revolutionary reflections | Portugal’s revolution portrayed

Raquel Varela’s new history of the Portuguese revolution is essential reading for revolutionary socialists, argues Brian Parkin.

25 April 1983
25 April 1983, Porto/ Photo: Henrique Matos (CC-BY)

Raquel Varela, A People’s History of the Portugese Revolution, edited by Peter Robinson (London: Pluto, 2019). 352 pp. £19.99

***

Revolution forgotten

In April 2018 I received a phone call from Peter Robinson, a friend and comrade of many years. He told me of a planned conference, maybe later in the autumn, at which former members of the International Socialists who had been involved in solidarity work for the Portuguese revolution of 1974-75 would be the invited participants.

The intention was to recall and recollect their experiences to document a living archive of the last great social revolution of the 20th century. The Portuguese revolution not only toppled the longest-lived fascist[1] regime in the world – and with it, the only remaining colonial[2] power in Europe, but also for a brief moment placed the working class as the central agency of dramatic revolutionary change.

The conference did indeed take place, and over two days in late October some 20 or so former comrades, in a fairly disciplined and almost scholarly manner, dug deep into their memories to recall events, the likes of which have so far not been repeated in Europe. Over those two days, terms such as uneven and combined development, imperialism, internationalism, workers’ power, crisis of the state, workers’ councils, dual power terms that today come to revolutionaries only from books – were recalled as the lived experience of workers some 44 years on.

A few things stood out about the conference. The first was how sharp and unadorned by gung-ho and romantic embellishment the contributions were. There was also a shared clear understanding of the democratic character of an authentic workers’ social revolution and its historic nature. An undimmed collective recollection of shared experiences and a sense of comradeship had endured between those involved, in spite of some sharp divisions that had opened up in the intervening years. But there was also a shared dismay regarding the speed and extent to which the revolution has been all but forgotten – not only by bourgeois historians and political economists – but also, so it seems, by the far-left itself.[3]

book cover

As a way of correcting that collective amnesia, Raquel Varela, with the assistance of Peter Robinson, has produced a most extensive People’s History of the Portuguese Revolution. The history begins with a socio-economic account of Portugal up to the events of 25 April 1974, and proceeds to record the revolutionary events right up to 25 November 1975, when the revolution expired at the hands of a ‘Carter doctrine’ counter-revolutionary social democratic ‘transitional coup’. After which, with EEC regional assistance and the hitherto invisible Portuguese Socialist Party[4] installed, the events of over a year of mass working class democracy and power were all but airbrushed from the historical record.

But with her People’s History, historian Raquel Varela has brought the revolutionary events of 1974-75 Portugal vividly back to life. Within the English-speaking world, we should also acknowledge the efforts of Peter Robinson – a revolutionary activist during many of the events described in this book – and for whom keeping the memories and lessons of Portugal 1974-75 alive and available to the class, remains his mission. For their efforts we should be most grateful.

Uneven and combined development

The Command Post of the Armed Forces Movement reports that the civilian population is not responding to the appeal made several times already to stay at home.[5]

My own first memories of the Portuguese revolution were of a cold and rainy early Friday morning, 26 April 1975. My friend Dave and I were due to leaflet an early morning shift-change at West Yorkshire Foundries in south Leeds. As I got into his car, he said: ‘It looks like Portugal have beaten us to the revolution then!’ I was puzzled – largely due to very recent memories of the bloody counter-revolutionary coup in Chile. He then explained that he had been listening to the BBC World Service during the night which had been relating how what seemed like an officer’s coup, ‘supported by thousands of rank and file soldier’s and sailors’, had then been joined by a mass surge of workers demanding the overthrow of the dictatorship.

I was transfixed, not least because like many on the left I had been eagerly watching the slow death of general Franco on his life-support machine with the expectation that an already strike stricken Spain might be that part of the Iberian Peninsula to see a resurgence of revolution. But Portugal? The most backward society at the most westerly far-flung point of the European mainland? The most priest-ridden and sole remaining colonial power in Europe where the combined terrors of the catholic confessional and the PIDE secret police confined the limits of civil society?

Viva a liberdade. Photo: Henrique Matos (CC-BY0

These factors and the extent to which they made Portugal such an unlikely candidate for revolution are covered, and then dispensed with, in the first few pages of Raquel Varela’s almost day-by-day and blow-by-blow account. But this is no simple chronicle of events compiled dispassionately by a detached academic; rather it is a history of a chain of daily occurrences and how in a seemingly unrelated way they compose parts of a truly great historical event. So, from the start we see how within hours women and men began to shake loose the shackles of oppression. Many women clearly saw the combined curses of poverty and the denial of their reproductive rights as parts of that oppression. Varela’s narrative conveys an overpowering impression of the speed of events and the extent to which they challenged the existing order.

As Varela describes the very first hours of the Armed Forces Movement (MFA) coup (p. 18), she recounts how officers given orders to fire on enthusiastic civilian supporters defied their commanders. Army radio transmissions were reporting civilian orders to stay inside, with:

young people riding piggy-back on military convoys and surrounding the HQ of the GNR (Republican National Guard) in Carmo Square shouting ‘Victory’ and ‘death to fascism’.

Then street parties:

the biggest celebration I had ever seen … [in Rossio square]… when I got there… was a group of people formed on top of the tanks … in front of me young boys selling uncensored papers … In front there were flower sellers- the available flowers at the time were red and white carnations … In this context, since red stands for the left … afterwards the photos highlighted the reds.

And thereby the revolution – within minutes of its inception – gets its emblem.

And then within hours, strikes, rallies and demonstrations: nearly 100 strikes in the five days leading up to the biggest May Day demonstrations in Portuguese history. And by this time, workplace occupations to sack regime-collaborating managers and foremen were spreading beyond Lisbon.

Within 24 hours all political prisoners have been released, followed the next day with political prisoners in Portugal’s colonies also being released. Then as revolution continues as carnival, the newspaper Republica declares the revolution as: ‘the euphoria of the people of Lisbon to be a referendum’, and employers are warned not to deduct from the wages of those participating in the revolutionary events. The evidence of the degree to which fear changed sides and the state apparatus of oppression, coercion and tyranny was stifled, is covered in detail, as are the modest but powerfully symbolic moments like the releasing of political prisoners with the prison guards then being forced into their cells.

However, following over 50 years of corrupt, violent and oppressive dictatorship, it was at the level of communities deformed by decades of squalor and poverty and workplaces terrorised by brutal employers and informants and state spies where the injustices were to be rectified and where democratic workers power was to prove to be the main instrument for redress. But also for the African colonies, which had through endless struggle for liberation, had rebounded the crippling cost of colonial imperialism back onto the imperial power.

The revolution touched every level of Portuguese life. At the economic base, an uneven and combined process of investment had created a mass urban working class of immense power and rising consciousness. At the super-structural levels of church, education, state ideology, the apparatus of government and local administration, there was crisis. A supine and loyal press and communications media had provided a racist rationale for the pursuit of a brutal colonialism. Now everything was up for grabs. Capitalists and their managers, so used to sullen obedience were fleeing to Brazil with whatever ill-gotten goods they could carry. The sheer speed and extent of the revolution is conveyed in Varela’s book. But so too is the unevenness and often hesitancy of workers, land workers, peasants and many women thrust into leadership roles in their stinking bairros and shanty-towns. People, who had hitherto been cowed by the experience of everyday oppression, appeared almost blinded by the sudden light of revolutionary opportunities.

Democracy: everywhere, democracy

Comrade!

Go to the general meeting!

Don’t miss it!

Don’t think that if you are not there, others will think and speak for you.

That is what they did to you for 48 years.

Don’t let anyone do it for you!

To talk and think now is not only a right.

Thinking and talking is a duty now!

— Union branch meeting notice at the Efacec-Inel factory 21 May 1974.

After nearly 50 years of secrecy and darkness, open discussion in democratic forums became almost a mandatory norm. Such discussion, however seemingly trivial, came to be known as a plenário. The desire to engage in democratic debate revealed an insatiable appetite for information from reliable sources that could be trusted.

One vital area where reliable information would be used as a class tool was the workplace. Here Varela stresses the speed with which workers established Workers Commissions. Although it was possible to use such Commissions as means of cooling down potential disputes, it was the quality of reliable information and the trustworthiness of elected Commission representatives that made these bodies such a thorn in the sides of managements and Provisional governments alike.

It has been estimated that up to 4,000 Workers’ Commissions (comissões de trabalhadores) were set up within days and probably more residents/housing commissions (comissões de moradores) established: some 160 in the Lisbon area alone. These commissions were formed from direct democratic assemblies. The Communist Party, and later the Socialist Party were forever issuing them with injunctions to keep their actions within the law and, in the case of housing, to refrain from ‘abusive’ occupations of abandoned sumptuous bourgeois villas.

For the Communist party, the Workers Commissions represented a form of socialism from below that was beyond its direct control. On the other hand, they hoped that, given time, they might be turned into more compliant workplace organisations that could be tamed and fed into their strategy for a more respectable national trade union confederation: its Intersindical. However, when the Communist Party discovered that it was unable to control and direct the Workers’ Commissions, it tended to give up in exasperation. This left the organisation in many workplaces to flourish in a democracy of spontaneity within which smaller revolutionary organisations could flourish.

Colour everywhere!

Revolutions in retrospect are sometimes portrayed as stolid and regrettable, or at best necessary, moments when one regime takes over from another. They are the work of unrepresentative conspirators whose luck has come when the forces of the ‘old way’ were distracted, or engaged in other things that ordinary people just don’t understand. As such, revolutions, while having their moments, are grey, drab and confused, only to be regretted when the collective hangover descends.

The reality however is … a carnival! In chapter three, entitled ‘The people are no longer afraid!’, Varela briefly describes the spectacle some of the events that characterised the revolution throughout its 19-month life. The past is almost universally described as ‘the night’. Day to day behaviour takes on a form of celebratory defiance. Forty eight years of state and self-censorship is overthrown by open and free debates: ‘People are discussing the situation in England, France, Argentina, and Brazil as if they’d been professors of politics all their lives.’ (p. 27)

Walls of public places are at first daubed with revolutionary statements, to be followed by demands, and then in days, into the most extraordinary displays of revolutionary art. Demonstrations are organised from nowhere and seemingly by no one and policed gently, firmly and democratically by themselves. Workers in their bright safety helmets and work gear, march alongside young women in bright spring clothing carrying placards and banners bearing outrageous demands. Colour is as evident as the florid demonstrations of democracy. And everywhere, red carnations.

25 April Always. Photo: Henrique Matos

The grand avenidas that descend to the grand, statue-adorned banks of the Tagus, with their wide mosaic pavements in ceramic and gold, celebrating every colonial conquest and barbarity, were – in a wonderful irony – transformed into thoroughfares of revolution and the damnation of imperialism.

While portraits, effigies, icons and public monuments of the old regime were sacked, a whole new art-form of public celebration in the forms of theatre, painting, dance and poetry began to flourish:

This is the dawn I waited for

The new day clean and whole

When we emerge from night and silence

To freely inhabit the freedom of time

Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen (quoted p. 26)

For much of this People’s History great emphasis is rightly placed on the unleashed consciousness and imagination that ‘ordinary’ people bring to bear in the collective endeavour of relating to the old as they bring forth the new. This is important in that it emphasises the creative core of a revolution as the time-consuming effort, which leaves little time for revenge. It is as if the business of violence is the currency of a deposed enemy, and a violence that has no major place in the project of building a socialist future.

Within days of 25 April, the outward manifestations of social relations in a formerly conservative and catholic dictatorship dissolve:

Even the prostitutes of Lisbon organised and campaigned to sack their pimps. Those members of the armed forces below the rank of lieutenant would only be charged half price (p. 26).

Elsewhere, beyond the industrial cities, radical changes were underway. Land seizures by both peasants and agricultural proletarians on land left fallow on large agricultural estates owned by absentee landlords were growing (pp. 183-93). The revolution was becoming the political, social and economic cement that was beginning to unite all the exploited and oppressed sections together in the cause of working class solidarity. And the state – traditionally the force to resist such a movement – was paralysed. Its armed forces, often up to the rank of senior non-staff officers, had either joined, or were at least sympathetic with the revolutionary cause.

As for the ideologues of the old regime – the controllers of state media, the craven editors and their hack journalists, the directors of education, the censors and secret police with their army of informers, and even the catholic church, with its battalions of bishops, priests, nuns and lay clerics, who for so long had married the Grace of God with the cruelties of an imperialist dictatorship – all gone.   

The daily business of revolution

Although often initiated in a moment, revolutions are often processes of great complexity and duration. In a highly traditional society welded to an economic base of such mixed levels of technological and capital accumulations with a legacy superstructure of armed colonial administration, the inherent contradictions were labyrinthine. In these regards, Portugal represented an extreme example of the problems and opportunities of ‘uneven and combined development’.

Hence the scope of Varela’s work. This account covers strikes and their reverberations, self-management, women and reproduction in the revolution, artists and revolution, workers’ commissions, child care, residents’ commissions, the birth of a welfare state, agrarian reform plus the ongoing context of the struggles for state power as well as international pressures bearing down on the revolution. The task is vast and any one of its chapters would merit volumes of their own.

Then there are the countless mass meetings in city squares, market places, occupied shipyards and other workplaces, football stadiums, bull-rings, military barracks and university campuses. Meetings at which the ‘ordinary’ found they had a voice. Meetings where fraternising soldiers and sailors debated on issues as diverse as abolishing badges of rank and saluting, alongside the issues of women’s reproductive rights and childcare. These events, most of which went unreported, are now probably lost for all time. But they made up the very daily democratic fabric of the revolution.

And then the was the daily business of Workers’ Commissions in keeping the economic life-blood of the revolution going. Without tool-kit, guide-book, service manual or the stars to guide them, these attempted to transform the social relations of production. There was a great deal of unevenness between the Workers’ Commissions. They were varied in their political composition and in how they interpreted their wider social responsibilities.

Many revolutionaries have since asked why the Workers’ Commissions failed to establish alternative centres of power (as soviets), to challenge the state, by building relationships with the agricultural movement, community commissions and the soldier’s rank and file.

Such questions were debated furiously at the time and really form the terrain of what ifs that Varela poses, but as a historian is not in the business of answering. Peter Robinson has to some degree initiated that debate with his contribution to Revolutionary Rehearsals, as well in his MPhil thesis.[6]

Revolution and counter-revolution

There is no denying that the counter-revolutionary events in Chile a mere seven months prior to 25 April 1974 greatly influenced the thinking of revolutionary activists. For the Communist Party in Portugal, as well as for Communist Parties elsewhere in Europe, Chile served as a warning not to provoke the state by any premature, extreme or provocative actions. So everywhere – in the factories, the housing commissions, the streets and in the barracks – everywhere, they urged caution and patience.

Hence it was a revolution that almost couldn’t believe its luck. While on the other hand, it feared a bloody back-lash that might result from its impatience, its reticence in overthrowing the state was also a cause of growing concern. There was also a glaring absence of any unifying programme or more importantly, a revolutionary party with a cadre drawn from and rooted in the vanguard of the class. This left a vacuum of leadership, shape and organisation, and meant there was no ‘common sense’ within the febrile and democratic debates as to the nature of the state as an instrument of class power.

Still, it is clear that during the 19 months of the revolutionary movement, with all its ebbs and flows, there were periods of dual power – those moments where neither side commands a hegemony – and where the class can begin to break the deadlock and rally its forces for the decisive blow. These issues, and the confusions surrounding them, are covered by Varela in chapter 19, where she falls back on Trotsky’s reflections on the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917 in which their ‘political’ or ‘social’ character are discussed as differences which define both class content and ultimately, the likely historical outcome.

The strength of the revolution is perhaps best shown by the fact that it took 11 whole months before any serious counter-revolutionary attempt was made, and that the latter fizzled out no sooner than it had begun. On 11 March 1975, a group of dissident right-wing officers failed in an attempt to appeal to what they thought to be disaffected army units to rebel. This failed dismally. So much so that the Fourth Provisional Government was forced to reinforce the Portuguese economy against ‘sabotage’ by nationalising those parts of the banking and insurance sector suspected of having been supportive of the putsch.

Then, following the abortive coup of one month earlier, the Provisional Government decided on a sweeping set of reforms that nationalised those companies that had belonged to financial groups suspected of plotting against the revolution.  These included companies in petroleum, electricity, gas, tobacco, breweries, steelworks, cement, marine transport, cellulose, shipbuilding and repair, trucking, and urban and suburban transport (p. 94).

Varela does stress that this raft of nationalisations:

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 worker’s control (p. 154).

This wave of nationalisations did much to strengthen the power of Workers’ Commissions in many Portuguese-owned companies. Much of Lisbon’s industrial belt, though, was dominated by plants owned and controlled by overseas corporations, which had moved into Portugal in the early 1960s in search of ‘easy’ labour laws and cheap labour to exploit at ease. Corporations such as Timex, Plessey, Ford, General Motors, ITT, Ferranti and Philips employed many thousands of workers. Yet, despite their foreign ownership, even these were not free of the power of Workers Commissions.

A bang and then a whimper

The end of the revolution and the power of its mass democratic base did not follow from a series of defeats or a decline in popular power. On the contrary, in the autumn of 1975 another social force entered the fray in the form of a mass movement of agricultural workers who, starting in the Alentejo and central regions started a massive wave of land occupations. This was followed by a further upswing of strikes, occupations and demonstrations; not least of which was a massive solidarity rally in Lisbon during which the Spanish embassy was burned down.

Then on 12 November thousands of construction workers went on strike and with the apparent fraternisation of the military police, besieged the Sixth Provisional government in its Constituent Assembly buildings (p. 238). The following day, a massive demonstration of over 300,000 in Lisbon marched against the Sixth Provisional government. The demonstration in turn was supported by Workers’ Commissions in the form of the Provisional Secretariat of the Workers Committees of the Lisbon Industrial Belt (CIL) (pp. 238-42).[7]

Yet behind a resumed wave of strikes and popular unrest, the counter-revolutionary elements of the state in the form of senior officers and reformist politicians had been preparing. Initially they denounced and arrested senior revolutionary officers, and then they moved decisively against key revolutionary units of the armed forces. It is here that the over-dependency of a mass revolutionary movement on a radicalised military and some charismatic officers was shown to be its greatest weakness.

Within days, like a house of cards,[8] the first social revolution since Hungary 1956 was de-fanged and its massive energies dissipated. Direct and popular revolutionary democracy was diverted at relative ease into liberal bourgeois democracy. The soldiers returned to their barracks, some to face courts martial, and the bosses, tentatively at first, returned to their boardrooms. And while in her penultimate chapter, Varela offers a chronology of the events of the 25 November, the left is yet to analyse and explain how and why a revolution of such vibrancy, audacity, hope and vision ended not with a bang, but a whimper.

‘I know you are partying’

For socialists today who regard revolution to be the decisive and democratic route whereby the course of history can be changed through the conscious agency of the working class, then Raquel Varela’s People’s History of the Portuguese Revolution makes essential reading. Within the lifetime of some revolutionaries still active, a mass popular revolution brought not only ruling class power to its knees, but it also questioned the very legitimacy and purpose of capitalism. In the process it destroyed the last vestige of colonial imperialism whilst revealing the day to day barbarity and oppressive role of the state.

Women fought for liberation at home and at work. Workers found work – for a while – to be an expression of their self-worth rather than as a seat and source of fear and alienation. Homes became homes rather than squalid hovels, and workers demanded health care and pension as rights rather than thinly dispensed rations. Although after 19 months the revolution was brought to an end, the events started on the 25 April 1974 are now part of our history, as well as offering a wish-list of the kind of society that will have to be built.

It did for a moment happen. There are still some of us alive today who had the privilege to witness a revolution as a possibility. Those were marvellous events, and as Raquel Varela concludes:

One of the characteristics of the Portuguese revolution is that people are always smiling. It was not by chance that (popular singer) Chico Buarque sang: ‘I know you are partying, man’.

 

Notes

[1] The term fascist is here quite loosely applied to what was in fact a precursor for the type of militant autocratic form of catholic bourgeois conservatism best exemplified by the Francoism of Spain.

[2] Notwithstanding the role of the UK in relation to Ireland to this day.

[3] An honourable exception is Peter Robinson’s various essays, including his: ‘Portugal 1974-75: popular power’, in: Colin Barker (ed), Revolutionary Rehearsals (London: Bookmarks, 2008), pp. 83–121.

[4] Philip Agee, a former CIA European desk agent more or less stated that the PPS was a CIA funded alternative to an armed coup, which, given the extent of defection to the revolution by lower to middle ranking officers, would in all probability be a failure. See his: Inside the Company: CIA diary (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975).

[5] MFA communique, 25 April 1974: Varela, People’s History, p. 16.

[6] See note XX above and Peter Robinson, ‘Workers Councils in Portugal 1974-75’, MPhil Thesis (Centre for Sociology and Social University: The Open University, 1989).

[7] Varela describes how with the CIL, albeit late in the day, the Workers’ Commissions united, admittedly under Communist Party influence, to take on the form of an embryonic Workers’ Council or ‘Soviet’.

[8] Peter Robinson, ‘So much freedom! Portugal’s Carnation Revolution’ [Review of Varela, People’s History], International Socialism Journal, 123 (19 June 2019), p.159.

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