The Next Portuguese Revolution

On the Carnation Revolution’s fortieth anniversary, Portugal’s elites want to use its legacy to justify austerity.

The poster for this year’s official celebrations of the Portuguese Revolution features a large question mark against a red background. It’s a fitting symbol for an event open to many interpretations. Does Portugal again stand at a crossroads? Or has the revolutionary legacy been co-opted once and for all? Does the poster highlight the revolution’s unfinished business, or put into question the wider gains it made?

The Portuguese Revolution of 1974–5, also known as the Carnation Revolution, was the hottest topic of the post-1968 left. At the time, thousands of international revolutionaries travelled to Portugal to get a glimpse of what popular power and real democracy could look like. In their eyes, the revolutionary process in Portugal posed an alternative to both Western capitalism and the Soviet model. Like much of the Left associated with 1968 and after, the memory of these tumultuous years has largely faded into oblivion abroad.

Yet in Portugal, the revolution remains a reference point by actors on both sides of the battle over austerity. While former Maoist student leader and current President of the European Commission Manuel Barrosso is a prominent supporter of the “refoundation of the Portuguese state,” which seeks to tear up the last vestiges of the revolution, a new generation of activists associated with groups such as Que Se Lixe a Troika (Screw the Troika), or, a precarious workers’ organization, continue to sing Zeca Afonso’s song Grandola Vila Morena on picket lines and at rallies.

The song signaled the beginning of the coup d’état led by leftist military officers of the Movimento das Forças Armadas (MFA) who initially seized the public radio station on 25 April 1974, was sung unison at this year’s official celebrations. Beneath the cloak of unity, bitter wars have been raging over the nature of 1974–5, the government’s eager submission to the Troika’s austerity agenda, and whether the new Portuguese left is up for the task of providing a people ravaged by capitalism with a viable alternative to it.

Maybe news from May 1968 — a general strike in France, the Vietcong offensive, the uprisings in the US ghettoes — reached the fringes of the Iberian Peninsula with a bit of delay. At the time, Portugal was the poorest country in Western Europe. Its economy depended heavily on raw materials imports from its African colonies. It manufactured these at home in order to export. Low levels of consumption and economic devastation created a powder-keg in a country that was ruled by a fascist regime, a remnant of Europe’s past.

The military had been fighting a thirteen-year-long colonial war in Mozambique which had both exhausted the conscript soldiers and stalled economic growth at home. By 1973, when the world was still on fire, socialist and communist agitation was widespread in the military ranks. For the Communist Party (PCP), which had operated in clandestine conditions since the end of World War II, circumstances suddenly changed when domestic class struggle began to catch up to their agitation. More than 100,000 workdays were lost to industrial action between October 1973 and April 1974 alone.

When the military signaled the overthrow of the fascist Salazar regime by playing Afonso Zeca’s song, people’s fears instilled by decades of dictatorship were vanquished. To the MFA’s own surprise, the popular classes disobeyed their orders to stay at home. Armed with red carnations, the people of Lisbon unleashed a wave of popular support for the soldiers who stuck them down the barrels of their guns, turning the flower into the symbol of a popular revolution.

Today, right-wing revisionists argue that the regime was opening itself up to the idea of democracy and European integration in any case, and that the revolution simply prolonged the process. The insurrectionary actions against the much-hated regime tell another story. On the first day, the people occupied the general headquarters of Salazar’s secret police, the PIDE.

Once known as one of the world’s most effective secret services, the PIDE was so despised that workers and rank-and-file soldiers of the MFA chased undercover agents into neighboring Spain or underground during the course of the revolution. In a process that came to be known as saneamento, bosses, factory owners, middle management, and school principals who had collaborated with the Salazar regime were forced out of their positions by popular mandate.

Over the course of the next nineteen months, Portugal was to become a laboratory of popular democracy and self-management. People occupied empty buildings and turned them into homes. They created workers’ councils, cooperatives, and free clinics. Newspapers and radio stations came under direct democratic control. In the countryside, workers helped peasants to plough the land. Children taught adults to read.

The Portuguese people did not wait for the provisional government to ratify the freedom of assembly in parliament, but established it through their daily demonstrations. Political demands spilled over into economic ones. People won the right to organize in trade unions, the minimum wage, holiday and sick pay.

Over one and a half years, the insurgents could push back two coup attempts and dethrone six provisional governments. It seemed like nothing could stop the revolutionary tide…..

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