Never Forget Portugal’s Revolution

Fifty years ago today, a left-wing military revolt against Portugal’s dictatorship transformed into an anti-colonial social revolution that shook the world. Now, in 2024, its radical history is being forgotten at home.

Protest in Lisbon, Portugal, on May 1, International Workers' Day, 1975. (Giorgio Piredda / Sygma via Getty Images)

The last revolution in Western Europe began as something more mundane — a military coup.

On April 25, 1974, a group of junior officers in the Portuguese military seized power, toppling the Catholic-corporatist dictatorship that had ruled for half a century.

A coup was not unexpected. But the captains who made this one didn’t have the politics you’d expect from military men. And trailing their tanks, as they rolled into Lisbon unopposed, were jubilant crowds of people, disregarding warnings broadcast over the radio to stay home. It was a sign of what was to come.

A popular mobilization no one had expected and that the coup-makers themselves had sought to prevent would pitch Portugal, over the next year and a half, into genuine revolution — complete with land occupations, sweeping nationalizations, and popular assemblies. The upwelling from below lent strength to radical political forces from above, civilian and military alike, who battled moderates and conservatives for control of a shifting series of provisional governments, all while the United States and Europe looked on in mounting horror. “Cuba in Southern Europe,” the Le Monde correspondent called it: “The last theater of Leninism.”

Portugal, the most reactionary nation in Europe, in the middle of the Cold War, now faced a shockingly open-ended future. Politics, economic system, geopolitics: all hung in the balance — in a NATO country. For a year and a half, everything from far-left Third Worldism to Soviet-style communism to US-aligned welfare capitalism was possible.

In the end, the outcome was influenced by international as well as domestic forces. But it would be the last time that Portugal, or any Western European society, would have quite so much choice over its own course forward.

The situation today looks starkly different: in elections last month, a revolt by voters disaffected with the narrow range of options on offer from established parties provoked the emergence of the far right for the first time since the revolution. Now, fifty years after the Portuguese revolution, it’s worth taking a look back at what it was, and what’s left of it today.

The Making of April 25

The coup-makers were mostly captains, low-ranking career officers who had experienced the worst of the fighting in Portugal’s savage colonial wars in Africa. A policy of total intransigence on the unprofitable colonies was an issue on which Portugal’s economics professor turned dictator, António Salazar, had been unwilling to bend. When Salazar died in 1970, right-wing generals ensured his beleaguered successor at the helm of the Estado Novo (as the dictatorship was known), Marcelo Caetano, maintained the same policy.

Fighting against armed liberation movements had been going on since 1961, and in the three-front struggle, the Portuguese were stalemated in Angola and Mozambique, and were losing badly in Guinea-Bissau. There, until his assassination in 1973, Amílcar Cabral, leader of the armed Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde [PAIGC] liberation front, had led a successful guerrilla campaign that whittled down the Portuguese-controlled territory to a few enclaves on the coast and in the interior.

Cabral, like his opposite numbers leading liberation fronts in Angola and Mozambique, had been educated in the metropole. He was also a Marxist theorist of decolonization, whose writing, warning of the danger of a “neocolonialism” supervised by a national bourgeoisie that would inherit the apparatus of the colonial state, remains considerably neglected despite much recent interest in decolonial theory.

The PAIGC, the writer Alex Fernandes has argued, emphasized that Portuguese soldiers’ struggle was not against them, but the state that had sent them. This message, and the Marxist-Leninist strands of thought behind it, made a significant impact on some of the officers commanding troops in these remote places, far from the watchful eye of the Portuguese regime’s secret police.

One officer who found himself drawn in was Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho, a captain serving in Guinea-Bissau and advisor to the highly respected commander of the colonial forces there, General António de Spínola. Otelo (often referred to in the Portuguese press by his first name) and Spínola each were to become central figures in the drama surrounding the fall of the Estado Novo and the battle for its succession.

Spínola’s name hit international headlines first, when in February 1974 he published a careful — yet, in the context of a completely controlled domestic media environment, explosive — polemic insisting on the need for a negotiated end to the colonial war. To Spínola, and to the junior officers like Otelo who served under him, it was obvious that there was no longer any chance of Portuguese victory in the colonial wars. But the chief concern here was professional: let the war go on much longer and the Portuguese military would be blamed for the defeat. A “political solution” was necessary to preserve the regime’s prestige.

The only thing keeping Portugal from South Africa–style international pariah status by the 1970s was its membership in NATO and its strategic usefulness to the United States during the Cold War — harboring planes bound to resupply Israel during the Yom Kippur War, when most European countries refused to let aircraft land, fearing an Arab oil embargo. When the embargo came, it placed impossible demands on Portuguese state coffers, which could not support a costly colonial war and gasoline subsidies at the same time.

Meanwhile the regime, low on officers after a dozen years of grinding bloodshed, proposed letting conscripted men get accelerated officer status. The junior officers didn’t like the sound of that and began organizing. When Spínola lost out in a struggle in March 1974 with far-right generals who wanted to double down on the colonial war, the group of captains — led behind the scenes by Otelo and calling itself the “Armed Forces Movement” (Movimento das Forças Armadas, or MFA) — understood the time was now or never. On April 25, they rolled the dice and found the Estado Novo even more brittle than they had imagined.

After the Jubilation

The plan was simple enough. Triumphant, Otelo and the other junior officers who made up the MFA had handed power to a junta, who named as interim president Spínola, the respected military figure who would guide Portugal to a negotiated peace in the colonial war and, at home, open the way to democracy and development.

But mass mobilization changed the terms of the game — and altered the nature of the MFA, galvanizing its latent left-wing tendencies. In a few weeks, it changed from movement of junior officers with professional grievances to something that saw itself as capable of channeling the roiling popular energy from below.

Divisions between the MFA and Spínola opened up right away. Spínola wanted the “political solution” to the colonial war to look something like the British “Commonwealth” retaining the economic and even political influence of the mother country. The captains, and their higher-ranking allies, wanted total independence for the colonies now.

Meanwhile on the ground, things were shifting. Labor Day, May 1, touched off a tremendous wave of strikes and union militancy, popular takeovers of industrial and residential properties, and purges from below (in workplaces) and above (in the military). With Otelo now appointed head of a Lisbon-area military command with special powers, he and the MFA drew closer to the popular movement — and so did the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP), the only political party operating in Portugal as of April 25.

Active in clandestine fashion under the Estado Novo in spite of brutal persecution, the Communists had a strong organizational capacity but hadn’t expected the popular mobilization. They soon found themselves jockeying with the MFA and with a brand-new salmagundi of far-left, populist, and Third Worldist parties for control of the street and the restless countryside. In the latifundial Alentejo region in the south, long a Communist stronghold, the PCP backed occupations of farms by agricultural workers.

Spínola grew nervous at the growing radicalism of the population — and the growing strength of the communist and revolutionary left within the government. By July, Álvaro Cunhal, the leader of the PCP, had been named minister in a second provisional government. Increasingly isolated, defeated on the colonial issue, Spínola resigned from the interim presidency in September. He plotted a countercoup from the Right, which, when triggered in March 1975, failed miserably. His flight to Spain left Portugal in the hands of the far left.

The United States Gets Involved — Sort of

Spínola’s fall in September 1974 made the United States nervous. Distracted until then by Watergate and war between Greece and Turkey, Washington had been convinced that their man in Portugal was a steady hand. Now the alarms sounded. Henry Kissinger quickly became convinced the country was going to “go communist.”

Unlike many of the Communist parties in Western Europe, which as part of the “Eurocommunist” tendency were charting an independent course by the 1970s, the PCP remained staunchly Moscow-aligned. This terrified Washington, which quietly ousted Portugal from NATO’s nuclear secret-sharing committee in November 1974. Kissinger admitted that the United States would soon probably have to “attack” Portugal and drive them out of NATO.

When Mário Soares, head of the Socialist Party, which touted itself as a reformist, US-friendly alternative to the PCP, visited Washington in an attempt to convert support from abroad into more influence in the interim government — of which he had little — Kissinger told him to his face that he would become the next Alexander Kerensky.

“I certainly don’t want to be a Kerensky,” Soares replied.

“Neither did Kerensky,” quipped Kissinger.

The United States sent a warning in the form of a new ambassador, Frank Carlucci: a hardened Cold Warrior who had been a high-ranking diplomat in the Congo when Patrice Lumumba was assassinated and in Brazil in the years after the 1964 coup. Ironically, given his hawkish reputation, Carlucci wanted to let things play out — let Portugal stay in NATO and send some money and help to Soares and his Socialists. Kissinger wasn’t convinced, but Carlucci won the argument, drawing powerful friends in Washington to his side.

The European left, meanwhile, worried by the PCP’s Moscow-aligned orientation and the possibility that a victory for the radical left in Portugal could jeopardize their own gains, eagerly joined in, with the German Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) sending lavish support to Soares’s Socialists, lending them much-needed strength in the final battle for the revolution that was about to begin.

The Wave Crests

In the wake of Spínola’s failed coup in March 1975, the government in Portugal pressed ahead with major nationalizations of industry; under Salazar many of the country’s industries were the exclusive possession of just a few dozen families. By summer, the PCP had won a major land reform for the south. Capital flooded out of the country in protest.

But elections, held on the anniversary of April 25, had an unexpected result: the Socialists, not the Communists, as most had expected, had the strongest electoral support, backed by smallholding farmers in the north, afraid of losing their land in a potential expansion of the agrarian reform, and a disconcerted lower-middle class in the cities. The MFA, in many ways the most influential revolutionary organization, couldn’t run because it wasn’t a party.

Over the next months, the so-called “hot summer” of 1975, moderate and radical forces headed toward a showdown. The Socialists thought the election had given them the right to rule; the PCP and especially the MFA looked instead to the crowds of citizens marching in their favor.

Slowly the radical forces lost support within the government, and a group of moderate military officers aligned with the Socialists gained strength, even as the Lisbon streets saw no ebb in activity — as late as November a hundred thousand construction workers held the provisional government hostage in Lisbon for several days, until it agreed to their demands.

But by the end of November, it was all over. With independence for the colonies a settled affair since June, the military turned its thoughts toward promoting order at home.

A confused uprising by left-wing paratroopers over a government order to destroy a far-left radio station was put down by the moderate officers. Otelo was placed under house arrest, his military command dissolved. The popular movement collapsed. The Portuguese revolution was at an end.


In context, the Portuguese revolution was a striking event: mere months after the Chilean military bombarded the presidential palace, marking the bitter end of Salvador Allende’s bid for a democratic transition to socialism, Portugal’s military initiated — accidentally and then intentionally — a social revolution. It was Chile in reverse, and in a NATO country, where the United States knew intervention was out of the question. But the military origins of the revolution proved troublesome.

“I don’t think that the military make good revolutionaries,” one of the left-wing officers involved in the revolution later said to interviewers. It’s hard to disagree. The colonial war radicalized a part of the junior officer corps that proved effective dismantlers of the Estado Novo and capable of harnessing popular energy. But they never ceased to be a low-ranking minority in an inherently conservative institution, which in the end simply swallowed them up.

Divisions within the far left, between Communists and smaller far-left parties, but above all between military radicals and civilian radicals, who squabbled constantly for control over the popular movement, made space for the Socialists to prevail, drawing support from abroad.

The revolutionary period left deep marks on the period that followed, but these marks faded, some quickly, some more slowly.

Soares became prime minister after elections in 1976. (Kissinger had to apologize for calling him a Kerensky.) He made good on the initial promise of April 25: democracy and development. A new constitution upheld the nationalizations of major industry.

But bitter divisions among the Left that remained from the revolution cost Soares — he had to lead a minority government, soon to become a feature of political power in democratic Portugal, split between non-hegemonic center-left and center-right parties.

As the euphoria around the end of the colonial war faded, the country found itself shorn, along with its colonies, of any global relevance. Soares promised Europe as a replacement for empire and set about discarding the parts of the revolutionary legacy that might interfere with the demands imposed by European unification. He rolled back parts of the land reform. Later conservative governments undid much of the revolution’s nationalizations; the Socialists continued the trend.

Fifty years after April 25, 1974, what has come of the promise of Europe to stand in for empire? Europe has certainly proved itself a new theater for elite Portuguese politicians, who have been eager to trade Lisbon for Brussels once they feel they have outgrown their own country’s politics. My more ambitious Portuguese friends, when I lived in Lisbon a decade ago, all aspired to work for the European Union. Several now do. But given Portugal’s little sway in the union, the average Portuguese is more subject of European empire than supervisor.

As elsewhere in southern Europe, EU integration brought tangible benefits in the form of infrastructure. But it also meant a fiscal straitjacket, austerity, and a growing sense — and, indeed, reality — of a lack of national control over broad swaths of the economy and politics. This was lessened somewhat under António Costa’s geringonça, a cobbled-together agreement between the socialists, the PCP, and the Left Bloc (i.e., an assemblage of all the Socialists’ old further-left enemies from the days of the revolution), which enabled Portugal to discard the worst of the post-recession austerity demanded of southern Europe.

Yet the fillips, golden visas and the like, continued under Costa to be doled out to foreign investors, helping along the transformation of the major cities into paradises for the international laptop class from which most Portuguese are priced out. Pinching on the housing supply from another angle is a large and sustained influx of migration, much of it from a different former colony, Brazil.

Contemporary Vistas on April 25

Migration, along with corruption allegations against Costa’s government, were major issues in elections in March that marked the end of another of the revolution’s legacies: the marginalization of the far right.

The center-right came in first, but André Ventura’s Chega party tripled its vote share to nearly 20 percent. This torpedoed the argument, often repeated, that its revolution had inoculated it against the far right. The arrival of this pan-European phenomenon, the far right, in Portugal points to a less anticipated level on which the efforts from above to make Portugal into a normal European country have succeeded.

Why did many voters turn to the far right, repudiating the legacy of the revolution just months before its anniversary? Catarina Príncipe notes in these pages that much of Chega’s support seems to have come from disillusioned swaths of the public who haven’t voted in recent elections.

“Liberal and nationalist” according to its own documents, which heavily quote Anglophone conservatives like Edmund Burke, the party’s political self-image is closer to Fernando Pessoa’s than to that of the anti-liberal Salazar, whom Ventura has criticized in the past.

Chega’s rhetoric of restoring national agency, in part through quotas and restrictions on immigration, is of course belied by its policy of throwing the country further open to international capital, and its paltry offer of public-private partnerships to combat the country’s dire housing shortage. Immigration serves as a synecdoche for a broader problem to which the party proposes no real solutions. But as a protest vote against a political establishment that has failed to offer the Portuguese public much of a semblance of control over the country’s direction, its appeal is clear enough.

Recollection of the heady days of fifty years ago cannot reasonably be expected to apply a brake on such a force. The memory might even seem bitter, seen from a certain present perspective. Chaotic, kinetic, and vital, in revolution Portugal plunged into a future that was open for the taking. In today’s Portugal, optimism, and options, are harder to come by.