Portugal’s Revolution Transformed the Politics of Europe

Raquel Varela

Fifty years ago today, Portugal’s Carnation Revolution began as soldiers overthrew the dictatorship. Although the revolution was ultimately contained, it changed the face of European politics and hastened the shift to democracy in Spain and Greece.

The Carnation Revolution In Lisbon, Portugal, on April 25, 1974. (Jean-Claude Francolon / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Interview by
Daniel Finn

For almost half a century, Portugal was ruled by a right-wing dictatorship. António Salazar became the leader of the so-called Estado Novo in the same year Franklin Roosevelt entered the White House, and his successor Marcelo Caetano was still in power when Richard Nixon was reelected as president four decades later.

Fifty years ago today, on April 25, 1974, a group of junior army officers carried out a plan to overthrow the dictatorship. The Carnation Revolution brought down the Estado Novo and kick-started a period of intense political upheaval. Its legacy can still be felt in Europe half a century later.

Raquel Varela is a professor of history at the New University in Lisbon and the author of several books, including A People’s History of the Portuguese Revolution and a graphic novel about the Carnation Revolution. This is an edited transcript from Jacobin’s Long Reads podcast. You can listen to the interview here.

Daniel Finn

What was the nature of the Salazar-Caetano dictatorship that had ruled over Portugal since the 1920s?

Raquel Varela

There is a debate on what the Salazar regime represented, with several approaches. We have a left-wing approach connected with the tradition of the pro-Soviet Communist Party. These historians present the regime of the Estado Novo mainly as a regime that was highly conservative, fascist, anti-liberal, and hostile to parliamentary rule, representing the ultraconservative fraction of the bourgeoisie.

Then you have a second approach, closer to the political science of figures like Samuel Huntington, which became very influential after the 1990s. This approach divides up the world in very simple terms between liberal-democratic and authoritarian regimes.

There is another analysis that Leon Trotsky developed in his analysis of fascism in Germany, which was influenced by Karl Marx’s discussion of Bonapartism in nineteenth-century France. This approach sees a Bonapartist-type regime as a fake arbitrator that is seemingly trying to organize the classes in conflict with one another in a neutral way but is really acting in favor of the bourgeoisie.

I would say that the Estado Novo was a Bonapartist regime, with Salazar as the apparently neutral figure. But I should underline that the difference between Bonapartism and fascism is not a question of violence. Both types of regime are deeply violent against the organized working classes.

The main difference is that when we use the word fascism, we are referring to a civil war against the working class. Because of the threat of revolution, the bourgeoisie cannot use the army to defeat the workers, so they use militias instead. In Bonapartism, on the other hand, you can use the army, because the leadership of the working classes has already been defeated and there is no real threat of a social revolution.

In the period of the Estado Novo, which went from the military dictatorship of the 1920s until the Carnation Revolution in 1974, what we had was mainly a Bonapartist regime seeking to carry out capitalist modernization, incorporating the peasantry and the working class while prohibiting trade unions and political parties. The state guaranteed certain companies monopoly control over a sector. There was also a regime of forced labor in the colonies.

Daniel Finn

What impact did the colonial wars in Africa have on Portugal itself?

Raquel Varela

The anti-colonial process began in 1961 with the uprising in Angola. At the same time, you had growing investment in Africa by US and European companies. They wanted the petrol and cotton in Angola as well as other materials in Mozambique that were important for this new moment of capital investment.

In this context, the liberation movements in Portugal’s colonies were deeply influenced by anti-colonial revolutions and organizations in countries like Algeria and Ghana, which served as an inspiration for Guinea-Bissau, Angola, and Mozambique. In 1961, there was a strike by cotton workers in the forced-labor regime of Contanang, a Belgian-Portuguese company, in northern Angola.

The Portuguese army responded by using napalm. We don’t know exactly how many workers were killed — the estimated figure is five to ten thousand. In response to this massacre, there was a massacre of white settlers in Angola.

With tensions rising, the Soviet-influenced People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) decided to start an armed struggle against Portuguese rule. The armed struggle in Guinea-Bissau begin in 1963, after the defeat of a strike by the dockworkers. In Mozambique, it began in 1964 after another strike by forced laborers who came from several different parts of the country. There was a close relationship between Angola and Mozambique and the white-settler dictatorships in South Africa and Rhodesia, as workers from the Portuguese colonies were forced to go work in the mines in those countries.

Portugal at the time had a population of fewer than ten million people. Between 1961 and 1974, 1.2 million people were recruited to fight in the colonial war. This included black people from the colonies, but a large part of this force came from Portugal itself. Practically all Portuguese families, unless they belonged to the upper class, had sons, nephews, or cousins who went to fight in Africa.

Ten thousand Portuguese soldiers died, while two hundred thousand were injured. An estimated one hundred thousand people died in Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau. This had a huge impact in Portugal. One and a half million workers escaped to countries like France, Luxembourg, and Switzerland, fleeing from poverty and enlistment in the war.

At the same time, with greater foreign investment in Portugal, the urban population was now bigger than the rural one for the first time. This new urban population went massively to the cities of Lisbon, Porto, and Setubal, where they worked in big factories, most of which were joint enterprises of Portuguese and foreign capital. In the colonies, forced labor was officially abolished in 1961 but continued in practice until the demise of Portuguese rule in 1974–75.

Amílcar Cabral in Guinea-Bissau was a very important leader who deserves to be better known. Together with Che Guevara and Morocco’s Mehdi Ben Barka, he played a very important role in developing an internationalist and socialist approach toward the struggle for national independence.

Portugal was losing the war and was isolated on the international stage, with institutions like the UN favoring the end of colonialism. The desertion rate in the early 1970s was around 20 percent of soldiers in the army. At the same time, however, companies in France, Britain, and other countries continued to sell weapons to Portugal. About two-fifths of the state budget was being used to pay for the colonial war, in a country where people living on the outskirts of Lisbon had no access to running water and had to bring water to their homes by hand.

Daniel Finn

How did the Armed Forces Movement (MFA) take shape in response to the wars in Africa?

Raquel Varela

It was a movement of captains from the middle ranks of the army who were neither generals nor ordinary soldiers. They could understand that it was impossible to win the war militarily. They started off organizing in defense of their own corporate interests, but they later decided to mount a coup to end the colonial war. They also put forward a vague program of democratization.

Their conspiracy involved around two hundred officers. They agreed to stage the coup of April 25, 1974. These officers mainly came from Guinea-Bissau, where the army was heavily defeated and the liberation movement had already declared independence, though without being recognized by the Portuguese state. There was involvement by officers from Angola and Mozambique as well.

They organized themselves to mount a very successful coup. The regime did not know what was going to happen, and neither did the spies of the US embassy. It came as a huge surprise to people around the world. The MFA took control of the main military, communications, and transport sectors, telling people not to leave their homes.

However, many people disobeyed these instructions, taking to the streets or going to their workplaces. Suddenly you had thousands of people in the streets, embracing the soldiers, with children playing on their tanks. Everyone was smiling and celebrating.

The regime had forbidden trade unions and political parties. The Communist Party was organized as an underground party with around three thousand members. There were other left-wing groups, mainly Maoists but also some Trotskyist organizations and others inspired by the guerrillas of Latin America. Together these groups had another three thousand or so cadres, mostly coming from the universities and the opposition of young people to the colonial war.

After Israel, Portugal was the country with the highest percentage of its population incorporated into the army anywhere in the world. The war in Africa was a key factor in the radicalization of young people and the development of Marxist intellectuals and leadership teams in Portugal.

In the absence of legal parties or unions, the people themselves went to their workplaces: doctors, nurses, teachers, actors, factory workers. They began to elect their own representatives from popular assemblies, with a mandate that could be revoked if they did not carry out their instructions. Thus was born a situation of dual power, which is a feature of most revolutions.

Within days of the revolution, you had the formation of workers’ commissions and neighborhood councils in the empty space left by the absence of unions and parties. Already on April 25, workers started going to the headquarters of the state censorship body and the political police, occupying those buildings and releasing prisoners.

They also went to the headquarters of the state-sponsored trade unions and occupied them. They went to the municipal headquarters and began electing provisional commissions, while electing neighborhood commissions outside as well. These were incredible, beautiful days when we saw people making decisions in a way that they had never done before in their lives.

First of all, a national salvation junta was formed under General António de Spínola, which was trying to keep the state intact. But Spínola wanted to maintain the political police in the colonies and move toward a situation of neocolonialism. The mid-ranking officers of the MFA were totally against this, as they wanted to stop the war immediately. This created a division inside the MFA between the pro-Spínola faction and their opponents, who were the majority and won out.

The workers’ councils, known as commissions in Portugal, called a large number of strikes. There were two million people in the streets on May Day, the first one that could be celebrated in forty-eight years. They were putting forward demands for a minimum wage, an eight-hour working day, rest days on Saturday and Sunday, extra pay for night work, etc. These demands were already on the agenda in the streets a week after the revolution.

Mario Soares was the leader of the Socialist Party, which had been founded in West Germany at the beginning of the 1970s. It was a vanguard party, like the Communists, but even smaller. The Socialists did not play an important role in the opposition to the dictatorship, unlike the Communist Party or the Maoists. But Soares had the support of the United States and the West German Social Democrats, who transferred large amounts of money to fund his party.

Immediately there was a big discussion in Spain, which was still ruled by the Franco regime, about how to avoid what they called the contagious effect of the Portuguese Revolution through opening up the regime. In Greece, the dictatorship of the colonels fell in July 1974, and the first legal newspapers were celebrating the Carnation Revolution. The US president Gerald Ford spoke about the danger of a Red Mediterranean, because there were also big Communist Parties in France and Italy at the time.

In this context, Soares and the Communist leader Álvaro Cunhal returned from exile, and they were invited to form the first provisional government. This government also included the right-wing party, which called itself the Social Democratic Party because of the impact of the revolution.

They wanted to bring Cunhal and his party into the government in order to control the workers’ movement. In doing so, they broke the Cold War taboo against Communist participation in government, hoping that the coalition would be able to control the social movement, although that didn’t happen.

Daniel Finn

What were the main tendencies or differences of opinion that existed within the MFA itself?

Raquel Varela

The revolution developed and radicalized at the top. In 1975, the national banks were expropriated because they were under workers’ control. The big companies were also under workers’ control, and the small companies were under self-management — more than six hundred companies in total. The hospitals were run by doctors, nurses, and technicians. Even the cleaning lady had the vote in a hospital!

Three million people out of a population of ten million were involved in workers’ commissions, protests, and strikes. This was an incredible figure. I think that Paul Sweezy was right to say that the Portuguese Revolution was a kind of twenty-first century revolution, because there was already a huge service sector, with the proletarianization of physicians, professors, and technicians, who played an incredible role in the workers’ councils.

These all had a major impact on the MFA, which began to divide in line with the various projects that were being put forward in Portuguese society. One part of the MFA was supporting the strategy of the Communist Party to divide state power with the Socialists. Another part, led by Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho, was very engaged with the idea of popular power through workers’ commissions and neighborhood councils, and even with a Guevarist idea of a left-wing putsch. There was a clear process of “sovietization” in the army during 1975.

There was also an element with the MFA that went to the right, and there were two attempts at right-wing coups that were defeated. In the part of the MFA that supported popular power, there were some who were aligned with the officials of the Communist Party. The party leadership accepted the division of Europe into spheres of influence with Portugal under NATO, so there was no support for a revolutionary process in Portugal, but they were disputing control of the state with the Socialists.

I should mention that the Communist Party, having started off with three thousand members, had one hundred thousand after a year of the revolution. The Socialist Party, whose membership could almost have fitted in a taxi, now had eighty thousand members. The far-left groups could sell thousands of copies of their weekly publications. There was an intense process of politicization affecting the majority of Portuguese society, and this had a huge impact on the military.

The strategy of the Communists and the Socialists at the beginning was to be in the state together and divide power, albeit with tensions. After the radicalization of the revolution in 1975 there was a split between them. But the big question was how to rebuild the state and end the crisis of the state, which could only have been achieved by weakening the workers’ and neighborhood councils.

Daniel Finn

What impact did the revolution have upon Portugal’s colonies?

Raquel Varela

Immediately, there were huge demonstrations, mainly of the far left, saying, “We don’t want even a single soldier to go to the colonies.” That was the main demand. After April 25, there were several strikes by railway workers and agricultural workers in Mozambique and Angola. The soldiers refused to carry on fighting. Guinea-Bissau first became independent, then Mozambique, and finally Angola, which attracted much more attention from the United States, the Soviet Union, and China because of its oil reserves.

Daniel Finn

Could you tell us a little more about the reaction of the United States and the major West European states to what was happening in Portugal? How did they seek to intervene over the course of 1974 and 1975?

Raquel Varela

There was a divide among US government officials. Henry Kissinger apparently did not agree with the view of Frank Carlucci, the US ambassador to Lisbon. Carlucci believed that all US support should be given to the Socialists in the elections of April 1975. This was the idea of what we might call the “democratic counterrevolution.”

Instead of using the same approach that they used against Salvador Allende in Chile, which would merely have provoked the spread of the revolution to other countries in Europe, they promoted transitions guided from above, first in Portugal and then in Spain. Later the same model was applied in Chile, Brazil, and Argentina during the 1980s. I call this the “Soares Doctrine.”

Jimmy Carter was very clear in supporting this idea of democratic counterrevolution. There were strong anti-American feelings rooted in Portuguese society, so the support for Soares was channeled through the West German Social Democrats and also through Spain, which always had a close relationship with Portugal.

Portugal was definitely the cause of the Spanish transition to democracy — there is no question about that — and it had a huge impact on Greece. I believe that the Portuguese revolution also postponed the coming of neoliberalism for a decade, because of the example and inspiration that it gave people throughout southern Europe. Neoliberalism had to be postponed until the mid-1980s. Portugal’s revolution was isolated and that is why it was defeated, but it still had a major impact on the Mediterranean countries.

Daniel Finn

Along with that wider impact on the European scene, what would you say were the main legacies of the revolution for Portugal in subsequent decades and up to the present day?

Raquel Varela

Most of the people who made the revolution were in their twenties and thirties at the time. For the next forty years, these people were alive, and they were the majority. They were strong enough not to allow the extreme right to exist as a political force in Portugal. There were big improvements to health, education, and other public services, and social policies to encourage greater equality, although those services and policies have been in crisis over the last twenty years.

The legacies of the revolution are complex, because some of them are contradictory. In revolutionary processes like the one in Portugal, you always have to try and identify what is the legacy of the revolution and what is the legacy of the counterrevolution.

There were very important achievements in terms of the welfare state and workers’ rights. After the revolution was ultimately defeated by the coup of November 1975, we had a type of regulated capitalism for an important section of the working classes until the 1990s, or perhaps until 2008 for the older generation. After that point, virtually nobody was under protection.

April 25 is the national day of celebration in Portugal for the popular classes. At the same time, we can see how backward the country is now, with so much poverty. Portugal has become a place of low wages and long working hours for everyone, even qualified workers. The working class cannot afford the cost of housing in the cities. In the south, you have workers from Nepal living in terrible conditions, working for British or Portuguese companies, staying here five years to get permission to go to Central Europe.

This, of course, is not the legacy of the revolution — it is the legacy of the counterrevolution. Portugal is a small, semiperipheral country with a backward bourgeoisie that made a backward society. The one time that this country could give people a way to live decently was when the working class took their destinies into their own hands.

This is the most incredible thing for us to study: how these people who were totally outside of politics, many of whom would have been conservative in their own lives, or had very confused ideas, suddenly became involved and transformed themselves while transforming the country. In my opinion, this is our hope for the future. When people take the country into their own hands, we see how far they can reach to transform it and transform themselves.