Half a century after April 25, 1974



The party was beautiful, man. But the red carnations of April have withered

“We came with the weight of the past and the seed\ Waiting so many years makes everything more urgent\ and the thirst for waiting only stops in the torrent\ We lived so many years talking in silence\ You can only want everything when you have had nothing\ Only those who have had their lives at a standstill want a full life\ There is only real freedom when there is\ Peace, bread\ housing\ health, education\ when what the people produce belongs to the people” (Sergio Godinho, Freedom)


The global left watched with horror the growth of the extreme right in the recent elections in Portugal. After Tea Party which projected Donald Trump among Republicans, in 2016 in the USA, Brazil was the pioneering laboratory for the astonishing rise of Jair Bolsonaro and his neo-fascist current in 2020, despite having suffered the scourge of military dictatorship for two decades. And Argentina suffered the victory of Javier Milei, despite the tragic experience of genocide, which killed at least thirty thousand, between 1976/82 during the tyranny of the Armed Forces of Videla and his executioners.

How can we explain that, on the half-century anniversary of the carnation revolution, an ultra-right party like Chega, led by a buffoonish adventurer like André Ventura, could have won almost one in every five votes? Only a profound change in the social and political relationship of forces can offer a key to interpreting this outcome. Which brings us to the search for the economic, social and political factors that paved the way for this historical regression.

The crisis of the current semi-presidential regime in Portugal is not heir to the revolutionary process that began on April 25, 1974. The ruin of the absolute majority government of the Socialist Party is indivisible from the strategic bet of Antonio Costa who surrendered to the demands of the European Union .

After decades, the current regime is not 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 propertied classes. The association subordinated to the decisions of Paris and Berlin was the context for the degradation of the living conditions of the vast majority of the people.


Fifty years ago, the MFA's military insurrection turned into a democratic revolution, when the popular masses took to the streets, buried Salazarism and was victorious. But the social revolution that was born from the womb of the political revolution was defeated.

The characterization of a social revolution may be surprising, but every revolution is a struggle in process, a dispute in which uncertainty reigns. In history, it is not possible to explain what happened considering only the outcome. That would be anachronistic. It's an optical illusion of history's 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”. But the democratic semi-presidential regime that exists today in Portugal did not emerge from the process of struggles opened on April 25, 1974. It came to light after a self-coup by a faction at the top of the Armed Forces, organized by the Group of Nine on November 25, 1975, against the MFA. The reaction triumphed after the 1976 presidential elections. It was necessary to resort to the methods of the counterrevolution in November 1975, to reestablish the hierarchical order in the barracks and dissolve the MFA that carried out the 25th of April.

It is true that the reaction with democratic tactics dismissed a barracks with genocidal methods, as had happened in Santiago de Chile in 1973. It was not accidental, however, that the first president elected, in 1976, was Ramalho Eanes, the general who placed the troops on the streets on November 25th.

The Portuguese revolution was, therefore, much more than the delayed end of an obsolete dictatorship. Today we know that Portuguese capitalism escaped the revolutionary storm. We know that Portugal managed to build a democratic, reasonably stable regime, and that Lisbon run by bankers and industrialists survived the independence of its colonies and, finally, integrated into 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, from 1977/78 onwards.

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


Understanding the past requires an effort to reflect on the field of possibilities that was challenging social and political subjects who were working to project an uncertain future. In 1974, a socialist revolution in Portugal might have seemed unlikely, difficult, risky, or doubtful, but it was one of the perspectives, among others, that was on the horizon of the process.

It has been said that revolutions are extraordinary because they transform what seemed impossible into plausible, or even probable. Throughout its nineteen months of surprises, the impossible revolution, the one that makes acceptable what was unacceptable, provoked all caution, contradicted all certainties, surprised all suspicions. These same Portuguese people who endured the longest dictatorship on the continent for almost half a century – 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. not even suspect: the dimension of his strength.

But, they were alone. In that narrow strip of land on the Iberian Peninsula, the fate of the revolution was cruel. The people of the Spanish State only moved in the final struggle against Francoism when, in Lisbon, it was already too late. The Portuguese was a solitary revolution.

The vertigo of the process challenged Spínola's Bonapartist-presidential solution within three months. Spínola was defeated with the ouster of Palma Carlos from the position of prime minister, and the appointment of Vasco Gonçalves and, subsequently, the calling of elections for the Constituent Assembly before the presidential elections.

A year after April 25, 1974, the military coup had already been attempted twice, and crushed twice: on September 28, 1974 and on March 11, 1975. The counter-revolution needed to change its strategy after Spinola's second defeat.

Three legitimacies competed for strength after March 11, 1975: that of the provisional government supported by the MFA, with the support of the PC; that of the results 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 that which 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).

Neither political bloc was able to assert itself on its own during the hot summer of 1975. It was then that the counter-revolution 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 governed.

He then called for the division of the working class and, for this, Mário Soares' PS was indispensable. He resorted to the strategy of alarm, fear and panic to scare and inflame sectors of the middle class against the working class. Above all, the priority issue for the ruling class, between March and November 1975, was the recovery of control over the Armed Forces.

The party was beautiful, man. But the red carnations of April withered.

 Who knows, somewhere there will still be a rosemary seed.

* Valerio Arcary is a retired professor of history at the IFSP. Author, among other books, of No one said it would be Easy (boitempo). [https://amzn.to/3OWSRAc]

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