Fragmented Power: Portugal in Revolution, 1974-1975

By Doug Enaa Greene February 11, 2018 
 Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal  — On April 25, 1974, just after midnight, the Catholic-owned Radio Renascenca played a song entitled “Grandola Vila Morena”. This was the signal for the underground Armed Forces Movement (MFA) to begin their long-planned coup d'etat and bring down the Estado Novo regime that had ruled Portugal for forty-four years. The coup succeeded with remarkable ease in seizing control of key installations and cities. The next day, the people of Lisbon ignored radio appeals to stay inside and poured into the streets to enjoy their first taste of freedom. To show their support for the soldiers, the people placed carnations on their guns – giving the coup its name as the “Carnation Revolution”. Despite the modest intentions of its organizers, over the next eighteen months the coup unleashed mass movements and popular initiatives that brought Portugal to the brink of a socialist revolution. Why did the Carnation Revolution fail? Despite its impressive demonstrations and energy, the revolutionary left remained weak. They were also divided between multiple groups with divergent and contradictory strategies. None of them was able to come forward as a single pole of attraction capable of uniting the working class, peasants and radical soldiers in the struggle for power. Secondly, what existed in Portugal was not so much “dual power,” but what the British socialist Chris Harman called “the fragmentation of power.” There were many different workers' assemblies, commissions, and councils that could exert pressure on the government, but were disunited at both the local and national levels making them unable to pose the question of state power.[1] Even the best elements of the revolutionary left, who attempted to organize councils, did not consistently follow through with those efforts. They had greater influence among radicalized soldiers than in the working class and were more prone to look for a purely military solution. Ultimately, the far left was outmanoeuvred, the revolutionary tide ebbed and the bourgeoisie regained control.


Once a great world empire, by the beginning of the twentieth century, Portugal was governed by an ancient and decaying monarchy with few signs of its former glory.[2] In 1911, a revolution disposed the monarchy and established the First Portuguese Republic. The republican era brought 16 years of political instability and unrest. After forty-five governments, there was a widespread desire in the ruling class for an authoritarian solution to restore order. On May 28, 1926 a military coup ended the First Republic and created the Ditadura Nacional. The regime's finance minister, António de Oliveira Salazar grew popular since his reforms brought political and economic stability. Over the next seven years, Salazar promoted a vision that eventually became known as “Estado Novo” which drew from Catholic social doctrine, fascism, anti-democratic and corporatist ideals to renew Portugal. In 1933, Salazar became Portugal's 100th Prime Minister and began to implement his vision. After Salazar's ascension to power, he developed a single party known as the National People's Action. However, the party did not have same dynamism as the Nazis. Unlike other fascist regimes, Estado Novo never really inspired mass support for its policies from a mass movement of the petty bourgeoisie. Rather, the regime gained support from the bourgeoisie. The ruling class had no problem with Salazar since he ensured the defense of private property, the superexploitation of the proletariat and the perpetuation of colonial rule. The left and any form of opposition was squelched by the fearsome secret police. In the middle 1930s, Portugal faced both monarchist and leftist revolts. When the Spanish Civil War began in 1936, Salazar supported Francisco Franco's Nationalists with supplies and troops. The revolts at home and civil war across the border enabled Salazar to concentrate more power into his hands. During World War II, Portugal was officially neutral, but Salazar expressed his support for the Nazi invasion of the USSR. A sign of this support was that General Antonio de Spinola (who had fought alongside Franco) worked alongside the German Wehrmacht as an “observer” on the Eastern Front. As the tide moved against Germany, the regime favored the Allies and survived. After the war, Salazar allowed a little liberalization and tolerated a non-threatening opposition. However, the secret police made sure that anti-fascists continued to fill the jails. The main group of anti-fascists and opposition to the Estado Novo came from the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP). For over 40 years, PCP cadre were arrested, tortured and murdered by the secret police. The Communists earned a great deal of prestige for their dedication and willingness to work with all opposition forces to overthrow Salazar. During the April 1975 elections, the PCP proclaimed that its 247 candidates had served 440 years in Salazar's prisons.[3] The opposition appeared powerless since Portugal continued to be ruled by a small oligarchy who concentrated and centralized capital into their hands. In the industrial sector, 168 companies out of 40,000 (or 0.4 percent) controlled at least 53 percent of the total capital.[4] The oligarchy protected its interests against foreign competition and outlawed any form of trade unions. However, this situation did not go unchallenged. Smaller and liberal capitalists were left out of this tidy arrangement. Despite the Estado Novo's policy of protecting native industry, the country remained woefully underdeveloped and largely agricultural. While European empires collapsed after World War II, Portugal stubbornly held onto their African empire. The Portuguese colonies of Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique were a valuable source of raw materials, cheap labor and secure markets for the oligarchy. However, Portugal could only resist the tide of history for so long. In 1961, the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) began its guerrilla campaign against the Portuguese empire. Two years later, the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), led by the Marxist Amilcar Cabral, started another guerrilla war. Finally in 1964, the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) launched its opening offensive. The three anti-colonial organizations were influenced to some degree by socialist ideology, and at times received support from the USSR, China and Cuba. The Portuguese sent in soldiers to quickly smash the guerrillas. However, the anti-colonial wars dragged on for nearly fifteen years with nearly 150,000 soldiers fighting in Africa. The wars were deeply unpopular in Portugal with nearly half the budget devoted to the military by the mid-1970s.[5] Despite the drain on the economy, Portugal could not fund the campaigns on their own. Increasingly, the costs of war was subsidized by the United States and NATO powers, who were opposed to the Marxist-influenced independence movements. During the war years, Portugal began a lopsided modernization. By the late 1960s, the proportion of industry rose from 25 percent in 1950 to 35 percent, and the percentage working in agriculture fell from half to barely a third.[6] In 1968, over 52 percent of Portugal's manufacturing investment came from abroad.[7] Portugal was an attractive investment site with its pool of cheap labor without union protections. Foreign capital mainly from the United Kingdom, the European Economic Community, and the United States flowed into Portugal, funding shipyard construction and industrial plants, particularly around Lisbon. Throughout the 1960s, wages remained low, but inflation and shantytowns grew. The wars, poverty and repression meant that emigration abroad became an attractive option for thousands. Social problems mounted and sections of the bourgeoisie saw the need for change, but the colonial wars and Salazar blocked any path to reform. The first real “thaw” in the Estado Novo occurred in September 1968 after Salazar suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and withdrew from active political life (dying in 1970). His replacement was Marcelo Caetano, who saw the need for change. Caetano attempted to reform the system from above, balance the budget and modernize the economy. Censorship was relaxed, elections were held, and pension funds were created for rural workers. However, Caetano made sure these changes did not go too far. The opposition still could not win any election, the colonial wars dragged on and inflation plagued the economy in the mid-1970s. As the Estado Novo spiraled toward the abyss, opposition began to crystalize. Moderate and conservative sectors turned to General Spinola, who wanted to salvage the regime by entering the European Common Market and a neo-colonial arrangement to end the African wars. Opposition from below posed more fundamental changes. The first independent unions in decades began to form. In 1969 unions held their first elections without first submitting their candidate lists to the secret police. In 1970, 20 unions with elected militant leaders created Intersindical, a semi-legal union federation. Strikes grew apace over the next several years. Between October 1973 and March 1974, more than 100,000 workers at 200 firms demanded wage increases and at least 60,000 went on illegal strikes.[8] It was a sign of things to come. Organized leftist opposition was also forming beyond the ranks of the PCP. In 1968, the Democratic Electoral Commission (CDE) composed of communists, Catholics and other left figures was formed and served as a focal point of resistance. In 1970, the Maoist-inspired Portuguese Workers' Communist Party/Reorganizative Movement of the Party of the Proletariat (PCTP/MRPP) was created and became active on the campuses of Lisbon. In 1970, the Revolutionary Brigades (RB), which was founded as a split from the PCP, believed the time had come for armed struggle. While the RB had a Blanquist streak, they believed that “the practice of armed actions was never separate from the need to create a revolutionary organization of the proletariat which would link the armed struggle with the mass struggles”.[9] In September 1973, the RB joined forces with the Revolutionary Party of the Proletariat (PRP) to form the PRP-RB with the goal of socialist revolution. Lastly, there was the small 200-member Socialist Party (PS) formed in 1973 by the lawyer Mário Soares. Although small, the PS would play a pivotal role in the days to come. The most significant opposition to the dictatorship was the Movement of the Armed Forces (MFA) that was formed in September 1973 by junior officers serving in the colonies. The MFA's support in the military was small – only 400 officers out of 10000 were members.[10] Its demands were relatively moderate – higher salaries, shorter terms of duty, and opposition to new military laws that allowed the commission of conscripts who fought overseas as academy graduates. By the time of the April coup, their program called for “Democracy, Development and Decolonization,” which was a direct challenge to the regime. Over time, many in the MFA came to sympathize with the Marxist guerrillas they were supposed to be fighting as opposed to the repressive Estado Novo. By the 1970s, officers in the army were increasingly university educated and those who joined the MFA were influenced by leftist and anti-war agitation found on campuses. Naturally, the MFA became committed to ending the colonial wars. The MFA went into action with a botched coup attempt in March 1974. However, the government did not resort to heavy-handed repression; it simply transferred the plotters to other units. The MFA quickly reorganized and a month later they struck again. This time, they did not fail.

The Carnation Revolution

A. Festival of the Oppressed

At the appointed hour on April 25, 1974, the MFA seized strategic points across Portugal. Within hours, the Estado Novo was swept away. After the coup, power was taken by a newly-created Junta of National Salvation headed by General Spinola with the MFA participating. The Junta acted as a provisional government, planning to relinquish power after elections and the writing of a new constitution. However, the Junta contained two opposed camps. On the one hand, the conservatives around Spinola opposed immediate independence and wanted to secure Portuguese business interests in the colonies. The more radical-inclined MFA wanted an immediate end to the wars. It was a recipe for instability. After decades of living in fear and silence, Portugal came to life again. Demonstrators welcomed the MFA coup and adopted the slogan: “The MFA is with the people, the people are with the MFA.” A week after the coup, May Day was celebrated by 100,000 workers in Lisbon with red flags and radical slogans. They did not intend to simply parade, but to purge all traces of the old order. They had pent up grievances to finally satisfy. In the days to come, the jails were opened and political prisoners emerged. Agents of the hated secret police were attacked and imprisoned. Revolutionary graffiti, posters and slogans were found everywhere. Workers turned against bosses and police spies. A revolution from below was now sweeping across Portugal with strikes, occupations and worker commissions. Workers occupied the great shipyards of Lisnave and Setnave. In May alone, more than 200,000 workers went on strike. A movement of shanty-dwellers took control of more than 2,000 homes. At the end of May, workers' commissions (Comissões de Trabalhadores, CT) and councils were created in Lisbon and the surrounding regions to organize the growing struggles. There was also the confederations of CTs known as inter-factory meetings (Inter-Empresa) that operated as workers councils in embryo.

B. Communist Party and Intersindical

A plethora of leftist parties and organizations emerged after the April coup and took part in the ensuing struggles. Chief among them was the PCP with its 5,000 members (expanding to 100,000 members by July 1975) and based in the working class. The PCP said that socialism was not on the agenda, but the immediate task was building a broad front to secure democracy. True to its program, the party joined the first provisional government created by the Junta.[11] PCP general secretary Álvaro Cunhal justified the party's participation as follows:
It is necessary, for good and all, to get rid of the idea that there exists in Portugal a popular government in a position to carry out thorough social reform. Also illusions should not be nurtured that in the present circumstances the workers can force these through. The Provisional Government is formed of a broad coalition of social and political forces, whose program – the Movement of the Armed Forces program – does not envisage profound reforms of the socio-economic structure. This is one point. Another point to stress is that this same program of an anti-monopolist strategy will make use of emergency measures. These can easily be implemented without altering the present structures of Portuguese society. There has been a small advance in this direction. We must advance.[12]
The PCP did not place themselves at the head of the escalating strike wave, but argued that production must be developed first to prepare the grounds for socialism (in the distant future of course). Therefore, workers should not make “excessive” demands on their employers. According this logic, workers must not drive small and medium business into the fascist camp, but win their allegiance:
Our enemies proclaim that communists threaten small businesses ... The truth is that communists defend, not only the interests of the working class and peasantry, but all classes and middle layers. Small farmers, small industrialists, small businessmen – all these can look to us communists as the true defenders of their legitimate interests.[13]
The relationship between the PCP and other factions of the Junta was mutually beneficial to both sides. On the one side, Spinola and his business allies believed that the Communists could discipline the working class and help secure stability. On the other side, the PCP used their governmental position to gain control over the unions, and win or install trustworthy people in key positions throughout the state and army.[14] In order for the PCP to restrain working class struggles, it needed an instrument to do so, which was found in the burgeoning union movement of Intersindical. From just 22 unions in April, Intersindical expanded to more than 200 in just a matter of weeks. By July 1975, Intersindical encompassed 2 million members, overshadowing all its labor union rivals. The wave of strikes after the coup caused the provisional government to enact a national minimum wage. This was a clear victory for the working class and Intersindical called off further strikes. On June 1, Intersindical organized a demonstration in support of the government and against more strikes. The demonstration failed to garner much support. A few weeks later, both the PCP and Intersindical supported the government's efforts to break a bitter strike by postal workers. This set the pattern that the PCP would follow throughout the Carnation Revolution – support for the government and opposition to both the revolutionary left and the working class.

C. Socialist Party, China and the Maoists

The Carnation Revolution worried the United States that Portugal was going to succumb to a socialist revolution and endanger the NATO alliance. To counter the growing influence of the Communist Party and the far left, the CIA funneled funds in support of the “moderates” such as Mário Soares in the Socialist Party.[15] However the United States did fear that the moderates were not up to the challenge. In October 1974, Soares met with US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Kissinger feared that the Communist Party would take control of Portugal, but Soares reassured him:
"You are a Kerensky," Kissinger told Soares. "I believe your sincerity, but you are naive."
"I certainly don't want to be a Kerensky," Soares replied.
"Neither did Kerensky," Kissinger answered.
Unfortunately for the course of the Portuguese Revolution, Soares did not play the role of Kerensky. More fatefully, no one played the role of Lenin.[16] The Socialist Party was a logical choice for the US to support because their vague program of “democracy” and “socialism” meant they could appeal to large swaths of the population. The Socialists could also appear as a left alternative to the Communists, as evidence by their support for the postal workers' strike in June. The PS could thus feint left and right as needed. Ironically, the Socialist Party was also supported by the People's Republic of China in line with their rightward turn in foreign policy after 1971. According to China's Three Worlds Theory, “Soviet social-imperialism” and its agents in the Communist Party represented the main danger to Portugal (leading Beijing to support the Soares' declaration of marital law in November 1975). Increasingly, the Chinese argued for the strengthening of the NATO alliance (supported by the Socialists) as a bulwark to the Soviet Union. The Chinese feared that a revolution in Portugal would lead to the end of this alliance.[17] While this position could be justified as cynical realpolitik by China, it was not a revolutionary foreign policy and completely disoriented Portuguese Maoists. The PCP (ML) allied with the PS in opposition to the PCP's “social fascism.” The MRPP not only aligned with the Socialists, but in the summer of 1975 when reactionaries began burning the offices of the PCP, they hailed this as a “peasant rising against social-fascism.”[18] Only the Maoist United Democratic Front (UDP) slightly dissenting by arguing (against all evidence) that Portugal was threatened by “both imperialisms”. The Maoists moved from the far left to providing “left” cover to those working to stifle the revolution.[19]

D. The September Coup

The strikes in May and June caused a shake-up in the provisional government. Spinola formed a second government to balance between the MFA and the conservatives. It was led by the moderate Colonel Vasco Gonçalves as prime minister and eight military officers alongside members of the PS, PCP, and the conservative Democratic People's Party (PPD). Gonçalves, who moved left over the next year, headed the next four provisional governments between July 1974 and September 1975. However, the hoped for stability did not come for two reasons. First, the colonial liberation movements refused to accept a compromise peace and wanted total victory. Spinola's plans began to unravel in September when Guinea-Bissau gained independence. Secondly, Spinola could not depend on the loyalty of the army, which was continuing to radicalize. To ensure that the Junta had a reliable military force at their disposal, the Continental Operations Command (COPCON) was formed on July 8. COPCON's commander was Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho, a member of the MFA and an organizer of the April 25 coup. The first test for COPCON came in August when it was sent to break a strike at the shipyards. The rank-and-file troops dissented and the commanding officer withdrew. While no large-scale mutiny occurred, it was a further sign that law and order was breaking down. Spinola and the ruling class knew that if the army could not be supported, then investments were no long safe. Something decisive had to be done. On September 10, Spinola gave a Nixonian speech where he called on the “silent majority” of Portugal to rise up and defend the nation from extremism. A pro-Spinola demonstration was planned on September 28. Both the right and left knew that this was a call for a coup. The first major trial of strength of the Portuguese Revolution was at hand. On the day of the demonstration, MFA leaders begged Spinola to call it off. He refused and had them placed under virtual arrest. Now, Spinola ordered troops to take control of the defense and communications ministries.[20] While the government appeared powerless, the unions and entire far left – PCP, PRP-RB, Maoists, Trotskyists, etc. – mobilized the workers to take to the streets. The workers erected barricades and set up roadblocks to prevent troop movement. Railway unions prevented any special trains of fascists from going to Lisbon. Soldiers refused orders from Spinola to remove the barricades, but manned them alongside the workers. The mass mobilization broke the back of the Spinola coup before it truly began. The MFA revived from its temporary paralysis and retook Lisbon. The following day, Spinola resigned and a more left-wing third provisional government was formed. Spinola remained at liberty and waited for a better time to strike again.

E. Inter-Empresas

While there was a lull in struggle after the Spinola coup, things picked up in January 1975 in response to the growing economic crisis. In 1974, GNP grew only 2-3 percent compared to 8 percent growth in 1973. Unemployment reached nearly of 10 percent. Considering the political instability, there was capital flight and drops in investment. From May 1974 to May 1975, the cost of food went up by 25 percent.[21] Although the government kept talking about overcoming the crisis, nothing happened. The structure of the economy remained fundamentally the same as under the Estado Novo. The people decided to act – workers occupied factories, farmers seized land, and students agitated on the campuses. Throughout Portuguese society, there was a yearning for change. The PCP and PS took notice. On January 14, Intersindical organized a demonstration of 300,000 supporting a unified trade union movement and an end to the old Salazarist unions. The PCP also wanted a single union federation to contain popular energy. The PS demanded trade union pluralism and retaining some of the old corporatist structures as a bulwark against the PCP. Neither option represented a path out of the crisis, only more control by those opposed to the revolution. New forms of power were needed if the people were going to break the hold of capitalism. One source was provided by the Inter-Empresas that continued growing. The potential power of the Inter-Empresas was shown on February 7 when they organized mass demonstrations against lay-offs. On the surface, this was a simple “economic” struggle, but the CTs made it political with a banner that read: “Redundancies are the inevitable consequence of the capitalist system. The workers must destroy this system and build a new world.”[22] Another slogan was added at the last moment since the NATO fleet was anchored in Lisbon: “NATO out, for national independence.” The Inter-Empresas linked anti-imperialism, anti-austerity, and socialism together. Here was a banner and a program that Portuguese workers could rally behind. Over the objections of the PCP and Intersindical, 80,000 people took to the streets. One participant describes the scene as follows:
The demonstration met police and military officers all along the way. They wanted to discourage or divert us. The demonstration never stopped in spite of different attempts to stop it. The army blocked the streets leading to the American Embassy . . . I asked the people through the megaphone whether or not they should advance . . . the people would not let themselves be fooled or impeded. So I went to talk to an officer and told him “the people of the demonstration want to pass.” And so we moved on. . . . . As the demonstrators went past, the commandos turned their backs on the demonstration, turned their weapons on the building, and joined the people in the chanting.[23]
However, the anti-NATO demonstration was the last significant action organized by Inter-Empresas. The Inter-Empresas declined into a shell by March that largely supported the PCP's moderate program. How did this radical experiment decline so quickly and the PCP gain control? The PCP was aided by the sectarianism on the far left that weakened the Inter-Empresas. Many workers around the Inter-Empresas were so disgusted with sectarianism that they rejected the need for political parties altogether. Leftists within the Inter-Empresas such as the PRP-RB adapted to this mood and refused to fight for leadership, leaving the federation at the mercy of the “respectable left”. Secondly, Intersindical could win struggles for basic demands, further eroding Inter-Empresas' support in the workplaces. In the end, Inter-Empresas could not serve as a vehicle for dual power.

F. The March Coup

Despite the failure of the September coup, the provisional government had still not reestablished order. In fact, things were getting worse. Struggles were intensifying across Portugal. The MFA was radicalizing, raising the specter of a split in the army. It seemed that a generalized revolutionary challenge was on the horizon. The right was determined to strike first. On March 11, Spinola and his compatriots launched another coup in Lisbon. The opening move was to send paratroopers to disarm a radical regiment. The plan rapidly fell apart. The supposedly reliable paratroops refused to fire and the radical troops fraternized with them. The coup collapsed and Spinola fled into exile. The strategies of the ruling class to re-establish control appeared in complete disarray. Once again, the left responded to the threat of a counterrevolution by taking to the streets. Barricades and roadblocks manned by armed workers cut off the main roads into Lisbon. Factories, schools, radios, newspapers and banks were occupied. Both the government and MFA took a further swing to the left. The Junta of National Salvation was abolished and replaced by the Council of the Revolution as the highest governing body in Portugal. A fourth provisional government was formed that nationalized banks and large businesses. As a result of the sweeping nationalizations, the government controlled most of the economy. It appeared to be the dawn of socialism. In the aftermath of the failed coup, the Council of the Revolution held the planned elections to the Constituent Assembly on April 25 (the first anniversary of the revolution). Interest in the elections was high and over 90 percent of the eligible population voted. The MFA expected an easy triumph, but the results came as a shock. The Socialist Party won the largest share of the vote – nearly 38 percent – presenting themselves as an anti-fascist and democratic socialist alternative to the Communists. The right-wing Democratic Peoples' Party (PPD), formed only in 1974, came in second with 26 percent of the vote. The PCP came in a distant third with less than 13 percent, while its allies in the CDE/MDP won 4 percent. The parties of the revolutionary left won less than 8 percent of the vote. The PCP, SP, CDE/MDP and the revolutionary left won nearly 60 percent of the vote. “Socialism” in one sense or another was clearly popular in Portugal. However, the understanding of “socialism” varied widely between the Soviet bureaucratic model of the PCP, the parliamentary welfare state and pro-NATO vision of the PS, and the sweeping revolutionary democracy of the far left. The Constituent Assembly election results fragmented power and authority even further in Portugal. The Constituent Assembly was not the supreme governing body, but merely an advisory body to the MFA. Within a day of their victory, the Socialists were already chanting “Down with the MFA!” and in favor of a “democratic government.” The Socialist Party could now present itself as possessing both democratic legitimacy and as the strongest defender of the gains of the revolution. Inside the MFA, divisions were sharpening. Many radicals had opposed the elections and now feared that the victorious Socialists threatened the revolution. Beyond the corridors of power, there were still the forces of the revolutionary left and the mass movements, who had not given up the dream of socialism.

G. Councils and Popular Power

During the election campaign for the Constituent Assembly, the PRP-RB's paper ran a headline that proclaimed “Vote for the Revolutionary Councils – for the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.” On April 19, the PRP-RB held a large meeting in Lisbon to formally launch the Revolutionary Councils of Workers, Soldiers, and Sailors (CRTSM). The councils were not simply a PRP-RB front, but supported beyond their ranks by soldiers of COPCON (including Carvalho), militants from Inter-Empresas, and Workers' Committees. The councils were clearly envisioned by PRP-RB militants along the model of Russian soviets – potentially as the foundation for dual power. However, the PRP-RB was caught in a contradiction as evidenced by the June 17 CRTSM demonstration. On that day, 30,000 marched in Lisbon demanding the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, a non-party government, and socialist revolution. While the PRP-RB accepted the need for councils and a party to fight for leadership in them, they continually adapted to the prevailing anti-party mood among the workers. As a result, they lost touch with the workers and the CRTSMs were largely still-born. Instead, the PRP-RB looked to other solutions, such as the leftist soldiers in the MFA or COPCON who could act on behalf of the proletariat. The CRTSMs were not the only possible form of dual power. Radical rank-and-file members within the MFA were now championing the rhetoric of “popular power” as a way to unify the workers, soldiers, and peasants. At the General Assembly of the MFA on July 7-9, the delegates endorsed “popular power” to defend against the far right and to solve economic difficulties. The MFA's conception of “popular power” called for arming the people, handing power to various committees and councils throughout the country. At the same time, the MFA was assured power for the next three years and its Revolutionary Council was recognized at the highest political body in the country. The MFA came up with a contradictory vision of grassroots socialism protected by the paternalistic military. It was an unworkable and untenable plan for socialism.

H. To the Brink

Inspiring the left and terrifying the right, Portuguese society continued to radicalize. Not only had the government seized the commanding heights of the economy, but the workers kept occupying factories by the hundreds. It was not just the cities that were gripped by revolutionary activity. During the summer of 1975, peasants in the countryside enacted a real land reform. In the south, landless agricultural laborers seized the estates where they worked. For example in Alentejo, workers took control of over 10,000 square kilometers of land and transformed them into collective farms. Throughout the countryside, democratic committees were created, literacy classes were set up, and women were paid wages and took an active role in managing affairs. A day of reckoning came for many landlords, who came before revolutionary tribunals where they received the people's justice. The north remained largely untouched by land seizures and radicalization since it was composed of small landowning farmers. In fact, northern farmers remained fearful of the far left. In this, they were backed by the Socialist Party and the Catholic Church. Farmer opposition spilled over into violence in July and August as sixty offices of the Communist Party and other leftist organizations were torched. The right remained on the march. The Socialist Party, now a bulwark of the counterrevolution, was on a collision course with the Provisional Government. Two events led to a rupture between the two. The first flashpoint occurred when the Socialist newspaper República was seized by its workers on May 15. The workers voiced their opposition to the Socialists by stating: “República will not henceforth belong to any party. All the progressive parties will be given identical treatment, depending only on the importance of events.”[24] While their declaration makes it clear República workers were not under the control of the PCP, this did not stop the Socialists from claiming that the occupation was proof of a Communist move to deny them free speech. Months of deadlock did nothing to resolve the issue until COPCON sided with the workers on July 10. A second flashpoint happened when the workers at Radio Renascenca took control away from their owners. Due to the reactionary nature of the Catholic Church, this occupation was widely supported. The Revolutionary Council planned to hand back Renascenca to the Church, but a mass demonstration of 100,000 forced the government to back down. Instead, they decreed the nationalization of all newspapers, radio stations and television networks.[25] For the Socialists, these events were proof that the government was on the path to a communist dictatorship, ineffectual and unable to deal with the ongoing economic crisis. On July 10, the Socialists and the PPD resigned from the government. A new government was formed with a heavy PCP composition. Unable to appease either the right or the left, the fifth provisional government was very weak and isolated. Even its core component, the MFA, was hopelessly split. MFA leftists were growing closer to groups like the PRP-RB (as we shall see later). In August, MFA moderates known as the “Group of Nine” issued a manifesto advocating Swedish-style social democracy, attacked the communists, the lack of discipline in the army, and demanded a new coalition with the Socialists. Even though the signatories to the manifesto were removed from the Revolutionary Council, the days of the fifth provisional government were clearly numbered. The government was also opposed by the far left and, briefly, the PCP. On August 20, revolutionaries organized a demonstration of 100,000 workers and soldiers in favor of popular power. This event caused the PCP to realize that the government was too ineffective to fight the right. On August 25, the PCP made a brief turn to the left and called for the formation of a united front with the revolutionaries. They made a quick about-face and retreated from the united front initiative, supporting reconciliation with the Socialists. At the end of August, the fifth provisional government collapsed and was mourned by no one. A sixth provisional government, more conservative than its predecessors, contained the Socialists, PPD, and Group of Nine supporters, took office on September 19. The PCP remained in the government, but was effectively marginalized with control over a single ministry (Public Works). The sixth provisional government was determined to finally halt the revolutionary process while the far left continued to push for socialism. A showdown was not long in coming.

I. Denouement

Now with the backing of the sixth provisional government, the officer corps resolved to finally restore “discipline” in the army. Left-wing officers were removed from key positions. Since COPCON had repeatedly shown itself to be unreliable, a new strategic reserve force known as the Military Intervention Group (AMI) was created to deal with internal security. This raised fears on the revolutionary left that another coup was in the works. This trepidation was not unfounded since the right-wing had already made two attempts. Carvalho commented: “What worries me is the possible Chileanization of Portugal . . . they are building machines to kill. Machines for repression. With them they can set off a new Chile. I am haunted by that fear.”[26] The moves by the officers caused the break within the MFA to become real when rank-and-file soldiers formed their own organization in September – Soldiers United Will Win (SUV). The SUV Manifesto condemned poor conditions in the barracks and demanded the removal of reactionary officers. The manifesto stated that the SUV saw itself as an anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist organization. Lastly, the SUV stated their goal to destroy the existing army and to lay the foundation for “the creation of the armed wing of the power of the working class: the revolutionary people's army.”[27] The SUV was supported by revolutionary organizations such as the PRP-RB, the Trotskyist Internationalist Communist League (LCI), and the Movement of Socialist Left (MES). The SUV grew rapidly into a national organization in a few weeks and was involved in demonstrations in Lisbon and other cities. While the SUV posed the question of state power, the soldiers could not accomplish this on their own. Rather, their efforts depended upon intensifying the wider class struggle. However, the revolutionary organizations, radical soldiers and the workers remained divided and uncoordinated. While the government had newfound resolve, they still discovered that reasserting power would be tough going despite the weaknesses of the left. On September 29, the government sent in COPCON to shut down all radio and television stations such as Renascenca. Soldiers fraternized with workers and Carvalho ordered his men to withdraw. Another military unit was sent in hours later to retake the radio station. Demonstration on October 16 brought enough pressure to bear on the government that they pulled the troops out. On November 7, the stand-off finally ended when paratroopers destroy Renascenca. The troops who carried out the order thought the orders came from leftists. Once they realized the betrayal, they revolted. Outside of Lisbon, where the revolutionary left was weaker, the government achieved greater successes. A general strike called in protest of the seizures of the radio stations did not garner much support. The right-wing elements in the army slowly consolidated their positions. In Oporto and Beja, rank-and-file soldier organizations were disbanded. The right-wing elements in the army slowly consolidated their positions. Now that the PCP was sidelined by the moderates, they organized strikes and actions against the unpopular policies of the provisional government. While the PCP had no intention of leading any revolutionary struggle for power, their sheer organizational weight enabled them to steal thunder from the radical left. On November 12, the PCP led nearly 100,000 workers to surround the Sao Bento palace, the meeting place of the Constituent Assembly. COPCON refused to remove the demonstrators, who stayed and forced government ministers to grant their demands for a national wage structure and wage increases. On November 14, PS and PPD government delegates left Lisbon for Oporto. While there, Soares met with high-ranking officers in the MFA to plan a major move against left. If the bourgeoisie was going to reassert control, then the army had to be brought under control. By now, both Mozambique and Angola had gained independence and conscripts were being demobilized, but the threat from COPCON remained. The government knew they would have to move carefully and swiftly when the appropriate moment arrived. On November 24, that opportunity came when Carvalho was relieved from command of COPCON. Radical officers saw this as a provocation and went into action. The following day, paratroopers took control of four air force bases in Lisbon demanding the removal of their commanders and to be placed under the command of COPCON and Carvalho. When Carvalho (who was not involved in these actions) went to see the President about events, he was detained. This was exactly the pretext the government needed. A state of emergency was declared and loyal commandos were sent to retake control. The revolutionary units in Lisbon quickly surrendered and 200 leftists were arrested. Soon after, COPCON was disbanded. No one on the left had any clear strategy on how to respond to the coup or the government's reaction. This confusion was most clearly manifested among the Communists. On November 25, the Communists supported military resistance to Carvalho's removal and even called for an armed insurrection. It was all empty bluster. By nightfall, the PCP called for its supporters to return home. Other leftists could do little since they were poorly armed. The working class was left leaderless and remained silent in response to the events of November 25. Portugal experienced no major showdown like in Chile. The ruling class had won and re-imposed its control over the army. The Carnation Revolution ended with an anti-climax.


On April 2, 1976 Portugal adopted a new constitution that pledged the country to realize socialism. Despite the Constitution's radical language, the revolutionary left and the working class had lost. Capitalism remained in control. Despite its final failure, the Portuguese Revolution was the last real opportunity for a socialist revolution in Western Europe in the twentieth century. Various radical experiments, cooperatives, and councils showed the potential for a different society free of exploitation. The army was unreliable and the question of state power was posed. However, the revolution remained hampered by its supposed friends in the Communist Party who were determined to do everything possible to restrain it. and the far left that was too divided, prone to shortcuts, and lacking a clear strategy to be able to win. Notes [1] Chris Harman, The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After (London: Bookmarks, 1988), 289. [2] Most of the facts and figures contained in this essay can be found in the citations listed. [3] Antonio de Figueiredo, Portugal: Fifty Years of Dictatorship (Penguin, Harmondsworth 1975), 238. [4] Nicos Poulantzas, The Crisis of the Dictatorships: Portugal, Greece and Spain (London: New Left Books, 1976), 16. [5] Ibid. 54. [6] Tony Cliff, “Portugal at the crossroads,” Marxists Internet Archive. [7] Ibid; Peter Robinson, “Portugal 1974-5: Popular Power,” in Revolutionary Rehearsals, ed. Colin Barker (Chicago: Haymarket, 2002), 84-85; Poulantzas 1976, 25. [8] Peter Robinson, “Workers' Councils in Portugal, 1974-1975” in Ours to Master and to Own: Workers' Control from the Commune to the Present, ed. Immanuel Ness and Dario Azzelini (Chicago: Haymarket, 2011), 263. [9] International Socialism July/August 1975, “Portugal: The Views of a PRP Leader,” Marxists Internet Archive. [10] Harman 1988, 287. [11] It was Mário Soares as minister of foreign affairs in the Provisional Government who believed it was essential for the PCP to participate, fearing they would be more dangerous outside. How prophetic he proved to be. [12] Quoted in Tony Cliff, “Portugal at the Crossroads,” Marxists Internet Archive. [13] Ibid. [14] Poulantzas 1976, 149. See also Raquel Varela, “The PCP in the Portuguese Revolution 1974-5: crisis, state and revolution,” International Socialism. [15] William Blum, Rogue State: A Guide to the World's Only Superpower (Monroe: Common Courage Press, 2000), 146. [16] Walter Isaacson, Kissinger: A Biography (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005), 673-4. [17] Max Elbaum, Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che (New York: Verso Books, 2006), 213. [18] Nigel Harris, The Mandate of Heaven: Marx and Mao in Modern China (Chicago: Haymarket, 2015), 276-9. [19] For more on Portuguese Maoism see Robert J. Alexander, Maoism in the Developed World (Westport: Praeger, 2001), 123-129. [20] Chris Harman, “Portugal: The First Six Months,” Marxists Internet Archive. [21] Tony Cliff, “Portugal at the crossroads,” Marxists Internet Archive. [22] Phil Mailer, Portugal: The Impossible Revolution (London: Black Rose Books, 1977), 151. [23] Quoted in Robinson 2011, 269. [24] Mailer 1977, 229. [25] Ibid. 233. [26] Jean-Pierre Faye, Portugal: The Revolution in the Labyrinth (Nottingham: Spokesman Books, 1976), 49-50. [27] Manifesto is reproduced in Mailer 1977, 395.