Issue 229 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
The sort of history you learn at school often leaves out the important bits, like revolutions. Many of the people from Britain going out to Portugal for their holidays will be unaware that this month marks the 25th anniversary of the beginning of the Portuguese revolution, the revolution which brought down a fascist dictatorship that had lasted for almost half a century. Today Portugal has a parliamentary system like any other in Europe. It is governed by a Socialist Party brought to power by workers' aspirations for change but which, like Blair's New Labour, has turned its back on these aspirations. The Portuguese Revolution is worth remembering because it gave a glimpse of a quite different way of running things, a socialist society run by workers themselves.
The revolution began with a coup by disaffected sections of the military. Portugal's attempts to hang on to its colonies in Africa had led it into wars it could not afford and which it was not winning. That something momentous was afoot would have been obvious to anyone in Portugal listening to the radio in the early hours of 25 April 1974. The playing of a banned song by a left wing folk singer was the signal for the coup. For most of the population of Lisbon the first thing they knew was waking up to find armed troops with tanks in control of all the main streets. As soon as it became clear whose side the troops were on, the whole thing erupted into a huge street party, with people embracing the soldiers and putting red carnations in their guns.
If big business had had its way, this brief celebration of freedom would have been as far as things went. Former fascist general Antonio de Spinola was even installed as president. His aim was a slightly reformed version of the old setup. All might have gone to plan except for one factor--the effect of the sudden collapse of the fascist power structure on Portuguese workers.
A week after the coup workers celebrated May Day freely for the first time in their lives, when 100,000 workers took over the streets of Lisbon with red banners and speeches from left wing leaders just returned from exile. But workers were not prepared to simply wait for these leaders to carry out reforms. They had deep grievances that had been building up for years. Now they went on strike to demand satisfaction. The strikes were not just over bread and butter issues. A key demand was for saneamento, the 'cleaning out' of fascist managers and spies.
The main workers' organisation was the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP). It had the right credentials, having been the backbone of every serious opposition to fascism for the previous 40 years. It grew massively in the days after the coup. Unfortunately, the strategy of the PCP was anything but revolutionary.
The party wanted to prove to Spinola and big business that it could control the working class. This meant campaigning to bring the strike wave to an end. So the PCP claimed that 'fascists' were behind the bakers' strike and denounced a struggle in the country's biggest newspaper, even though it was for the sacking of fascist managers. The party even applauded when troops were used to break the postal workers' strike, although the majority of the strike committee were themselves supporters or members of the party!
At first, the PCP's strategy seemed to be paying off. But the tempo of class struggle was rising, not falling. Militants influenced by the party were confused and often did not know what to do, but others reacted by turning against the PCP and looking in a more revolutionary direction. Groups to the left of the Communist Party began to gain an influence in the more militant workplaces. When an antistrike law approved by the PCP was introduced in the summer of 1974, 5,000 shipyard workers defied a ban to march in protest through Lisbon.
Growing numbers of bosses tried to suppress the militancy by closing or threatening to close their factories. But this only led to workers taking over the plants--either running them themselves or imposing their control over the managers. Hundreds of factories were run this way by the spring of 1975. In February of that year more than 1,000 workers' representatives organised a demonstration through Lisbon to protest at rising unemployment and an intimidatory visit by the Nato fleet. Despite the demonstration being denounced by the PCP and the unions, it nevertheless drew 40,000 workers, with banners from many major factories in the Lisbon area. In the countryside, especially on the huge estates in the south, landless labourers began to seize the land from the rich landowners who had oppressed their forefathers for centuries.
While all this was taking place, the old ruling class was beginning to organise. There were several right wing coup attempts which, if successful, could have easily ended in a bloodbath. Only prompt workers' action stopped this. In September 1974 Spinola made a speech urging people to 'wake up to defend themselves against extreme totalitarianisms that fight in the shadows'. He began to organise a demonstration of the alleged 'silent majority' of the right, while distributing guns among former fascists. Only a workers' mass mobilisation stopped the attempt. Spinola was forced to resign as president but he was only biding his time.
In March 1975 Spinola attempted a much more serious coup. Right wing officers took control of one of the main airbases and sent fighter aircraft and helicopters to bombard the barracks that guarded the northern approach to Lisbon. Paratroops then surrounded the barracks. This was meant to be the signal for right wing officers throughout the country to seize power, but it backfired.
Instead of workers being cowed by the attempt at a coup, they reacted with a heroic display of strength. First, radio workers signalled the alarm. Workers in Lisbon closed down the banks and stopped anyone entering. Shops and offices emptied as workers rushed to join demonstrations and put up barricades. In the main industrial centre south of Lisbon, factory and fire sirens shrieked continuously as workers formed pickets which stopped and searched all vehicles. Near the bombarded barracks itself, building workers formed a dense barricade backed up with bulldozers and tons of cement. A workers' representative went to the barracks to ask for the workers to be armed so that they could join in the fight. The frontier roads to Spain were blocked off and in Coimbra, north of Lisbon, cars were driven onto the airport runway after a plane was seen flying low over the city. Meanwhile, huge demonstrations jammed the streets of Lisbon, Oporto and the other cities. In some units soldiers openly fraternised with workers. Even the paratroopers who had been sent to initiate the coup were eventually won over by workers' arguments.
The attempted coup gave events another big push to the left. The wave of factory occupations became a deluge. In many cases trade union activists who had taken over their factories, as the bosses deserted in droves, were now simply told that they were nationalised. In the armed forces, rank and file soldiers and even some officers began to question their role in society. The military organisation Copcon, which had originally been set up to 'maintain order', was now more sympathetic to militant workers' action than the Communist Party.
Things ought to have been ripe for a transition to a society based on real workers' power. Yet only half a year later, in November 1975, the revolutionary mood had been beaten back. A weak attempted coup by the left was used as a pretext for the restoration of 'order' under the Socialist Party which had earlier formed a government with the openly right wing PPD, and which had received a high vote in the April Constituent Assembly elections. Order had returned to the armed forces, with left wing leaders sympathetic to the workers' movement like Otelo de Carvalho, head of Copcon, removed from their positions, and 'discipline' restored among the rank and file. Unlike before, there was no general mobilisation of workers. The revolution was over. What had happened in the intervening period for things to turn out like this?
The Socialist Party hardly existed when the revolution broke out, but it was able to grow and gain influence because of the weaknesses of those to its left. It joined in the chorus of voices from the right denouncing the 'dictatorial aims' of the workers' and left wing soldiers' movement. It talked of workers' control, for example at the Republica newspaper, as dictatorship. The PCP's bureaucratic manoeuvres to get its hands on the levers of state had failed but it still set its face against the sort of genuine mass popular movement of the workers that could have taken power.
The real opportunity to turn the victorious mood of March into a bid for power by the workers should have rested with the revolutionary left. It was tiny when fascism was overthrown, but then so was every organised political force, with the exception of the PCP. The initial vehement opposition of the Communists to the strike wave presented the left with a virtually unparalled opportunity to grow. It produced weekly papers that sold widely, it gained members in most of the main factories in the Lisbon area and it was able to organise large demonstrations despite the opposition of the PCP.
But the politics of the revolutionary left were sadly lacking. Its ideas were tainted by Stalinism in all its forms. The worst were the Maoists, who ended up joining in the denunciation of the PCP from the right. The best tried to push the revolution forward but they looked to the ideas of Che Guevara and saw the success of the revolution as resting primarily on a military struggle rather than through building a mass workers' movement. In the context of the Portuguese Revolution, where the military played a leading role from the start, such ideas held an obvious attraction. The left even managed to build a sizeable movement of rank and file revolutionary soldiers. Ultimately, however, it failed to link such initiatives to a consistent orientation on the working class. A mass mobilisation of workers was the one force that could have stopped the destruction of left wing influence in the armed forces, and that mobilisation never came.
The fate of the Portuguese Revolution shows that even the most favourable revolutionary upsurges can be defeated without the existence of a sizeable revolutionary party that is able to see and seize the opportunities as they arise, amidst all the complexity of the revolutionary situation. But the revolution carries another message as well. Here was a full blown revolution taking place in one of Europe's oldest nation states. Today in Portugal, like every other European country, there is a debate going on about what is on offer from European union. In Portugal, as in Britain, all it seems to mean for workers is more attacks on living standards and public services, in the name of 'competitiveness'. The red flower that blossomed in Portugal 25 years ago is worth remembering because it shows that workers are quite capable of creating a very different sort of society, in which our needs, not those of the bosses, are paramount.