Tony Cliff

Portugal at the crossroads

Two failed right-wing coups

The rise in the mass action of the working class, its temper and breadth, were very much affected by a lashing from the right. A long time ago Marx said that the revolution from time to time needs the whip of counter-revolution.

Two attempted coups by the Right – on 28 September 1974 and 11 March 1975 – gave a fantastic fillip to the revolution.

28 September 1974 coup

It is one of the characteristics of a revolutionary situation that the balance of class forces changes very swiftly, and in no preconceived fashion. Hence uncertainty is in the air. And the only way to find out the real strength of the contending forces is by testing them in action. Hence again and again the bourgeoisie is tempted to a trial of force.

In the months after the fall of fascism, despite the support of the Communist and Socialist Party leaders, and the willingness of the MFA to use limited repression, the Portuguese bourgeoisie failed in its attempts to hold back the workers’ movement. After a lull in late July and early August, a new wave of strikes and occupations developed, with strikes in textiles, among agricultural workers, in the shipyards, at TAP, and on the daily paper Jornal do Comercio. In the Lisbon area at least these strikes were much more political than previously. The Lisnave workers demonstrated for the purging of fascists from their management. Their slogans included “opposition to the labour law, support for the struggles at TAP, Jornal do Comercio, Siderurgia and Texmales, and support for the Armed Forces so long as they support the struggle of the oppressed and exploited classes against the oppressing and exploiting classes.”

Such a development itself was enough to worry the bourgeoisie. But there were other factors at work as well, which turned this worry into complete panic among sections of big business and certain generals.

One was the complete failure of the “centre” to develop as a political force capable of resisting the growing strength of the workers’ organisations. The Communist Party could not prevent the development of independent working-class activity to the left of it. But it did predominate in large parts of the country compared with the political parties to the right of it. Big business began to feel that the only possible counterweight lay with those political forces it had itself dismissed only five months before – the former members of Caetano’s political apparatus.

Finally there was the unresolved problem of Africa.

The handing over of power to FRELIMO made the ruling class fear that the government would allow a potentially very rich Angola to slip out of Portugal’s grasp.

Those industrialists like the Champalimaud family, who had welcomed the coup in April, now began to denounce the provisional government in the bitterest terms. It was not a far cry from denunciation to organised opposition.

Spinola gave expression to this change of mood within the ruling class. He had invited Communists into his government in May in order to control the popular movement. Now he venomously criticised the representatives of the left parties in the privacy of the council of state and denounced unnamed “political forces” in public. He hinted that he opposed the handing over of Mozambique to FRELIMO and called for the “silent majority” who opposed “anarchy” to take action.

The organisation leading to the abortive putsch was primitive. Leading industrialists, such as representatives of Champalimaud, the Banco Spirito Santo and Mabor met together with a few of the generals, including at least three who were in the Junta, and leading former supporters of Caetano. Spinola made a speech calling on the “silent majority” to demonstrate, and the industrialists and right-wing politicians tried to mobilise behind it on the streets. Groups of fascists were supplied with arms.

The aim was to give the impression of mass popular opposition to the left. This was to culminate in a pro-Spinola march which was intended to be 300,000-strong. The arms were not meant to enable the fascists themselves to take power, but to create such disorder as to give the generals an excuse to intervene, attacking the left and re-establishing “order”.

Yet despite the crudeness of the scheme the right nearly won.

The demonstration was called for Saturday 28 September. All that morning the leaders of the MFA begged Spinola to call it off. He ignored them and kept them in a state of virtual arrest in the presidential palace. From there they could not move their units of troops against the right. For several crucial hours COPCON was paralysed. Meanwhile troops commanded by Spinola supporters were operating. The two ministries directly under the control of pro-Spinola officers, the Defence Ministry and the Ministry of Communications, prevented the appearance of all newspapers and put an armed guard on the radio stations.

However, the one thing missing from the calculations of the generals was the reaction of the mass of workers. No doubt they were lulled into a sense of false security by the willingness of the main workers’ parties to sacrifice themselves. But this time the future of the left parties themselves was at stake, and they knew from Spinola’s previous outbursts at the Council of State what he had in mind.

The evening before the rally was due to take place, a number of unions came out calling for opposition to it. The Communist-controlled Intersindical called upon the people to be “vigilant”. The railway union went further, and instructed its members to refuse to man special trains carrying rightists to Lisbon and to search other trains for them. It called upon the coach drivers’ union to do the same, with the result that only two coachloads of demonstrators ever left for Lisbon.

The Left began to set up roadblocks throughout the country. At the same time representatives of a number of groups of the revolutionary left met. They decided to assist in the organisation of roadblocks and barricades, and to call for a demonstration in the centre of Lisbon to clash with the rightist demonstration. Representatives of workers from the most militant plants in Lisbon – TAP, Lisnave, CTT (postal workers), Standard Electric, Jornal do Comercio – had decided on the same approach, and the two demonstrations were merged. What began as a demonstration 10,000-strong soon grew until it was at least 40,000-strong.

By the way – and this is an important pointer – the first workers to demonstrate on the streets were those whose struggle had been criticised by the Communist Party and attacked by the army in recent weeks: the Usnave shipyard workers, the TAP maintenance staff, the Jornal do Comercio workers and the same postal workers who were alleged by the Communist Party a few weeks ago to be led by “reactionaries”.

Such a movement of workers did not fail to penetrate the barrack walls. Those officers backing the rightist line began to find themselves isolated. Soldiers began to join civilians on the barricades, despite broadcasts from Spinola’s supporters ordering removal of the roadblocks.

The mass mobilisation on the streets shifted the balance within the army command from Spinola to the MFA. Spinola made one last desperate bid for the Council of State to grant him dictatorial power, and then called off the rally. The MFA forces moved into action at long last, taking control of the radio stations from the right and searching the city for anyone who might have been associated with the coup plans. [37]

On 30 September General Spinola, together with two Ministers and three members of the Council of State and the military Junta, resigned. Two hundred people involved in the plot were arrested.

Neo-colonial solution

One of the central issues that led General Spinola to hatch the coup was that of Portuguese colonial policy. He was afraid the Portuguese Revolution would undermine completely his neo-colonial “solution” to the African wars.

Spinola’s book Portugal and the Future was clear in projecting a Lusitanian federation in which the colonies would enjoy self-government under Portuguese auspices. On taking power, Spinola was careful to distinguish between “self-determination” (which he supported for the colonies) and “independence” (which he didn’t, since there had been “insufficient preparation” for the peoples of the overseas territories “to be able at present to decide for themselves about their future”). [38]

At the beginning of May 1974 General Costa Gomes was sent to Angola and Mozambique. While in Luanda, he put an ultimatum to the liberation movements. They were to enter negotiations for a ceasefire immediately, or else the colonial war would be relentlessly pursued. He declared:

The armed struggle will continue against the partisan fighters as long as they refuse a political solution. We intend to carry on fighting ... I am convinced that Angola will decide to remain Portuguese. She must strengthen her relations with South Africa and Rhodesia. [39]

Above all Spinola and his friends were very anxious to hold on to Angola.

This was Portugal’s richest colony. It is the biggest producer of oil in Africa after Nigeria. Being rich in natural resources Angola attracted the attention of the multinationals, which concentrated in key areas of the economy. Besides Gulf Oil at Cabinda, Portuguese, Belgian and South African capital is involved in the diamond industry, Portuguese and Belgian capital in iron mining, and Portuguese, Belgian, South African, French and American capital in the petroleum industry. South Africa is also heavily involved in the Cunene River dam project in Southern Angola, as well as in numerous other joint projects with the Portuguese.

Angola far surpassed the other two Portuguese colonies, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau. Guinea-Bissau was of little economic importance to Portugal, and Mozambique had become increasingly economically integrated with South Africa, providing harbour facilities at Lourenço Marques (now Cam Phumo) and a huge amount of cheap labour for the gold mines of the Rand. Angola’s natural resources and her industrial development make her, by contrast, potentially one of the richest countries in Africa.

There is another difference between Angola on the one hand, and Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau on the other. In Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau there was one dominant liberation movement. In Mozambique FRELIMO, in Guinea-Bissau PAIGC. In Angola there were three rival movements, none dominant, none weak enough to be ignored – MPLA, FNLA and UNITA.

The MPLA from its foundation in December 1956 orientated itself on the black working class of Luanda and other centres, developing roots among the urban masses that were to survive until now.

The FNLA is a tribalist movement led by Holden Roberto, the brother-in-law of President Mobutu of Zaire. Traditionally the Mobutu regime has been one of the US’s best friends in Africa. American corporations are heavily involved in Zaire, and there are 5,000 US government personnel, both civil and military, in the country. Involvement by the US governmerit in Zaire dates back to 1960, when the country became independent of Belgium. The CIA intervened in strength to stabilise the situation for foreign capital, organising the overthrow and assassination of the radical nationalist premier, Patrice Lumumba. [40] It was rumoured that an agreement of several years standing existed between Zaire, FNLA and Gulf Oil under which Roberto’s troops would steer clear of Cabinda. It is certainly true that the only attacks on Cabinda came from the MPLA based to the north east in Congo-Brazzaville, rather than from the FNLA from Zaire in the south. [41]

The third force, UNITA, is a split from the FNLA, and is also largely tribalist – supported by the Ovimbundu of the south. When the 25 April coup took place, UNITA was clearly the weakest of the three.

The anti-imperialist struggle was weakened by the deep divisions in the national movement in Angola and the existence of a very large white settler community 400,000-strong.

However, the policies of Spinola and company aiming at a neo-colonial “solution” were constantly undermined by the continuing struggles and victories of the national liberation movements – the victories above all in Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique. On 24 June the railway line from Beira to Tete, an important supply line for the Cabora Bassa dam, was simultaneously disrupted at 28 points. In the southern provinces (Monica and Sofola) a number of military outposts and arsenals were attacked. On 15 July the strategically important town of Morrumbula was finally captured by FRELIMO units.

But Spinola was fighting hard to preserve his neo-colonial policies. On 13 July 1974, at a time when the failure of the federalist approach had already become apparent in the fruitless talks with FRELIMO, MPLA and PAIGC, Spinola defended his “decolonisation strategy” at a press conference in Lisbon. It had basically four immediate goals:

  1. Agreement to a ceasefire with the liberation movements.
  2. Development of industry and administration in the colonies.
  3. Creation of democratic institutions.
  4. A referendum in the colonies where those entitled to vote would choose between three solutions:
    1. a close federation of mother country and colonies
    2. a loose federation of all the territories
    3. complete independence

He allowed no doubt that he considered solution (c) “unrealistic and premature” and that his African strategy was closely linked with the idea of the referendum, which would allow the longest possible presence of the Portuguese colonial administration and troops. The hopes of the Portuguese bourgeoisie that the people in Africa would understand this clearly proved to be illusory. [42]

But Spinola was more and more isolated from the MFA on colonial policy. On 10 July the Portuguese Constitution was changed through a law recognising the right of the colonies to independence. On 4 August the Provisional Government declared that it officially recognised the Republic of Guinea-Bissau and supported its entry into UNO as an independent state.

Spinola still hoped to reverse the trend. In his speech of 10 September appealing to the “silent majority” of Portuguese, Spinola warned of “abandoning the African population (of the colonies) to the domination of new dictatorships”. [43]

However, the neo-colonial policies of Spinola collapsed. They were smashed by a combination of a mass working-class movement in Portugal and a deep and widespread colonial revolution in Africa.

The March coup

The capitalists would not accept the defeat of the coup of 28 September as final. Having been defeated on this occasion, the reactionary forces were more determined than ever to regroup themselves for a violent attack on the working class.

Throughout January and February 1975 it was becoming clear that the government was losing control of the situation. Neither the Communist Party nor the MFA appeared able to curb the level of struggle. And the wave of action had spilled over from the factories, involving massive sections of the population. School students throughout the country were on strike. Buildings were being taken over by people living in the sprawling slum areas around the big towns. Workers were taking over the land. Added to this, the most powerful right-wing organisations, the CDS and PPD were having their meetings broken up. In the forefront of this mass movement was the fight against redundancies, and against the closure of workplaces, closely linked to the demand for saneamento. This struggle was generalising into a major working-class offensive. Every new confrontation could become a direct political challenge to the ruling class, whose “April dream” was rapidly taking on the proportions of a nightmare.

On 11 March 1975, barely a month before the scheduled election, a new plan to restore the right wing to power was put into action. It was organised by a group of right-wing officers around Spinola, who was living in the countryside outside Lisbon since the failed coup of 28 September lost him the Presidency of Portugal. Centred on the Tancos Air Force base, 100 miles north east of Lisbon, it should have involved a simultaneous uprising of military units in and around Lisbon.

The plan was a disaster, miscalculated and mistimed and virtually unsupported – two Fiat T-6 fighters and two helicopters bombarded the RAL 1 (1st Light Artillery) barracks by Lisbon, backed up by a ground force of paratroopers. Two hours later the second attempt since 25 April last year had fizzled out. While the bewildered paratroopers fraternised with the RAL 1 soldiers, explaining, “We are no fascists – we are your comrades,” Spinola was fleeing to Spain and the rest of the conspirators were being rounded up.

The coup was not unexpected. It had been rumoured for at least a week beforehand. Otelo Carvalho, Commander of COPCON and military commander of Lisbon, had already stopped all fuel supplies to the military region around Tancos. But just as on 18 September, it was workers and people in Lisbon and throughout the country who took decisive and immediate action against the right wing, in advance of the military. Barely two hours after the attack on RAL 1, barricades had been set up around Lisbon sealing off all main roads, manned by workers from adjacent factories. Many were armed and they used everything they could lay hands on as reinforcements. Bulldozers, lorries and cement were expropriated from factory yards. Agricultural workers armed themselves with spades and hoes. The banks were occupied, closed down and encircled by pickets – so were factories and schools. Offices and shops were similarly closed down. Workers in the press and radio issued continuous news bulletins. Newspapers printed special editions and used lorries to distribute them to those manning the barricades.

Trade unions and workers’ committees throughout the country issued leaflets. From the Union of Office Workers in the Oporto District:

Comrades, in defence of democracy – stop all work immediately, and set up pickets around workplaces, seize control of all communication between sites (telephones, telexes, etc) ... those workers not needed to guard buildings should go to the streets to demonstrate. [44]

In Barreiro, a centre of industry south of Lisbon, factory and fire engine sirens shrieked continuously, and workers formed pickets and barricades which stopped and searched all vehicles.

In Sacavem, near the bombarded barracks, workers formed a dense barricade across the main road, backed up with four bulldozers and tons of cement.

A representative from the workers’ committee at a local construction firm went to the barracks and asked that the workers be armed, so they could join in the fight.

At Cartaxo the barricade was built from lorries from the occupied brewery works of SCC, and was quickly joined by hundreds of workers from other factories, armed with clubs, spades or anything else that was at hand. Revolutionary organisations joined in the struggle. They put up barricades in Algueirao-Martins, after attacking a post of the National Guards (a force that identifies with the extreme right) and forcing them to join the barricades.

In Baixa de Banheira they seized the weapons of the National Guards and, in Moita, those of the police. They took control of the bridge and the ferries which connect Lisbon to the industrial areas to its south, and searched cars suspected of bringing weapons into the city.

In the Lisnave shipyards the workers stopped work, joined the barricades and sent pickets to protect the children in the local school.

The frontier roads to Spain were blocked off, and all over the country groups of people were guarding the roads. In Coirribra, the third biggest city, cars were driven onto the airport runway after a plane had been seen flying low over the city.

Huge demonstrations were jamming the streets of Lisbon, Oporto and the other towns. All papers were sold out. Many printed second editions or special broadsheets, as did the workers’ committee of the big Lisbon daily O Seculo. Thousands of leaflets were handed out by the trade unions and workers’ committees denouncing the attempted coup. [45]

The role of the revolutionary left was far greater than during the September events. Revolutionaries joined the barricades alongside the workers and Communist Party militants. They seized control of the 25 April (previously Salazar) bridge, which spans the river Tagus, and the ferries that ply across the Tagus between Lisbon and Cacilhas. Although the Communist Party and the Intersindical were also involved, their role and influence appeared considerably less than in September.

Two weeks before the coup the results of elections to the air force, army and navy councils of the Assembly of the MFA showed a decisive swing to the right among the officer corps at grass roots level. Key members of the Coordinating Committee such as the commander of COPCON, Otelo Carvalho, lost their positions. These men are no “extremists”. Carvalho himself was courting the centre within the officers’ corps. The results of these elections probably led the ruling class and the right-wing generals grouped around Spinola to judge that the time was ripe to strike. They must have believed that a current of reaction within the lower hierarchy of the military was strong enough to carry the right wing back to power. The right-wing tendency within the officers was not consolidated. These men did not have the confidence to change the leadership of the MFA on the one hand, or the confidence in their own control over the rank and file of the army on the other. For some of them, to order their soldiers against the workers would have been tantamount to suicide, and instead of leading the army against the working class, the coup resulted in radicalising the rank and file.

In many units soldiers simply refused to carry out the orders of officers known to be right wing, and in those units whose officers were loyal to the leadership of the MFA, the orders were superseded by the rank and file. Soldiers openly fraternised with workers manning the barricades. Some handed over the arms demanded by the workers. And for the first time ever, mass meetings of officers and soldiers were held. In the bullet-ridden barracks of RAL 1 the following resolution was passed unanimously by such a meeting:

The second communiqué of the soldiers and officers of RAL 1:

To all the soldiers and sailors, workers and peasants, to all anti-fascists and democratic officers.

Comrades, while the PIDE agents continue to be treated with gentleness, while the fascist parties continue to exist legally while the people are fired on in Setubal, while the soldiers and all the officers in struggle against fascist oppression in the barracks are imprisoned, the people will continue to be oppressed with more ferocious exploitation and oppression.

Comrades, the soldiers and all the offers of RAL 1, who up until now have struggled against fascism and its accomplices, will continue and intensify this struggle against the exploiters and the oppressors.

We demand the immediate execution of fascists and their accomplices, whether or not they are officers, whether or not they are generals.

Death to Fascism, Popular Justice

Imperialists out of Portugal

Immediate Execution of the Fascists

The Soldiers are the Sons of the People. [46]

The right-wing coup collapsed, as the paratroops embraced the light artillery men they were supposed to be attacking.

Right-wing generals who sought refuge in the headquarters of the GNR (National Guards) were arrested. Among other conspirators picked up were the directors of one of the biggest banks and of the biggest monopolies, CUF and Champalimaud.

By 5pm the MFA was in control of all radio stations and calling on the people to leave the barricades so the military could take them over, but to remain vigilant and united.

But that was by no means the end of the popular movement.

That evening left-wing demonstrators ransacked the headquarters of the GNR, Spinola’s house and the headquarters of the extreme right-wing CDS and Popular Democrat parties.

Workers’ pickets remained on the post offices, the telephone exchanges, the government buildings, cutting off the means of communication to the right wing. The roads in the centre and south of the country continued to be blocked by barricades, with workers belonging to the Communist Party and the revolutionary left wearing red armbands and armed with shotguns, waving down and searching all vehicles. [47]

Workers learn the lesson

Immediately after the coup hundreds of thousands of Portuguese workers held mass meetings to demand further action to press home the revolution. Here are some examples of the resolutions they passed.

The Draughtsmen’s Union said that reaction was able to act “to a great extent because of the lack of revolutionary action from the Provisional Government”.

A mass meeting of workers at the Portuguese airline, TAP: “We support the Armed Forces Movement so long as they are on the side of the workers.”

The leadership of the Electrical Workers’ Union of the south: “There is one lesson to be learnt: it was the hesitation of the organs of power that gave the fascists an opportunity to reorganise.”

From the postal workers’ union:

The move by the reactionaries was only possible because the process of purging was not completed, so that many PIDES (members of the former secret police), legionaries and other reactionaries remained not only in our industry but also in many others. And all this with the benevolence of various government bodies, despite the many workers’ strikes and demonstrations aimed at expelling from the workplaces individuals linked with fascism.

The most significant resolutions came from within the army. For the first time mass meetings of rank and file soldiers were held. The regiment under attack, RAL 1, issued a communiqué from “all soldiers, sergeants and officers”:

Why the attack on RAL 1? Because the soldiers of RAL 1 know that our enemies are the capitalists and fascists that have oppressed us and that we have a role to play whether the generals like it or not: to defend the workers and to fight all reactionaries.

For those who started to cause bloodshed between us it only remains to demand their immediate shooting. Comrades, an armed people will never be defeated. Death to fascism. Death to capitalism. [48]

The defeat of the coups of 28 September and 11 March show the power of the working class. But this should in no way lead to the conclusion that the counter-revolution is finished. It is worth recalling that in Chile the right wing tried to overturn the Allende government three times before it finally achieved success. In Portugal the splits in the armed forces and the freshness of the memory of fascism in the consciousness of the population will make its task more difficult. But it can succeed in Portugal too, eventually, unless the working class develops its own, independent forms of class-wide organisation, led by a coherent revolutionary leadership.




37. C. Harman, International Socialism, October 1974.

38. Le Monde, 2 May 1974.

39. Le Monde, 7 May 1974.

40. See, for example, V. Marchetti and J. Marks, The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence (New York 1975).

41. The FNLA is also supported by China. In May 1974, 200 Chinese instructors arrived in Zaire to start training FNLA guerrillas. According to Roberto, all FNLA have now been trained by the Chinese. Interview in Le Monde, 6 June 1975.

42. A. Munster, Portugal: Jahr 1 der Revolution (Berlin 1975), p.64.

43. Le Monde, 12 September 1974.

44. J. Rollo, International Socialism, April 1975.

45. Socialist Worker, 22 March 1975.

46. J. Rollo, International Socialism, April 1975.

47. Socialist Worker, 22 March, 1975.

48. Socialist Worker, 22 March 1975.


Last updated on 24.4.2003