The "Soares Doctrine," or Who Gave Birth to Democracy in Portugal?

When Mario Soares died a year ago, he received the well deserved honors of a state funeral from his own state apparatus, his democratic-representative regime—one might say, a new version of L’État, c’est moi. But he was not its father, only one of its key men. His importance as a political leader lay not in what he did as an antifascist fighter, arrested twelve times, nor in the liberalization of labor laws he managed in the 1980s, nor even in his resistance to the post-2008 neoliberal European troika. None of these events required an exceptional man.

Where he was extraordinary—what brought him to the podium of world history—were his actions during the 1974-75 revolutionary events in Portugal. Not coincidentally, on the day of his death—after a lifetime of ninety-two years—the two great polemics that surrounded his figure and dominated social media were something like “Soares, guilty of counterrevolution” and/or “Soares, the culprit of decolonization.” Both of these judgments involve much bad individual memory and little social historiography.

In 1974 something strange happened in Portugal, something very rare. A coup d’état opened the doors to a social and political revolution from below. What I mean by this is a moment when state power is questioned by the masses. At the beginning of such a process they are just that: masses; then, gradually, the people consciously begin to organize themselves into workers’ committees, residents’ associations, commissions of democratic management; later these are fought over by revolutionary parties and social movements of all kinds.

The Socialist Party (PS, the Portuguese Socialist Party) did not exist; it went from a marginal group with a few dozen militants to a mass political party with 80,000 people in the summer of 1975. The Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) grew from a little vanguard party of 2,000 or 3,000 militants in April 1974 to a party of 100,000 members just a year later. History can change in one day what has not been transformed in decades. This is because millions of people had a direct say about their own lives and destiny. Politics was no longer an activity of specialists and professionals. It is what the English historian Perry Anderson called “the specter of self-determination”—inspired by the spirit of the “Carnation Revolution” (named for the flowers inserted in gun barrels during the mass demonstrations of 1974).

This revolution did not even wait for the elections to the Constituent Assembly in April 1975. In a few days or weeks, after April 25, 1974, the political regime of the old dictatorship was almost completely dismantled when Soares and the PCP leader, Alvaro Cunhal, returned from exile. They arrived in a democratic country, where they could organize, speak, and publish, as well as vote—vote a lot—in the workplaces of millions of Portuguese people, through union committees and assembly.

This was the last European revolution to question the private ownership of the means of social production. This resulted in the transfer, according to official data, of eighteen percent of capital income to labor wages and indirect salary, the establishment of the right to work, salaries above biological reproduction (above the “work-to-survive” minimum), and equal and universal access to public education, health care, and social security. This was the only actually-existing welfare state born out of a popular social and political revolution after 1917.

Giving direction to the overwhelming river of the social movement was the task of men and women who played irreplaceable individual roles in history. The struggle between classes and class fractions tends to highlight the most capable people—patient, emotionally steady, fearless, determined—those who believe in larger political programs beyond themselves. They work not for individual careers, but for collective organization. They are the leaders.

In 1976, Henry Kissinger personally thanked Swedish Premier Olof Palme for the support he gave to Soares as a fellow center-left politician, despite the fact that Soares was closer ideologically to Salvador Allende—killed by a coup co-directed by Kissinger—than to the US Secretary of State. By this time, the German Social Democratic Party had transferred to Portugal the largest sum ever transferred to a party outside Germany in order to build the PS—to recruit cadres, open offices, and run trade unions, town halls, and institutions. The PCP similarly received support from the USSR, via East Germany. The two Portuguese parties used the money to fight over political control of that huge sea of people’s history.

Soares convinced his national and international peers of the virtues of an absolutely new strategy for revolutions post-1945. The revolution would not be defeated through a bloody military coup and widespread repression, as was customary until then, but with a mixed military-controlled coup on November 25th, and the establishment from above of a civil, representative, democratic regime—quite different from Chile. It began in November 1975, with the imposition of so-called discipline—that is to say, of a true hierarchy, in the barracks. It was consolidated through a process of “democratic counterrevolution.”

Portugal is the first successful example of a revolution defeated with the establishment of a representative democratic regime of that type. It was the model that would be used in post-Franco Spain and even in Chile, Argentina, and Brazil in the 1980s. The “Carter Doctrine” could better be called, as this essay’s title suggests, “the Soares Doctrine.”

But for this counterrevolution, or “democratic normalization” as the media call it today— curiously, even the most conservative historians in the 1980s did not avoid the term counterrevolution—to impose itself it had to put an end to the grassroots democracy of the rank and file in barracks, factories, schools, and neighborhoods. And that was the most unpopular side of Soares. This is where the founding myth of the regime was born—the idea that the end of direct democracy, which Soares claimed to support, was the “lesser evil” compared to the threat of a “Soviet dictatorship” in the South of Western Europe. That is why Soares said that the 25th of November stood against both “capitalist social democracy and Soviet dictatorial socialism.”

The PCP, of course, never wanted to make a socialist revolution in Portugal; it was as afraid of factories controlled by workers as the PS. This does not mean that the PCP did not want to occupy seats and cabinet positions in the state apparatus. It did. So did the PS. Until September 1975, the Communists had many places in the state apparatus; after that a turnaround took place, and it was the PS that began to occupy those places. PCP leader Cunhal finally published a text suggesting that the PCP’s support for the Sixth Government decreased in proportion to the number of positions it was given in that government and so according to the degree that the taps of the State were open or closed.

While the discourse of the PCP defended the socialist revolution, the party went to the factory gates to distribute leaflets demanding the end of workers’ strikes because the strikes were against the provisional government in which the PCP was allied with the PS and the PPD, today’s center-right Portuguese Social Democratic Party (or PSD), born out of the 1974 events. As a minister in the 1975 government, Carlos Carvalhas (who succeeded Cunhal as Secretary-General of the party) approved two measures against workers’ control in the factories, claiming that it jeopardized the national economy. (In that national economy, ninety-two percent of the labor force worked for private industry, whose property was not questioned by the PCP). The important thing is not what the PCP said, but what it did. Its strategy was to make Portugal into a democracy within the framework of the international social and political balance of power agreed on in Yalta and Potsdam at the end of World War II. Portugal would be in the sphere of the Atlantic Alliance. Therefore, the PCP did not in 1975 defend or support Portugal’s exit from NATO.

The attempts to control the state apparatus by the PCP (the Fourth Government) and the PS (the Sixth Government) had no connection with the actual democracy that prevailed in enterprises and factories and which was increasing throughout 1975, repeatedly calling into question measures imposed by unelected governments. State and revolution did not go hand in hand: the PS and the PCP were in the state, but it was not they who made the revolution.

Similarly, Soares was not to blame for the way decolonization went. The poor Portuguese of the 1950s had to choose between going to France to work like robots in the Renault factories, or being petty bosses, traders, and employees in the colonies. Those who chose the second route lost everything in 1975. But this was not because Soares took it from them, but because they erected their houses over the destroyed homes of others.

The colonial economy was based on forced labor, population displacement, and political police—the PIDE—who in the colonies played the role of a small Portuguese Gestapo, acting in concert with the colonial army, for example by the direct killing of “subversives.” Mozambican miners forced by the Portuguese army to work in the mines of South Africa gave their wages in gold to the Portuguese state, which then paid them a share in devalued local currency. The rest went to the coffers of Lisbon to be divided among the five economic groups that dominated the country. Soares and dozens of other politicians only closed up a dam breached when in January 1961, the forced laborers of the Cotonang company went on an indefinite strike and were attacked with Napalm by the Portuguese army.

The colonists Soares brought back to hotels in Estoril in 1975 were met by high inflation, rampant unemployment, and thousands of people living there. Many were shocked at the country they encountered, where women wore black veils on their heads. Africa, for them, had been a land of freedom. But Portugal welcomed them, hundreds of thousands, overnight, trying their best to accommodate them. They then realized that no one is free when others are in prison.

Portugal was, alongside Vietnam, the country most closely followed by the international press at that time, because the images of people from the shantytowns smiling, with open arms, alongside young, bearded, and happy soldiers filled the hearts of people in Spain, Greece, and Brazil with hope. And most of the people who lived here were jubilant. Gabriel García-Márquez reported, from his journalistic post, that he had never seen so many smiles in his life.

Never before had so many people decided so much in Portuguese history as in 1974 and 1975. Today this revolutionary past—when the poorest, the most fragile, often illiterate, dared to take their lives in their hands—is a kind of historical nightmare to the present Portuguese ruling classes.

Today the trend in Portugal as in Europe generally is towards a high concentration of wealth. In 1945, the difference between a rich person and a skilled manual worker in Europe was one to twelve. In 1980, it rose to one to eighty-two. And today it is one to 530. The European Union is an organization for the accumulation of capital, which is now incompatible with the maintenance of quality public services because of the falling tendency of the profit rate. The consequence for Portugal is the destruction of the welfare state in a backward country with low wages, decreasing quality of work, and forced labor emigration. With this historical decline, social democracy has vanished, and Soares lived to see the very end of this political project with his own eyes.

Translated by Betto della Santa.


Raquel Varela

RAQUEL VARELA is a labor historian at the New University of Lisbon; she wrote A Peoples' History of the Portuguese Revolution (Bertrand, Lisbon, 2014):