BY TOM GALLAGHER
A new book whose English translation is ‘To the Right of the Revolution’, offering a detailed exploration of the resistance to the left-wing Portuguese revolution of 1974-75, prompts the question: why did it fail? It had a lot going for it. The overthrow of an enfeebled authoritarian regime on 25 April 1974 opened up a power vacuum. It was quickly filled by the Communist party which had operated clandestinely for the whole of the 48-year dictatorship. A working alliance grew up between the junior officers responsible for the military coup and radicalised elements in society who predominated in Lisbon and the south of the country.
The first victory secured by this civil-military alliance was to out-manoeuvre and isolate General António de Spínola whose break with the old regime over its colonialist policies in Africa had made the political rupture possible. Provisional head of state for the first five months of the revolution, he proved an inept political actor. After he was unable to prevent early independence being granted to Portugal’s overseas territories, mainly in Africa, his star quickly faded. Amidst a wave of strikes and factory occupations, hopes soared among the self-proclaimed revolutionaries that they could take Portugal in an irreversible left-wing direction by installing ‘real socialism’.
In March 1975, the revolutionary floodgates opened after Spínola was manipulated into staging an amateurish coup, having been tricked into believing that a massacre of leading moderates was imminent. Sweeping nationalisations and land seizures soon occurred. No other post-1945 West European country had ever seen such a radical switch in economic relations. Internationally, the timing of this upheaval was fortuitous. The United States was in the throes of a deep-seated political crisis. Henry Kissinger, the US foreign policy chief, was convinced that the West could do little to prevent Portugal falling into the Soviet orbit. Agitators and idealists from across Europe converged on Portugal hoping that it could be the scene of a decisive victory for left-wing radicalism in Europe after the false dawns of the 1960s revolts. Within six months, however, the far-left was in headlong retreat. Decolonisation could not be reversed but many of the dramatic socio-economic measures of 1975 eventually were.
Looking at Britain today, not a society in the outward throes of a revolution, it is possible to see changes altering the face of state and society, which it may not be possible to reverse as easily as the ones that at one stage had defined revolutionary Portugal. Sometimes countries experience dramatic convulsions on the surface which leave them unchanged internally. This could be the case with Portugal and its ambiguous revolution. Other countries pride themselves on their continuity even when, within their institutions, deep-seated transformations are occurring which it might be extremely hard to reverse.
It might be useful therefore to compare the sources of radicalisation in both societies and also the United States, in order to more clearly appreciate the limitations of the revolutionary upsurge in the Iberian state.
Britain was one of several major English-speaking countries which in 2020 saw public attempts to alter cultural identity. Statues were toppled. Prestigious buildings named after previously respected figures like the 18th century Enlightenment sage David Hume were re-named. Films and frequently re-shown television dramas and comedies were shelved or issued with warnings about their content. These events were happening because influential people were convinced that they violated newly acquired norms on gender, sex, race and religion. The new orthodoxy had taken hold thanks to the spectacular rise of decolonisation scholarship, underpinned by critical race theory (CRT). It has very rapidly gained adherents across the liberal elite in Britain, the United States and some other English-speaking countries.
Intellectual figures who saw this eruption of identity politics as an attempt to assail democratic freedoms and undermine the accomplishments of Western civilisation found themselves under assault if they publicly voiced concerns. The trans movement was arguably the most forceful as well as strongly networked of the new social movements calling, in its case, for an end to binary sexual identities to be viewed as the norm; JK Rowling, up until now, perhaps the world’s best-known novelist faced multiple denunciations when she expressed reservations about what was being asserted. She held her ground, writing about her fears that women’s rights would suffer serious setbacks due to the tactics of militant trans-rights activists in demanding gender-neutral facilities and insisting that public bodies embrace non-binary gender identities and support the sexual transitioning of young people1. Her wealth and popularity may have enabled her to withstand the storm, but others were not so fortunate. If they were thought to violate new taboos on race, sex, and gender, they quickly faced professional ostracism and figured among the victims of a new ‘cancel culture’.
Some have ascribed the heightened sensitivity on issues of personal identity to the social dislocation and economic uncertainty caused by the unexpected outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic at the start of 2020. Few countries escaped its disruptive effects. In Western societies underpinned by a large service economy and an outsized university sector, anger, disorientation, and despair may have driven young people to embrace a form of identity politics resting on the belief that society was beyond redemption and needed to be toppled and rebuilt anew.
The angry and often confused utopianism that spilled onto American and British streets was initially dismissed as a short-term phenomenon triggered not only by the pandemic but by emotive events such as the death of the black American George Floyd on 25th May 2020 in Minneapolis at the hands of a police officer who is awaiting trial for murder, which led to weeks of rioting in many US cities as well as street flare-ups across the Atlantic.
But the influence wielded by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) organisation, which drove much of the unrest forward in both Britain and the USA, rather dented the view that the unrest was likely to be short-lived. Numerous endorsements were received from Anglo-American corporations in the leisure, sport and mass entertainment field for the BLM’s assertion that Western society was fundamentally unequal, and that race was the principal driver of inequality2. Such elite endorsement inevitably boosted the credibility of an agitational group which had previously done little to hide its reliance on Marxist methods and ideas3.
Some analysts who took a longer-term perspective believed that the spectacle of major corporations and prestigious sporting bodies endorsing the world view of uninhibited left-wing agitators was a sign of how the long march through the institutions begun by Marxists who had abandoned faith in working-class struggle, was bearing fruit4.
The Italian political theorist Augusto Del Noce (1910-89) is not the only thinker to consider that the foundation of the Frankfurt School in Germany during the mid-1930s was instrumental in creating a new strain of Marxism bound up with cultural struggle rather than economics. Its transplantation to the United States, especially to campuses at West Coast universities, has been seen as a decisive moment in launching a formidable new challenge to Western thought rooted in humanist sentiments and ideals bound up with Classical Greek philosophy, Christian spirituality, the Renaissance and eventually the Enlightenment. Over time, class warfare in the West was downgraded in favour of more generalised ‘warfare against repression’ aimed especially at marriage and the family5. Religion was seen as an obstacle that needed to be discredited or swept aide in order to accomplish ‘a process of liberation from authority, theological or human, transcendent or empirical’6. Del Noce regarded the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the repudiation of a religiously-based social order as profound breakthroughs for a movement, confirming its success in placing the focus of Marxist materialism on culture rather than economics7.
Del Noce believed that by dropping the destruction of capitalism from its core agenda Marxism would be in much better shape to ride the wave of opposition to authority that became ingrained in the West from the 1960s onwards. A Western bourgeoisie which no longer feared revolution and saw its erstwhile religious rival face steep decline, had no reason to flinch from the novelty, licence and excess at the heart of accelerating technological age8.
Del Noce was a university professor and, along with numerous others, he singled out the growing influence of the academic world in the West as the catalyst enabling the liberation from authority and rational thinking to capture many adherents. First the United States and then Britain saw the dramatic expansion of universities over the last fifty years. In Britain enrolment at the country’s 111 universities increased from around 30 per cent of young people in 1999 to 50 percent by 20159.
A global left-wing vision designed to produce (in the words of one of the most effective exponents of CRT, Ibrahim Kendi) ‘a radical reorientation of our consciousness’ was facilitated not only by the expansion in scale and influence of higher education but by the collapse of any conservative presence able to defend human reason and stand up for a moderately predictable social and political order.10 The ratio of left to right among US university professors was reckoned to be 3 to 2 in the 1960s but by 2016, this had given way to a 12 to 1 tilt in favour of radicals or liberals.11 This is a real transformation for a country which had never known a powerful socialist movement during its industrial revolution. Its impact on politics is perhaps shown by the likelihood that Joseph Biden will preside over an administration that is easily the most left-wing of any to be found in a large Western country.
A radical bourgeoisie closely aligned to a technological elite prepared to place its outsized influence at the service of the new identity politics, currently enjoys a dominating role in the USA. Graduates steeped in ‘postcolonial theory, queer theory, critical race theory and intersectionality, disability and fat studies, and social justice scholarship’ have flooded into influential state and private institutions12. The process has seen Britain fully in lock-step with the USA and deeply susceptible to embracing frameworks for re-interpreting reality that originate there.
One incident widely interpreted as the triumph of fashionable Woke ideas in traditional bastions of learning was the decision of the headmaster in Eton College to rule that staff must not publicly criticize feminist theory because it might be against the law 13. The supposedly traditionally-inclined Conservative Party has been in office continuously since 2010. But this has hardly stopped the new orthodoxy on gender, sex, race and religion having a profound influence on much of the large public sector at central and local level.
It seems almost inexplicable that previously fringe agitators, propounding grievance-laden assertions that are often not backed up by any coherent empirical arguments, can have secured as much endorsement from powerful elites as BLM has done. Dramatising racial problems and insisting that they are the foundation of a society’s ills appears a recipe for chaos14. The anarchistic dimension to protests that swept US cities in the summer of 2020 (causing immense damage to the retail outlets of chains which embraced the new radicalism), easily points to destruction and chaos as being ends in themselves.
But on closer inspection the embrace of previously unorthodox and disruptive ideas by many in the monied classes may not be that aberrant. Much status is now no longer bound up with the acquisition of goods (which are besides still easily accessible to hundreds of millions in the West and the East) but with espousing avant-garde ideas from open borders to the legalisation of drugs15. These ideas have been made fashionable by marinating for several generations in universities. This radical world view has gradually seeped into the culture of organisations through recruitment from elite academies. From the worlds of advertising, entertainment, bureaucracy and academia, there is a ringing emphasis on the need for constant awareness and vigilance against micro aggressions, institutionalised racism, and white privilege16. Corporate advertising increasingly champions safe spaces and inveighs against white privilege17.
Whether or not endorsing and championing these divisive themes is in the long run a sound business model, remains open to doubt but is surely beside the point. By entering into an informal alliance with social justice warriors who are far less concerned with toppling capitalism than with pursuing an all-out culture war, powerful state bureaucracies and corporate elites seem to be backing a set of winners in the political world. A tactical alliance has been made with forces in society that appear to enjoy unstoppable momentum. The zealotry on globalisation, the environment, or mass immigration hardly troubles many corporate giants. Widening profit margins have resulted from going green and being able to hire from a vast pool of low-cost labour thanks to open borders. Little apparent fear is evident that by making a Faustian pact with disruptive and perhaps ultimately nihilistic forces, the corporate economic order might itself end up as a spectacular casualty if chaos and disorder wildly spin out of anyone’s control.
Some have also concluded that the insouciance of the elite towards the creation of new hierarchies of race and gender springs from the assumption that a society polarised along such lines will enable the ascendancy of dominant forces to remain undisturbed18. The fracturing of society into grievance-driven sub-groups means class retreats as an explanatory factor for injustice. This is hardly a cause of concern for corporate behemoths concerned with profit margins at a time when Covid-19 has rendered the world economy so volatile. The rise of middle-class driven identity politics means that calls to address wide levels of economic inequality are likely to grow fainter and intensifying levels of inequality result19.
Suspicion, fear and atomisation can easily engulf any sense of solidarity in a workplace if the new ‘Woke’ ideology comes to dominate both work schedules and free time. The diversity industry has become a booming one across firms and state agencies large and small. Managers, consultants and trainers in human resources departments have been given new roles in rooting out prejudice, structural inequalities, unconscious bias, and enforcing speech codes. The irony is that in a supposed era of progressive iconoclasm, workplaces, bureaucracies, and places of education, have perhaps never been as regimented and subject to doctrinaire controls as they are now.
A clerisy of teachers, consultants, journalists, lawyers, government workers, and medical professionals bound up with defending and enforcing a progressive orthodoxy, enjoys powerful sway in the United States and Britain. They see their role as to indoctrinate and manage the rest of society20. Much career fulfilment is obtained by regulating behaviour, language and thought. Thus, a vanguard class has gradually taken shape whose self-belief and determination have been on display when confronted by opposing views.
But can they prevail and impose a new authoritarian order on the West? Perhaps a look at how the Portuguese revolution played out, and the role assumed by ordinary citizens in its most crucial phases, might supply some answers.
Tom Gallagher is Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Bradford. He is the author of Scotland Now, a Warning to the World (2016). His latest book is Salazar, the Dictator Who Refused to Die, Hurst Publishers 2020 and Tom’s twitter account is @cultfree54
1. ‘J.K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues’, 10 June 2020, https://www.jkrowling.com/opinions/j-k-rowling-writes-about-her-reasons-for-speaking-out-on-sex-and-gender-issues/
2. Ross Douthat, ‘The rise of Woke capital’, New York Times, 28 February 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/28/opinion/corporate-america-activism.html Toby Young, ‘the rise of the Woke corporation’, Spectator, 9 March 2019, https://www.spectator.co.uk/2019/03/the-woke-corporation-how-campus-madness-entered-the-workplace/ .
3. Ben Cobley, ‘Black Lives Matter: How Should we respond?’ SDP Talk, 10 June 2020, https://sdp.org.uk/sdptalk/black-lives-matter-how-should-we-respond/ ; Guy Adams, ‘Revealed: The British arm of Black Lives Matter’s full agenda – abolish the police, smash capitalism… and close all prisons’, Daily Mail, 20 June 2020, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8441405/The-avowed-aims-British-arm-Black-Lives-Matter.html .
4. Kevin Donnelly, ‘The Left’s Long March to Anarchy’, Conservative Woman, 16 June 2020
5. Michael Hanby, ‘The crisis of modertity’, First Things, June 2017, https://www.firstthings.com/article/2017/06/what-del-noce-saw
6. Donnelly, ‘The Left’s Long March’.
7. Francis X. Maier, ‘The most important thinker we don’t know’, First Things, 1 April 2018, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2018/01/the-most-important-thinker-we-dont-know
8. Carlo Lancellotti, ‘The Dead End of the Left’, Commonweal Magazine, 21 March 2019, https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/dead-end-left
9. David Goodhart, ‘Why universities had to be challenged’, Unherd, 14 July 2020, https://unherd.com/2020/07/why-universities-had-to-be-challenged/?tl_inbound=1&tl_groups%5B0%5D=18743&tl_period_type=3n
10. Brendan O’Neill, ‘This has become a neo-Maoist war on the past’, Spiked Online, 10 June 2020,
11. Kaufmann, ‘Cancel culture has captured campus’, https://unherd.com/2020/10/how-cancel-culture-captured-campus/?tl_inbound=1&tl_groups%5B0%5D=18743&tl_period_type=3
12. Kaufmann, ‘Cancel culture has captured campus’, https://unherd.com/2020/10/how-cancel-culture-captured-campus/?tl_inbound=1&tl_groups%5B0%5D=18743&tl_period_type=3
13. Andrew Tettenborn, ‘cancel culture has made a mess of Eton’, Spiked Online, 30 November 2020
14. James Delingpole, ‘Ordinary people fear and loathe Black Lives matter’, Breitbart, 20 June 2020, https://www.breitbart.com/europe/2020/06/20/ordinary-people-fear-and-loathe-black-lives-matter/
15. Rob Henderson, ‘Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class—A Status Update’, Quillette, 16 November 2019, https://quillette.com/2019/11/16/thorstein-veblens-theory-of-the-leisure-class-a-status-update/
16. Emma Yeomans, ‘Institutional racism ‘rife at universities’, Times, 24 November 2020, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/institutional-racism-rife-at-universities-flsqgjzhs
17. See Steve Harrison, Can’t Sell Won’t Sell: Advertising, politics and culture wars. Why adland has stopped selling and started saving the world, London: Adworld Press, 2020.
18. Joanna Williams, ‘Critical race theory – a ruling class ideology’, Spiked Online, 27 November 2020, https://www.spiked-online.com/2020/11/27/critical-race-theory-a-ruling-class-ideology/
19. Joel Kotkin, ‘ Anew age of feudalism for the working-class’, American Greatness, 29 May 20, https://amgreatness.com/2020/05/29/a-new-age-of-feudalism-for-the-working-class/
20. Joel Kotkin, ‘The two middle classes’, Quillette, 27 February 2020, https://quillette.com/2020/02/27/the-two-middle-classes/