Tony Cliff

Portugal at the crossroads

The collapse of the fascist regime [2]

A fundamental objective prerequisite for a revolution is the impasse of the old regime. Among the symptoms of a revolutionary situation, Lenin pointed out the following:

... when it is impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their rule without any change; when there is a crisis, in one form or another, among the “upper classes”, a crisis in the policy of the ruling class, leading to a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes bursts forth. For a revolution to take place, it is usually insufficient for “the lower classes not to want” to live in the old way; it is also necessary that “the upper classes should be unable” to live in the old way. [3]

The deeper the general crisis, the more different sections of the ruling class quarrel with each other. The deeper the crisis and the greater the general hostility of the masses of the people towards the regime, the sharper are the fissures and conflicts within the ruling class. This is exactly what has happened in Portugal.

The collapse of the fascist regime in Portugal was just the result of the loss of confidence of the ruling class that things could continue in the old way.

The coup which overthrew the Caetano regime on 25 April 1974 was the work of the Armed Forces Movement (MFA), consisting of 400 middle ranking officers. But its success depended on the feeling within the most powerful sections of business and among the upper ranks in the forces that Caetano’s government was too inflexible to deal with the main problems facing Portuguese capitalism. When it came to the crunch, no substantial section of society was willing to side with the old regime.

The colonial revolution

The most important problem was that of the African colonies. Portugal’s army was facing defeat in Guinea, and was bogged down in endless wars in Mozambique and Angola. The cost was eating up nearly half the government budget. Yet for the most advanced sections of big business Guinea and Mozambique at least were a declining asset. In the last ten years the proportion of Portugal’s exports bought by the colonies had declined from 25 percent to 11.3 percent, while Portuguese sales to Europe had increased from 49 percent to 65 percent. It was hardly surprising that people in high places began to ask themselves whether they could not replace colonial rule by indigenous rule, while keeping in their own hands the main economic wealth of these countries – as Britain had in Zambia, Kenya, Nigeria and so on.

Further tipping the balance against Caetano was the economic condition of Portugal itself.

The economic basis of the ruling class has been undergoing substantial changes in the last 20 years. The economy remains the most backward in Europe, with output per head only two thirds of the Spanish level. But some industrial development has been taking place, gradually changing Portugal from an overwhelmingly agricultural country to one where industry plays an important role. In 1950 half the population lived off the land (in agriculture, fishing or forestry) and only a quarter worked in industry; by the late 1960s the proportion in industry had risen to 35.5 percent and that in agriculture fallen to 33.5 percent.

This change has been based upon a massive flow of foreign capital into Portugal and the Portuguese African colonies. In the years 1943-60 the total foreign investment in Portugal was 2 billion escudos; in the years 1961-67 it rose to 20 billion.

In the year 1971 alone private foreign investment was three or four times larger than between 1943 and 1960.

In the years 1961-71 foreign capital made up 66.9 percent of all new investment in Portugal. [4]

American and German capital flowed into Portugal at a much faster rate than British capital. But the total British investment is still greater than that of any other country.

Portugal became a semi-colony of the advanced western imperialist countries. There are 200 companies in Portugal associated with British capital, with total investments of £300 million. They include Plesseys, GEC, Babcock and Wilcox, British Leyland, BICC, British Steel Corporation, Rootes-Chrysler, and Metal Box. Other international companies, notably ITT, are also there.

The aim of the multinationals was to exploit the low-paid labour of the Portuguese working class. In Lisbon the average wage for a 45-hour week was between £7 and £10; elsewhere wages were even lower. In some districts infant mortality was as high as 10 percent, and the Portuguese have the lowest life expectancy in Europe.

The most backward capitalism in Europe was likely to be hardest hit by the developing world crisis. Inflation was already greater than anywhere else apart from Greece; estimates suggest it had reached 30 percent a year by March 1974. The inevitable by-product was continual unrest in industry which the crudest repression could not stop.

At the same time, the massive scale of arms spending on the colonial wars made impossible any attempt to deal with the grave social problems that face the majority of the Portuguese. More importantly for the ruling class, it has hampered the expansion of Portuguese industry keeping up in any way with that in the rest of Europe.

As the Economist pointed out three years ago, “Many of the bright young men rising to prominence in the banks and the economic ministries are ready to argue very strongly that the price of holding on to Africa has been the diversion of investment funds from vital development projects in the home country”. [5]

Spinola’s programme

The coup finally took place when some of Portugal’s biggest monopolies decided that the time had come to change course. One of these, Champalimaud, which controls banks and the steel industry, had for some time followed a “liberal” line, reflecting the fact that it was more closely linked with a group of foreign-trained technocrats who had had some influence in the early years of the Caetano regime. They were closely associated with the journal Expresso, which advocated a policy of reforms and liberalisation. Also associated with them was the former Education Minister Veiga Simao (a graduate of Manchester and Cambridge Universities), who had begun the reform of Portugal’s archaic education system by developing technical and vocational education.

Shortly before the coup another of the big monopolies, CUF, which owned 10 percent of Portuguese industrial capacity, moved to a position of opposition to the regime. CUF has many interests in Africa and traditionally has been much more reluctant to consider decolonisation, but recently has been increasingly anxious about the outcome of the colonial wars. It was a firm owned by CUF that published Spinola’s book which advocated a political solution to the African wars.

This recognition of the need for a change of line by the monopolies coincided with the growth of discontent among the army, and in particular the middle-ranking army officers. This discontent had at first been economic in origin; soldiers were badly paid and had to do four years military service. There was a serious shortage of officers, so that many career officers had done several tours of duty in the colonies, and reservists up to the age of 36 were being recalled for service. Many workers of military age emigrated rather than serve; it is estimated that there were over 100,000 draft dodgers throughout Europe.

The discontent in the army was growing even though the Caetano government had recently increased pay; there had been demonstrations in the Military Academy. More and more the demand for economic improvements was spilling over into the demand for an end to the colonial wars.

At home too there was considerable pressure for an end to the wars; demonstrations had taken place, and there was a significant anti-war movement among Catholic priests.

General Spinola was the person best suited to bring together the big monopolies on the one hand, and the captains’ movement in the army on the other.

Spinola’s past – as a supporter of Franco and Hitler – gave him credentials as a reliable conservative. As governor and commander in chief in Guinea-Bissau, Spinola followed a policy described by Dr Manuel Boal, one of the leaders of the liberation movement PAIGC, as “systematic terrorism”: “He bombed defenceless villages in the liberated zone, destroyed our crops and always burned hayfields at the end of the dry season to prevent us constructing huts for the rain season ... He is a man with blood on his hands and a smile on his face.” One of his feats was to help in organising the murder of the PAIGC leader Amilcar Cabral.

When Spinola came to the conclusion that the African wars were unwinnable, he dissociated himself from the Caetano regime. His book, Portugal and the Future, published in February 1974, was a bombshell; it was the first time anyone in such a position had admitted that a purely military solution to the African wars was impossible.

Spinola’s actual proposals combined ambiguity with Utopianism. He stopped far short of urging complete independence for the colonial territories, preferring such phrases as a “scheme of the pluri-national state type” and a “federal solution cemented by solidarity”. His hopes that political agreement could be established with the liberation forces were a belated neo-colonialism. Yet in the total dead end that Portuguese imperialism had reached his proposals seemed the best available.

Though he played no part in the organisation of the April coup, indeed had no connection with the MFA, Spinola was its natural beneficiary. He became President with the agreement of both the MFA leaders and Caetano – the latter being only too glad to hand over office to such a conservative figure and make his own escape.

The coup and the popular movement

Spinola’s problem was that he could not implement his programme for satisfying the new needs of Portuguese big business without getting rid of the old regime. And the armed forces could not do that without paralysing the repressive forces that had kept the mass of the population in check previously.

The destruction of the old regime required more than the replacement of one or two men at the top. Throughout the bureaucracy of the state, the armed forces and the police were individuals who owed their advancement to the methods of Caetano and his predecessor, Salazar. The officers of the Armed Forces Movement feared that unless these were purged they would regroup and reverse the coup.

The officers might then find themselves on the receiving end of the torture of which the secret police were notorious practitioners.

Three years ago a senior government official told the Economist, “Portugal is like a pressure cooker, the lid has been kept on for a very long time and if some fool lets all the steam out at once, the thing will blow up”. [6] That is exactly what Spinola was forced to do. He had to prevent the exercise of power by the secret police in order to protect his own pro-capitalist supporters. But when he did that, he inadvertently permitted the mass of the population to give expression to all the discontents that had been accumulating for half a century.

In the explosion that followed, a process of radicalisation took place far greater than Spinola intended. He did not aim to dismantle the hated secret police, the PIDE, but that is what has happened as a result of spontaneous mass pressure.

The moment the purge began, it took on a life of its own. The bonds that had tied down the rest of Portuguese society for nearly 50 years snapped. In the factories, in the media, on the streets, workers began to turn against those who had inflicted so many injuries on them in the past. The army was forced to take secret policemen into protective custody before they were lynched. Army officers were called to the factories to negotiate an end to strikes for the dismissal of fascist managers. In virtually every industry there were struggles for massive wage increases.

The bourgeoisie found that a movement aimed initially to rationalise its rule had got out of hand. From singing about “freedom” and “unity” in May it began to scream about anarchy, until a significant sector of it backed the abortive right-wing coups in September 1974 and March 1975. The failure of the coups and the fall of Spinola, however, aggravated its problems, and ensured that the months ahead in Portugal will be very stormy indeed.

Reading accounts of events in Lisbon after 25 April 1974, one is vividly reminded of Marx’s account of the revolution of February 1848 in Paris, when one section of the bourgeoisie was overthrown by another aided by the middle classes and the workers:

The provisional government which emerged from the February barricades necessarily mirrored in its composition the different parties which shared in the victory. It could not be anything but a composite between the different classes ... this was the February revolution itself, the common uprising with its illusions, its poetry, its visionary content and phrases ...

In the minds of the proletariat, who confused the finance aristocracy with the bourgeoisie in general ... the rule of the bourgeoisie was abolished with the introduction of the republic. At that time all the royalists were transformed into republicans and all the millionaires of Paris into workers. The phrase which corresponded to this imaginary abolition of class relations was fraternity, universal fraternisation and brotherhood. This pleasant abstraction from class antagonism, this sentimental reconciliation of contradictory class interests, this visionary elevation above the class struggle, this fraternity was the real catchword of the February revolution ... The Paris proletariat revelled in this magnanimous intoxication of fraternity. [7]

But the euphoria of February 1848 was shattered four months later when the fundamental class divisions in modern society showed themselves to be more important than temporary divisions of interest within the ruling class. The bourgeois republicans consolidated their rule by turning the guns of their armed forces on the working class.

Fraternity, the fraternity of the antagonistic classes, of which one exploits the other, this fraternity, proclaimed in February, written in capital letters on the brow of Paris, on every person, on every barracks – its true, unadulterated, its prosaic expression is civil war, civil war in its most frightful form, the war of labour and capital. This fraternity flamed in front of all the windows of Paris on the evening of 25 June [1848] when the Paris of the bourgeoisie was illuminated, while the Paris of the proletariat burnt, bled, moaned unto death. Fraternity endured just as long as the interests of the bourgeoisie were in fraternity with the interests of the proletariat. [8]

The lesson of 1848 has been repeated dozens of times since. Whenever one section of the ruling class turns against an established authoritarian government for its own reasons there is always talk of “national unity”, “popular unity” or “anti-fascist unity”. This leaves the ruling class free to disrupt the “unity” when conditions are most suited to its own victory.




2. In writing this chapter liberal use has been made of the following: I. Birchall, April Dream in Portugal, International Socialism, May 1974; C. Harman, Portugal: The First Six Months, International Socialism, October 1974; J. Rollo, Portugal: One Year after the Coup, International Socialism, April 1975; and W. Burchett, Portugal depois da Revolução dos Capitaes, Lisbon 1975.

3. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.21, pp.213-214.

4. W. Burchett, Portugal, pp.203-204.

5. Economist, 28 February 1972.

6. Economist, 26 February 1972.

7. K. Marx, The Class Struggles in France 1848-1850, (Progress Publishers, Moscow), pp.33, 38.

8. K. Marx, Class Struggles, p.50.


Last updated on 24.4.2003