Tony Cliff

Portugal at the crossroads

Portugal at the crossroads

The Portuguese Revolution began in Africa. The Angolan risings of early 1961, partly stimulated by the Belgian withdrawal from the Congo (Zaire) in 1960, temporarily destroyed Portuguese control in much of northern and part of central Angola. The massive military effort required to regain partial control and contain the subsequent guerrilla war imposed a heavy burden on the weak Portuguese economy, which was intensified after FRELIMO began military operations in Mozambique (towards the end of 1964) and PAIGC forces liberated parts of Guinea-Bissau.

By the beginning of 1974 an army of 200,000 men was eating up half the state budget of the poorest country in Western Europe, and was locked into a series of African wars that could be neither won nor ended by the heirs of Salazar’s dictatorship.

In 1920 Lenin had argued that revolutionary movements in the colonial world, “the revolutionary masses of those countries where there is no, or hardly any, proletariat, i.e. the oppressed masses of colonial Eastern countries”, could play a big part in the overthrow of the imperialist states and the capitalist system in the developed capitalist countries, the imperialist homelands. [1]

In the event, the major powers of western capitalism, helped by profound changes in the balance of their economies, managed in the period after 1945 to avoid the costs and consequences of endless colonial wars. They were able to concede formal independence to, generally speaking, conservative “local” ruling classes in their former colonies whilst retaining, in many cases, a good deal of indirect control, both economic and political. Neo-colonialism was born.

Independence was not, of course, conceded very willingly – and most certainly not bloodlessly. In Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaya, Egypt, Kenya, Algeria, Cyprus and South Arabia the imperialist powers fought savage rearguard actions accompanied by murderous repression equalling or surpassing anything done by the Portuguese in Africa. But these wars were fought – sometimes successfully and sometimes not – within a strategic framework of the withdrawal from direct colonial rule in favour of neo-colonialism. They were the exceptions, profoundly important exceptions, but exceptions nonetheless. Portuguese imperialism was at once too weak and too rigid to adopt the neo-colonialist strategy in time. The 13 years of colonial wars led directly to the overthrow of the dictatorship in Portugal itself.

Fascism would have been overthrown many years earlier if not for the fact that Portuguese capitalism was locked into international capitalism and strongly supported by it. British capitalism had dominated the Portuguese economy throughout the 19th century – hence the mythology of “our oldest ally”. Indirectly the British ruling class had control over the Portuguese empire and profited from it; that is why the Portuguese colonies survived the “scramble for empire” by the USA, Germany, France, Britain and Japan in the decades before the First World War. They survived because they were an appendix of the British empire.

Portuguese fascism survived through the 1930s and the Second World War. Salazar, like Franco, survived the downfall of Hitler and Mussolini. As the “Cold War” got under way, the Portuguese empire became one of the pillars of the free world, a founder member of NATO (1949), and recipient of modern arms and expert advice on techniques of repression. The African wars could not have continued for very long without NATO weaponry and equipment.

NATO gave the dictatorship a new lease of life, but not for good. International capitalism, through its contradictions, went on burrowing beneath the structure of Portuguese society. Foreign capital was flowing into Portugal on a massive scale. The multinationals moved in to exploit an abundant supply of cheap and well-policed labour. The result was comparatively rapid growth of the previously stagnant economy and a very considerable growth in the size of the working class.

When, on 25 April 1974, sections of the army officer corps overthrew Salazar’s successor, Caetano, a wave of working-class struggles created a mass working-class movement almost overnight. And that movement, with all its illusions and political weaknesses, is at a higher level than any other in Europe. It has prevented, up to the present, the consolidation of a new conservative regime – whether military, fascist or “social democratic” – and has put the socialist revolution on the agenda in a European country for the first time for years. The potential consequences are enormous. The history of the last 18 months in Portugal is an excellent illustration of the interdependence and interrelations of apparently diverse events.

The African wars, the growth of the multinational corporations, the development of the EEC; all contributed to the present situation in Portugal. The defeat of the threatened counter-revolution in Portugal and the seizure of power by the Portuguese workers would shake capitalism in the major countries of Western Europe.

The ruling classes are well aware of it. That is why, for example, British TV, press and radio – which ignored for years on end the brutal fascist dictatorship in this “oldest ally” – now devote unprecedented time and space to presenting the right-wing forces in Portugal as defenders of “democracy”.

The outcome is still undecided. A revolutionary situation exists in Portugal, a situation of fragmentation of power – leading to powerlessness. It cannot continue for long. Either the crisis will be resolved by the working class or by the forces of reaction. Such situations are the supreme test of parties, programmes, policies. In the last resort, all the political tendencies in the working-class movement are to be judged by their willingness and their ability to lead the working class forward to power in the time of crisis – or by their contribution to its defeat. Today Portugal is the touchstone for organisations claiming to be socialist or communist.



1. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.31, p.232.


Last updated on 24.4.2003