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International Socialism, Spring 2014


Bob Light

Online Only

Portugal: 1974–5


From International Socialism 2 : 142, Spring 2014.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Just after midnight on 25 April 1974 a Lisbon radio station played a song called Grandola Villa Morena and Portugal was changed forever. The song was the agreed signal for a coup by junior officers to bring down the authoritarian and geriatric government of Marcello Caetano but it was also the start of an intoxicating period of 18 months when Portugal would sashay to the very brink of a working class revolution.

Last time I checked there were not any league tables for revolutionary near-misses, but if there were, what happened in Portugal from April 1974 to November 1975 would be right up there close to the top. It is arguably the closest we have come to real workers’ power since the Spanish Revolution in 1936.

Several things made what happened in Portugal 40 years ago so special and so politically exciting:

And yet when 25 April 2014 comes around you can be more or less certain that the anniversary of these epic events will be met with a resounding “meh” by the left. There will be no special editions, no commemorative articles, none of the familiar “I was there when ...” travelogues. The wonks from the “leftist” think-tanks will not be interrupting their burgeoning TV careers to write about Portugal, that’s for sure. Portugal 1974–5 is not so much the Forgotten Revolution as the Ignored Revolution.

Why? I would suggest that the answer to that question resonates in every sentence of Tony Cliff’s Portugal at the Crossroads. Portugal 1974–5 was a revolutionary situation – the Portuguese working class were serious contenders in a struggle for state power. And that – of course – is the Possibility that Dare Not Speak Its Name on the left today. There simply is no conceptual language with which reformism can make sense of Portugal 1974-5 except as an embarrassing political “moment” best ignored.

However, it is important to remember that Cliff didn’t write this to be read in 2014. He wrote it to be read when it could affect events – on the streets of Portugal in 1975. Cliff didn’t write for history; he wrote to shape history and his pamphlet was translated into Portuguese as it was being written. I know there is a danger of political elephantiasis in saying this, but I have always seen this article as Cliff’s State and Revolution. What I always find so inspiring is its sat-nav fusion of strategy (socialism as a living achievable possibility) with the more humdrum stuff of tactics (what simple steps needed to be done). Like all the great revolutionaries Cliff had his heart on fire, but his head on ice.

But there is at least one lacuna in Cliff’s analysis that we need to recognise. Writing in the autumn of 1975 Cliff poses the alternatives facing the Portuguese Revolution using the classic Rosa Luxemburg binary – socialism or barbarism. In the event the coup that derailed the Portuguese Revolution was not barbaric – it was ruthless, it was cynical but it was (relatively) bloodless. Western capitalism preferred not to let its butchers loose in the heart of Europe.

Yet Cliff’s fears were entirely understandable (and very widely shared in Portugal) given that barbarism is exactly what had been unleashed on the working class of Chile less than a year earlier in September 1974.

At that fateful Crossroad in 1975 the Portuguese working class were channelled into a dead end. Looking back we can surely see that the promises that justified the 1975 counter-revolution were not so much broken as vaporised. Today the Portuguese economy has once again tanked. Economic growth after 1975 was mainly generated by servicing the tourist industry, but to drive down the Algarve coast road today is to drive through ghost towns of half-finished buildings and boarded up shops. You fully expect tumbleweed to come blowing down the street at any moment. Unemployment among under-25s is edging towards 40 percent and once again young people have become Portugal’s biggest export. London is now the third biggest Portuguese city in the world (Paris is the second).

Yet, while Cliff might have misjudged the likelihood of barbarism, he understood in a way that so very few then and even fewer today understand that in Portugal in 1975 there was a very real chance of the working class taking power and creating real socialism.

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