25 April 1974

Image: Elyeser Szturm

By Valerio Arcary*

A socialist revolution in Portugal could seem unlikely, difficult, risky or doubtful, but it was one of the perspectives, among others, that was on the horizon.

“In the shade of a holm oak tree, which no longer knew how old it was, / I swore to have Grândula, your will as my companion” (Zecas Afonso, Portuguese popular musician)

It has been said that the late revolutions are the most radical. On April 25, 1974, the oldest dictatorship on the European continent collapsed. The military rebellion organized by the MFA, a conspiracy led by the middle officers of the Armed Forces that evolved, in a few months, from a corporate articulation to an insurrection, was fulminating.

Militarily dejected by an endless war, politically exhausted by the absence of an internal social base, economically exhausted by a poverty that contrasted with the European pattern, and culturally tired by the obscurantist delay that it imposed for decades, a few hours were enough for an unconditional surrender. It was at that moment that the revolutionary process that moved Portugal began. The military insurrection precipitated the revolution, not the other way around.

Understanding the past requires an effort to reflect on the field of possibilities that was challenging the social and political subjects who acted projecting an uncertain future. In 1974, a socialist revolution in Portugal could seem unlikely, difficult, risky or doubtful, but it was one of the perspectives, among others, that was inserted in the horizon of the process. It has been said that revolutions are extraordinary because they make the seemingly impossible plausible, or even probable.

Throughout its nineteen months of surprises, the impossible revolution, the one that makes acceptable what was inadmissible, provoked all cautions, contradicted all certainties, surprised all suspicions. This same Portuguese people who endured for almost half a century the longest dictatorship on the continent – ​​dejected, prostrate, even resigned – learned in months, found in weeks and, at times, discovered in days, what decades of Salazarism had not allowed them to do. even suspect: the dimension of its strength. But, they were alone.

In that narrow strip of land on the Iberian Peninsula, the fate of the revolution was cruel. It came six years after the French May 1968. The peoples of the Spanish State only set in motion in the final fight against Francoism when, in Lisbon, it was already too late. The Portuguese was a lonely revolution.

The current semi-presidential regime in Portugal is an indirect heir to the freedoms and social rights conquered by the revolution in its intense eighteen months. The regime that maintains Portugal as the poorest European country is the result of a long process of reaction by the property-owning classes and their allies in the property-owning middle classes.

The military insurrection grew into a democratic revolution, when the popular masses took to the streets, which buried Salazarism and was victorious. But the social revolution that was born from the womb of the political revolution was defeated. Perhaps the characterization of a social revolution is surprising, but every revolution is a struggle in progress, a dispute, a bet in which uncertainty reigns. In history one cannot explain what happened by considering only the outcome. This is anachronistic. It's an optical illusion of the story clock. The end of a process does not explain it. In fact, the opposite is more true. The future does not decipher the past. Revolutions cannot be analyzed only by the final outcome. Or for your results. These easily explain more about the counterrevolution than about the revolution.

Democratic freedoms were born in the womb of the revolution, when everything seemed possible. The semi-presidential democratic regime that exists today in Portugal came to light after a self-coup at the top of the Armed Forces, organized by the Group of Nine, and led by Ramalho Eanes, on November 25, 1975. The reaction triumphed after the presidential elections in 1976. It was necessary to resort to the methods of the counterrevolution in November 1975 to re-establish hierarchical order in the barracks and dissolve the MFA that took effect on April 25th. It is true that the reaction with democratic tactics dispensed with a barrage with genocidal methods, as had happened in Santiago de Chile in 1973. It was not accidental, however, that the first elected president was Ramalho Eanes, the general of the 25th of November.

The Portuguese revolution was therefore much more than the belated end of an obsolete dictatorship. Today we know that Portuguese capitalism escaped the revolutionary storm. We know that Portugal managed to build a reasonably stable democratic regime, that Lisbon, run by bankers and industrialists, survived the independence of its colonies and finally became part of the European Union. However, the outcome of those battles could have been different, with immense consequences for the Spanish transition at the end of Francoism.

What the revolution achieved in eighteen months, the reaction took eighteen years to destroy and, even so, it was unable to annul all the social conquests achieved by the workers. After having set fire to the hopes of a generation of workers and young people for a year and a half, the Portuguese revolution collided with insurmountable obstacles. The Portuguese revolution, the late one, the democratic one, had its moment adrift, found itself lost and ended up defeated. But it was, from the beginning, a child of the African colonial revolution and deserves to be called by its most feared name: social revolution.

The vertigo of the process challenged Spínola's Bonapartist-presidential solution in three months. Spínola was defeated with the fall of Palma Carlos as prime minister and the appointment of Vasco Gonçalves and, subsequently, the call for elections to the Constituent Assembly before the presidential elections. A year after April 25, 1974, the military coup card had already been tried twice, and twice crushed. The counter-revolution had to change its strategy after Spínola's second defeat. Three legitimacies disputed forces after March 11, 1975: that of the provisional government supported by the MFA, with the support of the PC; the result of the polls for the Constituent Assembly elected on April 25, 1975, in which the PS asserted itself as the largest minority, but which could be defended as a majority, when considering the support of the center-right parties (PPD) and right (CDS); and the one that emerged from the experience of mobilization in companies, factories, universities, on the streets, the direct democracy of self-organization.

Three political legitimacies, three class blocs and social alliances, three strategic projects, in short, a succession of provisional governments in a revolutionary situation, with a society divided into three camps: that of support for the MFA government, and two oppositions, one of right (with one foot in the government and the other outside, but with important international relations) and the other on the left (with one foot in the MFA and the other outside, and a devastating dispersion of forces). None of the political blocs could assert itself during the hot summer of 1975. It was then that the counterrevolution resorted to mobilizing its agrarian social base in the North, and some parts of the center of the country. But, the reactionary clerical reaction was still insufficient. Portugal was no longer the agrarian country that Salazar had ruled. He then appealed to the division of the working class, and for that the PS of Mário Soares was indispensable. It resorted to the strategy of alarm, fear, and panic to frighten and inflate sectors of the propertied middle class against the working class. But, above all, the priority issue for the bourgeoisie, between March and November 1975, was the recovery of control over the Armed Forces.

the late revolution

Despite its long 48 years, the fall of the regime headed by Marcelo Caetano was, paradoxically, a surprise. The governments of London, Paris or Berlin knew that the small Iberian country had been living for decades in an anachronistic situation: the last State buried in a colonial war on three fronts with no prospect of a solution, an “African Vietnam”, condemned even by a UN resolution.

The dictatorship, already senile from so decadent, still imposed an implacable regime in the metropolis. It maintained a police force of criminals – the PIDE – which guaranteed full prisons and the opposition in exile. It controlled, through censorship, any opinion critical of the government, prohibited union activities, repressed the right to strike. However, not even Washington had foreseen the danger of a revolution. The most structural historical explanation of the stability of Salazar's regime refers to the late survival of an immense Empire, formed at the dawn of the modern era.

On May 28, 1926, a proto-fascist coup d'état overthrew the first Portuguese republic, installing a military dictatorship led by General Gomes da Costa, succeeded by General Carmona. The military leaders invited Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, until then a professor of economics in Coimbra, to be Minister of Finance, a position he would only assume in 1928, when he was 39 years old. He assumed the position of prime minister in 1932. Known as Estado Novo, the regime did not seem exceptional in the thirties, when European capitalism leaned towards an exalted nationalist discourse, and it recurred on a large scale, even in more urbanized societies and, economically, more developed, to the methods of the counter-revolution to avoid social revolutions like the Russian October. The dictatorship in Portugal would be surprising, however, for its longevity.

The “defensive” fascism of this disproportionate and semi-autarchic Empire will survive Salazar, remaining an incredible 48 years in power. The bourgeoisie of this small country will resist the decolonization wave of the fifties for a quarter of a century. From the XNUMXs onwards, it would find the strength to face a guerrilla war in Africa, Guinea-Bissau, Angola and Mozambique, even if, for most of those long years, it was more a war of movements than a war of positions, still thus, with no possible military solution.

But the endless war ended up destroying the unity of the Armed Forces. The irony of history wanted that it was the same army that gave rise to the dictatorship that destroyed the First Republic, that overthrew Salazarism to guarantee the end of the war.

The reform from above, due to internal displacements of Salazarism itself, the negotiated transition, the agreed democratization, so often expected, did not come. The displacements of the average officialdom expressed the despair of the middle classes with the dullness of the dictatorship. Obscurantism suffocated the nation. After the military insurrection, a historic window of opportunity opened, and what the property-owning classes avoided doing through reforms, the popular masses launched themselves to conquer through revolution. Caetano's obsolete Salazarism ended up lighting the spark of the deepest revolutionary process in Western Europe, after the Spanish Civil War in 1939.

* Valerio Arcary is a retired full professor at the Federal Institute of São Paulo.

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