Portugal 1974: When Everything was Possible

The Portuguese Revolution of April 25, 1974 smashed the fascist regime, but it could also have achieved real socialism, writes Mark Brown.

And still they came! More than four hours after the Lisbon march commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Portuguese Revolution of April 25, 1974 departed Marquês de Pombal square, people were still streaming down Avenida da Liberdade and into the Rossio square. Even the police estimated the demonstration at more than half-a-million people.

The great march of April 25, 2024 was noticeably young. There were large and vibrant contingents from a number of Portuguese trade unions and various groups on the Portuguese left, including the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP), Bloco de Esquerda (the Left Bloc) and the new left-ecologist party Livre (Free). Palestinian flags could be seen up and down the length of the vast procession. Young LGBTQ+ people were also there in numbers flying their rainbow flags.

The march was a confident and joyous affair. Marchers sang ‘Grândola, vila morena’, the song that was played on Portuguese radio as the signal to the rank-and-file soldiers of the insurgent Armed Forces Movement (MFA) to make their move against the power centres of the fascist Estado Novo (New State) of Marcelo Caetano (who had taken over from the state’s founder, the despised António de Oliveira Salazar,1 after the dictator’s health failed in 1968). There was also a perceptible and resolute anger. The far-right party Chega (Enough), a rancid coalition of fascists and quasi-fascists led by the demagogue André Ventura,2 had won a worrying 18 percent of the national vote in the general election in March.

“Fascismo nunca mais!” (fascism never again!) chanted the marchers. It was clear that they had made history. More than 500,000 people in a nation with a population of 10.5 million had participated in the biggest demonstration in Portugal since the Revolution itself. The gargantuan turnout far exceeded the best hopes, even of people on the Portuguese left. It reflected, of course, the tremendous and justified pride most Portuguese people feel in the Revolution. However, it also spoke to a sense of urgency where the Chega menace is concerned. If the vote for Chega in March had been worrying and disappointing, the great procession on April 25 gave cause for hope. The huge numbers on the streets showed that the forces exist to create a broad-based united front against fascism.

Following the march on April 25, I met with Odete Cavaco, a retired primary school teacher, and her husband Francisco Cavaco, a retired dockworker, to talk about their experiences under the fascist regime. With justified pride, Francisco shows me his union membership card which confirms that he is member number 1 of the dockers’ union established after the Revolution. “Before the Revolution, the dockworkers had some associations, but they were very controlled by the state”, he tells me. “We were not allowed to have meetings of more than two people. There were also informants among us, who would pass information to the regime”, he adds.

Odete remembers the misogyny of the Salazar regime. “Many female state employees, such as telephone operators and nurses, weren’t allowed to get married”, she recalls. “If they got married, they had to leave their jobs.” Growing up, Odete was aware of the hated and feared secret police, the PIDE (International and State Defence Police). “My father was a writer and a journalist”, she says.

I remember him burning some documents because he heard that the PIDE had been told that he had political propaganda from the Communist Party… [T]here was always a fear of being discovered by the PIDE.

My mother died when I was three years old. So, my father felt a great responsibility not to get arrested, becau se he worried about who would look after me if he was taken away.

It was against such repression that Portugal’s Revolution was made. It is known as the Carnation Revolution on account of the red carnations that the soldiers carried in the muzzles of their rifles as symbols of their refusal to turn their guns on the workers and students.

Photographer Eduardo Gageiro’s iconic image of soldiers with carnations in the muzzles of their rifles, Lisbon, April 25, 1974. This picture was shown as part of the exhibition of Gageiro’s work, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the revolution, at the Torreão Nascente da Cordoaria Nacional gallery in Lisbon.

Although the Revolution exploded in Portugal on April 25, 1974, the death knell of the fascist regime had begun to toll, not in Portugal, but in its African colonies some years before. In 1974, the Portuguese Empire was similar in size to western Europe (some 22 times bigger than Portugal itself). As Peter Robinson writes:

[N]early half of the Portuguese government budget went to the military, at the cost of education and the public services. A country of nine million inhabitants was supporting an army of 200,000, which suffered 8,300 casualties over 12 years. At least ten times that number of Africans were killed.3

From 1961 forward, the liberation movements of the people of Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde were engaged in bitter wars against the Portuguese Army. The Carnation Revolution is often described as “near bloodless”. However, it must be remembered that tens of thousands of Africans – not least fighters of the MPLA (People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola), FRELIMO (Mozambican Liberation Front), PAIGC (African Party for the Liberation of Guinea and Cape Verde) and other organisations – died in the wars of independence that gave rise to the Portuguese Revolution.

It is impossible to conceive of the MFA, the revolutionary movement led by radical junior officers in the Portuguese Army, without the struggle and sacrifice of the liberation movements in Portugal’s African colonies. The revolt within the largely conscript Portuguese Army against the colonial wars was the lightning conductor for the Revolution that ended 48 years of fascist dictatorship.

In the 19 months that followed the Revolution, everything was up for grabs. Millions of workers – from industrial workers, to transport workers and, significantly, socially marginalised farm labourers – felt themselves suddenly freed from the shackles of fascist oppression. Consequently, there was a great explosion of self-organisation as working-class people began to realise that they could take their workplaces, industries and communities into their own hands. Workers’ commissions, similar to the workers’ councils that made the Russian Revolution of October 1917 and built the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, numbered in the thousands. In the months following the Revolution strikes and workplace occupations spread like wildfire. As Raquel Varela documents in her magisterial book A People’s History of the Portuguese Revolution, one of the most famous occupations was of the French-owned Sogantal garment factory in Montijo, where the female workers prevented the company boss, Pierre Lardet, from seizing the machines before proceeding to occupy the plant and demand its nationalisation.4

There were also more than 100 residents’ commissions, which sought to address the dire living conditions of many working-class people, ranging from lack of access to clean running water to desperately substandard housing. The commissions often superseded local authorities. In many cases they organised occupations of vacant properties. Many of the occupations were authorised by residents’ tribunals, which were established in direct opposition to the new, bourgeois democratic ‘revolutionary’ state that had been established by the MFA. The actions of the workers’ and residents’ commissions were also reflected in land occupations by often desperately poor agrarian workers. All of these examples of working-class self-organisation were accompanied by demands for saneamento (sanitation or cleansing) of operatives of the Estado Novo from workplaces, which led to the purging or suspending of more than 12,000 identified fascists.

All of this threatened the provisional governments, of which there were six between the Revolution of April 1974 and April 1976, with a situation of dual power . In many places the new forms of working-class organisation seemed increasingly capable of taking over the functions of the state. There was a very real possibility that workers’ self-organisation could have challenged the authority of the provisional governments, which contained representatives of various parties – including the reformist Socialist Party (SP) and the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) – and were appointed by the revolutionary council of the MFA.

Levels of radicalisation varied within the armed forces. As Varela details, significant numbers of the rank-and-file were organised in the SUV (Soldiers United for Victory), a revolutionary left formation that considered itself entirely independent of the MFA. For them, rank-and-file soldiers were ‘workers in uniform’, their senior officers ‘the bourgeoisie in uniform.’ At one stage, SUV soldiers re-routed 1,000 automatic rifles to the revolutionary left group the PRP/BR (Revolutionary Proletarian Party/Revolutionary Brigades).

On September 25, 1975 an SUV-initiated demonstration in support of the Lisbon residents’ and workers’ commissions attracted 100,000 people. On that occasion, as Robinson notes: “A group of 4,000 demonstrators requisitioned buses to drive 15 miles and free soldiers imprisoned for possession of SUV leaflets.”

The city that came closest to workers’ power was Setúbal. A powerful Comité de Luta (Committee of Struggle) was established there. Its deliberations were in many ways a model for new forms of workers’ democracy. Indeed, as Varela explains, the Comité only rejected a plan for a revolutionary insurrection because there was no network of similar organisations that would have spread workers’ power throughout the country.

Ultimately, across Portugal the revolutionary left was too small and divided to transform the workers’ commissions into alternative locations of power. The dominant forces on the left were the PS and the PCP. In their political competition with each other, the two often vacillated tactically in their relations with the workers’ commissions.

The PS was thoroughly committed to establishing a western European-style social democracy. The PCP, for its part, held to the ‘socialism from above’ model of the Stalinist USSR and Warsaw Pact. Consequently, it was generally hostile to attempts to achieve workers’ power from below.

Ultimately, Portugal achieved not the socialism that was a very real prospect in 1974-75, but social democracy. Many workers’ demands were sewn into the fabric of the new, democratic system.

Mark Brown is an author, journalist, lecturer and activist. He is a regular contributor to The National and the Sunday National.

  1. Salazar finally died in 1970. ↩︎
  2. Ventura founded Chega following his expulsion from CDS-PP (Democratic and Social Centre – People’s Party) – the more rightwing of Portugal’s two conservative parties – for inflammatory racist comments he made about the country’s Roma community. ↩︎
  3. Peter Robinson, ‘Portugal’s Forgotten Revolution’, Red Pepper (February 29, 2024): . Peter Robinson was Lisbon organiser for the UK organisation the International Socialists (forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party) in 1975-76, and editor of Raquel Varela’s A People’s History of the Portuguese Revolution. ↩︎
  4. Raquel Varela, A People’s History of the Portuguese Revolution, Pluto Books, 2019, pp.87-88. Much of the following history is drawn from this book and Robinson’s introduction to it. ↩︎