The Portuguese Revolution of 1974-5: “The left had no strategy and the right did”

Submitted by AWL on 29 July, 2014 - 5:28

Miguel Perez, a Lisbon-based socialist activist and historian who delivered a talk on the Portuguese Revolution of 1974-5, spoke to Solidarity about his view of events.

Why was there so much left-wing ferment in the Portuguese officer corps in the 1970s? Why did Portugal’s colonial war have such a big effect on the officer corps, the army and society?

The colonial wars in Africa exhausted the state. People found themselves pushed into a war they didn’t want. The officers knew, by looking at the experience that French colonialism had been through in Algeria, that the war could not be won. So they organised a movement and took power. Why was this possible? The weight of students within the army – often, students who had been conscripted, frequently as punishment for subversive activities – had an effect on its character. Conscripted students would be signed up as “milicianos”, the lowest rank of junior officer. The Portuguese army had a certain radical tradition which dated back to the 1st Republic of 1910 to 1926, and earlier wars against absolutists in the 19th century. The Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) was the main political opposition force from the 1940s. While Maoist dissident groups, who appeared from the 1960s, called for soldiers to desert, the PCP argued for people to stay and organise in the army. The subversive process was sped up by what happened at the front in Africa. Every front was organised into a number of small sub-sectors, within which armed units enjoyed some autonomy.

What was the PCP aiming for in 1974-5? At least in their own heads?

The PCP defended the idea of an insurrection to overthrow the dictatorship. But in the 1960s, there was a change of emphasis: they elaborated a radical democratic programme: a 9-point plan for democracy and land reform. In the revolution, the PCP was confronted by the question of taking power. But from the 1960s, they basically maintained their “national democratic revolution” line: the Stalinist ‘stage theory’ of taking power. In the 1980s there was some change in a more conventional European-Stalinist direction.

The “Cuban model”? The PCP tried to influence the army in the direction of the model of the Cuban revolution, whereby the Communist Party came to hold much administrative power following a military coup, but without itself leading an insurrection. Their hope was for the creation of a new state within which the PCP could be hegemonic. The PCP was the only organisation on the left in 1974 with real, tested and experienced cadres. I think that the Cuban experience, where the revolution happened at first without the CP, and where the CP was at first outside events, was an important experience for the PCP. It was a warning to them to remain, as they understood it, inside the process.

Was the revolutionary left right to support the 5th Provisional Government in 1975, via the FUR (Revolutionary Unity Front)?

The FUR Front is the only case of an alliance between a pro-Soviet CP and far left parties in this period. It is often seen as a victory for the far left. In fact, the far left was being led along by the CP. They had arrived at a point where they didn’t know what to do. The Right was gaining ground for their programme, the far left didn’t know what to do – so they went along with the FUR – the Front consisted of the PCP, the MDP (the former democratic opposition), the MES (Guevarists), the PRP, LUAR (Guerillerist), the LCI (Fourth International Trotskyists). The LCI was important in the secondary school students’ union, and in the rank and file soldiers’ movement in Autumn 1975. After the PCP left the Popular Unity Front, a few days after its inauguration, it took the name Revolutionary Unity Front.

What is your assessment of the PRP?

They were important in the Armed Forces Movement. They influenced the officers but had no real political line. But they were very theatrical. They had a putschist strategy. The PRP were eclectic – they sympathised with Third Worldism, Maoism, Guevarism, Trotskyism. I think Third Worldism is the best way to describe them.

Why did the Eanes coup (of November 1975) suppress the revolutionary ferment so easily?

The whole Left in Portugal expected the Armed Forces Movement to protect the whole revolutionary movement from physical violence. But the left had no strategy – in particular, no military strategy – and the right did. The PCP had a strategy of ‘legalising the revolution’, or ‘institutionalising the revolution’. The Armed Forces Movement simply had no plan to fight the coup. The 25 November coup was carried out by 200 soldiers in Lisbon. The left, which numbered easily 1,500, did nothing.

On 25 April 1974, when the initial left-wing coup was carried out, the hierarchical principle of the army was broken. This weakened the discipline of the army. The Armed Forces Movement (MFA) was made up of junior officers, and it was not in step with the workers’ councils (CTs) and neighbourhood committees which sprang up in the revolution. The name of the rank and file soldiers’ organisation was SUV, which stood for “Soldiers United Will Win”. Only when the MFA turned to the right in September 1975 did the SUV appear. It was a project of the far left – a project of the Trotskyists. It created soldiers’ committees in the barracks, rather than basing itself on officers. It organised huge demonstrations in the final stages of the revolution. The PCP intervened in these demonstrations with their politics too. The PCP line was to support the leftwing officers; the far left had a class position on the army question – for control by soldiers’ committees. This class line in the SUV had been pushed by the Trotskyists. The LCI had many debates on their governmental slogans.

What do I think socialists should have said during the revolution?

As an historian, I try not to speculate. Maybe you had to have many different lines during the period. Initially, organising and centralising the CTs and neighbourhood committees, and then, from a certain point, to have taken a turn towards arming the committees with the support of the army, and having a revolutionary policy to win over some of the officers and neutralise the others, and to advocate a government of the CTs.

Moving towards today’s politics of the left in Portugal – why do you think the Left Bloc did so disappointingly in the Euro Elections?

There are some important internal features of the Left Bloc. It has some organisational problems, and some problems with its social roots. It works like an electoral machine and only appears for a short time around elections. But you need more than good posters, good leaflets and good speeches to succeed.

The trend of the social movement is also a factor. In 2011-2012, there had been the biggest demonstrations since the revolution. And in Octob 2013, the main TU federation, CGTP, called for a demo across the bridges of Lisbon and Oporto. But in Lisbon, the government didn’t organise the demo. The CGT tried to cross the bridge, but did not succeed. This was a turning point, and the demonstrations declined from this point. That could be seen as an indictment of the CGTP leadership, but in reality it is not. If it hadn’t been that incident, it would have been something else. It is difficult to mobilise the workers’ movement right now.

What do you think about Greece?

I want to see a Syriza government, and to see what a Syriza government would do. In Greece there have been many general strikes. In Portugal there have been a lot as well, though not so many. But they only really mobilise public sector workers, disrupt public transport: they have not resolved the situation. In Greece, there is a greater continuity of struggle going back many years.

There seems to have been a right-wing, anti-migrant shift in Northern European politics. What about Portugal?

This phenomenon does not exist meaningfully in Portugal, and only at a very low level in Spain. The Portuguese people could have blamed the mass privatisations and sackings on the EU. The EU’s high court mandated the full privatisation of public sector firms, quashing a law which safeguarded 51% public ownership. But they did not blame the EU!

There is a widespread understanding that leaving the EU is not a solution. Portuguese people remember the 1970s and the misery and hunger which preceded integration into the EU.

After Portugal entered the EU in 1986, there was a high level of investment.

The policy of a left government should be to do things which would see you expelled from the EU – not to leave on your own. The Syriza approach on this question is right. To defend anti-EU policies in the UK is very dangerous – the PCP has this position in Portugal.

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