographically and politically, Portugal was very much part of 20th century capitalism. New developments, such as the gigantic shipyard complexes of Lisnave and Setenave, were financed with the help of foreign capital. In search of cheap labour and a friendly regime, multinationals such as Timex, Plessey, Ford, General Motors, ITT and Philips set up large modern plants, mostly in the Lisbon industrial belt. There was an exodus from the countryside; the urban working class grew along with the shanty towns.
The revolution started on 25 April 1974, when a group of junior army officers from the clandestine Armed Forces Movement (MFA), sick and tired of the failing wars against the anti-colonial movements in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau, organised a coup and overthrew the regime. From the outset the populace poured onto the streets, despite being ordered to “go to their homes and remain in the utmost calm”. They clambered onto tanks and inserted red carnations into rifle barrels. Hence the revolution is commonly referred to as the “Carnation Revolution”.
People met and talked where they lived, with the soldiers and in the workplaces. They talked about the issues of the day as if they had been professors of politics “all their lives”.3 Confidence grew daily. People organised everywhere in all sorts of ways.
Within a week of the coup, between 25 April and 1 May, there were
97 strikes—more than had occurred in any one-year period in the old regime. Occupations began, for example, at Timex and at the enormous Lisnave shipyards. On May Day itself maybe two million people took part in the celebrations. Many of the strikes revolved around wage increases, minimum wages, participation in company profits and the right to 13- and 14- month salaries. Moreover, workers hated working with those managers who had denounced them to the political police. Some 40 percent of strikes called for saneamento—the purging of those who had links to the former regime. In February 1975, official sources showed that 12,000 people had been removed or suspended, despite calls for moderation from both the Socialist Party and the Communist Party.
The first housing occupations took place on 28 April. Empty houses were occupied despite repeated requests to the municipalities, which until then had distributed housing based on loyalty to the regime and bribes. The newly created JSN (Junta de Salvação Nacional) reacted immediately and sent word that no more “abusive” occupations of houses would be allowed. The threats were ignored.
Democracy from below flourished. People learned how to govern themselves and spawned new organisations rooted where they lived and worked. Workers’ commissions (comissão de trabalhadores) and residents’ commissions (comissão de moradores) emerged simultaneously. Thousands of workers’ commissions (estimates range from 1,250 to 4,000) and hundreds of residents’ commissions were formed (there were 166 of these in Lisbon). The workers’ commissions may have lacked formal organisation—for example the commission at Plessey’s included 118 workers and, because it was unable to elect delegates, all 118 insisted on going to the first meeting with the management. But the high level of struggle forced workers to consult frequently and to develop accountable structures.
Workers’ commissions would feature as a “thorn in the side” of successive governments. This was the case whether they were involved in defending the country from right-wing coup attempts (as on 28 September 1974 and 11 March 1975) or fighting the government’s policy of “national production and sacrifice”. In general, the trade unions played no part in the early days; most had links with the fascist regime and their structures were far too unrepresentative. The Communist Party was focused on building a national confederation of unions, the Intersindical, and was bitterly criticised. To its cost it neglected the workers’ commissions for nearly a year, allowing the far-left to gain influence. The management of more than 1,000 workplaces was taken over by the workers. Many were self-managed (“autogestão”) and others went a stage further and assumed ownership, becoming classed as co-operatives.
As the weakest capitalist economy in Europe, Portugal was the worst hit by the crisis of the 1970s. Often workplaces were taken over by workers out of desperation; many managers had packed their bags and fled to Brazil. But at the time autogestão was much celebrated, for example the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre was inspired by the workers’ self-management at Sousa Abreu, a small textile firm. Many fell for the illusion that “they could exist as an island of socialism in a sea of capitalism”.4
Varela makes a point of telling us that often the most militant enterprises were those where the workers decided not to take over completely. When asked why, they replied: “It is better for us to see what bosses are doing” and: “There will not be workers’ control if we merely intend to run the bosses’ businesses”.
Her book shows how the action of workers frequently forced the nationalisation of the firm or the industry. This came to a head on 11 March 1975, the very day a right-wing coup attempt was rebuffed. On that day bank workers occupied some banks and demanded their nationalisation. The following day the MFA’s Revolutionary Council announced the nationalisation of the Portuguese banks. Then it was the turn of the insurance companies. A tsunami of nationalisations followed. On 15 April the Fourth Provisional Government (there were six such governments between 1974 and 1975) decided to nationalise dozens of companies belonging to the expropriated financial groups, including companies in sectors such as petroleum, electricity, gas, tobacco, breweries, steelworks, cement, marine transport, cellulose, shipbuilding and repair, trucking and urban and suburban collective transport. Varela adds a proviso: “Actually the nationalisations of some companies were carried out to avoid the exodus of capital and the bankruptcy of the country—a form of control over investments—as much as to avoid the flourishing of workers’ control”.5
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. This accelerated in the second half of 1975. Many of the residents’ commissions formed alliances with workers’ commissions. It may be that they inspired one another.6
At many moments the army sided with the working class and not with the major political parties. Tens of thousands of soldiers rebelled. Varela’s book is studded with insights into the radicalisation of the military. Here is but one example, from a demonstration on 12 September 1974 against the draconian strike laws, when more than 5,000 helmeted Lisnave workers marched in serried ranks to the Ministry of Labour in Lisbon. The demonstration was denounced by the Communist Party—and banned by the government, which made preparations to use troops to prevent the demonstration:
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 human 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… 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”.7
The interplay with the armed forces is a vital dimension for those who are trying to overthrow regimes. Ideally, I would have liked more analysis of this in the book because it is relevant to all revolutionary processes, for example, at the time of writing, to the events in Sudan.8 “Surely, the fact is evident”, wrote Friedrich Engels to Marx on 26 September 1851, “that a disorganised army and a complete breakdown of discipline has been the condition as well as the result of every victorious revolution”.9
In the summer and autumn of 1975 another group, the rural proletariat, joined the fray. The scale of the agrarian reform that took place in Portugal was unprecedented. There has been nothing on this scale in Europe for at least 40 years. Most of the large latifúndios (landed estates), predominantly in the Alentejo and the centre, were taken over by the workers on the land. Profits declined with the implementation of the agrarian reform, but not so the wealth produced by workers engaged in collective units of production. Tellingly, the number of tractors increased from 2,630 to 4,150 and that of harvesting machines from 960 to 1,720.10
Poder Popular (popular power), underpinned by the Aliança Povo-MFA (alliance of the people and the MFA), emerged as the ideology for the MFA. It set out to unite the military with workers, land workers, tenants and slum-dwellers. The military made use of their prestige acquired through carrying out the coup against the regime. Popular power was perceived as the living alternative to the bourgeois focus on parliamentary democracy. This is not to say that army and workers were always united, but the impact of the people’s movement on the armed forces, and vice versa, came to be an integral part of the Portuguese story. But the slogan “Unity of the people and the MFA” was double-edged: not only did the people influence the army, but also the revolutionary movement’s reliance upon the radicals in the army was to be part of its undoing. At the time Tony Cliff wrote extensively, and brilliantly, about the role of the MFA; he insisted that by “acting as a surrogate, as a substitute, the MFA prevented the workers (and soldiers)” from developing real workers’ councils.11
The struggle ratcheted up another notch in the autumn of 1975 when rank and file soldiers revolted against their officers. This was epitomised by the rise of SUV (Soldados Unidos Vencerão—Soldiers United Will Win) and this story still needs to be unpacked. Mutinies and rebellions by the armed forces—think of Russia 1917, Germany 1918, Vietnam 1970-3, Egypt 2011—cut into the very heart of the state, even more so than strikes and occupations.
There were many moments when the movement from below challenged the state. Perhaps the most powerful example came late in the process, from the middle of November 1975. The Portuguese Parliament was held hostage at São Bento in Lisbon surrounded by a mass of almost 100,000 people, the majority of whom were construction workers who were demanding a wage rise. The besieged prime minister, Admiral Pinheiro de Azevedo, asked the commandos to come and rescue him and his ministers. They refused. He then requested a helicopter to rescue just a few of them. The military police overheard the request, alerted the building workers and the helicopter was prevented from landing. After 36 hours, the prime minister conceded all the building workers’ demands, to take effect from 27 November. The paralysis of formal government was so total that, on 20 November, the government declared it was not going to do anything “political”, indeed “we are on strike, everybody is on strike, the government is also on strike”.12
The Sixth Provisional Government was threatened by an alternative type of power. Varela often uses the term “dual power”, a lot more so in the original Portuguese edition. These moments are inspiring and there were many instances where collectively the movement from below challenged the state, but in the end it was not enough. Cliff and some others talked about “dual powerlessness”.13
The revolution ended on 25 November 1975 when a group of reformist officers, by means of a new and small elite unit, quenched, with remarkably little bloodshed, a number of insubordinate barracks. Fundamentally, the revolution was not defeated by violence and by the imposition of a dictatorship, but ended “by consensus and with very large social reforms won by the working class”.14
On 25 November the workers’ movement collapsed like a house of cards. Ultimately it 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.
Varela’s penultimate chapter is called “Democracy and Revolution: The Meaning of the Carnation Revolution”. This chapter is rather important. It focuses on the attempts by theorists and academics to airbrush the revolution, to see it as part of modernisation. Representative democracy is thus shown as the destination of the revolution. Varela, by contrast, argues that representative democracy defeated direct democracy.
I would have liked more exploration of why the revolution collapsed so readily. Fascism was the enemy that united everyone and the threat of its return (perhaps through a coup like that in Chile in September 1973) galvanised many. One reason the outcome of Chile was rather different was due to the very strength of the popular movement in Portugal. This was something that Henry Kissinger and his allies were not prepared to take on. Nevertheless, the fear of “fascism” in Portugal skewed the movement and resulted in an underestimation of the capacity of capitalism to adapt and reform, using the tools of social democracy. The experience of reformists in power, commonplace elsewhere, was unknown in Portugal. Parliamentary democracy was (alongside direct democracy) very attractive to large numbers of people; 91.73 percent of the electorate voted in the elections for the Constituent Assembly on 25 April 1975. The victors, the Socialist Party, backed by the United States, the CIA and others, relentlessly pursued the interrelated themes of “power to those elected”, “democracy”, and “freedom of speech”. The election results were a humiliation for many among the MFA officers, who had naively called for a boycott, along with some of the far-left.
The ideology of “popular power”, as articulated through the pact known as the Aliança Povo-MFA, prioritised the movement and not siding with parties, which meant that it was difficult to comment on or even discern the variety of views and weaknesses that existed among the different political forces. For example, at the paper República, which was famously under worker-control, when there was a difference in the workers’ movement, the paper would refrain from issuing an editorial that took sides.
I was in Portugal for the last months of the revolution, working as a political organiser for the British IS. As an organisation we invested a great deal in Portugal. Hundreds of our comrades went over and those who went still have brilliant, but fading, memories. At the time in Portugal we (along with many others) argued that what was missing was “a workers’ revolutionary party”. There was a proliferation of small groups that aspired to become the party but they were young and unschooled. The IS supported one of them, the PRP/BR (Proletarian Revolutionary Party/Revolutionary Brigades). So, this was an issue that was central for us, and there is very little in Varela’s book about the role and potential of the far-left.
The PRB/BR was embroiled in the intrigues of the military and, especially, the need for an insurrection—their view was that there was a need to seize power in order to protect and consolidate the revolutionary process. These intrigues were seized upon and exaggerated by others, and elements of the MFA used this as their excuse to instigate the November clampdown.
In the publications at the time, such as Portugal at the Crossroads and The Lessons of the 25th of November, published in Portuguese as well as English, the IS argued the need to step out of the shadows of the left officers’ flirtation with popular power and insurrection, and to focus above all on the working class.15 The downside of the left’s interest in the military was that workers’ struggles were neglected. On 25 November 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.
We revolutionaries from the IS were also very focused on any equivalents of a network of soviets, which is something that the PRP/BR tried to foster, through the CRTSMs—Revolutionary Councils of Workers, Soldiers and Sailors. The CRTSMs were superficially very political, claiming to be “the first soviets of revolutionary Portugal”. But they were anti-party and called for “a revolutionary government without political parties”. This disdain for party politics fitted with the military tradition of the MFA and its role of mediating between the different classes.
In Portugal there were very many instances of workers’ committees coming together, not only with other workers’ committees, but with residents’ organisations, with workers on the land and, especially, with members of the armed forces. The revolutionary left did adapt and learn from its own mistakes and experiences. At times it had some considerable influence on the movement; although Varela touches on this, there is further work to be done.
A measure of the importance of the Portuguese Revolution was the response from the Western powers. At the time, Western capitalism was extremely worried by what was happening in Portugal. The revolution had the European and American ruling class worried that the Mediterranean would turn red. The Spanish regime was still fascist, it was bedevilled by strikes and looked as if it might collapse. Troops in other European countries were becoming restless. In Italy more than a thousand soldiers, wearing uniforms and handkerchief masks, took part in a demonstration in support of Portuguese workers and soldiers.
We have long needed a book on the Portuguese Revolution in English. There have been some, notably by John Hammond and Phil Mailer, but they have been long out of print.16 The breadth of research and its unambiguous radicalism fire the whole of Varela’s book. Those who want to help foster a revolution will have plenty to draw upon. This book shows how the revolution was an astonishing period in which ordinary people took control through direct democracy. Yet it has almost been forgotten, as if it had not happened, dismissed as a dream, despite the seemingly psychedelic brilliance. This book should remind us that the Portuguese Revolution ought still to be studied and celebrated.
Peter Robinson worked in Portugal in 1975-6 as an organiser for the British International Socialists and subsequently did a MPhil thesis on Workers’ Councils in Portugal: 1974-75 (Open University, 1989). He edited the English edition of Raquel Varela’s book A People’s History of the Portuguese Revolution. He is interested in capturing experiences of comrades who went over to Portugal at the time.
1 Robinson, 1989.
2 Notably, Bermeo, 1986; Downs, 1990; Hammond, 1988; Mailer, 1977.
3 Mailer, 1977.
4 Varela, 2019, p94, quoted from Cliff and Peterson, 1976.
5 Varela, 2019, p154.
6 The research by Downs, 1990, focused in the main on Setúbal, is important.
7 Varela, 2019, p76, originally published in the first issue of Causa Operário, a Marxist-Leninist paper.
8 See the chapters in Gonzalez and Barekat, 2013, which includes my chapter on Portugal “Soldiers on the Side of the People”.
9 Quoted in Cliff, 1975.
10 Refer also to Bermeo, 1986.
11 Cliff, 1975.
12 Varela, 2019, p23.
13 Cliff, 1975.
14 Varela, 2019, p266.
15 Cliff, 1975; Cliff and Harman, 1975.
16 Hammond, 1988; Mailer, 1977.