Portugal 1974: A missed opportunity

The Carnation Revolution: The day Portugal’s dictatorship fell

By Alex Fernandes

Published by Oneworld Publications, 2024, £22

Reviewed by Kevin Parslow

1974 was a year of great upheavals worldwide. A miners’ strike led to the ousting of a hated Tory government in Britain; the Greek colonels’ junta was overthrown after a disastrous military excursion in Cyprus; President Richard Nixon had to leave office in disgrace, implicated in the Watergate cover-up. But none of these had greater opportunities for the working class to take power than the Portuguese revolution of that year, which continued into 1975. Sadly, this chance was missed.

This revolution is now chronicled in The Carnation Revolution by Alex Fernandes, a long-time researcher of the Portuguese events. The narrative of the book is taken from the discussions and actions of members of the Armed Forces Movement (Movimento dos Forças Armadas – MFA), the body of officers whose discussions and activities shaped the revolution’s destiny.

The first few chapters deal with Portugal’s history, particularly an explanation of how the fascist ‘estado novo’ (new state) came to power in the 1920s, led by António de Oliveira Salazar until his retirement in 1968, and its development into the police dictatorship of the 1960s and early 1970s, with Marcelo Caetano as Salazar’s successor. It was the gendarmerie of the Republican National Guard (GNR) and the hated and feared security service, PIDE, that kept ‘order’ and maintained the dictatorship.

Nevertheless, there was opposition – illegal trade unions organised strikes; the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) existed underground. Sometimes, mild bourgeois opposition candidates ran in tightly controlled elections. Portugal’s youth was not immune to the student radicalisation that swept the world in the 1960s. But when this seemed like a mass movement could develop and endanger the state, it was clamped down on, and its participants arrested or exiled. Some of the students joined left-wing organisations that sprung up and later participated in the revolution of 1974-75.

The armed forces were largely kept out of domestic civilian control but from the early 1960s were engaged in wars in Portugal’s colonial possessions. While other European nations had almost divested themselves of their empires, Portugal maintained its overseas territories into the 1960s. However, from the overrunning of the Goa enclave by the Indian army in 1961, the writing was on the wall as liberation movements developed in Portugal’s colonies, particularly Angola, Mozambique, and Portuguese Guinea (now Guinea-Bissau).

The author explains how the army in particular became increasingly dispirited fighting these wars. As well as facing the bullets in armed conflict, they also faced the ideas carried by the liberation movements. These were largely backed by the Soviet Union and its Stalinist ideas. Under their influence layers of the junior to middle-ranking officers began to move towards challenging the Portuguese dictatorship. The author notes how the military top brass, still largely in league with the dictatorship, became known by their lower ranks as the ‘Rheumatic Brigade’!

In their breaks from the wars in the colonies, the junior officers began organising back in Portugal. Leaders among them included Otelo de Carvalho, who was a prominent organiser and leader of the Armed Forces Movement and, after the revolution, leader of COPCON, the military wing of the MFA. From September 1973, moves began to win officers in the different regiments and units to the cause of an uprising to overthrow the dictatorship.

An underprepared action in March 1974 was defeated, and a handful of leaders were arrested. But those not detained began to plan more meticulously: “Otelo’s days in the first days of April are spent making contact with officers… He doesn’t mince words… ‘I am working on a plan of operations with the goal of toppling the government’… None of the people he approaches denounces him to the nearest authority… the pervading sense that something needs to change has become unshakeable”.

The plans are laid for the uprising in the early hours of 25 April 1974. The cue for the movement is the playing on a radio station of Portugal’s Eurovision Song Contest entry, followed a little later by a popular track from a more controversial artiste. This is, in its early hours, purely an uprising of military units behind the MFA. The working class are told from sympathetic radio stations carrying MFA communiques to stay off the streets. Yet some workers leave their homes, becoming bystanders and observers. A cleaner carrying carnations from a cancelled anniversary party in the café where she worked, hands out the discarded carnations from the event, thus supplying the epithet by which the revolution becomes known.

The movement occupied the main squares in Lisbon and imposed itself, surrounding the important government buildings. As the day progresses, the MFA took these last outposts of the regime. Caetano was holed up in the headquarters of the Republican National Guard in Carmo Square: “Inside the building, [Captain Fernando] Maia’s sporadic gunfire has generated an atmosphere of total panic… Caetano sits behind an office desk, looking dejected. [Government officials Feytor Pinto and Távora present him] with a summary of their conversation with [General] António [de Spínola], and Caetano immediately assents – he’s willing to hand control over to the general, which at the very least means power doesn’t fall ‘onto the streets’.”

Into the afternoon and early evening, for the first time workers come onto the streets to take action. Inspired by the MFA’s uprising, and with links to the PCP, they surround the headquarters and prison of the PIDE. Here are inflicted the only fatalities of the day, four people shot by the secret service’s supporters, in a last desperate attempt to prevent the success of the movement. It is unsuccessful and the regime falls.

What Caetano means by not wanting power falling onto the streets is shown by António de Spínola’s subsequent actions. Having been a moderate critic of the estado novo towards its end, he defends the capitalist system against the working class. One million workers had celebrated May Day freely a week after the overthrow of the dictatorship, but Spínola is a defender of the existing world order: “Spínola meets with Richard Nixon on 19 June… [who] makes noises of open support for the new Portuguese democratic process and quiet nods towards Spínola’s own domestic and colonial strategies, with particular emphasis on fighting the communist surge. The US has a vested interest in the rise of the National Liberation Front of Angola, which had received CIA support as the main anti-communist alternative to the MPLA [People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola]”.

But Spínola overplayed what was in reality a weak hand for capitalism in Portugal at that stage. The working class was testing its strength against the forces of capital. The provisional government swings left in composition in July 1974 and supports full independence for the colonies. Spínola resigns as president at the end of September as a result. He later aligns with far-right elements and is linked to the failed coup of March 1975, which ends with the working class coming onto the streets and the nationalisation of the banks and about 70% of the Portuguese economy!

The mood on the streets demanded change yet even with PCP members – including PCP leader Álvaro Cunhal – in the provisional government, there are attempts to curb this growing militancy. As Alex Fernandes writes: “The fall of the first Provisional Government makes things even more uncertain – there go the ‘steady hands’ brought in to avoid spooking the capitalists, and in enter a group of military officers with little to no experience but seemingly operating on a parallel trajectory to the Communist Party. [Colonel] Vasco Gonçalves’ government, with support from the Communists, attempts to curb the strike wave, repudiating the industrial action and continuing the tactic of sending the Army and COPCON in to repress the workers in more extreme cases (with mixed results). There are numerous cases of soldiers and officers being sent to break strikes and demonstrations and, after being cheered by striking workers, simply refusing to act or even crossing over to join workers. The government even goes as far as to bring in new legislation regulating strike action… labelled an ‘anti-strike’ law by the progressive press”.

“The new legislation, apart from forbidding strike action among military, firefighter and police services, also forbids workplace occupations, and enshrines employer lockouts into law. All the while, both the Communists and the amalgamation of official trade unions known as the Intersindical denounce ‘strikes for the sake of strikes’ as ‘adventurist’ and ‘acts of sabotage’ to the revolution, as potential agents of fascism and reaction. This disconnect between the left on the streets and the left in government leaves ample space for the right to surge, attacking both”.

In the above paragraph, the author explains the real tragedy of the Portuguese revolution. There was every opportunity for the taking of power by the working class yet no party to put forward a programme and strategy to achieve it. The more radical leaders of the MFA and COPCON looked to the different ‘socialisms’ emanating from Russia, China, and Cuba. But the lack of genuine workers’ democracy in these regimes and their repressive natures were used by the more right-wing elements in the MFA as a reason not to follow a revolutionary path. These groups were backed by the social-democratic Portuguese Socialist Party and the open right, the parties that ultimately defended capitalism.

The revolutionary phase ended with the defeat of a left uprising in November 1975, and the dismissal of the radical elements from the government. This paved the way for Portugal to be welcomed into the European Union and capitalism’s international structures. Alex Fernandes explains how battles need to be fought just to preserve the memory of the revolution: the old PIDE headquarters are now luxury flats, and campaigners had to take on Lisbon city council just to maintain the plaque on the wall commemorating those who died on 25 April 1974!

‘The wind blows the tops of the trees first’, is a phrase often used to explain how sometimes it isn’t the working class, certainly not in its majority, that initially comes to radical ideas. Marxism in Russia, for example, arrived through intellectual circles. The key thing that Lenin and those around him did was to take the ideas to the working class and build circles of supporters, not just teaching from above but particularly learning from the workers themselves. This created the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, and later the Bolsheviks, who were able to lead the working class to power in Russia.

Fernandes’s book plays a role in outlining the issues as why this didn’t happen in Portugal: the lack of genuine Marxism, the MFA left and the PCP and other left groups acting in parallel rather than as an integrated force, and the participation of the PCP in the Provisional Government and attacking workers in struggle, rather than following the Bolsheviks’ method of standing outside the provisional government in Russia in 1917, but with the working class, and building a mass movement to change society.

Ultimately, The Carnation Revolution deals with disappointment and a huge, missed opportunity for workers to change society for their benefit. Alex Fernandes has collated the various accounts of these years into an excellent book that provides much detail on the discussions and actions of the MFA. Socialists should use this in understanding how and how not to build in a revolutionary phase in the future.

See also: Revolution in Portugal, Socialism Today, Issue No.82, April 2004