In Memoriam: Portugal 1974

Fascism never again: Portugal 1974

On the 25th of April 1974, at 12.20 PM Grândola, Vila Morena was played over the radio waves in Portugal. This event—seemingly unimportant—was the starting gun sounding for the impending democratic struggle that the Portuguese people were about to embark on. The song—a previously banned song about fraternity, solidarity and equality—cued the lower rank military officers of the MFA (Movimento das Forças Armadas) to proceed with the coup that would lead to the demise of the fascist regime Estado Novo.[1]

By executing the coup, the MFA’s actions also marked the start of a 19-month-long period of societal turbulence and a revolutionary process carried out in most cases by workers themselves. The struggle for a more just and free society manifested itself in work places, urban neighbourhoods, and in the countryside.

Today Portugal is again in crisis. This crisis is a political and social crisis characterized by attacks on workers’ rights and social benefits. Lately, its clearest expression has been that of the financial crisis: the EU’s and IMF’s bailouts demand vast austerity measures be put into effect. These austerity measures entail, amongst other things, making workers more “flexible” and privatizing social services.

Attacks on workers are all too familiar, and as they become more apparent emerging social movements and unions are coming together to defend the gains made in the aftermath of the coup of the 25th of April 1974. It seems the memory of the revolution and the gains that were made should be an indispensable part of the contemporary struggle.

The Second Republic: Estado Novo

Between 1932 and 1968 Antonio de Salazar was in power as prime minister.[2] Salazar had an outspoken admiration for Mussolini’s Italy as well as the theories of the French nationalist Charles Maurras and AF (Action Française). The regime of Estado Novo—declared in 1932—was based on a one-party system and a corporatist economy where unions and strikes were banned.[3] The secret police (PIDE) and the republican guard upheld an extensive censorship system that included a ban on freedom of assembly.

Along with the monopoly owning families, the regime was backed by the Catholic Church, by the small peasantry in the conservative north, and by the large landholders in the Alentejo region. Estado Novo was pronounced anti-communist. Salazar tried to curb modernization and industrialization, which he believed to be the root of class struggle and communism. Salazar also considered family the cornerstone of society. As a result, family life and society as a whole was extremely paternalistic.

Throughout the sixties and early seventies the regime found itself facing an array of crisis. First and foremost, there were the colonial wars. They can be understood as causative for the explicit expression of the social and economic crisis that were latent in the regime itself. The British historian Kenneth Maxwell eloquently describes it:

[a] backward, isolated nation of a little over eight million people which was struggling to industrialize could not go on committing 50 percent of national expenditure to military operations and supporting an army of 170,000, especially when those called upon to fight had no political voice and the population was increasingly estranged from the regime.[4]

Lisbon was faced with a paradox: It could not end the wars without admitting defeat, or even worse for the regime, grant the colonies democratic rights while withholding the same rights from the Portuguese people.

The Social Movements: A Repertoire of Action

The Portuguese people were famished for political influence. The opportunities that followed the coup were almost unlimited. Bill Lomax explains:

the collapse of the institutional structures of fascism and the destruction of established authority gave birth to a situation in which civil society was almost completely freed from the institutional and ideological constraints of a sovereign state power.[5]

Demands were put forward in all parts of society, but the government was unable to address them or even implement their own program. The first weeks of direct action set the parameter for the action repertoire that came to characterize the social movements of the Carnation Revolution.[6]

The dismantling of the PIDE and the republican guard was essential to workers organization and action. As fear of repression diminished and the authority’s lack of ability to act became more obvious, grassroots action became a necessity more than a choice. Without the fascist tools of repression, spontaneous strikes demanding higher wages, the purging of management and state officials and nationalizations superseded several hundred in the first couple of weeks. The demand for decent housing took on the form of 2,500 squats in these same first weeks.[7] Where squats were not possible people would look for different options. Rent strikes became widespread. Inflated rental fees compounded an already difficult housing situation, which could escalate as high as 40% of a family’s income, broadening the housing dilemma into middle class families. Another disturbing trend involved subletting, where property owners would rent to a middleman or -woman who in turn would sublet rooms on individual basis creating apartments housing 20-30 people sharing a single bathroom and kitchen. The precarious nature of employment and ensuing low wages necessitated a self-imposed rent ceiling in many cases as a course of action. On the 1st of May more than 500,000 people gathered on the streets of Lisbon alone in support of the revolution. In December of 1974, the first collectives were set up in the agriculture sector. Between January and March the rural workers occupied over 10,000 acres of agricultural land. The first waves of actions and occupations were only a forewarning of the impact direct action would have during the revolutionary months.

The new governments—six in all during the 19 months of the revolution—tried to adopt several measures to contain and neutralize the social movements’ actions. In fact this was a symptom of the unintended interplay between the government and the social movements: the social movements would act and the government would pass a law to address the problem often legitimizing action. Due to the governments lack of resources (or lack of institutional guaranties) to follow up a law it would have to be implemented by grassroots activists themselves. These actions would often transcend the governments’ ambitions. Because the revolution was perceived to be a social revolution, workers action and workers organizing was considered justified in any case, even when opposing government.

Government adopted a minimum wage law, which set the minimum wage to 3300 escudos to try to neutralize the high conflict level. To a certain degree, this had a contrary effect within the private sector. Foreign employers in Portugal were not used to such demands and upheld threats of factory shutdowns, layoffs and/or blatantly denied workers their wages. Workers action intensified, and in a second attempt to cue the strikes, the government passed a law in August of 1974, which for the first time in over 50 years acknowledged the legal right to strike.[8] Some of the strikes, where demands were not met, led to occupations of factory grounds. This was the case for Lisbon’s privately-owned water company. In other cases the strikes led to complete takeovers wherein the workers would organize a co-op.

The failure of the march of “the silent majority” led right-wing forces to attempt a counter coup on the 11th of March 1975.[9] This attempt failed. The communists took control of government and dominated the MFA, declaring a far-reaching program of nationalizations and agrarian reform. These nationalizations of land and industry were what many workers had been waiting for, and a law banning economic sabotage legitimized factory occupations as well as the occupations of agricultural land. The commissions sought to institutionalize themselves into the factory structures and took control over the process at the grassroots level.

The government might have legitimized occupations of land, houses, and factories in the eyes of activists, but they nevertheless condemned them because they were not government led. This has caused various analyses to state that government had sought to lead a social revolution but found itself led by the grassroots social movements instead and later the social movements found themselves in opposition to government completely.

For example, in the agricultural sector the tone changed. It was no longer “a vague endorsement of a future agrarian reform nor call for the support of government-led expropriations. It was an unambiguous call to take control of property immediately”.[10] When government passed a law stating that all empty houses were to be registered so they could be rented out within 120 days, neighborhood commissions and activists registered the apartments themselves. When the 120 days were up—again due to the local governments lack of resources—the commissions went ahead and occupied the houses, distributing them in accordance to need. This second wave of occupations also led to the setting up of neighborhood clinics, daycare centers and assembly halls.

Advances and gains in the first year of the revolution were driven by social movements making demands and directly acting out their demands as part of their struggle. Though aided in part by government, forms of action were dependent on the local and immediate possibilities presented in the neighborhood, the workplace or village. Organizing, however, was a common denominator for action of all the grassroots movements.

Organizing Direct Action and Institutionalizing Solidarity

Advancing the revolutionary process also meant furthering the organizational strength of the social movements. The apparent spontaneity evolved into well-organized action. Within a month of the revolution, workers and city dwellers were organizing in workers- and neighborhood commissions. Urban dwellers and workers would have a general assembly that voted on a commission, created workgroups and written demands, which in turn were handed over to local authorities.[11] Because direct action was not possible everywhere, organizing following actions elsewhere was usually an institutionalization of solidarity as many neighborhoods and workers put forward similar demands.

Networks of these local commissions became the next step and evolved into cases of dual power. Inter-Commisões (Inter), which was mainly based on the neighborhood commissions in Lisbon, was set up to coordinate negotiations with authorities. When met with the state initiated SAAL project—a project directed at housing people in shacks—Inter sought to organize all shack neighborhoods and other substandard neighborhoods. SAAL was supposed to be a test project, only meant for a few pilot neighborhoods. However, Inter insisted the project involve all neighborhoods that needed it. This demand was fulfilled and Inter came to represent 150.000 people in Lisbon alone. The autonomous revolutionary commissions of dwellers and squatters (CRAMO) organized squatter and other dwellers not taking part in the SAAL process though demands were similar and cross activist participation was common. Inter-Empresas was an equivalent for workers commissions.

In Porto, the revolutionary dwellers council (CRMP) resembled Inter in Lisbon. It organized neighborhood commissions who were taking part in the SAAL project, but also the neighborhood commissions of the state owned housing projects. While Inter was a direct answer to the SAAL process, the CRMP was an answer to the city being put under military (meaning MFA) administration. This administration encouraged the creation of workers councils so to better “represent the workers true interests in the city”.[12]
In Setubal, an industrial city south of Lisbon, a similar initiative was set up. Here the council was a citywide council encompassing all the city’s grassroots organizations; neighborhood commissions, workers commissions and soldiers’ commissions. Amongst other things, this council was successful in implementing a citywide rent ceiling of 500 escudos.

In Memoriam

The memory of April is being revived and becoming ever more important as attacks on worker rights persists in Portugal. The rhetoric of officials tries to mask the increasingly precarious nature of work and the seriousness of the situation. Political and financial elites push the idealized concept of the "trabalhador independente" (“the independent worker”) and businesses continuously exploit the use of short-term contracts and “freelance work”, but the reality is obvious to the people most affected.[13] Unemployment is rising especially amongst the young portion of the population. Poverty rates are also increasing as social benefits are cut down. The problem also has a gendered side to it as the percentage of unemployed women is also on the rise, bringing back pre-1974 gender roles.

On the 11th of March of this year, 2011, the IMF delegation arrived in Portugal—only five days after the socialist prime minister, José Socrates, had for the last time while in office asserted that no bailout was needed. The IMF and EU seemingly came to Portugal to exploit a long-lived crisis. Portugal has for three decades—like the rest of Europe—been subjected to the rhetoric and attacks from proponents of the neo-liberalist agenda. Those opposed to this agenda have vigorously united during several strikes. The general strike of November 2010 was called on by the two main Portuguese union federations. The IMF was met by demonstrations, the likes of which Portugal had not seen since the revolution. The acts of protest have increased since 2010 and several strikes have breached the Social Peace Pact.
Sparked by the “Geração À Rasca”—a self-coined term of the younger generations in Portugal—and as an increasing amount of people are affected, the memory and the willingness to struggle continues to gather strength amongst the general population of Portugal. Inspired by the Arab spring and the Spanish and Greeks taking to the street, the Portuguese youth have occupied public spaces and are deliberating alternatives to the current political and economic system in popular assemblies. Those born after 1974 are calling upon the older generations to act in solidarity to create a movement to bridge the often-perceived gap between the precarious workers and unionized workers—the gap between workers on the “outside” and workers on the “inside.” Often this movement is called a movement of indignation, but—based on the lessons of 1974— it should be regarded as a movement of empowerment.




[1] Suggested further readings are: Nancy Gina Bermeo, The Revolution within the Revolution: Workers Control in Rural Portugal (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986); Charles Downs, Revolution at the Grassroots: Community Organisations in the Portuguese Revolution, (New York, Albany: SUNY Press, 1989); John L. Hammond, Building Popular Power: Workers’ and Neighborhood Movements in the Portuguese Revolution (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1988); Phil Mailer, Portugal: The Impossible Revolution? (London: Solidarity, 1977).

[2] Marcelo Caetano succeeded Salazar as prime minister after the dictator suffered a stroke in 1968.

[3] This process had started some years before. After the demise of the Portuguese 1st republic in 1926, Salazar’s explicit ambitions, first as finance minister, was to create a state wherein the economic system would be based on corporatism.

[4]  Kenneth Maxwell, The Making of Portuguese Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 33.

[5]  Bill Lomax, “Ideology and Illution in the Portuguese Revolution: The Role of the Left,” i Lawrence S. Graham and Douglas L. Weeler (ed.), In Search of Modern Portugal: The Revolution and its Consequences (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983), p. 183.

[6] The history of the Portuguese struggle for democracy has unfortunately been overwhelmingly a history of the MFA, The PCP (Partido Communista Portugues) and PS (Partido Socialista). Of course, these actors had a role and an impact on events, but the revolution did not belong to them and still does not. To a larger extent, the revolution belonged to the social movements that sought to change the inheritance from the past regime, and society as a whole as a result.

[7] Migration to the cities had created a precarious situation in the housing sector. Estimates indicate that 33 % of the population was living in sub-standard housing in 1974. Only 4.3 units were built per 1000 inhabitants. In addition to most of these units being meant for the upper strata in society, the demand sent prices skyrocketing. The result was a greatly divided society. Other estimates, made by the neighborhood movement itself, concluded that in 1970 there were 300,000 empty livable housing units in Portugal as a whole.

[8] This law also limited the right to strike. Strikes were only legal after negotiations were exhausted and political strikes were made illegal. Amongst others, the strike at the daily Jornal do Comercio over purges proved the law as a dead letter after it sparked political/solidarity strikes in all Lisbon newspapers.

[9] On the 28th of September 1974, there was a call for a march on Lisbon by what was coined “the silent majority.” On the eve of the march, activists, neighborhood commissions and workers commissions built barricades on the main roads into the city. Later that evening they were aided by soldiers as well.

[10]  Bermeo, The Revolution within the Revolution, p. 64.

[11] Though the initiative could come from a group of dwellers or workers in cooperation with a political party or group, the organizational statutes often had explicit expressions of being non-partisan. For example, Intersindical appeared as a union confederation, dominated by the PCP, but the worker commissions often acted outside of this centralized unit. PCP was highly skeptical of strikes they coined as “wildcat” and denounced the housing struggles as counterproductive and a threat to the revolution. In fact, the PCP was skeptical to anything it could not control.

[12] Downs, Revolution at the Grassroots, p. 27.

[13] 76% of Portuguese companies use so-called “flexible labour.” See