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The Portuguese Revolution: State and Class in the Transition to Democracy

by Adam David Morton on October 26, 2016
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In May 2011, the Eurozone crisis in Portugal led the co-called troika of the EU, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund to agree a €78 billion bailout with ongoing review procedures. Unemployment in 2011 was at 15.2 percent–the then third highest in the Eurozone after Spain and Greece–and rose in 2013 to 17.4 percent whilst youth unemployment reached 41 percent. Meanwhile, austerity measures to meet the bailout at the time included the scrapping of four out of 14 public holidays (that will be suspended for five years from 2013) and the cutting of public sector wages and raised taxes to reduce the budget deficit. The result has been a series of mass protests and at least two general strikes.

PortugueseRevolutionLITHO.inddCurrent developments are put into context in a recent book by Ronald Chilcote, The Portuguese Revolution: State and Class in the Transition to Democracy, which is an outstanding analysis of the political economy, state formation, and emergence of capitalism in Portugal. It focuses on the revolutionary rupture of 1974-75, the counterrevolutionary offensive, and the rollback of reforms leading to the consolidation of bourgeois hegemony under neoliberalism.

Despite the overthrow of the monarchy in 1910 and the ‘ruptural condition’ of the April 25, 1974 ‘Carnation Revolution’ led by the Movimento das Forças Armadas (MFA), patterns of continuity have prevailed throughout the consolidation of ‘a state that continues on with old forms and adapts to new forms, in particular casting off the remnants of socialism and legitimising a neoliberal state in concert with domestic and foreign private capital’. This line of argument is addressed by structuring the analysis around two main parts to the book: the first, comprising three chapters, focuses on the origins and evolution of state forms and the consolidation of capitalism; the second, comprising five chapters, traces the class struggle of the April 25 coup to bring about a socialist transition, the institutional conflict revolving around the MFA, the rise of popular social movements, and the legacies of the revolution. These main parts are bookended by excellent introductory and concluding chapters that deliver a lucid and exemplary assessment of the principal threads weaved throughout the volume, namely the conditions of state and class formation during and after the Portuguese revolution, which shape the present.

This book is therefore a wonderful statement on class theory and the origins and evolution of the Portuguese capitalist state. It is also a pivotal study that will generate significant comparative interest, not least because the concern with the delays and advances of bourgeois revolution in Portugal has clear import to cases of state formation across European and postcolonial contexts. Moreover, this is a book that transcends–indeed avoids–the notion of a ‘case study’ to situate state formation in Portugal within a geopolitical frame of reference. ‘A principal problem’, according to Chilcote, ‘was the rupture of Portuguese ties with the Third World and the collapse of the country’s historical tradition of empire and colonies, especially Africa’. Equally, there is contemporary treatment of geopolitical themes in terms of US intervention, the influence of IMF stabilisation programmes, European integration and the rise of neoliberalism in Portugal accompanied by analysis of the long term decline of the Partido Comunista Português (PCP).

One topic touched on within the book but worth debating beyond its pages is its reflection on the thinking of Antonio Gramsci and his theorising of hegemony as a way to assess the capitalist experience before and after the 1974-75 period. After all, it is stated that, for comparative study:

the Gramscian analysis of the formation of the state amidst regional disparities in the north and south of Italy, for instance, is particularly relevant.

I would certainly concur but also add that this line of argumentation could have been expanded and developed in more detail. Throughout the study there is a stress on a renovated bourgeoisie that was unable to build unity with the popular masses in Portugal and, on the other hand, there is also a focus on how even the revolutionary interlude failed to destroy the legacies of the old order. If the turn to Gramsci is significant, then, the open issue for future debate is the extent to which the Portuguese process of state formation reflects more the condition of passive revolution, meaning an instance of state formation in which aspects of capitalist development are either instituted and/or expanded. As Chilcote himself conjectures, ‘Once revolution has been abandoned, will incremental change alone prevail?’.

One consequence of wider engagement with this book and the subsequent debate it will sprout in current conditions of Eurozone crisis may then well be increased focus on passive revolution as one of the key antinomies of capitalist development and all it currently implies in relation to austerity, wage cuts, mass unemployment and social protest.

Adam David Morton
Adam David Morton is Professor of Political Economy in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney.

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