Mike Phipps reviews A People’s History of the Portuguese Revolution, by Raquel Varela, published by Pluto
The Portuguese Revolution was the most profound revolution to have taken place in Europe since World War Two. Over 19 months, millions demonstrated, hundreds of thousands went on strike, hundreds of workplaces, thousands of houses and large swathes of land were occupied. There is a lot to learn - and celebrate - from these events.
The Revolution began in Portugal’s African colonies. The Portuguese empire’s systematic use of forced labour transformed liberation currents in Mozambique, Angola and elsewhere into mass movements. The 9,000 dead in these colonial conflicts were Portugal’s greatest losses since the Napoleonic wars.
The scale of military failure provoked a crisis in the middle ranks of the army. Over 13 years, nearly 200,000 men refused to report for enlistment and 8,000 deserted. Out of this crisis the Armed Forces Movement was born, a network of junior officers, which drafted its first programme calling for “Democracy, Development and Decolonisation” in April 1974. On the 25th, it occupied key installations, with thousands taking to the streets in support.
This book is a history from below - soldiers who were commanded to fire on the rebels and refused, protesters who surrounded the head-quarters of the political police - who shot at them, killing several - and those who stormed the political prisons. It covers many events outside Lisbon, including the gathering of thousands in central Coimbra who decided to march on the town hall to take over the city council.
This was a real revolution, dismantling state power. The political police were abolished immediately, the riot squad and national guard later. It was also a workers’ uprising - five distinct strike waves between April 1974 and November 1975. These were not just about improving pay and conditions and righting earlier injustices. Workers at the Timex factory imposed a maximum salary on managers, prefiguring a broader push for workers’ control. Unoccupied houses were taken over. There was an explosion of free expression.
The main workers’ parties’ leaders rushed back from exile only to find themselves overtaken by events. A demonstration called by the Communist Party under the slogan “No strikes for the sake of strikes” was attended by fewer than 500 people. The Party also opposed a demonstration against NATO as “provocative”.
But the Armed Forces Movement did not object and the march went ahead anyway. When the military cordon protecting government buildings started shouting the slogans of the demonstrators, one newspaper reported “people were crying with joy.”
Five months after the Revolution began, the new President Spinola, panicked by its spread, called for a demonstration of the ‘silent majority’. Weapons were supplied to fascist elements. Workers threw up barricades around Lisbon to prevent the right’s entry and rank and file soldiers gave them their weapons. The coup was over before it began. There would be further attempts, each time cementing this alliance of soldiers and workers.
Economic sabotage against the new order was met with worker occupations, leading to self-management. In one textile factory, according to a source, “The women had voted that all supervisors - who were men - would have to retrain to get proper management qualifications. In the meantime, they would run the factory themselves. I remember them laughing about how easy it was - the sudden realisation you don’t need bosses.”
Nationalisations were demanded and in some cases enacted without compensation. Rural occupations drove land reform. But fear of collectivisation also enabled the Catholic Church to mobilise a backlash among small farmers, especially in the more religious north. In Braga an angry demonstration torched the Communist Party offices, part of a holy crusade which deemed communism satanic.
By the autumn of 1975, the Revolution was radicalising, with the largest demonstration by soldiers the country had yet seen. On November 13th, 100,000 people, mostly building workers, surrounded the Portuguese parliament. The government was held hostage. The prime minister asked the commandos to come to their rescue - they refused. After 36 hours, he conceded all the workers’ demands.
But this was to be one of the Revolution’s last great acts. A counter-revolutionary coup was in preparation - from within the solders’ movement itself. Moderates displaced revolutionaries leaving the movement confused and leaderless. The Communists offered no resistance, “preferring to abandon its radical army supporters in exchange for a continued stake in the government.” It was an abrupt turning point, a sudden end to 19 months of struggle.
The Portuguese Revolution was the last European revolution to challenge private property and throw up new forms of power. Many of its gains - in education, health and women’s rights - became permanent. Small towns all over Portugal named their streets after the Revolution and erected statues to local militants. Raquel Varela has done a brilliant job bringing these critical events to life.