The Militant (logo)  
   Vol. 69/No. 19           May 16, 2005  
Portugal, 1974: How fascist dictatorship fell
(feature article)
April 25 was the 31st anniversary of the fall of the fascist dictatorship of Marcello Caetano in Portugal. To mark this occasion, we reprint below major excerpts from an editorial published in the July-August 1974 issue of International Socialist Review, a predecessor of the Marxist magazine New International.

In 1968, Caetano succeeded the 36-year-long dictatorship of Antonio Salazar. Caetano’s regime was toppled six years later by a coup led by young military officers who organized themselves in the Armed Forces Movement (MFA). The MFA put in power a Junta of National Salvation headed by Gen. Antonio Spínola. These officers represented a layer of the bourgeoisie that was seeking to hang on to some form of domination of Portuguese colonies in Africa, through a “reformed” colonial policy.

The crisis of the regime was fueled by the victories of national liberation movements against the Portuguese colonialists in Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, and São Tomé. Lisbon had termed its colonies “overseas provinces” and had adopted laws making Africans in these countries “Portuguese nationals.” The toll of Portuguese troops grew in the late 1960s in losing battles to hang on to the colonies. By 1970, Lisbon’s wars in Africa consumed as much as 40 percent of the country’s budget. These events helped spread discontent at home, forcing weighty sections of the ruling class to decide they had to get rid of the dictatorship and continue capitalist rule through “democratic institutions.”

Spínola—who had served as colonial governor of Guinea-Bissau and as the Army Chief of Staff—initially argued that the colonies were not “mature enough” for independence. Becoming president in the spring of 1974, he welcomed liberals and socialists into his cabinet. As young military officers began to move in a more radical direction that summer, under the pressure of mass popular protests, Spínola became isolated. He resigned from the government in September 1974, and fled into exile the next year after leading a failed military coup.

The overthrow of the dictatorship—often referred to as the “Carnation Revolution” because rebelling soldiers put carnations given them by protesters in the streets into the barrels of their guns —sparked a mass popular upsurge. Working people and youth formed mass organizations of a proletarian character similar to the workers’ and peasants’ councils, or soviets, that were instrumental in the victory of the Bolshevik-led October 1917 Russian Revolution. War-weary rank-and-file soldiers formed their own committees in military barracks to press for democratic rights and for ending Lisbon’s imperialist wars.

The revolutionary conduct and aspirations of the popular masses, however, were betrayed by the reformist Socialist Party and Stalinist Communist Party. These parties backed the MFA-organized governments in the name of “defeating fascism,” even though the dictatorial regime had already been overthrown. The potential for a socialist revolution was thus squandered and the working class and its allies were dealt a blow in Portugal. The lessons from these events are drawn out in the editorial printed below.


The April 25 military coup in Portugal that toppled the Caetano government unleashed a mass ferment that is shaking the Iberian peninsula and has every potential for moving forward toward a socialist revolution in the period ahead. The initiative for this leap into the unknown was taken by the “liberalizing” military only with great misgivings and after much soul-searching when the existing situation had become intolerable for the principal section of the Portuguese bourgeoisie.

One thing the events of the last few months in Portugal have shown is the limitations and drawbacks of dictatorial rule from the standpoint of the dominant class itself. Under the pressure of accumulating problems, the most dynamic wing of the Portuguese bourgeoisie was forced to disable and throw into the gravest disarray not only the massive repressive apparatus that had maintained what was perhaps the oldest and most stable police state in the capitalist world but the whole machinery of coercion essential to any bourgeois society.  
Soldiers influenced by mass movement
In the aftermath of the April 25 coup, the unity of the officer corps was gravely shaken and the effectiveness of the command structure profoundly undermined. The ranks of the armed forces were opened to influence from the mass movement that had been unleashed and groups of soldiers on the African battlefronts began to demand to be brought home immediately, a demand that threatened to spread like wildfire among the soldiers and their relatives throughout Portugal. It was indicative of the breakdown of the military hierarchy.

Uniformed soldiers and sailors began to march behind the red flags and revolutionary banners of the militant left groups, scandalizing their bourgeois-minded officers. Demoralized by the imprisonment and public pillorying of some of the top watchdogs of the old regime, including their colleagues in the political police, the cops became notably inhibited. In the weeks after the coup, Portugal, for all practical purposes, was the freest country in the world.

With the crushing weight of the repressive apparatus suddenly removed, the long suppressed aspirations of the Portuguese masses erupted to the surface. Almost immediately large sections of workers began to take action against the high rate of exploitation maintained by the police state. Public workers, denied all trade-union rights by the Salazarist regime, demanded the freedom to set up their own organizations and staged militant actions. High school and normal school students unleashed a powerful struggle against state exams and forced the junta to accept their demands. In some important high schools, the authority of the administration was broken at least temporarily.

All sorts of movements appeared: women’s movements, gay liberation movements, ecology movements. A mood spread of challenging everything, of wanting to know about and discuss everything that was banned under the old regime. The working journalists of the mass media were encouraged by this atmosphere to revolt against the reactionary editors and publishers that had kept them from reporting the truth as they saw it. As a result the big daily papers were suddenly opened to all sorts of ideas that are still beyond the pale for the bourgeois press in other capitalist countries. The bias against reporting the activities and views of the left groups was largely swept away at the same time that the political spokesmen of the old bourgeois regime were profoundly discredited.

Everywhere the bourgeoisie was faced with militant stirrings among the masses and a radical ferment that threatened, even if it could be controlled for the moment, to lay the basis for a powerful challenge to some of the cornerstones of the capitalist system in Portugal. This threat was all the more acute because the bourgeoisie had to open the floodgates of politics before it had the time to construct any political instruments of its own or to develop and disseminate a bourgeois ideology suited to the changed conditions. At the same time, both its economic and political margins for maneuver were thin. It could no longer afford the burden of the colonial war, but it could not afford to abandon the colonies either, at least the most economically important of them.

In order to avoid a general rout, the Portuguese bourgeoisie had to hang on in Africa at a time when it was obvious that the ranks of the army and the people were unwilling to sacrifice anything more for the “overseas provinces,” and when it was too weak to resist a mass movement for immediate withdrawal should one develop.
Economic crisis adds to discontent
At the same time, in Portugal itself, a whole layer of unviable capitalist enterprises, kept alive by the economic nationalism of the Salazarist regime and by a low wage rate maintained by repression, were threatened with failure. The high rate of inflation that had fueled popular hatred of the old regime was continuing. Furthermore although the most dynamic sectors of Portuguese capital apparently thought that they could offer some more concessions to the workers— since this would be an inevitable result of dumping the old regime and taking a liberal turn— it seems certain that they regard it essential to maintain the low cost of labor that is one of the main attractions for foreign investment in the country, a major factor in any perspective of modernizing the economy.

Thus, the overthrow of the Salazarist regime entailed great risks for the Portuguese bourgeoisie as a whole, risks that it had to confront unprepared. The two main questions, then, are why sectors of the bourgeoisie decided to accept these risks and what had enabled them so far to ride out the storm?

The answer to the first question seems fairly clear. While the solution General Spínola projected in his book Portugal e o Futuro for the problems of the Portuguese bourgeoisie was vague and utopian-sounding, he had the merit of explaining very frankly why the Salazarist regime and its crude repressive methods could not be maintained. The expense of the colonial war was producing a greater and greater lag in the development of the Portuguese economy at home. Not only did this threaten Portuguese national capital; it was preparing the way for an inevitable social explosion as a more and more hopelessly backward country exported greater and greater numbers of workers to the advanced capitalist centers in Europe, where they came into contact with a higher standard of living and learned about democratic, political, and trade-union rights. General Spínola expressed fear of the processes that would start up in Portugal as this experience was transmitted back to the relatives of emigrant workers.  
Pressure from Washington
It also seems likely —this was hinted at in Spínola’s book— that the U.S. was stepping up pressure on the Portuguese authorities to change their course in Africa. Washington probably feared that the mounting liberation struggle against a reactionary, repressive colonial administration would lead to a dynamic that would endanger the neocolonial system in Africa.

The only solution for the Portuguese bourgeoisie was to make concessions to the liberation movements and try to build up a neocolonialist layer in its African territories. To do this, it had to open up the way for a political process. It had to build up native political leaders and collaborationist parties. It needed a period of parliamentarianism and democratic demagogy, and this process could not be limited to the colonies alone but obviously had to extend to Portugal too. This turn was impossible without throwing out the old police-state structures and the reactionary and fascist ideology of the Salazarist regime. The continuity of the political system had to be broken sharply in order to create illusions about new democratic political opportunities. In short, the old repressive system and the reactionary mystification on which it was based had become dangerously constrictive. The bourgeoisie had to break out of this straitjacket, no matter what the cost, so that it could maneuver to save its essential positions.  
Reformist life preserver for bourgeoisie
The decisive question is the second. How have the representatives of the Portuguese bourgeoisie managed to stay afloat so far without a vessel of their own in the torrent they were forced to release? The answer is that they had a life preserver: the reformist workers’ parties. This means essentially the Communist Party. It is true that some Socialist Party leaders such as Mario Soares are important to the junta as “progressive” intermediaries in their negotiations with the liberation movements and the workers in Portugal. And if the Socialist Party tops succeed in their objective of building up a big Social Democratic party with the help of the reformist and liberal apparatuses in Northern Europe and the U. S., they may become a pillar of bourgeois rule in Portugal, and perhaps at a certain stage a “democratic” alternative to the CP.  
Communist Party aids Spínola regime
But at present the Socialist Party lacks both the homogeneity and organized support necessary to be a firm prop of the regime. The only party capable of serving as the political support of the bourgeois military junta, of organizing mass support for it and defending its policy against the militant workers and students is the Communist Party. That was obvious in the most important political event in Portugal since the April 25 coup, the massive May Day march. It was the Communist Party cadres that kept this popular upsurge within the bounds of patriotism and support for the junta. And by this they handed Spínola and his collaborators a decisive political victory. The old fascist turned “progressive” was not long in beginning to exploit it. Speaking to rallies throughout the country modeled on the May Day demonstration, he has attacked the militant workers and students who are demanding their rights, calling them “provocateurs” and “counterrevolutionaries” and appealing for “patriotism” and “discipline.”

Parallel to this, the Communist Party has carried on a virtually identical campaign in the working-class organizations, lacking only the military trappings of General Spínola’s appearances (drum music, drill by heavily armed units, and so forth). The Communist Party’s policy is calculated to convince the bourgeoisie of its “responsibility” and “reliability” as a partner in government. In order to achieve its parliamentary and reformist objectives, it is determined to suppress any movement or activity that might “frighten” the bourgeoisie and make them fear that their liberal turn could get out of hand.

As for Spínola, his objectives have become crystal clear. At every stage, his campaign against “extremists” has been coordinated with moves to cut back political freedoms, reimpose political censorship, restore arbitrary authority in the armed forces, and in general to begin liquidating the political and social ferment that exists. His objective, in short is to restore the bourgeois grip on society. Once this is accomplished, he can afford to dispense with the support of the Communist Party, which can never be entirely reliable from his point of view—no matter how useful it proves in this moment of crisis—because of its subordination to the foreign policy of the Soviet bureaucracy.

At present, the tie between the Communist Party and the Kremlin may even be an advantage for Spínola, since a combination of CP pressure on the workers’ movement in Portugal and Soviet pressure on the guerrillas in Africa could be the decisive factor in achieving his objectives.  
Historic precedents
There are precedents for Spínola’s conduct. For example, following the fall of Nazism, the weak and discredited capitalist classes of France and Italy, among others, brought the Communist parties into their first postwar governments. They needed them to shore up their political authority. Like the Portuguese capitalists today, the French capitalists found the Communist Party useful in dealing with the crisis in their colonies. The Stalinists put their weight behind the new “progressive” colonialism that the French bourgeoisie felt it necessary to promise, the “French Union.” But after the Stalinists had fulfilled their role, and the capitalists succeeded in restabilizing the situation, the bourgeois parties broke the alliance and returned to ruling in their own name alone.

The Portuguese CP is, thus, playing the same role that its French and Italian sister parties played in the postwar crisis the role that the Social Democratic parties played in the World War I crisis, and the one that the Communist parties in general have played since the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet Union and the Stalinization of the Third International.

In Portugal the bourgeois forces that backed the coup were completely without a mass political apparatus of their own. In the decisive moments of the mass upsurge following the violent ouster of the Salazarist government, they have had to rely almost exclusively on the Communist Party. In a situation where the army was split and its command structure undermined, the police demoralized and confused, and the decisive masses beginning to mobilize throughout the country to win aspirations the capitalists could not meet, the Communist Party has been the essential prop of capitalism in Portugal. Without its support the local capitalists would be unable to control the process they were forced to unleash.

The role of the Portuguese Communist Party is a betrayal of the historic interests of the proletariat. It comes on the heels of the experience in Chile where the CP provided the shock troops for the reformist Allende government in turning aside the revolutionary workers and entrapping them into placing their trust in the counterrevolutionary bourgeois army of General Pinochet. If anything, the reactionary role of the CP in Portugal is even clearer. It does not even hold the presidency as Allende did in Chile. It has joined an outright military regime as a junior partner and offers its services to help curb and housebreak the revolutionary impulse of the Portuguese working class. The Popular Front policy of the CP can lead only to another bloody disaster of the kind seen in Chile and whoever advocates such a line is an enemy of the Portuguese and African masses!

The behavior of the CP comes as no surprise. It is a hardened, reactionary bureaucratic sect on a world scale and its actions serve its own—and the Kremlin’s—needs, however much those needs stand in contradiction to the needs of the struggle for socialism. These are not people who simply fail to learn from their “mistakes.” This “mistake” has been repeated in country after country for 40 years, notwithstanding the terrible defeats it produced in the Spanish Civil War, in Greece, Indonesia, and Chile to name only a few examples.  
Prospects for revolutionary leadership
The question is whether they will succeed in aborting the upsurge in Portugal as they have so many other revolutionary opportunities. That is, what are the possibilities for a revolutionary leadership emerging that can lead the workers and the poor masses to take power in their own interest? That is the only thing that can break the vicious circle of betrayal….

In particular, the junta and its reformist allies are vulnerable on the question of the colonial war. While the fall of Salazarism aroused strong hopes in the masses and in the soldiers themselves for an immediate end to the war, the Lisbon government has to maintain its military positions in order to be able to negotiate the kind of “political solution” the Portuguese capitalists and their international allies want. At the moment, the government cannot assure discipline within the army. Restoring this discipline is, in fact, its No. 1 priority and the precondition for restoring “bourgeois order” itself.

Thus, the question of building a mass movement for immediate withdrawal of Portuguese troops from Africa and stopping Spínola from re-imposing a firm bourgeois grip on society are tightly linked. The strength of the movement for withdrawal may very well be decisive for the whole future of the revolutionary process in Portugal. And the spontaneous protests by soldiers and others against the continuation of the war indicate that all that is needed to start a mass movement for withdrawal is a small push and the kind of political line that can mobilize the masses.

A mass movement for immediate withdrawal of Portuguese troops from the colonies can block Spínola’s crackdown; it could also provide a focus at this stage for all those who do not want to subordinate their struggles to the needs of the “progressive” bourgeoisie and the class collaborationism of the CP. It could counterbalance the weight of the CP apparatus, drive a wedge between sincere militants and the Stalinist bureaucrats, and halt the construction of a mass Stalinist party. It could open the way for a socialist revolution in Portugal.  
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home