Direct vs representative democracy

Raquel Varela: A people’s history of the Portuguese Revolution. Pluto Press, 2019, pp352, £19.99.

This book is based on painstaking research. Now available in an English paperback version, it is an important contribution to the history of the workers’ struggle. It raises many questions.

For those who have forgotten, or are too young to remember, the revolution “took place … between April 25 1974 and November 1975”. It was, argues Raquel Varela, “the most profound revolution to have taken place in Europe since the Second World War” (p1). Over 19 months millions of people engaged in demonstrations, strikes, occupations, attempts to establish workers’ control and a “duality of powers”, ranging from soldiers, workers, students, women journalists, to poor farmers. Barracks, factories, newspapers, houses and the land were taken over by the people.

Written in clear, precise prose, this is a good English translation, which is easy to read. It is a brilliant piece of social history, Apart from her own assured narrative, this is meticulously supported by primary sources: eg, reports and eye-witness accounts by those who were involved. In this way she is able to bring the revolution back to life. But this means that it is not really a socialist analysis, because it is not is based on Marxist theoretical conceptions. Compare, for example, Marx’s The civil war in France (1871) or Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution (to which she defers). That said, she does raise some important theoretical questions. But this is left to just a few pages towards the end (see ‘Problems’ below).

Varela’s main aim is to celebrate the power of the oppressed masses when they decide to act together against their capitalist masters. If only the masses today could be motivated to read her People’s history, they would realise that, when they act collectively, they are not powerless. Instead, today’s worker has once again been reduced to a mere commodity (not unlike the beginning of the industrial revolution). Under the hegemony of neoliberalism, we have become a society of atomised individuals and/or fragmented by identity politics. (But neoliberalism cannot rely solely on its economic agenda: privatisation, globalisation, financialisation, etc; it also requires an “ideational dimension”.1 Both are reinforced by a ubiquitous social media.) So we are a long way from the events which Varela describes.

The revolution started with the soldiers’ rebellion against a brutal war in the colonies, which brought down the dictatorship. Remarkably, this was a bloodless coup (but, as Valera reminds us, the colonial war was anything but, with the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives). On April 25 1974, troops were sent to Rossario Square in Lisbon. They had been ordered to arrest people who had refused to “stay at home”! But many rebellious soldiers had already joined the huge crowd. People were shouting, “Death to fascism!” and “Victory’!” When a reporter asked a soldier, “What are you doing here?”, he replied, “The government sent me here, but I’m with you” (p19). The square is also famous for its flower-sellers, whose speciality is red and white carnations. Thus the revolution became known as the ‘carnation revolution’. Events quickly showed that the people ‘were no longer willing to be governed in the same way’. The door was opened to the first social revolution in Europe since the end of World War II.

Although Varela touches on the world recession, which arose from a hike in oil prices at the end of 1973, she underplays the fact that the revolution was isolated from the rest of Europe. By the same token, the working class across the continent did not come to the aid of the Portuguese workers, because they were still under the yoke of Stalinism and reformism.

Workers’ control

This question takes up a considerable part of the book. The soldiers’ rebellion against the colonial state was the signal for an explosion of spontaneous strikes over pay and conditions at home. This led to occupations of the workplace. Struggle from the ground up spread like wildfire. Varela provides a diagram which shows the evolution of the worker’s control movement:

In the absence of a revolutionary party, the development of class-consciousness was very uneven. When workplaces were occupied, this did not mean that the workers moved from the idea of self-management to workers’ control in a straight line. Many workplaces did not go beyond the former position. One report reads:

… it has become common for workers to unilaterally enforce their will on the company in questions of hours and sanitations. The workers’ commissions affirm themselves as the essential structure of workers’ organisation in the companies (p87).

Given the fact that prices for everything were rising, the main problem was having enough money to pay for everyday needs. There was no investment to keep production going. Therefore the workers’ commissions were faced with the unenviable task of making layoffs. This gave the provisional government the opportunity to intervene with the offer of nationalisation under state control. Many workers believed that this was the only way forward.

We should not forget that, at the same time, there was a growing movement in the working class suburbs against a shortage of housing and high rents. Here women were able to play an important role (as well as in the workplace). Residents’ commissions sprang up. They elected committees or “organs of local decision-making”, which began to take over control of city councils - supporting occupations and helping to solve the housing crisis for working people (p138-39).

Workers’ control was “used indiscriminately for ‘participation in management’, ‘publication of accounts’ and ‘control over production, and political organisations and unions imbued the term with a meaning in accord with their particular political strategy”. On the other hand, International Socialists leader Tony Cliff argued that “workers’ control without workers” power … is only a short step to the workers returning control to the bosses in despair”. As one worker at the Lisnave shipyard put it, “How can we [have workers’ control] if we don’t have control of the banks?” Socialism requires more than workers’ self-management. Varela provides a chart which shows the pattern of events: “crisis, decapitalisation of enterprises [running out of money], workers’ occupations, state intervention in the self-managed businesses and/or workers’ control” (pp94-96).

The Communist Party’s response to this was to define workers’ control as

a form of co-management organisation, possibly incorporating workers in all kinds of associative bodies - unions, associations, cooperatives, peasants’ leagues, residents’ commissions and others, with a view to defending the revolution and ensuring the Battle for Production - “the main battle for the working class” (p148).

This could be described as the reformist equivalent of ‘socialism in one country’; but in the modern capitalist world that is impossible.

Dual power

The struggle for dual power in Portugal was diverted by the influence of the CP. The latter was able to set up popular fronts between itself, sections of the military and with more than one provisional government (PG). One well-known writer observed that the CP was all over the place in order to be at the centre of things: “If the CP forms a leftwing front, and then three days later appeals for negotiations in which God and the Devil are included - how can we … define strategy and tactics?”

But in September 1975 left elements in the FUP (Popular Front)

transformed [it] into the … Revolutionary United Front, FUR [which] was to provide some … unification, for the increasingly beleaguered left. It produced a manifesto that defended the arming of the people’s grassroots organisations in self-defence, the right of soldiers to hold meetings, purging of … fascists, nationalisations of big industrial and agricultural organisations without compensation, placing them under workers’ control ,.. full employment, withdrawal from Nato, extinction of the Iberian Pact, support for the [People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola], dissolution of the Constituent Assembly and the constitution of a Government of Revolutionary Unity (pp208-09).

But this merely led to a plethora of popular assemblies, which held

many meetings with delegates from residents’ associations and/or soldiers from local barracks. There were 38 popular assemblies, and the attendance at these meetings … was in the hundreds. Some withered away, but many continued to meet up until the coup on November 25 1975 (p209-10).

Dual power came too late and it was fragmented, whereas it needed to be democratic, representative and centralised: ie, it should have led to something like an all-Portugal Congress of Soviets. The reason why this did not happen is clear: the main contending parties were either Stalinist or reformist (as opposed to the Russian Revolution, which had a revolutionary party in waiting). On the one hand, despite having a strong social base in the workers’ movement - via its domination of the Intersindical (ie, TUC) - the CP’s strategy was to use this as leverage in order to push for a popular-front government, wherein it hoped to play a leading role. By so doing it tried to reassure the beleaguered bourgeoisie that the revolution was safe in its hands. (Hence its main slogan was that the working class had to win “the Battle for Production”.)

On the other hand, the CP was up against the fast-rising Socialist Party, whose strategy was to steer the revolution in the direction of “democratic normalisation”. Thus, in a sort of political ‘race to the bottom’, the CP/SP competed for the leadership of one PG after another. Both were committed to the idea that reformism was all that could be achieved in a backward country like Portugal.

In other words, they limited their goal to the introduction of a modern bourgeois democracy, based on a consensus between the bourgeoisie and the workers. But there would have to be some nationalisation of key industries under the state’s control, along with the introduction of state welfare for the first time in the country’s history. Ironically the same reformist project was about to fall in the rest of Europe, because the post-war consensus between capital and labour had come to an end.


Whilst the Portuguese Revolution took place in a western European country almost 50 years later, there are still lessons to be learned from October revolution in Russia. The first question that has to be asked is: what is the relationship between workers’ control and dual power? If we follow the ‘October model’, then the correct strategy is that the struggle for dual power (which presupposes the existence of a revolutionary party) has to take precedence over the struggle for workers’ control, not vice versa. This is because the latter develops by means of direct democracy, but it is politically uneven. As for dual power, the process has to go beyond popular democracy, because it is imperative to create a centralised alternative to what Marx calls the “centralised state power”. Therefore the struggle has to turn to representative democracy as well: ie, the election of soldiers’, workers’ and peasants’ deputies to localised soviets. (Today, of course, we would have to add journalists’ deputies, residents’ deputies, etc.) Local soviets would then elect delegates to provincial ones, on up to a national Congress of Soviets, wherein the communists have to defeat the reformists politically, before the revolution can go forward.

But it should be pointed out that in 1917 delegates to the soviets represented the proletariat and its allies - not the bourgeoisie. As Isaac Deutscher says in his biography of Trotsky,

the owners of the factories had been … dispossessed. Just as in the barracks the elective soldiers’ committees had deprived the commissioned officers of all authority, ... so in the factories and mines the elected works committees had appropriated the rights of owners and managers ... The duality of power which, from February to October, ran through Russia’s system of government [including the soviets] ran also through Russian industry, even after October.

Without this, there would only be “a mixture of anarchy and socialism … in part naturally, in part because of prevalent chaos, [which] tended to destroy the national coherence of industry, without which there could be no evolution towards socialism”.2

A workers’ state is necessary to defend the socialist revolution from the counterrevolution which inevitably follows. Unless the latter is defeated, there can be no socialist transformation of society, as a prerequisite for communism. At the same time, the bourgeois division of labour also has to be consciously dismantled, so that ultimately intellectual and practical labour become one, along with the abolition of classes. At this point the state withers away.

The reality of the October revolution was quite different: Firstly, given the imperialist threat to Russia (from all sides), the socialist revolution in Russia had to be brought forward, in the hopes that this would trigger the German revolution. But that did not happen. Secondly, the imperialist counterrevolution started immediately: ie, before the Bolsheviks could begin to implement their promise of “Peace, bread and land”, let alone move towards “socialist construction”, as Lenin put it.

In a recent article Nick Rogers points out that, for Marx, the socialist revolution must, in order to succeed, move straight to “the organisation of communist society”. The “first phase” will involve the “allocat[ion] of resources for social requirements before producing for consumption; distributing consumer goods according to the quantity of work producers have undertaken”. By contrast, “socialism - as defined by Lenin in The state and revolution - retained a state, [therefore] it is legitimate to classify the state sector of the economy as socialist”.3

But, given the harsh reality of the new situation in Russia, it was not possible to begin the transition to socialism/communism, be that Lenin’s or Marx’s version. As Rogers points out, immediately after October, there was an “explosion of popular democracy in soviets, factory committees and all aspects of society”. But this was nullified by the start of the civil war, which required harsh measures, such as war communism and the militarisation of labour. The working class was vastly outnumbered by the peasantry, which eventually turned against it. Meanwhile the party degenerated into bureaucratic centralism, which laid the foundations for the “Stalinisation of Soviet society”.

So far Marx’s theory of how the social revolution will unfold has yet to be tested under optimum conditions: eg, in an advanced capitalist society. When we consider the tragedy of October, all of these things must be taken into account. It is too easy to blame representative democracy (even if it is in the hands of the proletariat and its allies). In the 20th-21st century, this should not be used as a reason to promote the alternative: the idea that an ‘explosion of popular democracy’ is a sufficient basis for the revolution. In 1974-75 the Portuguese people were not prepared to begin the organisation of communist society.


The main problem with Varela’s approach is that it is not rooted in “the philosophical, historical and economic theories” worked out by Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky.

Chapter 19 is the analytical heart of her book. But this is based on two major errors. Firstly, she espouses a form of historiography which prioritises primary sources over a theoretical approach. Secondly, she places too much emphasis on people power or spontaneism. Therefore she establishes a false dichotomy between ‘direct democracy’ and ‘representative democracy’. Apropos the former, she means strike committees, workers’ and housing commissions, etc, whilst the latter is linked to the constituent assembly that emerged in April 1975: ie, as part of the bourgeoisie’s attempt to wrest back control. In a parody of Churchill, Varela writes: “Never in Portugal did so many people decide so much as in those days of the revolution. It was the most dramatic period of our history …” (p257). But, according to her, when the movement turned away from direct democracy to ‘representative democracy’, this marked the beginning of the end for the revolution.

What method should a Marxist use to write history? Should he/she rely solely on researching primary material (what was said or written at the time) or should this be based on a theoretical approach? Varela starts by referring to a point which Trotsky once made: the difficulty for Marxists is the fact that

changes in the consciousness of the masses in the epoch of revolution are quite evident. The oppressed classes make history in the factories ... They do not, however, have a chance to put down what they do in writing. (pp249-51).

Next she turns to Eric Hobsbawm (an unlikely bedfellow), who insists that history must be written “from the ground up”. On this basis, she argues:

We need to comprehend the Portuguese Revolution from the perspective of researching the social history of the labour movement: in the words of Chris Harman [who was an IS leader], “this is to study the backbone of the skeleton” (p250).

Varela is suspicious of the “theoretical influence”, because of the fact that many modern historians have succumbed to “revisionist ideological pressures”. Of course, she is right to reject the concept-based theories of those Portuguese historians who describe the 1974 revolution as “the period of transition to democracy” (pp269, 261). But the theoretical approach also includes the work of the Marxist historian, who relies on concepts based on dialectical materialism, as well as “researching primary material”.

A few pages later, Varela returns to Trotsky and his history of the Russian Revolution. She states that for Trotsky, there are three elements to a revolutionary situation:

1. The emergence of millions of mobilised workers.

2. They are able to win sections of the middle class to their cause, because the latter finds itself squeezed between the two warring classes.

3. At the same time, a revolutionary party has to be in place. Its role is to educate the masses, as well as organise them in struggle. But the party is also educated by the masses, since they were the first to create soviets or workers’ councils.

Varela goes on to describe the February revolution in Russia as a “political revolution”. The “February phase” involved massive changes in the superstructure of the state, in order to consolidate the nascent bourgeoisie as the new ruling class (but its links with imperialism made this impossible). On the other hand, the proletariat went on to overthrow the capitalist class, making it the first successful “social revolution” in modern times. Varela calls this the “October phase”. She adds that most revolutions in the 20th century were political revolutions: ie, they did not go beyond the “February phase” (p263).

In the case of the Portuguese Revolution, the first two elements in Trotsky’s definition of a revolutionary situation were in place, but not the third. In terms of its development, the revolution moved from the “February phase” to the “October phase”; but then it was defeated - or betrayed - before it could go on to become a “social revolution”; because there was no revolutionary party to lead it; there was only a counterrevolutionary Stalinist party, the CP, which competed for the leadership of the masses with the SP.

Turning to the November 25 coup, she states: “... the revolution was defeated. The only struggle with national power … did not resist: namely the [CP-dominated] Intersindical” (p253). But this contradicts her previous claim - “that it doesn’t matter whether the struggle is more controlled by the CP or SP”, etc. As history shows, there are serious consequences for any proletarian revolution when the leadership of the masses betrays their aspirations. She is right to argue that the coup “had deep roots within the MFA” (Armed Forces Movement, made up of military officers who opposed the far-right Estado Novo regime). But you cannot absolve the CP, as the leading party of the working class, because it refused to fight for a revolutionary strategy. It is not enough to argue that “the counterrevolution, like the revolution, was a process” (p255).


For Varela, popular democracy was demonstrated when a “disoriented, disruptive mass” evolved into “basic structures”, such as commissions, associations, parties and trade unions: ie, revolt from below. She cites the example of the CTT telegraph strike in 1974, which paralysed the country. It brought together 35,000 workers, who were opposed by the communist-led union. As a result, it was divided and defeated by police intervention. Once again she is right to argue that this was a spontaneous example of “citizen’s power”, which challenged the hierarchal bourgeois division of labour in the workplace, “dragging down the production mechanisms of the capitalist mode of production” (p258). But before it could become conscious of its own power, the movement was sabotaged by the Stalinist leadership.

Turning to the elections for the constituent assembly (CA) in April 1975, once again Varela uses this to criticise the idea of representative democracy - because she confuses the bourgeois version of representative democracy with that of the revolutionary proletariat. The real problem of the Portuguese revolution was the fact that, in the absence of a revolutionary party, there was no leadership able to fight within the CA for the working class’s own organs of dual power, based on the representative principle - which can then become the epicentre of the struggle between revolutionaries and reformists (cf the Russian soviets). If the CP had pursued a revolutionary strategy - ie, the need to raise the consciousness of the masses - via its party press, meetings in workplaces and the communities, Marxist study groups, etc, then the elected representatives to the CA would have been able to expose it in the interests of the masses. At the same time, communist elements would be fighting to turn the organs of dual power into the basis of a workers’ state. So Varela begs the question when she says: “On the other hand, there are those who argue for representative democracy”, but “the militants had not been schooled in the fight against the reformists on day-to-day issues”. Therefore the capitalists were able to “attract and absorb sections of the working class” (p258).

Popular democracy in and of itself is insufficient. A conscious effort must be made to overcome the bourgeois division of labour, both before, during and after the revolution. As Marx points out In The civil war in France (1871), “For a social revolution to take place”, the “centralised state power” must be overthrown: ie, “the standing army, police, bureaucracy, clergy and judiciary”, all of which are “organs wrought after the plan of a systematic and hierarchic division of labour”, which has its origins in “absolute monarchy” and the “nascent middle class …”4 (my emphasis).

The capitalist class makes full use of the division of labour, which it has inherited from the previous epoch. This is based on the separation of intellectual from practical labour. But in order to increase the accumulation of capital it has to increase the division of labour. Lenin tries to tackle this fragmentation in his book What is to be done? (1903) via the idea of the vanguard party - as a necessary material mediation of the problem. In the first instance, revolutionary consciousness has to be brought to the workers “from the outside”, because the working class cannot go beyond “trade union consciousness”. (Of course, things had moved on a little bit in Portugal, circa 1974-75, wherein the masses spontaneously created a variety of grassroots organisations, not just in the workplace, but in the neighbourhoods, etc.)

The teaching of socialism … grew out of the philosophical, historical and economic theories that were worked out by the educated representatives of the propertied classes - the intelligentsia. The founders of modern scientific socialism, Marx and Engels, themselves belonged [to this social class].5

Of course, this idea of bringing consciousness to the masses “from the outside” is condemned by many as ‘elitist’: ie, it favours the intelligentsia at the expense of the workers. But this shows contempt for the latter. Rather, in the course of the struggle, the revolutionary party has an obligation to break down the division of labour by educating its members - and its periphery - in Marxism, etc, so that the latter can become advanced workers, able to lead and educate others as well. In a post-revolutionary situation, this is replicated within society at large; then the socialist revolution has a better chance of success.

What sort?

According to Varela, the Portuguese Revolution did evolve towards the “October phase”, because the lower ranks of the armed forces initiated and supported the revolution; there was a struggle in the workplaces and neighbourhoods for workers’/residents’ control; popular radicalisation was deep; for almost a year the state was not in control; there was no stability (p263).

But gradually the revolution regressed back to the “February phase”. For her, the fault lies with representative democracy: “It is conceptually more accurate to consider that direct democracy is the daughter of the revolution and representative democracy is the daughter of counterrevolution” (p264). She links this dichotomy to the “historical” - as opposed to the “ideological” - view of revolutions; despite the fact that a social history of the revolution, which bases itself on researching the records, tends to “omit or devalue the existence of the duality of powers”. By contrast the latter tends to emphasise “ideological pressures in a country” which has “not yet settled accounts … with its past”. Therefore it is more difficult to ‘make history.’ She cites the American political scientist, Charles Tilly, who emphasises the duality of powers, whereas Perry Anderson of the New Left Review emphasises the speed of social transformation. The old state apparatus must be broken down and a new one erected in its place: “In the process of transition to socialism, this new state, in order to be ‘truly transitional’, must implement its own dissolution.” But she does not go into this. Instead she quotes Eric Hobsbawm, who stresses the need for the “presence of popular mobilisations” (p264).

By the time the Sixth PG was formed in late 1975, sections of the bourgeoisie were sufficiently united to lead the state in a coup against grassroots democracy. But there was no centralised “duality of powers” to stop it. The CP and its Intersindical was not prepared to take on the state. Finally Varela admits that there was “no equivalent of the Bolsheviks and no equivalent of the soviet system”. November 25 “marked the beginning of the end of the revolution”. The “ideological strength of the victors” enabled them to carry through their project of “democratic normalisation” (p265).


Varela calls her last chapter, ‘In celebration’. She offers six reasons for this:

1. This was a bloodless revolution.

2. It was a proletarian revolution.

3. The banks and some large companies remain nationalised without compensation. (But I am sure that today they are not being run in the interests of the people.)

4. For the first time in decades, the question of workers’ control was raised. (But how does it fit in with the strategy that leads to dual power? How should this be organised, including the need to raise the consciousness of the masses? To argue that “representative democracy had to defeat grassroots democracy” is too simplistic.) (p269).

5. The revolution “delayed the implementation of neoliberalism for nearly a decade”. (But what is the situation now?)

6. This was “a revolution of the metropolis” (cf the colonial revolution) “without deaths”, of “hope”. It allowed people to feel genuinely happy. Photographs from the period show that people were always smiling (p270).

Of course, this has to be celebrated, but the tragedy is that their hopes for freedom were not fulfilled. Meanwhile there are still lessons to be learned from the collected works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky.

Rex Dunn


1. V Fouskas, ‘Neoliberalism and ordoliberalism’ Critique Vol 46, No3, August 2018.

2. I Deutscher The prophet armed: Trotsky 1879-1921 London 2003, p261.

3. N Rogers, ‘Marx’s vision’ Weekly Worker August 8 2019.

4. K Marx, ‘From The civil war in France’, in E Kamenka (ed) The portable Karl Marx London 1983, p509. But there is a problem with Marx’s account: It was written in London during the last days of the Commune and he was ignorant of actual events. There are several versions. He also exhibited a tendency to ascribe to the Parisian working class “the full consciousness of their historic mission”, beginning each sentence with: “The working class knows …” But they did get rid of the standing army. To what extent did the middle class party, the Union Républicaine, determine the programme of the Commune: eg, the abolition of the church’s control over education?

5. VI Lenin What is to be done? Oxford 1963, p80.