The PCP in the Portuguese Revolution 1974-5: crisis, state and revolution

Issue: 157

Raquel Varela

How did the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP), loyal to the Soviet Union deep into the second half of the 20th century, react to a social revolution in 1974-5? The moments are rare when we can study workers’ revolutions in a European country where the Communist Party had a decisive influence. I argue here that the revolution happened despite the party, not because of it. The USSR wanted above all to maintain the equilibrium of the Cold War, and Portugal was, in the division made at Yalta and Potsdam in 1945, in the NATO sphere. The PCP was faithful to that policy.1

The bloody defeat in Chile on 11 September 1973—only seven months before the Portuguese Revolution broke out—has been carefully used, in the struggle over memory, to render forgotten a partially victorious revolution in a European country, in the NATO sphere, which took 19 months to defeat. And it was not defeated in the end by resort to violence and coercion, but by consensus and with very large social reforms won by the working class. Why is Chile in 1973 much better known and studied than Portugal in 1975?

The Portuguese Revolution was a social explosion that US president Gerald Ford considered capable of transforming the entire Mediterranean into a “red sea” and causing the downfall of all of the regimes of southern Europe like dominos.2 We can argue today that it began a wave of resistance in southern Europe that delayed the implementation of neoliberal plans attempted from 1973-5 until the crisis period of 1981-4. Measures which survived include the nationalisation without compensation of banks and large companies, the birth of the welfare state and social security, the agrarian reform of large estates in the south of the country and the worker management of 300 companies. These measures were not realised by state decree or by governmental action, as some have tried to frame them, but through popular assemblies: the banks under the control of their workers, who prior to nationalisation stopped capital flight; the strikes in the major companies that imposed salary increases and price freezes; the democratically-run occupied hospitals and schools; public transport under the control of workers and users, who decided to extend these to peripheral areas and to reduce fares; the land occupied by salaried agricultural workers,3 which more than tripled their productivity and employment. In other words, it was not only the results but the entirely democratic way in which they were achieved in this “new country”, to use filmmaker Sérgio Tréfaut’s felicitious term,4 which makes the Portuguese Revolution an extraordinary case study of “change from below”.

Furthermore, this was in the midst of a cyclical international crisis, the so-called “oil crisis” of 1973, which caused a dramatic fall in Portuguese GDP. Economic growth fell from 10.78 percent in 1972 to 4.92 percent in 1973 and 2.91 percent in 1974 to -5.10 percent in 1975, before entering a new expansionary phase in 1976, in line with an overall international recovery. As we know, not all crises result in revolutions, but the divisions in the bourgeoisie that result from the weakening of the state in these cycles open the door to revolutions. As Marx argued and the 20th century confirmed, there are no revolutions without crises (in this sense they are an opportunity), but there are crises without revolutions, and economic collapses without political responses, which to a large extent happened in 1981-4, the “double dip” recession, whose result was not a political revolution by Europeans but the victory of neoliberalism, with a restructuring of the labour market, preserving and negotiating over the trade union rights of established workers but with precarity for their offspring.

In other words 1974 was another story, and the economic crisis would be a factor in the deepening crisis of the military and in the divisions within the dominant classes of the regime. Portugal had been ruled by a dictatorship based on the military but with many fascist features, the so-called “Estado Novo”, headed for more than 35 years by António de Oliveira Salazar. By the 1960s Salazar and his successor Marcelo Caetano had to confront the destabilising impact of growing industrialisation and urbanisation and of the wars the regime waged in its African colonies (Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique) against national liberation movements. The experience of fighting unjust and unwinnable colonial wars radicalised some army officers who, as the Armed Forces Movement (MFA), overthrew Caetano on 25 April 1974, unleashing the revolution.

The 1973-5 crisis started the tendency towards falling investment that in turn led to a drastic increase in redundancies during the revolution (the unemployment rate doubled between 1974 and 1975 from 2.1 to 4 percent), and the reaction to redundancies—occupation of factories and companies—would be one of the factors that explains the existence and development of workers’ control during the revolution, and perhaps the most significant reason for the progressive expansion of social rights in 1974-5.5

In a way, through being an urban European revolution in a society where the role of industry and services was already greater than that of the majority of 20th century revolutions (which, by contrast, came from a peasant base and were supported by military parties), the Portuguese Revolution can be seen not only as the last revolution of the century to put into question the private ownership of the means of production, but arguably also belongs to the 21st century. The majority of the social conflicts of the revolution were carried out by industrial workers with 19 percent of labour struggle taking place in the textile industry, 15 percent in machining and metalwork, 9 percent in construction and public works, and 7 percent in the chemicals and food industries. These struggles were waged especially by the proletariat of the large industrial belts (Porto, Lisbon and Setúbal), with a particular focus on Lisbon, where 43 percent of labour conflicts occurred. Some of the richest men in the country literally fled to Brazil in 1975, expropriated.

Several authors have analysed the policy of the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP), concluding that, in contrast to the Spanish Communist Party (PCE), the PCP sought to make a 1948-style “Prague Coup” in 1974-5, attempting by putschist methods to achieve state power and impose a Soviet satellite regime, linked to the Warsaw Pact.6

This is not the conclusion of my doctoral study The History of the PCP in the Carnation Revolution.7 A revolution is a complex process. In 19 months there were six popular front governments, and the PCP had ministries in all of them. The party dominated the fourth and fifth, but nevertheless all the governments fell thanks to the power of the workers’ movement. Soldiers increasingly participated in these governments (in a Bonapartism supported by the parties in the “Alliance of the People and the Armed Forces Movement”), but the governments were politically directed by the Socialist Party and the Communist Party, especially by their respective leaders Mário Soares and Álvaro Cunhal. Present also was the PPD/PSD,8 from the right. In 1974 and 1975 there were, as never before, conflicting alternative political projects. Some were based on the reconstruction of a capitalist state but with less regulation (the Socialist Party and the incipient parties of the right, the PPD/PSD and the CDS9), another that defended capitalism with regulation and a large nationalised sector (the Communist Party) and a further revolutionary one, coming from the “dual power”, grassroots organisations, which argued for the overthrow of the state apparatus under the direction of the workers (dozens of organisations of the so-called “extreme left” were involved in this). By the end of 1975 around 3 million people, one third of the country, were militants or participants in dual power organisations (residents’, workers’ or soldiers’ councils).

According to a published study, the word most used in the Constituent Assembly elections of April 1975 was “democracy”. But for some, democracy meant workers’ control in the largest private companies and the financial sector, with workers controlling salaries, production and capital exits; for others, it meant joint management by unions and the state of companies under state control (the policy of the PCP); for still others, the non-expropriation of banking (the policy of the right). The people voted en masse in the elections of April 1975, with more than 90 percent participation, giving most votes to the PS and around 16 percent to the PCP and its ally the MDP.10 The terrain of the election was favourable to the PS and unfavourable to the PCP. In elections all voters have the same influence, while in a labour struggle a few hundred workers can create a dynamic of crisis in the political system. The elections worked like an inverted mirror, bringing out of their homes millions of people who had not participated in the revolutionary process. In the elections of 1975 a leader of the Union of Chemical Workers or of the union at TAP (Air Transport of Portugal) counted the same as an isolated small peasant in the north or a priest who never left the church. Through this, the elections had an immense significance. They would give enormous strength to the PS, and along with it to the PPD, which started to construct an alliance with the hierarchy of the church and the right wing army sectors that directed the counter-revolutionary coup of 25 November 1975. The PCP did not oppose this coup, and decided to negotiate with it, considering the revolutionary soldiers “irresponsible and opportunistic”11 and the PS an ally to regain.12 After the coup more than 130 left officials were arrested and all unions controlled by soldiers’ commissions were dismantled.

The tension between the Constituent Assembly and the democratic reality in the workplaces was clear. The people also voted in large numbers, and daily, in the factories and companies, schools and hospitals, for a slate of demands, taking on a new model of management and control of production. They voted in all types of assemblies, often against what had been approved by governments, which were in any case not at first elected. The law of August 1974 restricting the right to strike, which for example prohibited solidarity strikes (approved by the PS and the PCP), was never implemented. Similarly, repeated appeals by the popular front government for people not to squat houses, to be “calm”, or to “moderate wage demands” were ignored. Rents fell dramatically in May and June 197513, while the threat that their properties would be squatted forced owners to put homes on the rental market. And the effects lasted: the democratic reforms born in this period would only be rolled back in hospitals in 1988, and in schools in 2010. Never in the history of the country did so many people decide so much as in those 19 months.

In the two years 1974 and 1975 the gravest crisis of the state in contemporary Portugal opened up and gave rise to the revolution. It was a revolution born in 1961 in the anti-colonial revolutions in Angola, Guinea and Mozambique, from a peasant/forced labour base, led by military elements and the liberation movements.

To understand the revolution from a historiographical point of view, we need to re-focus on its reality by recovering, investigating, comprehending and cataloguing its social conflicts. And we need to reveal as protagonists the social subjects (classes and their subdivisions), as an alternative to approaches that see history through the prism of the representative subjects (elites), and seek through this to exclude social development and the notion of collective conflict.

The central tactic of the PCP to try to turn back the climate of social tension and its policy of economic stabilisation led it to block all barriers to the maintenance of production, whether from sectors of the bourgeoisie (by economic sabotage or disinvestment in businesses), or from workers (strikes and demands, in particular over salaries).

The actions of the PCP following the coup d’état were designed to ensure the establishment of a democratic regime, and they therefore settled on demanding punishment for those linked to the “Estado Novo”, the legalisation of the PCP and other political parties and trade unions, the establishment of democratic rights and liberties, plus the participation of Communists in the Provisional Government and the defence of colonial independence. The Communists’ entry into government, an exception to the global order of Yalta and Potsdam, was possible in part because the PS wanted to delay the elections, which they were convinced they would lose to the PCP, the better organised political party. But most of all, because the fall of the Caetano regime resulted immediately in immense popular participation, making the presence in government of leaders of this movement indispensable.

The party supported a policy to rebuild the stability of the state through an alliance between the PCP, PS and the MFA and acted, through the Ministry of Labour, the MFA and the communist trade union federation, the Intersindical (whose growth quickly became a priority for the party in this period) to contain the strikes and demonstrations. The PCP did not support a single strike out of the 158 that paralysed the country in the first two months following 25 April. Instead they organised, through the Intersindical, a demonstration against strikes; the PCP’s aim was that the results of spontaneous organisation, such as councils of workers and residents, did not develop into a situation of dual power.

May 1968 had already challenged the Stalinist organisations’ hegemony over the European workers’ movement, but this went much further in the Portuguese Revolution, where some of the main sectors favourable to the PCP did not have a majority. However, the PCP had enormous prestige and was the largest party. It had grown from a vanguard party of no more than 3,000 in April 1974 to one with 100,000 militants in July 1975, and it led the national trade union federation, the main federation with 2 million workers, only an embryo in 1970 but a reality in 1974-5. All these members were militants in the workers’ councils, where frequently the decisions opposed those of the trade unions, in which they also participated. The workers were in both, but each had a different tendency: the Intersindical was part of the reconstruction of the state and the workers’ councils were a parallel power to the state. This is what complicates the understanding of the processes of social conflict, where political consciousness is not unified through a party or a common strategy.

The workers’ councils, a type of “council communist” organisation, grew up in almost all of the factories and workplaces of the country. They were elected by workers’ assemblies, with delegates freely revocable. This fact cannot be ignored if we are to understand the desire to challenge private property in this corner of Europe. It was these councils, not the trade union leadership, which were at the root of most labour conflicts at the beginning of the Portuguese Revolution, creating some of the most important conflicts, and gaining through this the opposition of the PCP and most of the trade union leadership, who considered the workers’ councils “primitive forms of organisation, instruments of the employers and of ‘sectionalism’”.14 You can read in Avante! (the PCP’s newspaper) that the PCP encouraged the Intersindical not to “stray from its primary objectives”,15 which put the party against the workers’ councils: “it is not the structures which should be grandiose, but the struggles”.16

In total, of the 36 effective members and deputies of the Central Committee of the PCP, only four had not been imprisoned during the Estado Novo, and the rest had spent a total of 308 years in prison, as Octávio Pato, member of the Central Committee, recalled when referring to each prisoner in his address to the Congress in 1974.17 The resistance and tenacity of PCP members was unquestionable and one of the factors that explains its growth and consolidation is that it had resisted the best. Present at the Congress were 1,003 delegates and around 4,000 militants. As Joaquim Pires Jorge, member of the Central Committee, said right at the beginning of the Congress, the “resistance…explains the confidence of the masses in our party”.18

The party defended the nationalised sector, which came to employ in 1975 more than 300,000 workers, around 8 percent of the economically active population, and generated between 20 and 25 percent of the country’s GDP. As José da Silva Lopes has stated, Portugal had one of the largest business sectors in Western Europe, but not very different from that of France, Italy, the United Kingdom and Germany. In these countries, on average, the public sector employed 10 percent of manual workers.19 But the party did not defend the nationalisation of any other sector. It would make a national campaign, announced with the remaining members of the PS, PPD and the Revolutionary Council of the MFA, that all private companies should increase production, without questioning the ownership of these companies, which employed 92 percent of manual workers nationally.

The Communist leadership, in the context of this “battle for production”, opposed the forms of workers’ control of nationalised companies, instead arguing that they should be fashioned into a sui generis form of co-management which included union representatives and the state. This was a proposal with a historical parallel in Chile, where, in the nationalisations undertaken by the Allende government, the companies were run by four workers’ representatives and four state appointees.

The PCP defended the nationalisations—without effective control by the workers over production and distribution and subject to the “battle for ­production”—with a theoretical justification presenting this as a means towards the construction of socialism, and contending that once the state was no longer capitalist, it was in transition to socialism:20

The battle for the economy and for production will be for the present the decisive factor of the revolutionary process. Either the workers face their conduct at work in a new way, or all the efforts to raise the standard of living of the working classes will sink. The policy of nationalisation of basic sectors and the expropriation of the large estates, as forms of economic democracy leading to socialism, must be accompanied by a new working moral code. A generalised and unrealistic set of demands that impedes the viability of nationalised companies, the level of employment, already dangerously low, and the need for national production, as a way of alleviating our foreign dependence, would be actions contrary to the consolidation of the revolutionary process, from which only reaction will profit.21

From September to November 1975 came the revolutionary crisis, known as the “political-military crisis”, in other words, the historical period in revolutions where either the state is overthrown under the aegis of the workers or there is a coup that puts an end to the revolution. These periods are marked by the bourgeoisie’s refusal to accept expropriation, which means they start a civil war. In this period, the state cannot govern, dual power spreads to all levels and all state functions are made impossible by strikes, demonstrations and occupations. Between 12 and 13 November 1975 80,000 civic building workers surrounded the Constituent Assembly, demanding workers’ rights—from the longest dictatorship in Europe, 48 years, to the siege of the liberal-democratic Assembly, in 19 months. The MFA collapsed in August 1975 and dual power developed in the barracks, involving more than 100 revolutionary officials and thousands of soldiers (bearded and many with raised fists, which became an icon of the revolution, with dozens of photographs taken by the Magnum agency while visiting the country of the “Carnation Revolution”). They controlled some of the main military units of the country. A part of the MFA had effectively radicalised itself, while the majority stayed with the PCP and chiefly the PS. The PS stood with all of the right and the Group of Nine (the right wing of the MFA) and decided to put an end to the revolution by force, by a coup d’état; the PCP supported the mobilisation under way during the crisis of the state in order to guarantee the agrarian reforms and the independence of Angola under the left-nationalist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA).

The military left, supported by the generalisation of dual power in the barracks, reflected the overall mobilisation of society, but they did not have a coherent political project, nor were the organs of workers’ and popular power centralised at a national level where they could be a “soviet” capable of resisting the coup of 25 November 1975. The revolution began to be defeated that day. The only structure with national power, namely the PCP-led Intersindical, refused to resist the coup, arguing that they would avoid a civil war. It is a mistake to confuse revolutions with counter-revolutions.

Revolutions are not in themselves violent. They only become so after the bourgeoisie takes up arms to defeat them. The beginning of the African anti-colonial revolutions was not a slaughter, but the war Portugal fought to preserve its territories killed almost 10,000 Portuguese and tens of thousands of Africans over a period of 13 years; the Russian Revolution had less than 250 deaths, while the White counter-revolution was a tragedy; on 25 April 1974 in Portugal four people died, killed by the PIDE secret police, and less than 20 died in the 19 months. But in November 1975 the PS armed itself and prepared to go to the north of the country to resist leaving power. In no moment in history has the bourgeoisie given up power without resorting to arms—civil war is the reaction of the armed bourgeoisie when the workers take power. To “avoid civil war” is in fact to avoid the struggle for a victorious social revolution.

What started on 25 April as a coup d’état was the seed of a social revolution, which forced changes in the relations of production, beginning as a democratic political revolution that changed the political regime.22 This democratic revolution did not even wait for the elections to the Constituent Assembly; in a few days or weeks the political regime of the dictatorship was almost entirely dismantled and substituted with democratic rule. It is important to underline that this was the last European revolution to question private ownership of the means of production by workers’ control or a situation of dual power. This resulted in the transfer, according to official data, of 18 percent of capital yield to labour, and established rights at work, salaries above biological reproduction (above “working to survive”), and equal and universal access to education, health and social security.

The PCP never questioned the basis of private property in Portugal. The liberal-democratic regime could exist with more or less regulation of capitalism. The policies of the PCP over nationalisation and worker-control, over the state and the dual power organisations, and over strikes are the practical examples of this. The PCP moved within the orbit of the USSR and Soviet foreign policy that aimed to maintain the status quo within the capitalist countries (while disputing the African colonies, which were outside of the Yalta agreements). This does not mean that the PCP did not defend increasing its influence within the state apparatus, as well as defending most labour rights and for workers to belong to a trade union.

The defeat of the revolution from 25 November 1975 onwards, with the imposition of “discipline”, that is to say, hierarchy, in the barracks, consolidated itself through a “democratic counter-revolution” (“democratic transition”, according to liberal political theory), a strategy which would be applied in Francoist Spain, and afterwards in all of Latin America in the 1980s. Portugal is the first example of a revolution successfully defeated by the installation of a representative democracy which, in order to impose itself, put an end to the grassroots democracy which had risen up in the barracks, the factories, the companies, the schools and the poor districts. As with the establishment of the welfare state in other parts of Europe after 1945, in Portugal the welfare state was not born by consensus but by war and revolutionary conflict.

Today this revolutionary past—when the poorest, weakest, and the sometimes illiterate dared to take their lives in their hands—is a kind of historical nightmare for the current dominant classes in Portugal. So much so that they insisted, 40 years after the revolution, on celebrating only 25 April, forgetting that this day was only the first of the most amazing 19 months in Portuguese history. And at the time Portugal was, alongside Vietnam, the country most covered in the international press, because of the images of poor people at barricades smiling with open arms alongside bearded and cheerful young soldiers full of hope for the peoples of Spain, Greece, Brazil… And because of the joy of most people who lived through it. A characteristic of the photos of the Portuguese Revolution is that people are almost always smiling. It is not by chance that Chico Buarque sang: “I know you’re having a party, man”.23

Raquel Varela is a labour historian, researcher and university professor.


1 See especially Varela, 2011, and 2014. See also Varela, 2010, and Varela, 2012 a, b and c.

2 La Vanguardia (Barcelona), 23 March 1975.

3 In 1975-6, as a result of the agrarian policies which are known together as agrarian reform, the number of permanent jobs rose from 11,100 to 44,100. And temporary jobs rose from 10,600 to 27,800. The area of cultivated dryland rose from 85,000 hectares before the land occupations to 255,000 after. Irrigated areas grew from 7,000 hectares to 16,000. The number of tractors rose from 2,630 to 4,150 and harvesters from 960 to 1,720.

4 Outro País, Sérgio Tréfaut, Vídeos Público, 25 de Abril, 20 Anos, 2004.

5 I analyse the impact of the cyclical crisis of 1973 in the Portuguese Revolution as well as the relationship between workers’ control and social rights in Varela, 2011.

6 For example, Cunha, 1992, and Gaspar and Rato, 1992.

7 Varela, 2011.

8 Partido Popular Democrático/Partido Social Democrata—conservative liberal party.

9 Centro Democrático e Social—another conservative party.

10 Movimento Democrático Português.

11 “Uma curva difícil e perigosa” (“A difficult and dangerous turn”), Avante!, Série VII, 30 November 1975, pp1-2.

12 Cunhal, 1999.

13 Dows, 1978.

14 Valente, 2001, p241.

15 “Os trabalhadores e a Intersindical”, Avante!, Série VII, 17 May 1974, p2.

16 “Os trabalhadores e a Intersindical”, Avante!, Série VII, 17 May 1974, p1.

17 7th Congresso Extraordinário do PCP: Documentos Políticos do PCP, Série Especial, Avante!, 1974, p267.

18 Joaquim Pires Jorge, “Discurso de Abertura”, 7th Congresso Extraordinário do PCP, Série Especial, Avante!, 1974, p18.

19 Lopes, 1999, pp314-315.

20 “Os ferroviários a favor da nacionalização da CP” (“The Railway Workers in Favour of the Nationalisation of the CP”), Avante!, Série VII, 10 April 1975, p7.

21 “A unidade da classe operária esteio da unidade de todo o povo” (“The Unity of the Working Class Mainstay of the Unity of all the People”), Avante!, Série VII, 15 May 1975, p2.

22 Arcary, 2004 and 2006.

23 See “Tanto Mar” by the most famous Brazilian composer Chico Buarque—


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