On the 40th anniversary of the Portugese revolution we remember how half a century of fascist rule was swept aside in a day
It started at 12.25am on Thursday 25 April 1974 when the rebel song, Grandola Vila Morena, played on the radio. By early evening the end of dictatorship was announced. The Movimento das Forças Armadas (MFA), radical mid-ranking officers, had executed the plan devised by Captain Otelo de Carvalho. Troops secured Lisbon and the second city, Porto. Key installations were taken, ministers arrested.
The news of the regime’s downfall spread like wildfire. People flooded the streets. MFA vehicles were mobbed by adoring crowds. Thousands of school students marched, shouting “Down with fascism”. Red carnations, the symbol of the revolution, blossomed in rifle barrels and festooned the streets in this festival of freedom.
The ex-dictator, Marcello Caetano, cowered in National Guard barracks. He was the successor to the fascist regime consolidated in the early 1930s by António Salazar. Paramilitary groups terrorised left-wing and industrial militants. Independent trade unions and the right to strike were illegal. The secret police had a massive network of agents and informers. Torture was systemic.
Even under these conditions, workers resisted. Illegal trade unions operated. The Partido Comunista Português (PCP) maintained a clandestine organisation. Student protest flared up.
But it was the armed African liberation struggles – especially Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique – begun in the early 1960s, which drove the final nails into the coffin of the fascist regime. Many mid-ranked officers had been influenced by the Marxism they read in counter-insurgency training. Radicalisation continued in Africa with the brutal repression meted out to the people fighting for their freedom. A policy of fast-tracking new officers fuelled the anger.
For Caetano’s regime, the colonies meant the difference between Portugal being regarded as an insignificant nation or an international power. But Portugal was also the poorest country in Western Europe, its economy underdeveloped, centred around the export of sardines, textiles, cork and wood. The wars consumed over 40% of the budget.
The MFA set up a ’junta of national salvation’ to rule until a provisional government was formed. Elections were promised within a year. It announced freedom of association and expression, and an amnesty for political prisoners.
Spínola and the MFA
General António de Spínola was made acting president. The son of a friend of Salazar, Spínola had impeccable fascist credentials. He had, however, called for the easing of direct colonial rule, which gave him a certain amount of support.
The MFA reflected a wide range of political views. The lefts, including Carvalho and Vasco Gonçalves, were strongly influenced by the ’socialism’ (Stalinism) of Eastern Europe, Cuba or Algeria. Others, such as Melo Antunes, were linked with the social democrats around Mário Soares.
Having suffered at the hands of bosses and landowners linked to the regime, workers drove them out of the factories and off the land. The editor of the daily, Diário de Notícias, was forced out on 7 June after print workers seized the presses, publishing a front-page article exposing his fascist connections. Homeless people occupied empty properties. Shipyard and underground workers went on strike for a 50% pay rise. Car workers won a 40-hour week. Bakery and textile workers struck. Train and tram conductors refused to collect fares.
Spínola’s coalition included politicians with ties to the old regime – for example, the new, conservative Partido Popular Democrático (PPD) – alongside the PCP, Partido Socialista (PS) and the MDP/CDE (linked with the PCP). Mário Soares, PS leader – a well-known lawyer funded by social democratic parties (and the CIA) – returned from exile on 28 April. Álvaro Cunhal, PCP leader, got back on 30 April after 14 years in exile in Eastern Europe. Almost immediately, they were sharing power.
Spínola aimed to use the PS and the PCP to turn back the revolutionary tide. Both parties saw explosive growth. PS membership rose from 200 in April 1974 to 60,000 in early 1975, its support mainly from white-collar workers and professionals. The PCP strongholds were among agricultural workers in the south, and in the industrial centres.
Horrified and impotent, the imperialist powers looked on as the PCP joined the government of a Nato country. They feared the effects of a ’communist’ state in Western Europe, especially on Franco’s dying dictatorship in Spain.
There was little base for reaction, the US superpower had just emerged humiliated from Vietnam, and the worldwide economic recession limited the scope for action.
The workers’ parties
Unfortunately, influential leaders like Cunhal based themselves on the methods of the Soviet Union’s ruling bureaucracy, not on independent mass action by the workers towards socialism. The working class was mobilised as and when its support was required, while PCP leaders relied on their influence with the MFA left, exerted in meetings behind closed doors.
The radical measures taken by the MFA were in response to the mass movement from below rather than as part of a conscious socialist programme. A minimum wage of £55 a month affected 65% of the workers. Controls on prices and rents were introduced, taxes imposed on under-utilised farmland on the big estates. A thousand leading company directors were dismissed.
Thirty thousand postal workers struck from 17-21 June. Rail, electricity, shipping, and major industries saw strikes. Frantically trying to control the movement, the PCP tried to hold back the workers.
Its newspaper, Avante, criticised bosses for conceding wage increases which were “too high”! And the PCP helped introduce a trade union law which both legalised and attempted to restrict industrial action. Workers had the right to picket but not to occupy or organise solidarity action.
The PS cynically condemned the restrictions – part of a strategy to win over the working class, away from the PCP and far-left. Soares frequently called for the ’socialist transformation of society’. Once the revolutionary heat had cooled, however, he planned to direct the movement down a safe, reformist, capitalist road.
Spínola called a ’silent majority’ demonstration for 28 September. He was testing the balance of power. Rumours circulated of a right-wing coup. But armed workers set up roadblocks to stop reactionaries moving on Lisbon. And as the silent majority evaporated, a dejected Spínola called it off. Right-wing officers and civilians were arrested.
Political confrontations were becoming increasingly violent. The first national congress of the right-wing Centro Democrático Social (CDS – based around members of the former regime), in Porto on 25 January, was besieged by left-wing protesters and cancelled. Soldiers sided with the demo.
On 7 March, a PPD meeting in the industrial city of Setúbal was broken up. Two protesters were shot dead in clashes with the police.
Spínola made one more pathetic bid for power, on 11 March 1975. But the paratroopers he mobilised mutinied. The fact that six members of the Espírito Santo banking family were implicated in the coup fiasco fuelled further outrage.
The colossal economic and political power wielded by the banks meant that they were particularly hated by workers and much of the middle class.
The bank workers’ investigation revealed that the Espírito Santo family had siphoned off money allocated to provide jobs for demobbed troops, to safeguard the family’s wealth in the event of nationalisation. It was funding right-wing parties. Workers occupied the banks, preventing the bosses from removing documents or transferring funds. On 14 March, Portuguese banks were nationalised!
On 11 July, the PS withdrew from the government in protest over the takeover of the pro-PS República newspaper by Communist print workers. Soares accused the armed forces of attempting to impose a ’communist-style police state’. On 17 July, the PPD also withdrew, and the fourth coalition government in 15 months collapsed.
Matters were coming to a head. A triumvirate of President Francisco de Costa Gomes, Prime Minister Gonçalves, and Carvalho gave the impression that the PCP/MFA-left had been strengthened in the corridors of power. But right-wing parties were growing in confidence, with attacks on PCP and MDP-CDE offices and members intensifying, particularly in the north.
Counter-revolution in ’democratic’ clothes
The MFA pro-Soares wing around Antunes was emboldened. On 29 August, Gonçalves was removed and a group supported by the PS and PPD emerged to lead the MFA.
MFA troops refused to intervene when 30,000 construction workers surrounded the assembly on 13 November demanding higher wages and the nationalisation of building sites. Carvalho was dismissed and PCP members were kicked out of the ministries.
Right-wing groups mobilised farmers – mainly poor smallholders from the north – setting up barricades on 24 November to try to isolate ’Red Lisbon’. Next day, troops under right-wing Lieutenant Colonel António Eanes occupied military bases. A state of emergency was called.
’Order’ was restored. However, it would take years of militant defensive struggles before the bosses could take back what they had been forced to concede: far-reaching reforms on land, health, education, housing, social services, wages and conditions, and the nationalisation of three-quarters of the economy.
Without a revolutionary programme, the Portuguese working class had ensured that 50 years of brutal dictatorship ended – another magnificent achievement. The scale of the movement, however, meant that it could have achieved much more.
A socialist revolution was on the agenda. A clear socialist direction – which can only be provided by a revolutionary party respected by the working class – was missing. Nonetheless, Portugal’s workers set a high standard – maybe a world record – for revolutionary initiative, energy and determination. They will have to call on these rich traditions in many battles to come.
By Manny Thain