Revolution, Counterrevolution, and Democracy: Portugal (1974-75) in Comparative Perspective


  • Tiago Fernandes
    Department of Political Science and Public Policy-University Institute of Lisbon - ISCTE

Tiago Fernandes, Department of Political Science and Public Policy-University Institute of Lisbon - ISCTE
“Revolution, Counterrevolution, and Democracy: Portugal (1974-75) in Comparative Perspective”

Through a comparative analysis of the Portuguese revolution of 1974-75, we seek to understand the conditions under which social revolutions give rise to democratic regimes. Most revolutions do not originate democracies. They either fail and are overthrown by counterrevolutionary movements; or when they are successful, they give way to single party regimes. More specifically, we ask why Portugal did not suffer (1) a right-wing military coup supported by segments of the former regime's elite; and (2) the rise of a revolutionary single party regime supported by segments of the military. To answer this question, we compare the Portuguese revolutionary cycle with other similar European processes of the 20th century.

We argue that the regimes that emerged from revolutionary cycles were the product of the size and robustness of the founding revolutionary coalition. In failed revolutions, only the urban working class was a relevant revolutionary actor. The revolutionary coalition did not even exist. On the contrary, in successful revolutions, a larger number of actors participated, either acting in parallel or forming explicit alliances. Successful revolutions are thus characterized by the formation of broad social alliances, which include the urban middle classes, the urban and rural working classes, the military, and even diverse ethnic and religious groups.

Still, in revolutionary dictatorships, the emerging coalition is smaller and weaker than the founding coalition in post-revolutionary democracies. It is a coalition that is mainly the product of spontaneous peasant revolts, partially allied with revolutionary extremist parties and where the role of workers' revolts is minor. In turn, the coalitions that give birth to democracies are broader, including the urban working and middle classes and the military. The rural working class has a medium or low mobilization. And in all democratic revolutions and transitions, the military must support regime change.

Finally, we argue that the genesis of democratic revolutionary coalitions is the result of the interaction of legacies from the pre-revolutionary situation (the robustness of civil society, the existence of proto-parties, the level of professionalization and dominant ethos of the military, and the administrative capacity and repressive power of the regime) with the international context at the time of the revolutionary crisis (inexistence of far-right regional hegemonic powers and a context of pacification between the states that compete for global hegemony).