Revolution for a While
Street Art Break in VR with Tom
It looked like a book cover when I first noticed it on Google Street View, a four-story mural at #1 R Natalia Correia in Lisbon.
There’s definitely a narrative involved. Or rather, a bunch of possible narratives.
The mural is named, “Peace Guard” and it refers to the Carnation Revolution in Portugal and its colonies. How you see the events in those places between April 25, 1974 through November 25, 1975 probably correlates with how you feel about Airbnbs all over Lisbon now, almost 50 years later.
Was there a Revolution, like, a ‘Capital R’ Revolution, or is the Carnation Revolution just marketing? Were there big winners — and big losers who got executed? Why don’t we hear more about a fairly recent Revolution in Western Europe?
And then there’s the Carnation-in-the-Muzzle-of-a-Gun.
No Humans were Harmed during the Production of this Revolution
That is unusual. Also not strictly true. Secret Police fired on a large crowd and four people were killed. That might be the extent of it, though. At least in Portugal.
Whether you want to call it a Revolution or not, whatever did happen was almost completely bloodless.
There is one obvious reason for this — almost all the people with guns were in favor of change. Soldiers were among the leaders of the massive social and political disruption, not the resistance to it.
People appreciated the role of the military and gave them the carnations to wear and even put in their guns, because carnations were in season in all the flower markets right then. Hippies had done the same kind of thing during anti-Vietnam War protests in the United States not too many years earlier. It became a Thing in Lisbon, for some of the same reasons.
The Simplest Version of the Carnation Revolution
Enough soldiers were dissatisfied with how the government was treating them that they rebelled. The government was a dictatorship and most citizens didn’t like it either. They were so happy to have the soldiers kick out the dictator that thousands of people joined and gave out carnations. Pretty soon, the soldiers allowed elections to happen and now Portugal is free, a democracy.
I believe this is more or less how the Carnation Revolution is usually described now.
The figure in the street art mural suggests these themes and nothing more.
OK, Why Were the Soldiers Dissatisfied?
The reasons lie in Africa, where people were through with being colonized.
The simple version of the European Colonial story is that it ended after World War II. The more complicated version is that Colonization ended, formally, because resistance movements all over the world fought very hard to end it, well after World War II was over.
Parts of Africa were still fighting to get rid of colonies in the 1970s, mostly places directly ruled by Portugal, like Angola and Mozambique. Wars had gone on there for years. It was becoming increasingly expensive to continue subjugating large areas of Africa.
After years of war with no end in sight, Portuguese soldiers didn’t want to fight in Africa any more, just like many U.S. soldiers in Vietnam had to be forcibly conscripted under threat of imprisonment.
Eventually the Portuguese government was forced to offer huge rewards for newly minted soldiers willing to lead the battle in Africa. Established soldiers who had worked years with almost nothing to show for it resented the perks and super fast advancements in rank.
We have now arrived at the heart of the military resistance — which is often represented as the heart of the Carnation Revolution.
The young officers who led the rebellion had plenty of issues, of course — pay in arrears, insufficient training, malfunctioning equipment, and a war they couldn’t win — but the Fast Track Promotions program for newcomers converted their resentment into action.
The soldiers who rebelled were part of the secret Armed Forces Movement (MFA), which was not necessarily motivated by democracy in Portugal. Many of the leaders were, but the unifying grievance across thousands of soldiers was being disrespected by the government.
Mid-Ranking soldiers, known as April’s Captains, dominate the Carnation Revolution narrative. As the MFA, they led a classic coup d’etat on April 25, 1974, complete with tanks rolling into the capital.
They claimed to be leaderless but there were several young officers in charge of key operations on the day of the coup. Captain Salgueiro Maia was photographed often because his assignment took him to the center of Lisbon and the most dramatic confrontation.
He was also featured in, “April Captains,” a film by Marie de Medeiros, which focuses on the day of the coup and Maia’s role.
How about Everybody Else?
It’s a lot easier to write about one heroic Captain than millions of people all over Portugal, but to me they are the ones who made the Carnation Revolution. The Armed Forces Movement began the process with a nice bloodless coup attempt, but without the spontaneous and overwhelming support of the people there might have been considerably more resistance.
The dictatorship, called the Estado Novo, had been in total control since 1933, a testament to the PIDE, Secret Police, and ruthlessness in general. But confronted with the entire country united in opposition, the President gave up in a few hours without a fight.
Resentment had been simmering and the seeds of resistance had been slowly developing for decades in every part of Portugal, not just the military.
When the soldiers appeared in Lisbon in the early morning hours of April 25, thousands of people appeared with them. When Captain Salguiero Maia arrived in the center of Lisbon with a tank squad, massive cheering crowds were there with him as he negotiated the President’s surrender.
When there was no President, the entire structure of authority fell apart and at least temporarily everyone was in charge.
Full stop. A revolution began at the end of one day in April, 1974.
Throughout Portugal, the way things were done changed rapidly. Factories were occupied and taken over by the people who worked there. Hospitals were run by committees of doctors and nurses. Bank staff took over the banks and stopped money from leaving the country.
Participatory democracy emerged, out of necessity, on the ground. It emerged in the way decisions were made and operations were managed. A kind of history that doesn’t get recorded or remembered really happened, for a while.
It was a social explosion that forced changes in how society was organized — forced by direct action of many people, referred to as “from below.”
In the history books, a General accepted the Dictator/President’s surrender and headed a small group, including MFA leaders, until elections could be held.
For the next 20 months, individuals vied for position. There was a counter-revolutionary attempt. Communists competed with Socialists for the best way to help the people. These forms of political theater are what is recorded as history.
It was an extraordinary time. The top-down systems had stopped functioning and new forms of authority did not appear overnight.
Some of the changes lasted. Huge private land holdings were broken up when agrarian workers occupied the land and began working it for themselves. That lasted. Residential Committees formed to house thousands of homeless people in empty private apartments. Some of that lasted.
Transportation workers extended their routes and reduced their fares. That lasted for a while.
About 60% of the economy was taken away from a few elite families and a handful of corporate conglomerates and nationalized. Several hundred factories became worker owned. A Social Security system was developed and implemented in Portugal for the first time.
People organized, put in personal effort and worked for these changes. They were officially brought to life by Government Decree, but the Decrees only occurred because people fought for them.
One historian has made it her mission to document this grass-roots democratic side of the Carnation Revolution. It is largely because of Raquel Cardeira Varela and, A People’s History of the Portuguese Revolution, that the details of Trade Union activities. Worker Committees and local organizing for residential needs are faithfully documented.
In Case You Wondered
It didn’t last forever.
It was the longest unplanned experiment in participatory democracy at scale that I am aware of in modern times.
The dictator at the top was shown to be just a man behind a curtain who no one feared any more. In keeping with the peaceful theme, he was not guillotined. He was put on a plane to Brazil where he lived out his days, no doubt drawing on wealth he had stashed away for just such an unthinkable eventuality.
Raquel Cardeira Varela estimates that about three million people took active part in grass roots decision making, focused on the places they lived and worked.
That is a Revolution.
Should we expect that life would keep going that way inevitably? Because it didn’t. Portugal changed from participatory self-governance to a typical representative government on November 25, 1975, when a national election put the elements of modern Liberal Democracy in place.
Portugal had changed, but the government was no longer directly responsive to the people except on Election Day.
Portugal Does Not Exist in a Vacuum
The Portuguese Empire showed the rest of Europe they could just go and take over places. They were the first Europeans into central and southern Africa and in some ways the last ones out.
By the time of the Carnation Revolution, Portugal was still using a large armed presence to control a forced labor economy. Most former colonial powers had moved on to more subtle forms of domination, but Portugal had not.
The armed resistance to Portugal in Africa had support from western nations, including, at times, the U.S. Not that western nations were opposed to taking advantage of Africa, they had simply learned that perfectly legal political-economic forms of control are more efficient than armed forces.
The Carnation Revolution took place within a larger international transition out of the the post-World War II world financial system and into a new world ruled by energy and paid for in dollars.
The international oil crisis in 1973 precipitated sudden energy price increases that put a brake on growth and led to layoffs and unemployment. Workers in some parts of Portugal were ready to take matters into their own hands.
When they did, other western nations were understandably alarmed. U.S. President Gerald Ford warned of a possible domino effect that would turn all of Southern Europe into a “red sea.”
It didn’t happen. Portugal became a regular country, tied into the international structure of finance and borrowing that controls human populations better than any Army. When the financial shake-ups of 2008 occurred, Portugal had to borrow money and became a regular indebted country.
National debts are never paid off but the interest payments come from the labor of workers, from stripping away the social safety net, and from the monetization of all assets. That’s why there are Airbnbs all over Lisbon now. Providing accommodations for a new educated population of digital nomads and tourists. Also changing the character of neighborhoods and forcing people out of their homes.
Some of April’s Captains later said if they had seen what was coming they would not have started the Carnation Revolution. But more people are doing ok than under the Estado Novo. What is the assessment criteria? Sustaining grass-roots democracy?
Also, the Portuguese Empire ended. The African nations of Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau became independent within months of the revolution, by the Alvor Agreement and the Lusaka Accord.
One of April’s Captains tried to lead a more explicitly left-wing coup when the Carnation Revolution’s ultimate direction started becoming clear. It was easily put down.
Salgueiro Maia went back to his military duties and never sought any political positions. He was given some honors and made it to the rank of Major. He died of cancer in 1992. He was 47.
On the 40th anniversary of the Carnation Revolution, in 2014, a new mural appeared in a busy section of Lisbon celebrating Captain Maia and some of the symbols of the revolution, updated in tone.
It was the work of four artists — Caos, Add Fuel, Draw, and MAR — who are members of the Underdogs platform, an international network of street artists based in Lisbon.
It reminded an entire generation that had grown up since the overthrow of Estado Novo of what had ended the dictatorship. By depicting Maia front and center, again, it reinforced the image of young officers bringing about change.
It does not show a military action led to a political and social revolution with massive on-going participation. Not just waving and handing out flowers. It does not show that more people in Portugal helped make more decisions about their lives than ever before, maybe anywhere.
“Peace Guard” was painted three years later, in 2017, by Shephard Fairey, already famous for his 2008 image of “Hope” produced for Barack Obama.
I am not a Globalist, a Nationalist, or a Centrist. I find the micro governance principles of Anarcho-Syndicalism attractive but I have no idea how they could be implemented. I understand the corporate form as an artificial intelligence (AI) with imperatives that benefit humans only accidentally.
My heroes are Marshal McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller, and Socrates. The older I get, the less I know, which I demonstrate regularly on Medium and Sub-Stack.