Tue Jun 18, 2024
June 18, 2024

50 Years of the Carnation Revolution: When the Working Class Takes the Lead

By: Joana Salay, from Portugal

On April 25, 1974, at 12:20am, the music “Grândola, Vila Morena” was broadcast by Renascença radio as a signal to launch the military coup operation planned by the Armed Forces Movement (MFA). That night, military forces occupied strategic points in Lisbon with the aim of overthrowing Marcelo Caetano’s regime.

Radio messages were broadcast to contain the population, the MFA “asks the population to remain calm and return to their homes.” However, at 8:45 a.m., the communiqué already acknowledged that “the civilian population is not respecting the appeal that has already been made several times to stay at home.” After years of oppression, the people took to the streets. The Portuguese revolution, the last in Western Europe, was beginning.

An Imperialist but Deeply Backward Country

The fascist regime instituted by Salazar in 1933 became the longest dictatorship in Europe, which came to be known as Estado Novo. Portugal was a very backward country, but still maintained colonies. Before the revolution, 25.7% of the Portuguese population could neither read nor write, about 70% had never attended school, and hunger and poverty were widespread.

The maintenance of the colonies was a matter of life and death for the regime. And, therefore, in the face of the anti-colonial struggle, initiated in Guinea-Bissau in 1959 and which quickly extended to Angola and Mozambique, the Portuguese State poured all its forces into a colonial war that would last 14 years. This accelerated the social crisis and started a political crisis in the metropolis.

The military defeat in Guinea-Bissau, which declared its independence in 1973, aggravated the crisis in the armed forces, which was expressed in the refusal of thousands of soldiers to take the oath of allegiance and in demands which, although sectoral, clashed with the war plans.

The Masses Take the Direction of the Country into Their Own Hands

To resolve the impasse in the colonial war, the MFA moved towards the coup of April 25 with the aim of overthrowing Marcelo Caetano, but did not intend the process to go any further. The plan of a part of the big bourgeoisie, represented by General Spinola, was a negotiated solution in the colonies, instituting neocolonialism, solving the crisis in the army, and maintaining its privileges. However, the revolution put in check all the plans of the Portuguese bourgeoisie.

The revolution began with democratic demands, such as the fall of the dictatorship, the convocation of a Constituent Assembly, and the dismantling of repressive structures. In companies and schools, workers and students chased their informers and executioners. The demonstrators went to the prison of Caxias, on the outskirts of Lisbon, to free political prisoners.

The revolution advanced rapidly against the big Portuguese bourgeois families, deeply linked to the Estado Novo, who benefited from state repression to increase their profits and repress the strikes. On May 1, 1974 the demand for wage increases appeared and triggered a wave of strikes.

The vanguard of the revolution (workers, agricultural workers, and youth) began to form their own organizations, such as committees of workers, residents, peasants, and soldiers. The committees decided the direction of the struggle, but also solved day-to-day problems, such as building houses, running businesses, opening schools, kindergartens, doctors’ offices, occupying land, etc.

While the institutions of the old regime were collapsing, new institutions of the working class and the people were being formed, which effectively constituted a dual power in the face of the bourgeois democratic institutions still in formation.

The Attempted Counterrevolutionary Coup

The bourgeoisie faced the challenge of containing the advance of the workers’ and socialist revolution, while at the same time resolving its own conflicts. The now President of the Republic, António Spinola, sought an authoritarian and repressive solution in order to maintain privileged relations with the colonies.

Spinola called for a demonstration on September 28, 1974, defending an authoritarian presidential election, in opposition to the Constituent Assembly. The masses reacted and Spinola was overthrown. Removed from the presidency, he sought to organize counterrevolutionary forces. On March 11, 1975 his attempted counterrevolutionary coup failed due to the barricades erected. Spinola fled, taking with him the big bourgeoisie who conspired against the revolution.

The defeat of the attempted counterrevolutionary coup further strengthened the working class, which advanced toward the nationalization of strategic sectors, occupations, the strengthening of workers’ committees and workers’ control of production. The horizon of the revolution at that time was the construction of socialism and a society without exploitation and oppression.

Provisional Governments and the Popular Front as a Hindrance to the Revolution

During the revolutionary process, there were several provisional governments, led by the bourgeoisie, integrated by the MFA and the reformist workers parties (PS and PCP). In his book Revolution and Counterrevolution in Portugal, written in July 1975, Nahuel Moreno analyzes the MFA-PS-PCP government as a popular front government. It was a symptom of the depth of the revolution, but also of the project of class conciliation.

If the PS, with influence among the popular strata and sectors of the bourgeoisie, intervened in the Provisional Governments representing European social democracy and its imperialist governments, the PCP, with greater insertion among the working class, militated to contain the revolution, responding to the world interests of the Soviet bureaucracy.

In the different provisional governments, PS and PCP, although representing different projects to divert the revolution, approved several repressive measures and control of the workers’ movement, such as the strike law, the law of civil requisition, the battle for production, among others. It was necessary to defeat the dual power to advance in the consolidation of bourgeois democracy.

November 25, the Coup in the Dual Power of the Armed Forces

November 25 (1975) was an attempted uprising of military units as a reaction to the policy of reorganization and repression in the Armed Forces. The bourgeoisie took advantage of this moment to repress and put an end to the dual power in the army, the PCP called on its militants, who went to the headquarters to ask for arms, not to resist the coup, and the command hierarchy in the army was reestablished.

Although it marked the end of one of the most radical elements of the revolution – dual power in the Armed Forces – it did not immediately put an end to the other elements of dual power in the country. Occupations in the countryside and workers’ control still maintained a fundamental dynamic. A first victory of the bourgeoisie took place and, consequently, a new relationship of forces was imposed. However, the revolution was not defeated.

For the final defeat, a new pact was signed between PCP and PS for the consolidation of bourgeois democracy in Portugal. In 1976 the new Constitution was approved and the first elections for the Assembly of the Republic were held.

The Conquests of the Revolution

The 1976 Constitution consecrated several victories of the mass movement during the revolutionary period. Examples are the right to universal, public, and free healthcare and education; the maintenance of the nationalizations carried out during the revolutionary period, as in the case of the banks and other strategic sectors; the right to strike; the institutional consecration of the Workers and Residents Committees; the political freedoms, much broader in comparison with other countries.

Some of these democratic rights have been maintained to this day. Legalizing a political party is much simpler and less bureaucratic than in Brazil. In elections, all candidates, regardless of their parliamentary weight, have equal television time. Throughout the year, parties can have political advertising in the streets.

The construction of the social welfare state, with universal healthcare and education, ensured that the illiteracy rate is now 3.1%, that the infant mortality rate is one of the lowest in the world, and allowed a centralized response to the pandemic, much more efficient than those of the central imperialist countries. Rent prices were frozen for decades.

What it Failed to Win

The same constitution that consecrates the conquests of the revolution and that affirmed that “Portugal is a sovereign Republic (…) committed to its transformation into a classless society” going through a process of “transition to socialism,” also affirmed that “everyone is guaranteed the right to private property and its transmission in life or by death.”

Thus, despite the revolutionary verbiage, the constitution was at the service of the defense of capitalist social relations. Its essence was to guarantee the institutions of bourgeois democracy, the great project of the defeat of the revolution. By not advancing towards the construction of a workers’ state, the socialist revolution was defeated.

During the 18 months of the revolutionary process, Portugal was a great threat to imperialism, because if the working class emerged victorious from the process, it would change the correlation of forces at the European level and put the revolution in the forefront, rekindling the flames lit in May 1968. Not surprisingly, U.S. imperialism acted to contain the revolutionary process and the US ambassador, Frank Carlucci, met regularly with Mário Soares, the leader of the PS. After the failure of the policy of supporting Spinola’s counterrevolutionary attempts, the United States and the international imperialist bourgeoisie decided to opt for the road of “democracy” to defeat the revolution.

Everything that Does Not Advance, Retreats

The reactionary pact between the PS and the PCP served to divert the revolution and consolidate bourgeois democracy in Portugal, but stabilization would still take time. Only after 15 years did the conquests wrested in the revolutionary period begin to be reversed. Between 1976 and 1986, the country had 10 governments. Strikes and conflicts, a product of the revolutionary process, continued; it was only after the entry into the European Economic Community in 1986 that there was a drastic drop in the number of strikes.

The entry into the European Union (EU) meant the implementation of neoliberal plans in Portugal, where successive governments, with the complicity of the PCP, which led the main trade unions, imposed several removals of rights and privatizations of companies.

The economic crisis of 2008 and the actions of the Troika (IMF, European Central Bank and European Commission) in Portugal were a leap forward in the removal of conquests and in the relationship of Portugal with other European countries. The privatization of strategic sectors of the economy was completed, which passed to foreign capital, the last big bank with Portuguese capital was finished, a leap was made in the disinvestment in public services, the freezing of rents was ended, several rights of the working class were taken away, and the direct intervention of the EU in the direction of the Portuguese economy became a rule. The country is currently experiencing a strong social crisis, caused by low wages and the high cost of living, and also a serious political crisis of governmental instability.

Even the fight against the reactionary forces is beginning to recede. In the last national elections, the far right, which uses the same slogan of Salazar “God, Homeland and Family,” obtained 18% of the votes. In 2023, the current President of the Republic, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, decorated António Spinola, showing the intimate relationship of the current regime with the counterrevolutionary forces of the past.

In this context, far from placing as a horizon the defense of the institutions of bourgeois democracy and the European project, as the reformist parties in Portugal (BE and PCP) do, it is necessary to take up again the lessons of the Carnation Revolution, trust in the strength of the working class, and affirm that there is no way out within capitalism.

Suggestions for further reading and viewing:

Revolution and counterrevolution in Portugal, by Nahuel Moreno, Editora Sundermann.

Documentary “Portugal 74-75 – The portrait of April 25”.

Article published in www.opiniaosocialista.com.br, 19/4/2024.

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