42 Years Since the Portuguese Revolution

The movement of the Portuguese workers has been an inspiration to working people everywhere. After fifty years of brutal oppression under a fascist state, the Portuguese workers have demonstrated their unconquerable will to change society.

The coup of April 25 was no mere reshuffling at the top, but reflected the enormous pressures of society. The terrible drain of resources and manpower caused by 13 years of bloody colonial wars had dragged Portugal—already the most backward country in Europe—to the brink of economic collapse.

In a small country of 9 million people (a little more than Greater London), 40% of the budget goes on arms. Official figures show that 40% of the population is illiterate. And 2.5 million Portuguese were driven abroad to escape the poverty or the threat of four years’ conscription in the African wars. The rocketing state expenditure on arms gave a mighty twist to the spiral of inflation currently running at 25–30%.

This profound economic and social crisis provoked a split in the ranks of the ruling class. As always, revolution begins at the top! The rift in the Portuguese church, like its sister in Spain, was a clear indication of this process.

The more farsighted representatives of Portuguese capitalism understood the impossibility of continuing in the old way. Disaffection spread throughout the whole of society, finding a voice even in the most sensitive area of the capitalist state—the armed forces.

After 13 years, it was clear that the wars in Africa were unwinnable. Portuguese forces in Mozambique were hard pressed by FRELIMO. Large areas of Guinea-Bissau had already been wrested from Portuguese hands by the Provisional Revolutionary Government, which was recognized by many countries. A further 55,000 Portuguese troops were pinned down in Angola.

Gradually, the will of the ordinary Portuguese soldiers to fight was undermined. Desertion spread. The young workers and peasants were loath to leave their native land to fight an interminable war, not in their interests.

Those in Africa were increasingly unwilling to venture into the bush. The mood of disaffection spread to the junior officers and NCOs nearest to the rank and file. Finally, it found a distorted echo in the topmost ranks of the army, in Spinola’s book Portugal and the Future.

This book, which has been widely advertised as advocating Portuguese withdrawal from Africa, earned Spinola the reputation as a liberal, especially when it led to his dismissal by Caetano.

In point of fact, Spinola advocates “preparing the Portuguese African colonies of Guinea, Mozambique, and Angola for self-determination with a federation linked to Portugal.” This solution—which is essentially the same as that earlier advanced by Caetano himself—assumes two things: firstly, that Portugal has the right to “prepare” the Africans for independence (i.e., to remain in the saddle until it considers them “ready”), and secondly that the Africans would wish to enter a federation with Portugal.

But all talk of “federation” is nothing but a lie and a sham so long as a single Portuguese soldier remains on African soil.

The publicity given to Spinola in the press of the “Communist” Party is a disgraceful travesty of the truth. One would imagine from the pages of the Morning Star that Spinola was the very model of a revolutionary democrat. Thus, on April 27, the Star carried on its front page a picture of Spinola with his troops in Guinea, with the comment that:

“His stay in Guinea was, throughout, marked by the conduct of a spectacular campaign for personal popularity, among tribal chiefs and Guineans under their control [!]—and in the army itself. His reputation among the military was that of a soldiers’ man.”

The Star does not think it proper to mention the reason for Spinola’s “stay in Guinea,” namely, as Commander in Chief of the Portuguese army in its war of extermination against the Guinean liberation fighters!

A spokesman for the Provisional Government of Guinea-Bissau described Spinola as a “man of smiles and blood.” At no time does the Star mention that Spinola fought in the Spanish Civil War on Franco’s side. All his life this man has faithfully served the cause of the ruling class and of fascism.

Yet all of a sudden, with the aid of the Morning Star, he becomes a champion of “people’s democracy”!

The coup was carried through by the younger officers of the so-called “Armed Forces Movement.” As the Financial Times recalled:

“According to the best available evidence, General Spinola was not directly implicated in planning the April 25 revolution.”

Spinola and his clique placed themselves at the head of the movement, hoping to keep the explosion within safe bounds. It was none other than Marcello Caetano himself who,

“sitting in a small rest room in the Central City Carno barracks, surrounded by rebel forces, begged Spinola to take the leadership of the country as the only man who could save it.’

“This coincided with the arrival at Spinola’s modest apartment of emissaries from the rebel HQ . . . asking him to assume the Presidency.” (Financial Times, June 5, 1974)

In so doing, like the sorcerer’s apprentice, they unleashed forces beyond their control.

The leaders of the junta promised “to complete a program of salvation for the country and the restitution to the Portuguese people of the civil liberties of which they have been deprived.” At the same time they appealed for “calm” and support for military rule for a “transitional period,” at which they promised free elections and a constituent assembly.

But news of the overthrow of Caetano immediately brought the masses onto the streets. No warnings over the radio could dam the flood. Angry crowds chased plainclothed policemen and informers down side streets. Several were killed, before the military stepped in to arrest them—more for their own safety than anything else!

Thus the “liquidation of the secret police” was effected without delay by the action of the workers themselves.

The junta had further promised to free the political prisoners. But here too it was the mass action that forced the hand of the generals:

“The junta had said that it would release all political prisoners, except those convicted of, or facing trial on, criminal charges, and that the Caxias prisoners would have to wait on official decisions on their category.” (Morning Star, April 27, 1974.)

The crowd of 5,000 which surrounded the notorious Caxias prison, demanding the release of all the prisoners, made the regime’s mind up for it.

Without the permission or advice of the junta, the workers exercised the right to strike. Without waiting for the verdict of the lawyers, they exercised the right to demonstrate: a massive 500,000 marched through the streets of Lisbon on May Day. The staffs of the newspapers carried out their own purges of fascist editors, in many cases taking over the running of the papers themselves.

Public employees spontaneously held meetings to remove fascist heads of department. The revolutionary mood spread like wildfire through the rank and file of the armed forces. Soldiers turned out on parade with red carnations—the symbols of revolt—stuck in the barrels of their rifles.

Sailors demonstrated with the workers on May Day, carrying banners calling for socialism. Most ominously, for the junta, a letter appeared in the journal Republica signed by soldiers, sailors, and airmen on active service in Guinea, demanding immediate peace.

The movement of the Portuguese workers has been viewed with horror and alarm by Spinola and his clique. Faced with a movement on such a scale, armed reprisals were out of the question. The army itself would break in pieces.

The courageous “democrat” decided that discretion was the better part of valor. The representatives of the capitalists and landowners decided to bow before the storm and seek a compromise solution—for the moment.

The Bonapartist Spinola understands very well that his only hope of controlling and restraining the masses rests on the support of the leaders of the working-class organizations. In this stratagem, the key role is occupied by the CP and Socialist Party leaders.

Overnight, with the arrival of democracy, the CP and SP have mushroomed. The arrivals of both Soares, the Socialist leader, and Cunhal, the CP leader, were met with massive demonstrations. Both have placed their hopes in the favors of the “democrat” Spinola.

But the CP leaders, as in Chile and Spain, outdo all others in their clamor for an alliance with the generals.

Thus, an early official statement by the PCP stated that:

“At the moment the unity in action of the working class, democratic forces, and youth is more urgent than ever, with a firm alliance between the peoples’ forces and the democratically minded military.”

The broad hints by the CP leaders to the junta that they would be willing to serve in a Provisional Government were not lost on Spinola. Under Da Palma Carlos, the right-wing lawyer and company director, new prime minister of Portugal, there serves a “Socialist” foreign minister, a “Communist” minister of labor (naturally!), and CP leader Cunhal (without portfolio).

The situation in Portugal is not without historical analogies. In every great revolution there occurs, in the initial stages, the equivalent of the “February Days” in Russia 1917.

With the overthrow of the tsar, and the emergence on the stage of political life of the popular masses, down to the most backward and politically illiterate strata of the peasantry, the illusion was created of the unity of all social classes on the program of democracy. The natural feeling of the masses of relief, and the sense of immediate victory, made them an easy prey to the phrase mongering of the Mensheviks and SRs, who joined hands with the “liberal” capitalists in the Provisional Government.

It is instructive to compare Lenin’s reaction to this situation, even abroad in Switzerland, to that of the Portuguese “Leninists.” His very first telegram to the Bolsheviks in Petrograd read:

“Our tactic: no trust in and no support of the new government: Kerensky [“liberal” leader in the Provisional Government—AW] is especially suspect. Arming of the proletariat is the only guarantee; immediate elections to the Petrograd City Council; no rapprochement with other parties.” (Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 23, 292.)

In Portugal, the so-called Communist Party has all along argued in favor of just such a coalition with the parties of “liberal” capitalism. But, as in Russia after February, as Lenin explained, only by organizing and arming the working class, and filling it with a distrust of capitalist liberals of the Spinola-Kerensky type, can the gains of the workers be defended, and an advance towards workers’ power be made.

In Portugal today a great step forward has been taken by the working class. They feel that the defeat of fascism has been brought about by their own hands. They are in the process of flexing their muscles, of understanding their own power.

None of the fundamental problems facing the workers have been resolved. The advent of “democracy” has merely highlighted. them. The wages of the workers, the lowest in Europe, continue to be eroded by inflation. The poor peasant is still forced to leave his farm to emigrate for half the year to feed his children. The flower of Portugal’s youth is still drafted into the army for four years to fight in oppressive colonial wars.

For the working class, democracy is not a sacred cow, to be admired for its own sake, but a means to an end. If it does not lead to a solution of the fundamental problems of life, then it is worthless. But a solution to the problems facing the people of Portugal is incompatible with the class interests of the bankers, landlords, and capitalists, whether of the fascist or “democratic” variety!

And, in point of fact, it is not the whims of individuals which determines which political form the capitalist class adopts (“democratic” or fascist), but whether or not it feels challenged by the working class.

Instinctively, the workers of Portugal make use of democratic rights to further their own class interests. What use is the “right to strike,” if it cannot be exercised? The workers understand democracy, concretely, not as a lawyer’s cliché. Bakers, shipyard workers, postmen, bus and tram drivers, even tollgate collectors, have struck against their intolerable standard of living.

What has the Morning Star, to say of all this? Merely that these strikes “followed a rowdy ultraleft demonstration on Sunday [May 26] which troops dispersed with tear gas and mounted charges.” (May 29, 1974.)

Tear gas and mounted charges! Quite like old times! The workers are receiving excellent tuition on the values of capitalist “democracy”! But the Star, which shamefacedly and unscrupulously links the mass strikes with “rowdy, ultraleft” demonstrations, begs the question. Since when do masses of workers stage strikes because of “rowdy ultralefts”? This is the language, not of a workers’ paper, but of the bosses’ gutter press. Nowhere does the Star say what the strikers’ demands were: a basic monthly wage of £110. And what is the explanation of the Star’s strange silence?

Because the capitalist Provisional Government, of which the CP is part, has opposed the strikes, which are the workers’ answer to the miserable offer of a minimum wage made by the government.

The junta’s economic policies “have been broadly welcomed by the business community,” comments the Financial Times (May 29, 1974) with evident satisfaction. But the workers, living on a miserable pittance, are unable to agree—even in the interests of “democracy.”

The strikers have been met by a stream of abuse by the mass media (“free speech”). General Galvao de Melo (a “democratic” general!) said on TV: “It is true that many things disappoint us, and the ingratitude of this ill-treating that which was offered with such emotion and dignity almost leaves us aghast.” That the workers should actually take the idea of the right to strike seriously! Such ingratitude should leave any “democratic general” aghast!

In their day, the Russian Mensheviks accused Lenin and Trotsky of being German agents, who were playing into the hands of the “dark forces” of reaction. The same old song has lately been revived by the Portuguese “Mensheviks.”

The CDE—the organisation of Portuguese “democrats”—warned that “the ultraleft [?] was becoming the ally of reaction.” (Morning Star, May 29, 1974) It is true that there is a danger of reaction. From whom? The next day the Star wrote: “The dangers of the present situation were shown today when President Spinola, head of the military junta, declared that it would not hesitate to meet violence with force if necessary.”

Thus, in spite of itself, the Morning Star reveals the true nature of Spinola, a ruthless representative of the interests of capital.

Spinola’s apparent strength lies in the fact that the ruling class has lost control of the situation, while the working class is not yet ready to take power. In the resultant vacuum, Spinola is balancing between the classes, playing one off against the other, as a Portuguese Bonaparte. He promises liberty to the workers; to the capitalists he promises—more truthfully—that all “abuses of liberty” will be crushed.

For all his appearance of strength, Spinola’s base is a fragile one. It rests on an unstable equilibrium of class forces. One decisive push from the mass workers’ organizations, and Spinola’s Bonapartist regime would give way to a regime of workers’ power which would shake the world. But the masses remain held in check by their own leadership.

The key question remains the wars in Africa. The workers and soldiers are war weary. Yet the war drags on. Despite the negotiations with Guinea-Bissau, the Portuguese army in Mozambique has been reinforced. Almeida Santos, minister responsible for the colonies, stated recently that “It is the Portuguese army’s intention to continue the war against the FRELIMO guerrillas in Mozambique until a ceasefire has been agreed.”

Although they realize that the position is hopeless, and will undoubtedly be compelled to withdraw, the generals still cling to the hope of retaining some vestige of Portuguese power in Africa. It seems they are on the point of disgorging Guinea-Bissau, which has become a complete drain.

However, Angola, rich in oil and minerals, had a trading surplus of £104 million last year (most of which went to finance the wars in Mozambique and Guinea). Spinola’s tactic is one of prevarication and maneuvers under the guise of “self-determination.”

But the African guerrillas are not fooled. Dr. Agostingho Neto, a leader of the Angolan People’s Liberation Movement, replied that “We reject a referendum organised by Portugal which controls the administration, the army, and the police in Angola.”

The CP representatives in Spinola’s government are shamefully avoiding their elementary, democratic duty: to call for immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all Portuguese troops from Africa. The CP leader Cunhal (minister without portfolio) acts as a “left” fig leaf for the colonial policies of the junta.

“We are heading towards a solution—a political solution of the colonial wars based on self-determination [Spinola’s version of self-determination—AW]. The colonial war is a very complex question. With the broad government, although there are different opinions which sometimes show [!], we have points in common. There is no military solution, only a political solution—The essential thing at this time is to negotiate, to find a common basis for a solution.” (Morning Star, May 20, 1974.)

These cowardly evasions and twists do not conceal the fact that the Portuguese CP leaders have abandoned all claim to represent the struggling masses of Africa, as well as Portugal. In place of unity with the oppressed, they have chosen unity with the oppressors.

But any attempt by the junta to intensify the war in Africa would split the armed forces from top to bottom. The mainly conscript army has scented peace and would prove a thoroughly unreliable weapon. The American capitalists, in the end, had to withdraw from Vietnam, as their army became disaffected and unwilling to fight.

The same process would speedily develop in Africa if the Portuguese capitalists proved obstinate. It will likely be only a matter of months before they are forced to concede defeat in their former colonies. Soares’s frenzied negotiations are one indication already!

To the African guerrilla, the CP leaders offer—negotiations with Spinola. To the Portuguese workers, fighting for a living wage, the CP leaders call for “calm, prudence and unity.” (Morning Star, May 21, 1974.)

The struggles of the workers are identified with the mysterious “ultraleft which could open the way to reactionary forces.” (Cunhal quoted in the Morning Star, May 21, 1974.)

While the exaggerated importance given by the CP to the “ultraleft” is ludicrous, it would be wrong to ignore the damage which they can do.

Marxists would have a perspective of patiently fighting to win over the mass of the CP and SP to their program. Sectarians can only disorient the movement. Futile gestures and premature adventures can give the forces of reaction added opportunities to take action.

The CP leaders are using exactly the same arguments as the Mensheviks in 1917 who sought to blame the Bolsheviks for the reaction. In reality, it was their cowardly policies which allowed the right wing to regroup and strike blows against the revolution. Only the independent working-class policies of the Bolsheviks, implacably opposed to the capitalist politicians of any color, enabled the workers to smash reaction and take power.

Cunhal and co. repeatedly express their loyalty to their capitalist “allies.” Thus, the CP paper Avante writes, “This absence of unanimity of views and even the existence of marked differences concerning some essential problems does not mean that the Portuguese Communist Party will not scrupulously abide by the compromise undertaken with the other democratic forces, and with the armed forces movement.” (Morning Star, May 25, 1974.)

At the mass CP rally in Lisbon on May 4, speakers “condemned the attempts to divide and confuse the Portuguese workers and to put forward exaggerated claims and strikes at all costs—All the speakers insisted on the need for the unity of the working class, for unity of the working class with the mass of the people, with the democratic movement and the movement of the armed forces.” (Morning Star, May 27, 1974.)

As far as the problem of the colonies is concerned, Cunhal makes so bold as to remark that “among a part of the armed forces there is not yet the necessary clarity [!] as to the ways and means and the timetable to this problem.”

Yet in the same edition of this paper, the new chief of staff, da Costa Gomes, showed a complete clarity on the question: “Unless the liberation movements laid down their arms, he declared on his arrival in Luanda, the war would continue.” This is the kind of “self-determination” Spinola has in mind.

The social problems facing the workers, peasants, soldiers, and youth of Portugal are incapable of solution, on the basis of diseased Portuguese capitalism. If the policies of the CP and SP leaders go unchallenged, the scene will be set for bloody clashes in the near future.

In the measure that the hopes and aspirations of the masses are disappointed, a bloody solution becomes inevitable, as the lesson of Chile shows. The policy of class collaboration which goes under the name of “Popular Frontism” has always and inevitably led to the most terrible defeats for the workers.

The British working class long ago learned not to place any trust in the value of promises from Liberal capitalist politicians. The only worthwhile victories of our movement have been through the struggle and sacrifice of the workers themselves. The workers of Portugal will now rapidly learn the same lesson:

  • Long live the Iberian revolution!
  • Defend the right to demonstrate and strike!
  • Free elections now!
  • An immediate end to the African wars!
  • No deals with capitalist politicians and no trust in Spinola!
  • Arm the workers in defense of democratic rights!
  • Land to the tillers and the factories to the workers!
  • For a workers’ and peasants’ government!

On a fighting program such as this, the Portuguese workers could unite all the impoverished and oppressed sections of society, for the transition from the Portuguese February to the Portuguese October, which would have an even more decisive effect on the history of mankind than the Russian Revolution itself.

June 1974

Are you a communist?
Then apply to join your party!