Revolutionary Portugal & the Woke Anglosphere II

BY TOM GALLAGHER

Portugal during 1974-5 did not lack single-minded zealots.  These radicals, however, were seeking to transform society from a much weaker level of institutional influence. They lacked the means to shift popular consciousness in their direction as shown by the failure of a campaign of ‘cultural dynamization’ launched in parts of rural Portugal by junior officers who strove to liberate peasants from their traditional outlook.  Like the Woke radicals of the early 21st century Anglosphere, they viewed much of society as being in the grip of a false consciousness. But the ambitions of revolutionary soldiers and civilian radicals were limited compared with bourgeois radicals who wished to transform language and thought as a way of waging war on the past and much of the intellectual legacy of the West.  Despite missionary forays into the ‘backward’ countryside, the objectives of the radicals were political and economic.  The goal was to demolish the right-wing state and build a socialist economy along with supportive political institutions.

PART ONE IS AVAILABLE HERE

Race was not a major preoccupation despite Portugal having been the last of the European colonisers to depart Africa. The self-image of Portugal was that of a ‘pluri-ethnic’ nation and it was one that was not confined to any specific part of the political spectrum.  Whites and people of mixed race had been prominent in the struggle to end Portuguese rule. Local Africans were an important part of the military forces seeking to preserve the ultramar as part of Portugal. 

In more recent times, Portugal, like Britain (but far less so) has been influenced by an analytical racial framework imported from America.1 Critical race theory sees race as the key dynamic for understanding Western society. Its proponents insist on sweeping race-based changes to correct what they perceive as ingrained levels of discrimination in society. But today, as in the 1970s, the view persists on the radical left in Portugal that it is non-racial features that underpin whatever systemic injustices exist.  The class struggle model for ushering in a more just and equal society dominated radical thinking in the 1970s and has still to be displaced. Social class is seen as determining life chances. Solidarity between people of all ethnic backgrounds is viewed as essential for overturning injustice.  The idea that poor white people enjoy privileges which need to be surrendered is not one that would have appealed to revolutionaries in 1975. Nor has it acquired any momentum outside major English-speaking countries subsequently. In southern Europe, countries with a Latin culture, strongly influenced until recently by Catholicism, have shown little inclination towards embracing the censorious concerns of intellectual elites in Britain or America. The cultural obsessions of puritanical elites in these formerly strongly Protestant societies appear irrelevant given the deep-seated economic problems affecting Mediterranean Europe. They have known more than a decade of intense economic crisis due to the malfunctioning of the Euro single currency. The material concerns of radical movements in these societies still bear far more relation to those of Portuguese revolutionaries in 1975 than to those of English-speaking Woke radicals.  The iconoclastic preoccupations with language and thought in relation to both race and sexual categories has failed to displace concerns across mainland Europe about inter-generational poverty and the inability of economically marginalised young people to start a family, or small businesses to stay afloat.2

 The most influential of the left-wing parties in 1975, the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP), possessed traditional views on morality and the family. The challenges to authority produced by the eruption of the New Left in the 1960s were slow to acquire influence beyond those far-left parties which challenged the PCP’s ascendancy on the left. Similarly, patriotism was not repudiated.  Portugal was condemned for its colonial record, but the country was not placed in the dock as a failed entity which needed to be swallowed up in a new progressive world order. Statues commemorating the dictatorial era were removed but few, if any, of the numerous public monuments and statues commemorating the heritage of exploration and imperial conquest in Portugal fell victim to revolutionary zealots in 1974-75.  Nothing remotely like the New York Times’s 1619 Project, arguing that America’s real beginning should be considered as August 1619, (when slaves were first brought to Jamestown), instead of July 4, 1776, (when America declared its independence from Great Britain), emerged in revolutionary Portugal. 3

The PCP naturally espoused international solidarity, but it showed no enthusiasm for turning Portugal into a launching-pad for radical transformation far and wide. Its horizons did not extend beyond Portugal which it was committed to turning into a Marxist state. 

The Soviet model, involving state control of the economy and tight political regimentation was repugnant to a very large segment of the population as shown in the elections held for a constituent assembly on 25 April 1975 when the PCP and its satellite parties only managed to obtain around 16 per cent of the vote.  Well over 70 per cent of voters (on a 90 per cent turnout) clearly preferred a Western-style democracy.

But arguably, the PCP blueprint for Portugal was far less outlandish in the country then than the views of bourgeois zealots in the Anglosphere decades later who insisted on the primacy of race in society.  The emphasis on skin colour and on the need for even poorer-class whites to atone for alleged hereditary sins and make reparations for continuing injustices, proved deeply divisive in the election year of 2020 in the USA. Perhaps when controversies about the result abate, it may emerge that the incumbent Donald Trump’s ability to recover much ground in the closing months of the campaign was due to the deep unpopularity of many of the ideas being promoted by progressive activists.  Trump enjoyed unexpectedly large gains among Hispanic Americans and his support rose also among Black American men and a range of other minorities.4

Some 80 percent of Americans, in one 2020 survey, including most millennials and minorities, saw political correctness as “a problem,” not a solution for the future.  The liberal research organization ‘More in Common’ found that the ideas that made up the Woke intellectual crusade, were shared by  barely 8 percent of the adult population, less than a third of the number who identify as traditional conservatives.5 The backing for mass immigration,  environmental policies that slashed growth, and new norms in gender identity, was largely confined to well-off citizens who had moved left and were unlikely to suffer adversely from the effects of such innovations, (along with young Americans and Britons who had gone through radical academic programmes).

Yet even if the backing for a fundamental re-ordering of American life is smaller than was the desire for ‘real socialism’ in Portugal in 1975, it is unlikely that those espousing a radical new course for America will be as easily dislodged from their powerbases as happened in Portugal in 1975. A revolution which erupted spectacularly in the first half of 1975 went into reverse and had largely burnt out by the end of the same year. In retrospect, it is not hard to see why the revolution collapsed just a short time after pundits and reporters on the ground were predicting that the Iberian country was being torn from its Western moorings. 

The civil and military radicals became disorientated by the strong national endorsement for pluralist politics. A clash arose between the legitimacy of the military action ending a dictatorship and the legitimacy of what was Portugal’s first free vote in over fifty years. Few of the ruling radicals had the foresight to grasp that concessions had to be made to the widespread desire for freedoms comparable to those which existed in the democratic West if the momentum was to remain behind their radical cause. Instead, political freedoms were rationed in the aftermath of the symbolic 1975 election. When the PCP proceeded to establish a stranglehold over much of the media, this was the last straw for the Socialist Party (PS). It had emerged as the chief political adversary of what its leader Mário Soares saw as a bid to impose a fresh dictatorship. Unlike contemporary left-wing figures like Keir Starmer who had himself photographed bowing the knee as a gesture of respect to the BLM cause, Soares refused to make concessions to revolutionary sentiment. Appalled by the way the trade-union movement had been effectively placed under communist control, he quit the government in June 1975. Within weeks, anti-communist unrest was prevalent in the north and centre of Portugal.

If Álvaro Cunhal, the PCP leader, and Prime Minister Gonçalves had realised how provisional and slender their hold on the country was, perhaps their assault on power might have been more incremental. However, little effort was made to conciliate the bourgeoisie in general and property-owners. It would have been difficult to construct an alliance between the intellectual left and the entrepreneurial economy of the kind later seen in the United States by 2020.  Too many bridges had been burned especially after the seizure of the larger private firms in March 1975.  Many owners of small farms and owners of family firms became convinced that they would all lose everything unless they actively resisted. Rio Maior, a town on the fault-line between the large and now occupied estates of the south and small holdings prevalent elsewhere, exploded into violence on 13 July 1975 when outsiders arrived to try and organize land seizures. The unrest would spread to dozens of other small towns and larger centres with far-left offices being sacked. 

The in-depth research contained in Riccardo Marchi’s valuable book shows where the impetus behind the resistance came from. Authoritative locals such as businessmen, senior clergy, and farmers were to the fore. There were several underground groups based in Spain busy plotting; although the international media gave them much attention, Marchi shows that provincial elites mounted their backlash against the far-left installed in Lisbon without any serious external backing.  Their priority was a pragmatic one, simply to break the stranglehold on power in Lisbon of extremists.  They were not seeking to reverse Portugal’s withdrawal from Africa. Nor were they intent on restoring the ancien regime

Elements from the non-totalitarian left to the conservative right who would not find much to agree about in normal times, now closed ranks. By contrast, the progressive camp grew increasingly fractured. The PCP found itself assailed by a plethora of other Marxist groups, backed by middle-class youth and augmented by foreign radicals. Its Marxism was seen as deaf to the new social movements of the 1960s.  These sectarian battles drained the left of energy and were reflected in growing splits within the military. Politically uncommitted officers (the majority) began to distance themselves from the radicals.  Under far-left direction, the economy was plunging into crisis. The inexperience as administrators of junior officers soon became painfully obvious. Some publicly admitted that they could not measure up to the immense challenge of governing a post-dictatorial society which had just shed a large empire.

Such candour would have been unlikely from middle-class leftists in America nearly fifty years later acting out a revolutionary script.  Major cultural fractures in the English-speaking world of the Anglosphere had opened up space for radicals with goals that would be seen as irrational and destructive in much of the rest of the world.

But Portugal in 1975 remained a conventional society where the struggle to make an acceptable economic living was what preoccupied most people.  Few citizens wished to restore the old regime but neither did the majority think that the harshness of those former times merited imposing a collectivist economic order. Many Portuguese, while acknowledging the mistakes of the dictatorship, were able to compare the improving living standards that marked its last dozen years with the growing hardships that soon became a feature of the revolutionary months.

Mounting turmoil marked the autumn of 1975 with the country politically divided on a North-South basis. The communists suffered a grave setback when Prime Minister Gonçalves, was forced to quit by moderate left-wing officers.  As the air was filled with feverish talk of a Lisbon commune, these military pragmatists sought to avert chaos or civil war. The prospects for a restoration of order did not look promising.  Weapons were seized from military arsenals and building workers trapped the prime minister in his official residence for days.  Far-left rallies in Lisbon drew hundreds of thousands.  Foreign radicals augmented the size of these displays of revolutionary fervour.  Idealists and professional agitators projected their alienation from conventional society on Portugal. The appetite for permanent revolution was however meagre. When the moderate officers moved to end the chaos on 25 November 1975, there was no serious resistance from far-leftist officers.  Insufficient numbers wished to swap a conventional mode of existence for a Jacobin egalitarian order.  The revolution crumpled after running out of juice. Soon the emphasis was on staving off outright economic collapse and building a conventional democracy (despite the lip-service paid to revolution in the new constitution).  

Over time it would be in their own bourgeois trans-Atlantic societies rather than in the Third World or Latin Europe, that left-wing radicals found the richest prospects for spreading their influence. Opportunities for indoctrinating the young expanded as self-governing national democracies ceded vital ground to a technocratic, secretive and hierarchical American Deep State and European Union where the voices of liberal progressives could increasingly shape policy.

The resilience of conservative and pro-democratic voices in briefly revolutionary Portugal may be viewed as an obscure footnote in the march of post-1968 Western Europe towards a new progressive commonwealth shaped by equality and diversity. But nevertheless, the victory of non-revolutionaries ought to cast doubt on the ability of a vanguard class to impose its will in the Britain or North America of today.

Tight media censorship in Portugal did not prevent many citizens from quickly acquiring a negative view of the abilities and intentions of their new radical masters.  The overt alliance between major news corporations in the United States and Britain and  radical activists  has not arguably swayed  many citizens of a conventional disposition whose life experiences and preferences do not match those of journalists and social activists.  Much of the media has suffered a huge loss of trust in  recent years not least due to a readiness to embrace niche causes  and exclude debate and comment emanating from beyond the radical left.6 In both the US and Britain, it has been plagued by lower ratings than most other national institutions.7 Overt censorship and the imposition of ‘a cancel culture’ has not prevented many moderate citizens from concluding that the ideas and goals of the  ascendant radicals  are shallow and incoherent ones that undermine existing ways of life in sometimes fundamental ways.

The unbalanced and impractical objectives of the revolutionaries also swiftly became plain to perhaps most Portuguese despite having endured decades of censorship under the pre-1974 regime. In the Anglosphere of the 2020s, however much debate and access to information is rationed by major news providers, longstanding exposure to democratic norms has made many citizens recoil from the manifestos and actions emanating from revolutionary vanguard groups such as Antifa and BLM.

Proclaiming conflict between people of different skin colours to be the main fracture in society is too off-putting. Candidates who espouse such views in elections have generally not done well as contests in Britain in 2019 and the USA in 2020 arguably have shown.  Obsession with racial categories seems to be a throwback to the economic sub-division of society by Marxists which spawned endless sectarian strife with the Portuguese revolution being an apt case in point.

The 21st century explanatory framework for society’s deep-seated ills offered by cultural revolutionaries in the Anglosphere possess even less credibility than the various brands of leftist popular power on offer in mid-1970s Portugal. What today’s iconoclastic activists have in their favour is the sympathy of high-status groups in corporate and academic America (and to a not dissimilar extent in Britain). Their blueprint for a new society in which ranking, and acceptance is based on a complex set of ‘inter-sectional criteria’ based on race, gender and sexuality, offers little for most people currently living in these countries.  This offensive goes beyond stigmatising particular political beliefs and has key elements of human identity in its sights.  Accordingly, it is not just white heterosexuals requiring to atone for their privileges who are likely to feel under-valued and exposed in a revolutionary order based around competing narratives of victimhood.

The evidence of minority alienation keeping in step with the radicalism of identitarians in Anglosphere countries is far from compelling. The degree of radicalism among minority groups is far less apparent than it is among middle- or upper-middle-class activists, often drawn from comfortable backgrounds and sponsored by super-rich philanthropists. The status and wealth of elite radicals means they have a distinctly greater chance of surviving than the poorer groups they place on a pedestal if the Woke revolution succumbs to infighting and economic adversity. As Marchi’s book suggests, many everyday Portuguese reached this conclusion about the zealots shouting for ‘people’s power’. They renounced their self-appointed guardians not least because under their plans for the socialisation of the economy, there were few opportunities for most of them and their precarious living standards seemed certain to worsen.

Exponents of an experimental new order based on parading virtue and rooting out privilege, rather than delivering practical benefits across society, are usually dismissive of the material repercussions when they bother to notice them.  Repudiating scientific innovation and economic growth makes unavoidable a decline in living standards as well as a likely fall in population due to the resulting hardships.

It should not be surprising that some of the most eloquent critics of identity politics that seem destined to combine virtue and scarcity are to be found on the political left.

In November 2020, numerous French scholars, reacting to fierce criticism in parts of the establishment British and US media to President Emmanuel Macron’s tough stance against Islamist extremism, articulated such a left-wing critique. They observed that ‘the culture war now constitutes politics in general’  and complained that ‘classical socialist ideals of solidarity and internationalism have been torn asunder by the politicisation of culture and identity.’8  Soon after,  Paul Embery, a British trade-unionist and commentator, took the critique much further in a book called Despised.9 He argued that moralists, usually with little experience of material deprivation , were using  arguments riddled with sophistry about racial, sexual, and gender identity to posture and enjoy advancement in public and private institutions increasingly divorced from mainstream society. Those who articulated Woke perspectives often showed little interest in genuine emancipation or improving the world but instead were keen to separate themselves from low-status whites by adopting a range of exotic beliefs on identity politics. Guilt for oppression was now assigned to white workers who Marxists for at least 150 years had insisted were the only social group capable of   ushering in a radically more just society. As one reviewer wrote: ‘[T]hey retain their social and moral superiority by “allying” with racial and other minorities, who are in turn reduced to passive ciphers through which high-status whites write their own redemption story.’ 10

Left-wing opponents of critical theories designating personal identities as the motor of change in western society have not been slow to point out the strong support which these theories enjoy among managers in a host of public institutions and powerful private industries. It has been argued that newly influential ideas which pit ordinary citizens against one another on grounds of culture and identity are a gift for capitalists. Attention is diverted from their unedifying conduct and they can enjoy greater strength and profits due to workforces being unable to rise above internecine tensions.

Critics elsewhere on the political spectrum view the bid to enflame aesthetic differences over language and radicalise different forms of personal identities as nothing new in the wide sweep of human history.  The Woke identitarians have been compared with the Jacobins of the French revolution or else Mao’s Red Guards by the British philosopher John Gray.11  It is seen as merely the latest audacious attempt by determined revolutionaries to acquire power, status and wealth by replacing one political order with a new one whose rules they can manipulate to their own advantage. Much has been made about the wealth being accumulated by some of the most intransigent backers of a new identitarian order who command big fees while lecturing to state and private institutions on the need to break with a ‘racist’ contemporary order.12

The tussle for power between radical activists and their powerful allies, on the one hand, and perhaps a majority in the rest of society is likely to be far more prolonged than the one that Marchi chronicles in his book on Portugal.  The withering view of the white working-class espoused by Woke activists and their patronising and manipulative stance towards a range of minorities who are little more than props in a revolutionary performance, means that a backlash will be hard to avoid. Few societies readily acquiesce in surrendering reasonable living standards and levels of freedom if they have the means to mount resistance.  A range of elite institutions have enjoyed low status in the Anglosphere West for many years and their endorsement of runaway iconoclasm may give that cause initial heft but hardly massive legitimacy. 

There is no sign that national identity is falling decisively out of favour among the bulk of citizens in any of the contemporary countries  under review. The nation-state continues to be seen as a framework which offers poorer citizens some control over their fate, a prospect which seems out-of-reach in the anarchic and illiberal forms of utopian or oligarchic governance which are bound up with Woke radicals and their wealthy economic supporters. Appeals to localist sentiment and democratic patriotism ensured that the end of one dictatorship in Portugal was not replaced by another in 1975. If a similar stand is taken in unsettled Anglosphere countries, it could result in the undeclared North Atlantic Woke revolution being stopped in its tracks even with all the forces arrayed on its side.

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] https://www.spiked-online.com/2020/11/27/critical-race-theory-a-ruling-class-ideology/

[2]John Gray, ‘A cautionary tale for today’s  “woke” movement’, Unherd, 22 July 2020 https://unherd.com/2020/07/what-the-woke-movement-shares-with-communism/ ; Joseph de Weck and Niall  Ferguson, ‘European Millennials Are Not Like Their American Counterparts’, The Atlantic, 30 September 2019,https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/09/europes-young-not-so-woke/598783/ 

[3] Bret Stephens, ‘The 1619 chronicles’,  New York Times,9 October 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/09/opinion/nyt-1619-project-criticisms.html

[4] Josh Hammer, New York Post, 4 November 2020, ‘Despite ‘racist’ charges, Trump did better with minorities than any GOP candidate in 60 years’,  https://nypost.com/2020/11/04/despite-racist-charges-trump-did-better-with-minorities-than-any-gop-candidate-in-60-years/

[5]Joel Kotkin, ‘Will the cultural revolution be canceled?’, CityJournal, 11 October 2020, https://www.city-journal.org/cultural-revolution

[6] Joel Kotkin, ‘Why Trump’s America will live on’, Spiked Online, 4 December 2020

[7]Ibid.

[8] ‘Open letter: a response from the “100” French scholars’, Open Democracy, 25 November 2020, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/can-europe-make-it/open-letter-response-100-french-scholars/

[9]Paul Embery, Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class, London: Polity, 2020.

[10]Henry George, ‘Despised – a Review’, Quillette, 2 December 2020. https://quillette.com/2020/12/02/despised-a-review/

[11] John Gray, ‘It’s not an exaggeration to compare the methods used by the new “woke movement” to those of Mao’s Red Guards’, Mail on Sunday, 19 July 2020,  https://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-8537583/JOHN-GRAY-not-exaggeration-compare-methods-new-woke-movement-Maos-Red-Guards.html

[12]Charles Fain Lehman, ‘The Wages of Woke’, The Free Beacon,  25 July 2020, https://freebeacon.com/culture/the-wages-of-woke-2/ .