On this day in 1974 a mutiny in the Portuguese army put an end to the country’s dictatorship. The revolution which followed brought down an empire and showed how working people could take control of society.

Demonstration in Porto, 1983 (Credit: Henrique Matos)

On April 25, 1974, soldiers from the dissident Armed Forces Movement (MFA) removed dictator Marcelo Caetano, demanding that Portugal abandon its failed colonial wars in Africa. A regime dating back to the age of Mussolini and Hitler had finally met its end, along with Europe’s last old-style empire.

The revolt within the army was the immediate trigger for the regime’s downfall, and the images of joyous citizens handing carnations to troops would come to symbolise the birth of Portuguese democracy itself. Yet the Carnation Revolution that continued until November 1975 was more than just a coup d’état, or even a transition to a new parliamentary order.

Rather, the breaking of the old regime opened the way to a far wider questioning of how society was to be run. With the organs of dictatorship immediately swept away, new organs of mass democracy flowered, involving millions of people. Workers imposed their control over their workplaces and residents’ councils took control of the problems of everyday life.

This democracy — not a vote every few years, but a continuous and direct popular power — showed how working people could run a modern economy. It imposed the right to a job, a rent freeze that lasted almost forty years later, and free public services. Yet ultimately the mass mobilisation withered, and Portugal became more like other liberal-democratic European countries.

On the anniversary of the revolution, David Broder speaks to historian Raquel Varela about its legacy, the role of dissident soldiers in splitting the old state, the lasting changes it managed to impose, and what this experience tells us about what socialist transformation would mean today.

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