Memoirs of a revolution: Portugal 1974

On the 25th April 1974, against every expectation, a revolution broke out in Portugal. On the 40th Anniversary, Brian Parkin recalls what it was like for a young British engineering worker, arriving in the midst of a city in the process of revolution, where momentarily everything seemed possible.

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Lisbon. An imperial city. A city as the hub of a colonial imperialist power. A city of grand avenidas, massive villas, parks, palaces, monuments to conquerors, merchants and navigators. A city on the temperate Atlantic coast adorned with the plants and even ornamental birds of far-flung tropical possessions.It is a city from which explorers, adventurers, merchants, slavers and Jesuits have set sail and returned for over four centuries to four continents with their cargoes of gold, silks, spices and human bondage.

But now Black Horse Square, a vast waterfront plaza, is the site of workers rallies, and its mighty monuments are draped in red banners, the elaborate mosaic pavements strewn with leaflets calling for everything from social housing to free abortion on demand.

The square is also a ferry embarkation. On the first day of the Revolution, the ticket inspector on a ferry boat was told that from now on first class accommodation on the ferries was banned, and the cost of him trying to resist social progress would be free swimming lessons. As elsewhere, the ferries are strewn with leaflets and the quayside plastered with posters about everything from street theatre performances to public consultations on town planning or meetings of factory committees.

I am reminded by a passenger that it was these same ferries that had been commandeered by thousands of Setubal shipyard and textile factory workers who flooded into central Lisbon three weeks into the revolution when rumours of a coup and counter-revolution had spread.

Lisbon had until recently been a seat of the most rigid Catholic hegemony. Cathedral and church spires and towers dominate the city’s skyline. Shrines and effigies of saints seem to adorn every street corner.  But today, there is not one priest or nun in sight, an on Sunday the pews are empty. The congregation now worships its own liberation in the vast plaza at the end of the Avenida Liberdade.

And, speaking of authority figures, the police seem to be limiting themselves to keeping the city’s traffic flowing or assisting the many lost revolutionary tourists like myself who want directions to the next mass public meeting. In some instances, a policeman, either out of fear of public hostility or perhaps genuine revolutionary conviction, might be seen wearing a red carnation- the floral emblem of the revolution, in buttonholes everywhere and carried in their thousands at rallies and mass meetings across the city.

And as Lisbon is also a city of café’s they- the carnations – are also there. In the necks of vases on every table, in the lapels of every waiter. And the waiters, they no longer take tips- ‘We are all in the union now!’ At the café tables soldiers, officers and non-commissioned ranks fraternise, carnations over their cap badges, without any sign of deference in the course of their intense conversations. That is something that seems to determine the most ordinary of everyday social relations; a complete lack of deference. A pervading sense that ascribed status now matters nothing.

The avenidas are magnificent. A riot of baroque vulgarity lined with pavements perhaps six metres wide but covered from top to bottom in the most splendid and intricate mosaics celebrating every aspect of domination as well as flora and fauna of the tropical colonies. But this massive architectural pomp is little more than a film-set façade behind which lives the real city of the barrios, and further away from the centre, the semi-legal shanties. And it is in these areas that another street art flourishes. A street art of massive frescos along the whole length of factory walls or up the sides of tower blocks. This art – Diego Rivera style murals depicting the nobility and optimism of the exploited and oppressed whilst unashamed social-realism or cod constructivist offerings decorate the walls of schools or the newly sprung-up community health centres.

The barrios, once considered by many to be beyond what little there was of Portuguese civil society, have now become the backbone of the revolution. Distrust of outsiders is at first difficult to overcome. But an event that best illustrates how that bridge is crossed is when a barrio in the South of the city catches fire. The cause is an illegally rigged cable from the main city power supply into a school. Many people are burned before a reluctant fire engine crew enter the no-go area to bring the blaze under control.

The next day the remaining bourgeois press carry reports condemning the barrio residents as ‘electricity thieves’ who had brought the tragedy upon themselves. Later in the day a unit of soldiers turns up at the barrio demanding to know what had happened. Fearing for the worst, the barrioistas form a defensive cordon and demand that the soldiers leave at once. Then a soldier explains on behalf of his comrades that they are in fact army engineers who are volunteering to connect the barrio and its resident’s homes safely to the main electricity supply. They then proceed to do just that – but do not install a single electricity meter.

In 1974 Portugal has one of the lowest adult literacy rates in Europe. Censorship of the press is almost total, the banning of periodicals and some books was routine. The broadcasting media was state controlled, with the Catholic church playing a major role in vetting the content of programmes. Then the April revolution and suddenly things change – not gradually, but overnight.

It is impossible to move along the streets without seeing vendors; many of them sporting revolutionary badges (Lenin is very popular), selling literature of every description. A typical example is a stall outside the main bull ring where they are about to hold a mass rally. Every possible type of literature is on display, which shocks me. At the far end of the table are the various (and there are many – about 10) revolutionary papers. Next to them, socialist pamphlets – Lenin, Marx, Engels and a bit of Trotsky. Then numerous badges and pennants along with union and community leaflets. Then next to these are the national bourgeois papers and a few foreign dailies- Le Figaro, Liberation, The Daily Telegraph and The Mirror. But next along the stall is a selection of catholic pamphlets (a comrade tells me that most are on the church’s teachings on birth control) as well as rosaries, crucifixes and saints cards and candles, next to which is the most lurid display of the most explicit pornography imaginable. Talk about uneven and combined development!

Then the rally inside the bull ring. We are early but there are already thousands taking their seats. At the front the rally organisers are having a heated argument about who is going to speak and what the rally is for. A young woman (a textile worker) holding a baby is apparently going to chair the meeting. There is some confusion about a young black Angolan soldier (a corporal) who has been asked to speak on behalf of a local soldiers committee. The problem is not that he is black but simply the order in which he will speak. He doesn’t look at all bothered. Everyone is wearing red carnations.

Eventually the rally gets underway. The organisation seems amateur but nobody minds, and there is much good humoured banter and heckling. The debate flows, the speakers seem both eloquent and at the same time sincere about what they are saying and the overwhelming impression is that these people have been versed in the art of participatory and direct democracy all of their lives. Yet six months before they lived under an autocratic regime where fear of informants for the PIDE (political secret police) was commonplace and no free speech possible.

At one point the meeting is disrupted. A young woman shouts that her employer has learned nothing from the revolution and continues to treat them badly. ‘Here, take this’, shouts a soldier offering a rifle. ‘Or if you like we’ll pay him a visit. But better you do it yourselves’. He is cheered but the woman declines to take the gun herself. And next, another bout of military bravado. Someone says that there are deserters from the Spanish army present and they require the help of the Armed Forces Movement (MFA) to overthrow Franco (who is by now gravely ill). ‘Here, take our guns and finish him off yourselves. But whatever you do, don’t let the old bastard die in his bed.’

Laughter, cheers and then the greatest rendition of the Internationale I am ever likely to hear. And then the meeting is over and I am not at all certain of what it achieved. And I don’t think that matters to most people who have probably just enjoyed yet another moment of popular democratic power.

There are 3 comments

  1. john game

    Fantastic stories. I remember drinking all these up from older comrades who were lucky enough to have been there. Reading this again did make me think about the present though. This was the last wave of democratic revolutions, different from the present wave in that the organised working class was much more central to them. It was the forces of Social Democracy that tended to emerge in the aftermath (often as in Portugal and Greece emerging from almost nothing), largely falsifying the hopes and fears of the revolutionary left, who hoped for socialist revolution and feared a counter-revolutionary dictatorship Chilean style. Today’s waves of democratic revolution have occurred in circumstances where the organisation of the working class is far weaker and a distinctively working class politics largely unknown and unimagined to the great mass of people. The consequences are both more complex and more tragic, but as yet the process is unfinished. Those are my thoughts reading of the fire last time anyway. Not deliberately trying to be depressive it just seems there’s much to think about here.

  2. annie

    lovely stories, brian. I was there too, twice, and was fluent in Portuguese so I got to talk to dozens of people of all sorts. People lost interest not only in the church, but also in football – as other things seemed so much more important.
    But I agree with John Game. We need to think about what happened to it all – and what happened to so many other “revolutionary rehearsals”. Why do they always stay at the rehearsal stage? We used to say, “Because there wasnt a mass revolutionary party”. Well, if that is so, why did we all get so excited at the time? On the one hand, it is unlikely a revolutionary party will become a mass party before the (pre)revolutionary situation; on the other hand, if it hasnt already become pretty “mass”, we havent got a chance…
    John Game says that “today’s waves of democratic revolution have occurred […] where […] a distinctively working class politics [is] largely unknown and unimagined to the great mass of people”. This is an overstatement (e.g it doesnt apply to Venezuela or Bolivia, or arguably Egypt – unless by “distinctively working class politics” John means a Labour type Party). Yet in these countries, as in Portugal, the results have been social democracy or populism. It seems as if the self-activity of the working class has led at best to populism or social democracy…

  3. mike

    Engaging blog, Brian, combining the personal and political. Might you be interested in contributing to a new collection of Anthology writing. Details below:
    In collaboration with award winning author, Burt Berlowe, we are inviting a selected group of writers to look back on a point in their lives where they found their passion for the kind of work or avocation they are currently pursuing. We are looking for contributions between 3,000-5,000 words. Authors are encouraged to reflect on an experience or a series of events that shaped their current selves. Such pivot points could include anything from an encounter with a person, attending a demonstration or just being impressed by a book, movie, or album. Our interest is in encouraging a new kind of short form memoir writing that might work well within an anthology. Our working title for the essay collection is Finding My Passion: Moments on the Road to Discovery . We believe there is a market for the kind of anthology you would contribute to, both among those contemplating retirement and the already retired boomers who might be encouraged (if not inspired) to look back on their own pasts in a new more exciting and energizing way.
    Please send expressions of interest to changingtimespress@gmail.com

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