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…..
On a fantasy world, palaces are even more staggering than in reality. Why? Because I do not have to work with stone and concrete (or wood or anything else). My only material is my imagination and that surpasses everything you can conceive. I am a writer, I am GOD.