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Issue 37, April 1999

Radical captains and militant workers - the Portuguese revolution

    The military moves
    The workers' parties
    Organization and occupation
    Looking for solutions
    PS counter-revolution

This year's Revolution Day celebrations mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the great revolution of 25 April 1974 - the most famous date in Portuguese history. On that date, a coup - led by mid-ranking army officers - overthrew 46 years of fascist dictatorship and unleashed a colossal revolutionary movement. DAVE FRYATT looks back at the events that shook the foundations of capitalism in Europe.

THE TURBULENT EVENTS of 1974 and 1975 seem a bewildering kaleidoscope of coups and counter-coups, demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, provisional governments formed and dissolved, of factory occupations and land seizures. But through all of this period there was one clear thread of events. After April a struggle developed between two irreconcilible class forces: the bourgeoisie and their allies who wanted to use the coup merely to change the personnel at the presidential palace in Bel?m; and the urban and rural working class, and their allies in the lower ranks of the army, who saw their chance to make a revolution, to change the whole basis of Portuguese society from capitalism to socialism.

CIA station chief Carl Meyer commented in 1975 that, 'When the revolution took place in Portugal the US had gone out to lunch. We were completely surprised'. Which shows how short-sighted the ruling class can be. Portugal had been heading for an explosion for years. The Portuguese people had endured the barbarism of the world's longest-lasting fascist dictatorship, first under Ant?nio Salazar and then, from 1968, under Marcello Caetano. The workers' movement had been smashed. Political opponents were routinely murdered or thrown in jail. The brutal secret police, PIDE, had informers on every street. Poverty was at epidemic proportions - according to official figures 25% of the population lived in slums. Perhaps no statistic better underlines the misery of life in fascist Portugal than the fact that by 1973 emigration had reached an annual rate of 120,000. Every year nearly 1.5% of the population were giving up on their homeland and seeking a new life elsewhere.

On top of all this misery the working class had to shoulder another burden. For over a decade the Portuguese army had fought an increasingly brutal and unwinnable war in Africa. The other European colonial powers had been forced to face reality and withdraw from Africa but the Portuguese fascists insisted on fighting to the last drop of the workers' blood. The wars in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau were a terrible drain on a weak economy and the steady stream of bodies coming back increased the sense of crisis. Another blow came with the oil crisis of 1973, as Portugal relied on oil for 85% of its energy needs. By April 1974 inflation was running at 30%, the highest in Europe.

  In the face of this crisis even the brutality of fascism was not enough to stop the working class moving into action. In 1971, 3,000 women shop workers staged an illegal march in Lisbon demanding a 44-hour week. In the same month the Advanced Technical Institute was closed indefinitely after a wave of student protest forced the authorities to admit, 'it has become difficult to ensure the proper conduct of classes'. On 26 July 1971 1,500 bank workers fought running battles with the riot police after the arrest of their leader, Daniel Cabrita. This wave of strikes accelerated steadily after October 1973. A cabinet meeting was due to take place on 25 April to discuss the threat of the first ever strike by Portuguese civil servants before events revised Caetano's plans for the day. A fascist regime whose civil servants are about to strike is a fascist regime on its last legs.

A clear sign that a revolution was in the air was that the ruling class were beginning to argue among themselves as to how best to try and save the situation. There were rumours of a split between a fascist hardcore around the President, Admiral Am?rico Tom?s, and Prime Minister Caetano's group, which was toying with the idea of limited reform. The divisions spilled into the open with the publication of General Ant?nio de Sp?nola's book, Portugal and the Future, which proposed the maintenance of the Portuguese empire but on the basis of a federation. Some bourgeois histories see the publication of this book as causing the Portuguese revolution - a confusion of cause and effect. The subsequent removal of Sp?nola from his position convinced many more in the army that the ruling elite had no capacity to deal with the growing crisis and there was no choice but to organise a coup.

  top     The military moves

AN ORGANISATION OF radical mid-ranking officers called the Movimento das For?as Armadas (MFA - Armed Forces Movement) began to sound out support for a military coup to remove Caetano and revealed how little support the fascists had. The actual task of planning the coup was undertaken by Otelo de Carvalho who was to play a most significant role in the events of the next period. The signal to move came 25 minutes after midnight when the radio programme, Limite, played the song, Grandola, Vila Morena, by rebel singer Zeca Afonso. Just to make sure that there was no missing the signal the DJ read out the lyrics:

Grandola, sun drenched town,
Land of fraternity,
It is the people
Who rule within you, o city,
On each corner a friend
On each face equality
Grandola, sun drenched town,
Land of fraternity.

At this message Captain Salgueira da Maia left Santar?m with eight armoured cars and ten lorries and moved on Lisbon. In the great square of the Pra?a de Com?rcio Maia's detachment was met by ten tanks from the seventh cavalry division, who immediately went over to the side of the rebels. As Maia moved towards Caetano's headquarters in the Carmo barracks he was met by a group of tanks under the Caetano loyalist, Brigadier Reis. Reis ordered his men to open fire but they refused. They were not prepared fight for the old regime but they hesitated to throw their lot in with the revolt. A stand-off developed.

But already the situation was beginning to change and the coup was becoming a revolution. As news of the military rising spread, thousands of workers took to the streets. Soon the tanks of Maia and Reis were islands in a sea of people. The military confrontation became a meeting as attempts were made to persuade Reis' men to surrender. At 11am they finally surrendered and the MFA reached the Carmo barracks. Caetano, however, refused to surrender to anyone under the rank of general. Eventually Sp?nola was located and he accepted Caetano's surrender at 5.45pm. Caetano's final words as dictator were, 'You must maintain order. I am frightened by the idea of power loose in the streets'. Caetano at least understood what was going on. A few members of the secret police barricaded themselves in their headquarters but the building was quickly stormed. Several secret policemen fell out of the upper windows or were pushed. Whatever. Europe's oldest dictatorship collapsed like a house of cards in a matter of hours with scarcely a shot fired in its defence.

  It was the low-ranking officers of the MFA who had overthrown Caetano but their habits of military deference were deeply ingrained and they handed power back to the generals. Sp?nola was installed as president. There could scarcely have been a less convincing candidate to play the role of president of a democratic republic. In Angola he was known as the Butcher. He had served under Franco during the murderous repression of the Spanish revolution and for Hitler during the Second World War. The programme of the MFA was vague in the extreme but comprised three essential aims: the establishment of a 'fair economy'; the end to war in Africa; and the purging of fascist elements from the state. Sp?nola vetoed the second two - not a good omen for the months to come.

Sp?nola was the open representative of the Portuguese bourgeoisie. He had the support of the tops of the armed forces, the big capitalists who had done well out of fascism, the Catholic Church and the landowners. Sp?nola was no friend of the workers but he was no fool. He understood that for capitalism to survive it had to appear to have broken with the Salazar years. Sp?nola offered government positions to both the major parties representing the working class - the Partido Socialista (PS) and the Partido Comunista Portugu?s (PCP). It was a sensible move on his part but a disastrous mistake for the workers' parties to accept.

  top     The workers' parties

THE PCP WERE the first beneficiaries of the radicalisation of the Portuguese working class. At the time of the coup they had only a few hundred members but had maintained some underground structures in the trade unions during the fascist period and were able to recruit rapidly. However, they were to prove a major obstacle to the building of socialism. Many very dedicated socialist workers joined the PCP but the role of its leadership disgraced the name of communism. The thirst of the working class for political understanding was so great that Lenin's April Theses featured on the best-sellers lists. Sadly its invaluable lessons were lost on the PCP leaders.

At almost every turn the PCP put forward a policy that was directly opposed to the interests of the working class. But it would be wrong to see this just as a series of mistakes. The PCP followed a politically consistent line. When it was clear that the power was there for the taking for the working class they stuck to their familiar 'stages theory': the first task was to establish a new regime free from fascist domination; then, only after the completion of this stage would it be appropriate to move onto the struggle for socialism.

As a result of this line the PCP adopted the policy of the popular front. Trotsky called the popular front 'a strike-breaking conspiracy'. In Portugal you could see exactly what he meant. Sp?nola gave the job of labour minister to Avelino Gon?alves of the PCP. So a 'communist' minister was responsible for legislation attacking the right to strike and seeking to ban solidarity action. Fortunately, the fighting spirit of the workers made this legislation a dead letter but damage was done. The price a so-called workers' party pays for an alliance with parties or representatives of the bosses is to be tainted with anti-working class policies. There is no way to maintain unity with the likes of Sp?nola while putting forward a revolutionary policy. For the PCP this was not even a conflict. Revolutionary principle went out of the window quicker that a member of the secret police.

  While many workers turned to the PCP believing it to be the mortal enemy of capitalism, many more were repelled by the nauseating spectre of Stalinism. Many workers wanted socialism but were convinced that the PCP sought to turn Portugal into a one-party state, like those of Eastern Europe. There was plenty of evidence to suggest that would have been the case. PCP leader, ?lvaro Cunhal, while in exile in Czechoslovakia, had come out in support of the Soviet tanks that crushed the Prague Spring of 1968. After the defeat of the PCP in the elections of 25 April 1975 Cunhal commented that he would guarantee that 'there will be no parliamentary democracy in Portugal', a remark which served only to play into the hands of the PS, led by M?rio Soares.

The PS was a tiny group at the time of the coup but it was to enjoy even more explosive growth than the PCP. The PS claimed to be based on Marxist policies. It claimed to defend the gains of the revolution like the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy. But talk is cheap and parties can only be judged by what they actually do. The PS had been established by Soares in collaboration with Willy Brandt of the West German SPD and other leaders of the reformist Socialist International. They understood the dangers for capitalism if there was no reformist party in Portugal when the inevitable explosion came. Occasionally making use of left-wing speeches, Soares became a vital figure for all who were desperate to maintain capitalism in Portugal. The final recognition of his role was the funding channelled into his party by the CIA who had, by this time, come back from lunch.

The other major force in Portuguese politics was the army itself. At times this appeared to play an independent role but, in reality, there was no independent role to play. As the class struggle developed the army began to reflect these divisions within its ranks. Many of the officers were loyal to Sp?nola and the capitalist system. Many of the rank and file, and some of the lower-ranking offiers, came increasingly over to the side of the working class. Carvalho was put in charge of the new internal security force, COPCON. This became particularly radicalised and at various stages played an important role in pushing events forward.

  top     Organisation and Occupation

THE 18 MONTHS after 25 April saw intense jockeying for position among these various forces. But while the politicians manoeuvered the working class began to fight. Major industrial disputes erupted in many key areas of the economy. On 15 May the 8,000 workers at Lisnave, Portugal's biggest shipyard, went on strike demanding a 50% wage rise. They marched back to work on 23 May completely victorious. Dozens of sectors followed their example. The Gon?alves car factory workers won a 40-hour week. Bakery and textile workers struck. Train and tram conductors refused to collect fares. Workers on the Lisbon underground won a 50% pay rise after being on strike for three hours!

The fury of the bosses at these victories was to be expected. The virulence of the PCP's attacks on the workers, however, must have come as a hell of a surprise to many. Gon?alves and Cunhal were at the forefront of these attacks, accusing the workers of 'organising strikes for strike's sake'. On 28 May Avante, the PCP paper, called for 'the unmasking of demagogues and adventurers who are pushing the country towards anarchy'. When postal workers went on strike in 1974 the PCP excelled themselves denouncing 'unrealistic wage demands which are causing disruption and playing into the hands of reactionary forces'.

The factory workers were matched in their fighting spirit by the workers on the land. In April 1974 3% of landowners owned 65% of the land. Agricultural productivity was one-third of the EC average. The workers demanded government action but by the beginning of 1975 their patience had ran out. A wave of land seizures began and within two months 2.5 million acres had been liberated. Again the response of the supposedly revolutionary government was counter-revolutionary: no land seizures would be permitted unless they were sanctioned by the appropriate government committee. Troops were sent to drive the peasants off the land. But, by this time, the army rank and file had been radicalised and usually refused to carry out these orders.

  One of the most inspiring movements which developed sprung up around the issue of housing. Within a few days of 25 April 2,500 empty properties in Lisbon were seized by the homeless. This process was to accelerate. But it was not a free-for-all property grab. Mainly illiterate homeless workers built organisations to conduct this work. The Autonomous Revolutionary Neighbourhood Committees (CRAM) had the slogan, 'No houses without people while there are people without houses'. By March 1975 there were 38 CRAM committees in Lisbon alone. By April 1975, 20,000 properties had been occupied. These were mainly houses but empty offices were also occupied for workers' campaigns and community centres. Workers' schools were established. CWI member Francisco, a participant in these momentous events, remembers how, between meetings, demonstrations and strikes, he worked as a volunteer, teaching workers to read and write - an essential part of the struggle for a better world.

The workers, through their experience of the struggle, were quickly drawing more and more profound conclusions about the tasks of revolution. Immediately after the coup, they had concentrated on winning wage rises and shorter working hours - very valuable reforms, but reforms nonetheless. By 1975 they had begun to tackle the question of ownership. As is so often the case it was the mobilisation of reactionary forces which spurred the revolution forward. On 11 March 1975 supporters of General Sp?nola, who had been ousted as president the previous September, tried to stage a right-wing coup.

Again, it served to show how little support there was for open reaction and it was defeated easily. But the workers drew very valuable conclusions to make sure it did not happen again. Forty-nine leading industrialists were implicated in the coup, including six members of the Esp?rito Santo banking family. Bank workers occupied the banks and physically prevented the bosses from removing incriminating documents or transferring funds abroad. The nationalisation of the banks on 14 March was merely the government's recognition of a fait accompli: the job had already been done by the workers themselves.

This was a significant step forward and many other workers were also taking other important steps. By August 1975, 380 factories had been taken over by the workers. Workers in the Sorefame train factory drew an even more fundamental conclusion from the attempted coup of March 1975. The workers armed themselves and an elected committee was established to look after the guns in case the right were to try again. These workers understood the role of the state far more clearly than their so-called leaders.

  top     Looking for solutions

THE WORKERS FOUGHT heroically to defend and build on the achievements of their revolution. The land seizures, factory occupations, local organisations in working-class areas, and the arming of the Sorefame workers, were all vital lessons learned. But the workers were crucially hampered by the lack of a clear revolutionary leadership. They struggled against their parties rather than with them. The working class showed again and again their brilliant capacity for improvisation. But while events showed how much could be achieved by spontaneous action they also underlined its limitations.

The workers were attempting to dismantle the old society but, to successfully build a new world, a revolutionary party is essential. The land and factory seizures were very important but the power of the bosses, while seriously weakened, was not broken. The situation called out for economic planning, and a planned economy cannot be built factory by factory. All the heroic struggles the workers were fighting needed to be linked together, into one campaign.

The role of a revolutionary leadership at this stage was not to lecture the workers, as many tiny political groups tried to do. It was to fight alongside the workers in their battles and provide a vehicle by which they could generalise their experience and channel their struggles together. This would also have given the workers the opportunity to benefit from the experiences of their brothers and sisters in other countries.

A clear example of where the interests of one section of the working class clashed with the interests of the revolution as a whole came with the seizure by its workers of the pro-PS newspaper, Rep?blica. The workers were in dispute with the publishers, occupied the factory and took over its running. They saw that the PS were trying to undermine the aims of the revolution. It was a very understandable reaction but it did not help the working class. The PCP was very strong in the media unions and the occupation was portrayed by the PS as Stalinist suppression of an opposition voice. Whetever the motives of the Rep?blica printers, their action served to drive many sincere workers towards the PS. Putting forward a clear policy of nationalising the media under democratic workers' control and management, with access to the press guaranteed to all non-fascist parties on the basis of their support within society, would have allayed the genuine fears of many workers.

  top     PS counter-revolution

THE CONFIDENCE OF the ruling class was given a great lift by the elections on 25 April 1975. The elections were a disaster for the PCP who finished a poor third behind the PS and the Partido Popular Democr?tico (PPD - social democrats). By the end of 1975, the situation was clearly approaching a new crisis. Unemployment was rocketing and by November had topped 500,000 - 14% of the population. Workers in the nationalised industries were increasingly frustrated by the lack of change from the days of dictatorship. The right wing in the army were beginning to regroup. The Catholic Church went on the offensive and organised right-wing mobs in many small towns. But the most important force in saving capitalism was Soares and the PS. The only way for the capitalists to make a comeback was by disguising themselves as socialists.

A split was emerging in Portuguese society. In Lisbon and the surrounding industrial areas and in the Alentejo - the centre of the land siezures - the working class was still strong; but in the less industrial areas of the North reaction was gaining strength. Attacks were made on local PCP offices and farmers threatened to block food supplies to Lisbon. Soares and the right wing saw their chance and moved onto the offensive. Carvalho was dismissed as leader of COPCON and a purge of the left in the army began. A last abortive uprising by paratroopers loyal to Carvalho was easily overcome by pro-government forces under Lieutenant-Colonel Ant?nio Eanes.

The PS was in command now and very gradually began the process of counter-revolution. For more than 20 years they ate away at the gains won in the revolution. Nationalised industries were privatised, trade union rights attacked and social provisions stripped away. Yet, so strong was the revolutionary movement, that the growing neo-liberal attack has still not progressed as far in Portugal as it has in Britain. But the workers could have won so much more. If only they had a leadership worthy of their heroic struggle, they could have got rid of the capitalist system in its entirety - the slum landlord, sweatshop boss, absentee landowner and racist state. Forever.

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