Lessons from the Portuguese Revolution

Issue: 183

Héctor Sierra and Eva Sousa Colwell

On 25 April 1974, as the banned song Grandola, Vila Morena played on the radio, tanks rolled onto the streets of Lisbon.1 A revolt by around 400 army officers, organised in the Armed Forces Movement (Movimento das Forças Armadas; MFA), was about to overthrow the Estado Novo (“New State”) dictatorship that had ruled Portugal for almost half a century. Despite the army rebels’ appeals to the population to stay at home and let the MFA take control, workers began to pour onto the streets, celebrating the downfall of the dictator Marcelo Caetano and directly contributing to the removal of his hated regime. This is how the Carnation Revolution began.2 Over the following 19 months, Portuguese society was gripped by an ­explosive revolutionary fervour—six provisional governments rose and fell, the right wing attempted several coups, and mass struggles by workers, peasants and tenants paralysed the country and reshaped the world around it. The pent-up imagination, ambitions and passions of millions of ordinary people suddenly erupted in every part of society after decades of suppression by the repressive state machine.

As we mark the 50th anniversary of the MFA rebellion, Portugal is witnessing the advance of the far-right Chega (Enough) party, which made big gains in the March 2024 general election. Formed five years ago, Chega is now the third-­largest parliamentary force. Its growth is rooted in decades of political ­domination by neoliberal parties and in the failures of the reformist left. Chega attacks women’s and LGBT+ rights, but its main targets are migrants and Roma people. Its violent rhetoric is summed up by the slogan “Limpar Portugal!” (“Clean Portugal!”), a message now visible on billboards across the country. Chega makes no secret of its anti-left and anti-revolutionary ideology. The party programme even includes explicit rejection of the legacy of the Russian Revolution, and the memory of the Portuguese Revolution also comes under fire. This is a departure from the ­consensus among the liberal establishment, which has sought to turn the ­revolution into the foundational myth of the modern Portuguese state.

This worrying picture risks obscuring the fact that, half a century ago, Portugal was the centre of hope for the international left. The revolution did more than send shivers down the spines of Portugal’s rich and powerful—Marxist theorist Tony Cliff argued that the country was “the weakest link in the capitalist chain in Europe” and could have “become the launching pad for the socialist revolution in the whole of the continent”.3 The Portuguese Revolution represents the climax of the revolutionary period inaugurated by the May 1968 uprising in Paris. For those struggling against capitalism today, there is much to learn from this episode. Yet, the defeat of the revolution and the rise of the far right today also raise a vital question: why was the emancipatory potential of the revolution unfulfilled?

Colonial seeds of change

In the 1930s, dictator António de Oliveira Salazar came to power with the promise of bringing stability to the ruling class of Portugal’s nascent capitalism. The First Republic, inaugurated in 1910, had resulted in 16 years of political and economic instability, exemplified by the succession of 45 governments in this period. In 1932, Salazar established himself at the head of an authoritarian Catholic ­dictatorship. Life in the Estado Novo would be organised around a simple mantra: “God, Homeland, Family!”.4 After the Second World War, the dictatorship was propped up by its membership of the NATO military alliance, of which Portugal was a founding member, and growing foreign investment from leading Western powers.5

Yet, by the 1960s, the rigid structures of the dictatorship became a barrier to the economic development Salazar had claimed to offer. These problems were intensified by resistance to Portuguese rule in its colonies. In the face of national liberation uprisings, Britain, France and the other colonial powers had been forced to abandon direct rule in most of their colonies. Portugal stood alone in holding on to its “overseas domains”. To justify this, the dictatorship denied that the colonies suffered imperialist subjugation, claiming instead that they formed part of a single “pluri-continental” national entity. Supposedly, Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau and the other colonies were as much a province of “Greater Portugal” as Lisbon and Porto. This failed to impress those subjected to centuries of European plunder. In country after country anti-colonial resistance plunged Portugal into burdensome and unwinnable wars against guerrilla armies with popular support.

At this time, two-thirds of all new investment in Portugal came from foreign multinationals. Yet, half of the government’s budget was being consumed by ­military spending on waging war in the colonies, even though these colonies represented a declining market for Portuguese capitalism. The big capitalists that dominated the economy were too tightly fused with the regime to be able to ­provide a ­solution. Caetano, who replaced Salazar in 1968, was supposed to deliver reforms, but instead sought only continuity under the all-consuming pressure to fight the colonial wars. As revolutionary leader Amílcar Cabral, who fought Portuguese rule in Guinea-Bissau, wrote: “The objective situation of the large popular masses in Portugal, oppressed and exploited by the ruling classes of their country, should make them understand the great advantages for them that will flow from the victory of the African peoples over Portuguese colonialism”.6 The liberation movements drove the regime into a corner; now, it was up to the popular classes in Portugal to seize the time and join the fight against the dictatorship. It was in the structures of the army that this unrest first found expression.

1974: a festival of the oppressed

The MFA, whose 25 April coup ousted Caetano and ended five decades of dictatorship, was mostly comprised of young, middle-class army officers. Many had served in the wars in Africa, and they were united by a desire to end these wars by removing the ossified Portuguese regime. Their mood was captured by Captain Salgueiro Maia, a leader of the revolt, in an address to troops on the evening of the coup: “Gentlemen, as you all know, there are different kinds of states: the socialist states, the capitalist states—and the state that we are in. Now, in this solemn night, we are going to end this state.”

The MFA leaders lacked a shared and coherent political project. When the tanks rolled into the streets of Lisbon, they did not seek to seize power. Caetano agreed to leave the country on the condition that the junta replacing him would be headed by General António de Spínola, a right-wing figure who advocated a “political solution” to the colonial wars but was part and parcel of the old regime. The MFA leaders accepted this deal, despite having successfully overthrown a decades-long dictatorship in a matter of hours.

While the negotiations unfolded behind closed doors, the coup was having some unintended consequences on the streets. Cracks at the top of a state can suddenly open up the space for action from below, especially in cases where rival factions attempt to reform the rigid structures of a militarised dictatorship. Before the rebellion, political life was dominated by fear of the secret police. Sporadic strikes and protests faced severe repression. The coup was welcomed by people pouring onto the streets, cheering the soldiers and riding with them on the back of their tanks. Ordinary people took it upon themselves to accelerate the transformation of society without waiting for the army officers. In the first examples of mass action, hundreds of people made their way to the headquarters of the secret police, the International and State Defence Police (PIDE; Polícia Internacional e de Defesa do Estado). Fighting followed, with police agents barricaded inside the building. Soldiers under MFA command intervened in favour of the protestors and dispersed the hated police force, which had arrested and tortured hundreds of activists. Later that day, similar scenes took place at the Fort of Caxias prison where, again, the army followed ordinary people’s lead and liberated political prisoners.7

Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci, writing from the prisons of another repressive regime, Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, argued that capitalist ruling classes maintain their hegemony through a combination of consent and force. The balance between the two varies in different societies. By the 1970s, the Estado Novo relied primarily on force in order to maintain order. It lacked the more flexible structures characteristic of a bourgeois parliamentary democracy, which might have absorbed the growing anger generated by the colonial wars and the deteriorating economic situation. So, when the regime’s repressive forces were struck a blow by the MFA coup, the whole state began to crumble. In the days that followed Caetano’s downfall, the poor left their shanty towns and occupied empty flats. Unrest in the workplaces, until then kept in check by sheer force, exploded when workers realised that they could take action without fear of the secret police. More than that, they realised they held the power to accelerate the changes taking place in society. Embryonic networks, such as the Bank Workers’ Union, urged workers to picket outside their workplaces, refusing to allow foreign companies to remove assets and stopping those tied to the regime from escaping the country. In line with Rosa Luxemburg’s 1906 pamphlet The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions, economic and political demands merged in the workers’ movement. The call for ­“saneamento” ­(sanitation)—the purging of those ­connected to the old regime from ­workplaces, unions and other positions of power—was taken up across society. This was a key demand of the enormous May Day demonstration that took place days after the MFA takeover, and it was echoed again in June by a strike of 35,000 postal workers. Demands for higher wages and better working conditions spread to every corner of industry, with almost half the strikes also demanding ­workers’ control over their companies.8

The nuclear family and prejudices about the place of women in society also cracked. Women’s life in the Estado Novo was dominated by the morals of the Catholic Church, with women being legally subordinate to their husbands or fathers. They had no right to vote or to divorce, and they were barred from leaving the country without written authorisation from their “male custodians”.9 Of course, many women participated in the underground resistance to the dictatorship. In the mass demonstrations following the military takeover, women demanded the right to divorce and the abolition of repressive sexist laws, shouting the slogan “Democracy Without Divorce Is a Sham!”.10 In mass meetings, they argued for childcare centres, communal canteens and laundrettes to lighten household labour and free them up for participation in struggle. The repression and sexualisation of the female body were also questioned. Political prisoners spoke openly about the brutal sexual violence they faced at the hands of the PIDE, which was one of the first instances of public discussion about the female body in Portuguese society. This triggered an immense social dialogue without censorship by the state and church. Women were free to question the sexual limitations that had defined them and the impositions on their social and sexual life.11

Another key demand that the mass demonstrations continued to raise was the end of the colonial wars. Spínola, tasked with a calm transition in the ­interests of Portuguese capital, faced mounting difficulties in establishing ­control at home and abroad. His real ambition was to ensure an ordered retreat from the colonies that preserved Portuguese interests in Africa. In open ­defiance of the MFA’s programme, he had insisted on guaranteeing “the survival of the sovereign nation in its pluricontinental totality” in his first address as head of the junta.12 Yet, by late July, the combination of resistance in the colonies and the ­radicalising ­movement at home forced him to grant ­independence to the “Portuguese overseas territories”, which was a fatal blow for Portuguese imperialism. The colonial debacle, coupled with the growing strike wave, meant that the economic situation rapidly deteriorated—to the detriment of the rich. Employers’ attempts at mass sackings and business closures triggered more strikes and occupations. Legislation by the new government to restrict industrial action, legalise lockouts and ban solidarity strikes was systematically defied and thus never implemented.

Alarmed by the government’s inability to impose order, Spínola decided to put an end to the democratic experiment. He blamed the left wing for the chaos in society and called on the “silent majority”, those opposing the unrest, to mobilise in Lisbon—a move orchestrated to rile up supporters of the old regime and provoke a coup. Fascists were armed and encouraged to cause altercations designed to force the government to send in the army. However, the ­demonstration never happened. In a confirmation of the dictum, often ascribed to Marx, that “revolution sometimes needs the whip of ­counter-revolution to push it forward”, Spínola’s plans were thwarted by members of the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP; Partido Comunista Português) and the ­revolutionary left. They established barricades all around Lisbon, which were joined and strengthened by soldiers, blocking the right wing from ever reaching Lisbon.13 Instead, the streets were filled with the tens of thousands who joined the ­counter-protest called by the left, while the “silent majority” remained silent. Spínola, the safe pair of hands in which Caetano had rested the future of Portuguese ­capitalism, was now forced to resign.

The workers’ parties: the Communist Party, the Socialist Party and the revolutionary left

At this point, it becomes necessary to look in some detail at the main political actors in the Portuguese revolution. All the key forces identified with the revolution and a “transition to democracy”. The more reactionary forces that were hostile to these ideas and remained loyal to Caetano’s regime had largely fled abroad, been purged from positions of power and scattered into disarray after Spínola’s departure. However, the notions of ­“revolution” and ­“democracy” had a range of different meanings for the parties and ­organisations involved in the revolutionary process.

The parties that became the biggest pole of attraction were those that articulated forms of reformist consciousness, albeit using a revolutionary rhetoric. This reflected the weakness of the genuine revolutionary left, but also the fact that, paradoxically, revolutions invariably start by boosting reformist ideas as millions of people previously outside of political life are drawn into it. Only with time do experiences of struggle and the conscious intervention of organised revolutionaries—what Leon Trosky called “the active orientation of the masses by a method of successive approximations”—clarify working-class people’s understanding of how best to fight for change.14

The Communists

The PCP was the most important workers’ party and the largest of all Portuguese political parties. It had led the underground resistance to the ­dictatorship and developed serious roots in workplaces through systematic work in the sham, regime-controlled trade unions. Starting as an illegal organisation with a few thousand members, it grew to 100,000 people in the opening months of the revolution. Moreover, its influence in the working class extended far beyond that, since it also led the General Confederation of the Portuguese Workers (CGTP; Confederação Geral dos Trabalhadores Portugueses), a trade union ­federation representing two million workers. Many of the best working-class militants were drawn to the party’s ranks.

However, this was only one side of the picture. The PCP had also long been dominated by a rotten politics that was disconnected from revolutionary Marxism. The worldwide subordination of Communist Parties to the state capitalist regime presided over by Stalin and his successors in the Soviet Union had caused their degeneration from genuine revolutionary socialist organisations into reformist parties. They were incorporated into their domestic political set-ups, and their political strategies were largely shaped by the needs of Russian foreign policy. In the 1970s, some of the largest Communist Parties, in countries such as Italy and Spain, made a “Eurocommunist” turn, seeking to distance themselves from the Soviet Union while formally abandoning the aim of the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. Instead, they committed themselves to achieving change within the framework of their existing national political systems. The Portuguese Communists were not part of this turn, but it did remain a thoroughly Stalinist organisation, closely aligned with the Soviet bureaucracy and invested in a theory of stages. Portugal, according to this view, was insufficiently prepared for a socialist revolution without first completing “bourgeois-democratic tasks”, which would necessitate the Communists ­collaborating with “progressive” elements of the Portuguese capitalist class.

The contradictory character of the PCP was embodied in the party leader, Álvaro Cunhal. Cunhal had paid for his underground activism with 11 years in the PIDE’s prisons and, prior to the revolution, he spent much of his time in exile in Moscow under the protection of the Soviet Union. The actions of Cunhal and the other Communist leaders were shaped by two main considerations: avoiding upsetting the capitalist status quo in the West, which was in line with the needs of Soviet Union foreign policy during this period of the Cold War, and gaining positions in the new government.

The PCP’s leverage in its attempts to enter the government was its influence over the workers’ movement. Spínola was vitriolically anti-Communist, yet even he became persuaded of the benefits of including the PCP in the first provisional government. Indeed, the PCP participated in every single one of the six provisional governments that rose and fell during the revolution, all of which came into conflict with the workers’ movement. Far from using its influence in union bodies such as the CGTP to encourage the blossoming of forms of workers’ power from below, the PCP advocated what it called “the battle of productivity”, that is, the efforts to increase the ­productivity of Portuguese capitalism by intensifying the exploitation of workers. The PCP’s project was not socialism, but rather a variant of capitalism with more regulation and public ownership of the means of production. It opposed strikes for most of the revolution and was hostile to any action taken from below and independently of it.

The party played a vacillating role because of the contradictory pressures on it from, on the one hand, a left-wing membership and, on the other, its observance of the needs of Portuguese capitalism. Sometimes it defended the revolution as a result of coming under attack from right-wing forces; at other times, fearing its influence was diminishing, it consciously undermined the ­revolution. Its overall role is well summarised by Portuguese Marxist Raquel Varela’s claim that the revolution “happened despite the party, not because of it”.15

The Socialists

Today, the Socialist Party—a Labour-style, social-democratic organisation—is one of the two major Portuguese parties. It emerged as a central pillar of Portuguese liberal democracy after the revolution, and most recently governed the country from 2015 until this year’s election. However, at the start of the revolution, it was a tiny organisation with negligible roots in the working class, instead mostly being comprised of sections of the professional middle classes, such as lawyers and doctors. Nonetheless, it benefitted from a convergence of the ­interests of Western imperialism and European social democracy, which promoted the Socialist Party and its leader, Mário Soares, as an alternative to Soviet influence and the PCP’s politics. Western imperial powers feared that destabilisation might follow radicalisation in Southern Europe, where growing unrest was also gripping the dictatorships in Spain and Greece.16

The Portuguese ruling class was less suspicious of the Socialists than the Communists, and thus the Socialist Party felt less need to present itself as a “respectable” coalition partner, allowing it to indulge in more radical rhetoric than the PCP. It identified openly with the emancipatory character of the revolution and backed strikes in the early months of the revolutionary process. This allowed it to gain ground at the expense of the PCP, with some workers, angered by the betrayal of the Communist leaders, turning towards the Socialists. In April 1975, when the first free elections took place, these gains were crowned with electoral success. The Socialist Party received the largest share of votes amid an extraordinarily high voter turnout of 93 percent.17

Underneath the rhetoric, however, the Socialist Party was a much more right-wing organisation than the PCP. This became evident once the Socialists achieved a foothold as a major political player. The coalition government that ensued from the election was paralysed by strikes and the growing ­combativity of workers, and it collapsed by the summer. The Socialist Party responded by mounting vicious attacks on the PCP and the MFA, presenting itself as a ­“champion of democracy”, and thus helping to stabilise the bourgeois ­parliamentary system and end the revolutionary process. It became the party counted upon by the forces of reaction, including big capital, the Catholic Church and right-wing sections of the army.

The revolutionary left

Varela distinguishes three political projects emerging in the course of the ­revolution. The first comprised those who wanted to rebuild Portuguese ­capitalism in line with the emerging neoliberal paradigm, and the Socialist Party was the ­leading force in this camp. The second included those who wanted to preserve the capitalist status quo via heavy state intervention and regulation. This was the project of the PCP. The third advocated the development of dual power, overthrowing the capitalist state and transitioning to workers’ control.18 Millions of people were actively involved in grassroots organisations, symbolising the potential of this third trend. However, the political forces behind this project, the revolutionary left, were small and split into half a dozen groups.

As opposed to the PCP, which entered the revolution with a few thousand solid members, the revolutionary left lacked roots in the working class and was dominated by ideas that originated in a period of global defeats. Maoism became the dominant strand after an independent revolutionary left split from the PCP. The international left was only beginning to recover from decades of setbacks resulting from the Stalinised bastardisation of Marxism. However, the foundations of Maoism, which did not see the working class as the revolutionary agent for the overthrow of capitalism, provided little basis for challenging the Stalinist politics of the PCP. After all, the Maoist groups accepted many of the most problematic aspects of Stalinist politics, such as the PCP’s stages-based approach to change. Instead of trying to engage with the mass membership of the PCP to win them over to breaking with their ­leadership, some of the Maoists denounced the Communists as “social fascists” and ­portrayed them as the ­greatest threat to the revolution. This ultra-left position led some Maoists to ally with the extreme right against the PCP.

Another important strand was represented by the Proletarian Revolutionary Party. Its origins lay in the Revolutionary Brigades, another split from the PCP. Founded as a clandestine organisation, it had carried out acts of ­individual terrorism against the dictatorship. At the same time, the Proletarian Revolutionary Party stressed the self-activity of the masses and advocated the conquest of power by the working class. Its background as a terrorist organisation meant an obsession with technical preparation for an insurrection came at the expense of work to politically convince the working class of the need to take power. As a consequence, it insisted on the pure “autonomy” and ­“spontaneity” of the class struggle and lacked any clear understanding of the role it should play in directing the masses.

The MFA and the army

Originally, the MFA officers saw their role as ensuring a transition to liberal democracy. After Spínola’s attempted coup and the defeat of the right, this approach became untenable. The MFA, enjoying mass popular support, began to play an active political role and participate in governments. The officers and the PCP converged around the objectives of “saneamento” and ending the colonial wars, which drew elements of the MFA leadership to the left. The increasing fragmentation of the army was reflected by internal demands within the MFA for the leadership to dissolve the group. However, the leaders managed to maintain it as a parallel organisation within the army, with its own hierarchy and structures. This fragmentation was a major source of trouble for the ruling class while Spínola was proving unable to rebuild the state’s ability to repress dissent and impose order on society. The desire for order was shared by the leaders of the MFA, who created their own police forces, the so-called Operational Command of the Continent (COPCON; Comando Operacional do Continente), which replaced the ­dismantled PIDE. COPCON became a focal point for some of the most radical sections of the MFA, which included the leader of the new force, Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho. COPCON was repeatedly mobilised by governments in the hope of breaking strikes, ending occupations and implementing bans on ­demonstrations; instead, the soldiers joined the picket lines and protests, refusing to carry out their orders.

These events increased the popularity of the army among the population and undoubtedly became a major obstacle to the ruling class reasserting ­control of society. Yet, this sort of dynamic can create the dangerous illusion that the army as a whole favours revolution. During the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, mass ­protests and strikes forced the army to take the initiative of overthrowing ­dictator Hosni Mubarak, leading to the popularisation of a deceptive slogan: “The Army and the People Are One Hand!”. In Portugal a similar popular slogan was chanted by workers and soldiers alike: “Soldados sempre, sempre ao lado do povo!” (“Soldiers, Always on the Side of the People!”). This ignored the fact that the army leadership remained part of the state, controlled by the capitalist class, and that the army itself was a battleground of class struggle—something even the middle-class officers in the MFA were reluctant to recognise. Organisations of rank and file soldiers only began to develop in the final months of the revolution and, as we shall see, this process was stifled before it could have split the army along class lines, as happened during the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the German Revolution in 1919. Illusions in the army proved fatal for the revolution in Egypt, and the same applied to Portugal four decades earlier.19

Ahead of the Russian Revolution, Lenin’s 1917 book The State and Revolution put the important arguments that the army is an integral part of the state and that the roots of the state lie in the underlying tensions of class society. Armies are one of the instruments available to ruling classes seeking to resolve class conflicts in its own favour. An army allows this class to accomplish its ­imperialist ­ambitions as well as to maintain order and the conditions for the accumulation of capital. Although the lower ranks of the army are mostly drawn from the popular classes (particularly where conscription exists, as was the case in Portugal), the army’s structures are strictly hierarchical, with those who rise through the ranks having to prove their loyalty to ruling-class circles, while also benefiting from a ­comfortable lifestyle removed from the realities of the lower ranks. Although these lower ranks radicalised leftwards during the Portuguese Revolution, the left never controlled the army. The armed forces were paralysed by struggles, but they remained in the hands of the ruling class. The middling section of the armed forces, which was the base of the MFA, was far from immune to the radical mood gripping the lower ranks. However, it remained under pressure from its superiors, particularly because some of the more moderate officers were alarmed by the anti-capitalist course of the revolution.

Crucially, the level of radicalisation within the army was connected to the degree of radicalisation within the working class. The revolutionary left ignored this, which was a fatal mistake. Overestimating the revolutionary capacity of the army, the left neglected grassroots workers’ mobilisation. Peter Robinson, a member of Britain’s International Socialists grouping who worked in Portugal during the revolutionary period, observes, “However great the radicalisation of individual soldiers or units, the armed forces remained an instrument of bourgeois state power… Ultimately, the development of the class struggle in the army depended on whether the workers’ movement could offer an alternative authority…a potential workers’ state”.20 Instead, the Proletarian Revolutionary Party and others emphasised “the independent role of the struggle in the army”, decoupling it from the wider battles in society. The soldiers in COPCON and within the more radical barracks, who were mostly from poorer backgrounds, had moved to the left in response to the mass strikes, occupations and ­demonstrations by workers in a way that the ­middle-class officers in the MFA, with their different material conditions and aspirations, were unlikely to do. The Proletarian Revolutionary Party and other groups focused on trying to influence the left wing within the army, which was done at the expense of building a base among workers and breaking the reformist influence of the Socialist Party and the Communists. A month before the coup in November 1975, Socialist Worker warned against the dangers involved:

The greatest weakness of the revolutionary movement is the unevenness between the soldiers and the workers. The workers’ movement lags behind the soldiers’ movement… This unevenness cannot go on forever. If the workers do not rise to the level of the revolutionary soldiers, there is great danger that the soldiers’ level of consciousness and action will go down to the level of the workers… If the workers do not catch up with the soldiers, the danger is that the soldiers’ spirit will be dampened… The soldiers will be wary of marching forward on their own to seize state power.21

1975: the revolutionary crisis intensifies

By early 1975, the economic situation had worsened, and workers occupied ­factories to stop bosses from closing down businesses. The struggles of workers and tenants in the city also found an echo in the countryside. In southern Portugal, rural workers took over estates and expelled landlords. A myriad of grassroots organisations of workers, tenants and agricultural labourers sprang up. Newspapers and radio stations were under the control of workers, who decided on the content of the programmes they aired and the newspapers they printed. In this context, the influence of the revolutionary left also grew. In February 1975, inter-factory committees organised a mass demonstration against unemployment and an official NATO visit, proving the strength of the grassroots movement. The PCP sought to ban the demonstration. Nonetheless, it attracted 40,000 people, and the MFA failed to oppose it, with many rank and file soldiers participating. In the run-up to the April elections, army officers sympathetic to Spínola attempted a second coup, sending loyal paratroopers to attack left-wing army barracks. This resulted in failure when the paratroopers fraternised with their targets and mass mobilisations forced another defeat on the right.

The revolution transformed life in both the cities and the rural areas in the south. However, conditions were left largely untouched in large parts of the northern countryside, where small-scale agriculture dominated, unlike the south, where land ownership was highly concentrated. The northern rural areas became the base for reactionary regroupment. In summer 1975, this region was haunted by demonstrations against the MFA and a wave of violent attacks on the offices of the PCP and the revolutionary parties. As already noted, the role of leading opposition to the revolution fell not to the defeated ­supporters of Salazar and Caetano, but rather to the Socialist Party and its leader, Soares. The Socialists formed an alliance with the more moderate elements of the MFA, which called themselves the “Group of Nine”, after a document warned that the street movement posed a threat to the “democratic process”. In response, COPCON issued its own document, attacking the PCP from the left and advocating the development of organs of workers’ power. Under Carvalho’s leadership, COPCON had virtually become the armed wing of the workers’ movement, protecting strikes and actively facilitating occupations of empty houses by tenants. In Lisbon, two massive demonstrations of 100,000 workers, soldiers and residents took place in support of the COPCON proposals, including the replacement of the Constituent Assembly, established by the April elections, with organisations of workers’ power. In September 1975, these tensions in the soul of the MFA developed into a rift when the first explicit rank and file organisation in the army, Soldiers United Will Win (SUV; Soldados Unidos Vencerão), emerged. SUV highlighted the class divisions that existed within the armed forces and led demonstrations of tens of thousands of rank and file soldiers in Lisbon as well as in Porto and some of the smaller cities. Discipline and respect for hierarchy seemed to be collapsing within the army, with soldiers growing beards in defiance of army etiquette and pledging ­allegiance to the revolution when swearing the military oath.

This set the scene for the final stage of the revolutionary process. In the months leading up to November 1975, Portugal became more ungovernable than at any point before. Amid this polarising situation the PCP’s vacillating position found it caught between the right wing, which blamed the Communists for the chaos in society, and the left wing, which correctly described them as an obstacle to the further development of the revolution. The sixth provisional government was incapable of responding to the multiplying challenges from below. Both the right and the left mobilised for rival mass demonstrations. The occupations of houses and vast swathes of land reached a fever pitch. Attempts to remove left-wing units from the army were met with demonstrations and occupations of barracks. Some of the largest strikes took place in these months; some 250,000 metal workers struck across the country, and 100,000 construction workers downed tools. On 20 November, the construction workers laid siege to the Constitutional Assembly, refusing to let prime minister José Baptista Pinheiro de Azevedo leave the premises until their demands were met. COPCON was called in to intervene, but refused to do anything. Azevedo conceded the strikers’ demands, saying he was “tired of being kidnapped” and declaring the government was also “on strike”.

Dual power

A dynamic of dual power is a necessary condition to create a crisis with the potential to develop into socialist revolution. This means that the state’s control over society is ­disrupted, and different sources of power exist simultaneously. Workers’ ­councils formed the basis for alternative sources of power in Russia in 1905 and 1917, Germany in 1918, Hungary in 1956, Chile in 1973, Iran in 1979 and other revolutionary situations since. During a deep social and political crisis, workers’ organisations often develop from initially being mere committees for coordinating struggles into fully fledged institutions that can ­democratise society. By their very nature, however, situations of dual power can only last temporarily. Writing just before the end of the revolutionary process in Portugal, Cliff warned that such situations “cannot continue for long”: “Either the crisis will be resolved by the working class or by the forces of reaction”.22

The main dividing line that opened up in Portuguese society following the MFA coup was not between the different political parties. Nor was it between dictatorship and parliamentary democracy, as the Socialist Party claimed. Rather, it was between rival forms of democracy: workers’ power from below versus the restoration of capitalist normality through liberal parliamentarianism. According to Varela’s estimates, out of a population of ten million, three million people were involved in organisations of power from below.23 Marxist writer Chris Harman identified what was missing:

Although rank and file workers exerted enormous pressure at key points throughout society…there were no workers’ councils, no structures uniting this influence at a local, let alone national, level… There were factory councils, but attempts at coordination between them had only transitory success.24

The myriad of grassroots organisations that operated locally—at the level of factory committees, tenants’ associations and among soldiers—rarely developed into higher regional and national bodies that could coordinate and focus the struggle for power. Two factors, which we have already mentioned, acted as obstacles. The first was an overreliance on the army. Because of the intervention of the armed forces in support of strikes, many workers failed to develop higher forms of class consciousness, such as recognising the fact that the ­working class alone can fundamentally change society. The second ­barrier was the ­predominance of reformist forces and ideas. Varela states that the PCP’s aim was to block “spontaneous organisation such as councils of workers and residents” from developing “a situation of dual power”.25 Although groups such as the Proletarian Revolutionary Party advocated the development of ­workers’ ­councils, they did not contribute to the realisation of this ambition. The revolutionary camp lacked a revolutionary organisation that could have pulled together all the fragments of grassroots workers’, soldiers’, peasants’ and tenants’ organisation into a coherent challenge to state power—and building this sort of revolutionary organisation could not be postponed indefinitely.

25 November: giving up without a fight

On 25 November 1975, 19 months after the overthrow of Caetano by the MFA coup, right-wing forces—inspired by the Socialist Party and the Group of Nine—made their move. It came after months of careful preparations. They used the occupation of barracks by left-wing paratroopers as an excuse to ­mobilise loyal commando units in the army. This was intended to allow them to intervene to completely uproot the left from the army. The attempted coups in September 1974 and March 1975 had been defeated amidst mass mobilisations, but no such thing happened this time. This was not because the Portuguese workers were “done” with the revolution—thousands took to the streets, gathering outside PCP offices and near military units to ask for weapons to defend the revolution. What was lacking this time was ­leadership. Tellingly, Carvalho, the admired leader of COPCON, spent most of the ­crucial hours of 25 November sleeping at home after being dismissed from his position. Although the PCP, unlike the Socialist Party, was not one of the instigators of the November action, the Communists’ leadership is believed to have secretly agreed to refrain from mobilising opposition in exchange for continued participation in the government.26 The Communist-controlled CGTP trade union federation, with its 2 million workers, was the only national body that could have coordinated effective resistance to the coup, but it was paralysed, and its ­members were instructed to steer clear of interfering with the actions of the army.

The ruling class had re-established its monopoly on violence, and now it sought to quickly stamp its authority on every area of society. Within days of the coup, COPCON was disbanded. One of the architects of the coup (and a future president), António Ramalho Eanes, was made head of the army, while newspapers and radio stations under workers’ control were seized and returned to their private owners. Finally, there was an open path to the establishment of a modern bourgeois democracy and capitalist ­modernisation—goals that, as Varela argues, were “not the boundary of the revolution, but a break with the revolution”’.27


Writing on the centenary of the Russian Revolution, Alex Callinicos stated that it “represented, like every historical event, a peculiar blend of the ­universal and the particular”.28 At the most basic level, the Portuguese Revolution reminds us of how the inner ­workings of capitalism always prepare the ground for unexpected explosions. To most of those who had presided over or lived under one of the longest ­running ­dictatorships in the 20th century, the Estado Novo seemed an ­unshakeable monolith, even on the eve of the MFA coup.

The events of 1974 also challenge the notion that revolution in the contemporary West is ­impossible. Some might argue that Portugal is an exceptional case, since the majority of the population still lived in rural areas and because reformist parties were ­comparatively weak. Yet, just as in Russia in 1917, the working class that did exist in Portugal held a power disproportionate to its share of the population, ­particularly in the Lisbon industrial belt and the other big cities. This power enabled it to wrest enormous gains from its exploiters. As for reformism, it is important to recognise that reformist consciousness within the working class exists prior to its concrete organisational forms. Because of this, organisations that articulate reformist ideas can grow rapidly. Portugal shows revolutionary processes do not automatically do away with the problem of reformism and the need for revolutionaries to relate to the mass ­membership of reformist organisations—particularly when they vastly ­outnumber the ­revolutionary forces. Such organisations will seek to superficially identify with the revolution and embrace an accordingly radical rhetoric in an effort to become a safety valve for the system, channelling aspirations for change back into the existing structures of capitalist politics.

The MFA officers who staged the coup never intended to set in motion a revolutionary process that would call into question the structures of capitalism in Western Europe. Any successful revolutionary process will involve splits in the army, with rank and file soldiers and the middle sections transferring their ­allegiance from the old order to the revolutionary forces. In Portugal, this ­happened particularly early and presented a unique set of problems. In Robinson’s words, “The origins of the Portuguese Revolution as a revolt within the state machine made sections of the military far more susceptible to the influence of the mass movement outside it than has frequently been the case in revolutionary movements, where the fracturing of the army has occurred late”.29 However, the sorry defeat of the revolution also shows the limits to how far any process of radicalisation within even the rank and file of the army can go if it remains unconnected to a wider leftward move among the working class as a whole. The ­consequences of a strategy reliant on sections of the capitalist state were disastrous.

The Portuguese struggles of 1974 and 1975 are a partial demonstration of the revolutionary socialist contention that revolutionary processes can throw up organs of workers’ power that are potential embryonic structures of a future workers’ state capable of supplanting capitalism. Yet, the revolution also showed that, without political leadership, the development of such institutions is ­insufficient for the working class to conquer power. Throughout 1974-5, forms of worker’s democracy were virtually ubiquitous in Portuguese society. Yet, this ­democratic impulse from below, in factories, neighbourhoods and barracks, was too little. Elements of workers’ democracy remained localised and fragmented, failing to develop to the point of becoming a weapon for the destruction of the capitalist state machine. Moreover, organised revolutionaries lacked the size and credibility to win the argument for the necessary centralisation of workers’ power into national revolutionary organs. The influence of reformist ­organisations and the pervasive popular trust in the army contributed towards hindering the possibility of such institutions developing before the revolution was crushed.

The most universal aspect of the Portuguese Revolution is what is most sorely absent in it. When the revolutionary crisis matured, the pro-capitalist side was better organised than the anti-capitalist side. Any revolutionary process today will throw up questions of democracy and working-class power—but will there be a current within the working class with the strength, preparation and influence to push events beyond the threshold that the Portuguese Revolution was never allowed to cross?

Héctor Sierra is a Spanish socialist based in Glasgow and a member of the central comittee of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Eva Sousa Colwell is a Portuguese Socialist and a member of the SWP at Edinburgh University.

1 Thanks to Joseph Choonara, Sheila McGregor, Sascha Radl and Mark Thomas for insightful comments on an earlier draft of this article. We also wish to thank Dave Hayes and Dave Sherry for treating us to hours of invaluable conversation about their time in Portugal during the revolution, when they were members of the International Socialists.

2 The revolution was named after the red carnations that soldiers received and put into the barrels of their guns on the day of the coup. For a valuable corrective to the myth of a “bloodless revolution” often associated with this name, see Varela, 2019.

3 Cliff, 1975a.

4 Fernandes, 2024, pp8-11.

5 Cliff, 1975a.

6 Cabral, 1969.

7 Fernandes, 2024, pp256-268.

8 Varela, 2019, p271.

9 Varela, 2019, p371.

10 Varela, 2019, p373.

11 A notable example of these struggles is “the three Marias”. Maria Isabel Barreno, Maria Teresa Horta and Maria Veljo da Costa were three women who compiled the Novas Cartas Portuguesas (New Portuguese Letters), a set of essays about women’s sexual experiences, which was written in defiance of censorship under the dictatorship. The regime imprisoned them. However, as the Estado Novo fell, they were released, and their book became a staple of revolutionary literature.

12 Fernandes, 2024, p264.

13 Quoted in Trotsky, 2017, p560.

14 Trotsky, 2017.

15 Varela, 2018.

16 Later in the decade, this process was re-enacted in Spain, where the Spanish Communist Party, an impressive organisation and leading force in the underground resistance to the regime of General Francisco Franco, was supplanted by the previously non-existent Socialist Party as the main party of the working class due to the Communists’ vacillations.

17 The Socialist Party came first with 2,162,972 votes (37.9 percent), while the PCP came third with only 711,935 votes (12.5 percent).

18 Varela, 2018.

19 For an account of the counter-revolutionary role of the army in Egypt, see Marfleet, 2013.

20 Robinson, 1987, p110.

21 Quoted in Cliff, 1975b.

22 Cliff, 1975a.

23 Varela, 2018.

24 Harman, 1988.

25 Varela, 2018.

26 Varela, 2019, pp245-256.

27 Varela, 2019, p254. Readers interested in a longer description of the revolutionary process should read Cliff, 1975a; Robinson, 1987; and Harman, 1988. For a more detailed study of the revolution, see Varela, 2019. Although writing from a non-Marxist perspective, Alex Fernandes offers an extremely enjoyable and vivid account of the prelude to the revolution and the events of 25 April—see Fernandes, 2024. However, his narrative of the subsequent revolutionary process is less convincing and lacks Varela’s spirit of “history from below”. The account contained in this article owes much to all of these studies.

28 Callinicos, 2017.

29 Robinson, 1987, p118.


Cabral, Amilcar, 1969, “Guinea and Cabo Verde against Portuguese Colonialism”, in Revolution in Guinea (Stage 1), www.marxists.org/subject/africa/cabral/1961/gcvpc.htm

Callinicos, Alex, 2017, “The Orphaned Revolution”, International Socialism 156 (autumn), https://isj.org.uk/the-orphaned-revolution

Cliff, Tony, 1975a, “Portugal at the Crossroads”, International Socialism 81 (1st series), www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1975/portugal

Cliff, Tony, 1975b, Portugal: The Lessons of the 25th of November (Bookmarks).

Fernandes, Alex, 2024, The Carnation Revolution: The Day Portugal’s Dictatorship Fell (Oneworld). 

Harman, Chris, 1988, The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After (Bookmarks)

Marfleet, Phil, 2013, “Egypt: After the Coup”, International Socialism 142 (spring), https://isj.org.uk/egypt-after-the-coup

Robinson, Peter, 1987, “Portugal 1974-75”, in Colin Barker (ed), Revolutionary Rehearsals (Bookmarks).

Trotsky, Leon, 2017 [1930], History of the Russian Revolution (Penguin).

Varela, Raquel, 2018, “The PCP in the Portuguese Revolution 1974-5: Crisis, State and Revolution”, International Socialism 157 (winter), https://isj.org.uk/the-pPCP-in-the-portuguese-revolution-1974-5-crisis-state-and-revolution

Varela, Raquel, 2019, A People’s History of the Portuguese Revolution (Pluto).