Tony Cliff

Portugal: Lessons for the revolution

(29 June 1974)

Lessons for the revolution, Socialist Worker, No. 380, 29 June 1974.
Reprinted in Chris Harman (ed.), In the Heat of the Struggle, p. 128.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

What has happened in Portugal over the past two months is of enormous importance for the workers of Europe, for Portugal is in a pre-revolutionary situation.

The mass strikes in almost all industries, the radicalism of the armed forces, the semi-insurrectionary temper of the workers – all point to the possibility of a revolutionary situation within a matter of months.

Will that situation turn into revolution? Will the emancipation of the workers started by the anti-fascist coup in April be properly completed by socialist revolution? If not, why not? These are the questions to which workers everywhere must know the answers.

A revolutionary situation is always short. For a time, the ruling class loses its confidence to manage society in the old way, while the expectation and militancy of the workers rises to unprecedented heights.

Fear of the revolution paralyses the ruling class – but only for a moment. As the social crisis deepens, they are forced into recovering their confidence. As they bounce back, they resort to still more extreme and brutal methods.

Their most powerful force is the army. Trotsky wrote about the army: “It is a copy of society, and suffers from all its diseases, usually at a higher temperature. The hierarchy of command in capitalist society is reflected in a more extreme form in its armed forces. The officer castes keep in close touch with the capitalists.” How did the Socialist and Communist Parties in Portugal solve the problem of the generals?

By marriage. They joined the generals in a new Portuguese government. It is a marriage of convenience. The Portuguese President, General Spinola, who fought for the fascists in Spain and in Russia, has no love for the socialists or communists, but he wants to marry them for their dowry. That dowry is the popular support of both parties – which has been handed on a plate to the junta.

The generals need that support for the moment, because the big business corporations which control the Portuguese economy want class peace while they consolidate their position. The situation has some interesting side effects. One of the largest and most unscrupulous companies in Portugal – ITT – has been mass-producing the red carnations which are the symbol of the Portuguese revolution!

A fight is needed to win the troops to the workers’ cause, not a union with the generals at the top. That means constant efforts to win the rank and file soldiers to the revolution. This means propaganda and organisation, of course, but it also needs the will to fight the reactionary sections of the army. Wrote Lenin: “We shall prove to be miserable pedants if we forget that at a time of uprising there must also be a physical struggle for the troops.”

There are plenty of examples in history where the workers have moved towards a revolutionary situation, but have not seized the time, have not smashed the state or won the army and have not extended their mass strike movement. In all these instances, the working class was broken to pieces.

How can we ensure that in situations like that in Portugal today the workers seize the time and go all the way for victory? There is only one way. We need in the roots of the working class movement a revolutionary socialist party.

Such a party forms a bridge between the experiences of the past and the action that must be taken into the future. In situations such as in Portugal today it raises the question of state power first and foremost. It demands and leads the extension of mass strikes and occupations as a necessary prelude to revolution.


Last updated on 3 February 2017