A People’s History of the Portuguese Revolution

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Pic: Flickr/Henrique Matos

This is an important and long-overdue book which I recommend strongly. The extraordinary events in Portugal in 1974-5 have been one of the great unreported stories of my lifetime. In that time there have been a smattering of hard-to-find specialist books on Portugal and an excellent chapter in the late Colin Barker’s “Revolutionary Rehearsals” but this book is a game-changer.

The political importance of the book is neatly encapsulated its very title. Raquel Varela is a professor at the New University in Lisbon so as you would expect her book has serious heft and scholarship. But it is mainly not written for academics — it is clearly written to be read by a much wider audience. Indeed Varela quite unashamedly wants readers to be politically inspired by the events she describes. Her final chapter is simply called In Celebration.

But Varela is also unafraid to call “the social explosion” in Portugal what it was — a revolution. Indeed, in her concluding chapter she goes further to say: “the Carnation Revolution is one of the most important revolutions of the 20th century”. Those two qualities — the breadth of research and its unambiguous radicalism — fire the whole book.

Varela’s book is structured as a narrative history of the events between 25 April 1974 and 25 November 1975 and for anyone unfamiliar with the Portuguese Revolution these will simply astound you. But Varela deftly interlaces this with more thematic and analytical passages. There are excellent sections on the role of women and the transformative effect the revolution had on Portuguese artists (and both these parts of the book deserve to be expanded into books of their own).

However the heart of Varela’s book is an “extraordinary case study of change from below”. Varela argues that not only was there a revolution in Portugal but it was a movement driven by the determination and the creativity of the working class. As the book says, “the majority of the social conflicts of the revolution were carried out by industrial workers”. In Varela’s analysis more than anything else the Portuguese Revolution was a demonstration of workers’ power.

This is a political concept which has achieved almost unicorn status in our modern world. For comrades not fortunate enough to be quite old the very notion that workers have the capacity to re-shape the world is at best abstract if not actually mythical.

In the 1970s it was all so different. There was then a rhetorical cliché that the power of the working class was such that if we all spat at the same time we could drown the ruling class. That might represent questionable hydro-dynamics (not to mention hygiene concerns) but while there were endless issues that bugged the left in the 60s and 70s the question of workers’ potential power was not really one of them. It was there on the news bulletins every night.

When the revolution began on 25 April 1974 the Portuguese had been living under the draconian labour laws of the fascist Estado Novo for over 40 years. Yet within days there were widespread walkouts and strikes. Initially the demands were for better wages and conditions and for the purging of the paid informants for the fascist secret police.

However within weeks the strike wave had escalated to occupations and often the imprisonment of owners and managers. Soon whole reaches of the Portuguese economy were under the effective control of the working class. Finally this surge began to take a new form of “the inter-emprasas which pulled together many factories…and challenged the state and demonstrated the potential of an alternative power, a dual power.”

At that point the Portuguese working class was indeed within spitting distance of taking power — but we know that it didn’t happen. Varela quotes Tony Cliff (and Peter Robinson) that “workers’ control had been tried at factory level while there has not been workers power at state level and this has led to an inevitable cul-de-sac”. And this was ultimately a failure of political leadership: “The leading workers’ organisations…were not prepared to take on the state. There was no equivalent of the Bolsheviks and the Soviet system. There were many moments where the movement from below challenged the state, but in the end it was not enough.”

And so the Portuguese Revolution joined the too-long list of “if only” moments in working class history.

Varela’s book is inevitably flawed in various ways. Some of the book breaks almost into note form, some of the analysis drifts towards abstraction — the discussion of “democracy” for example, the translation and proofreading are some way from faultless. But it is nonetheless an inspiring and important study of a moment of important and inspiring history.

In her penultimate sentence Varela writes that, “One of the characteristics of photos of the Portuguese Revolution is that people are nearly always smiling.” I can almost guarantee that you will be smiling when you read this book.