The socialist “king” of Portugal

Fred Halliday
28 April 2005

The life of Mario Soares, “Dom Mario” as he is universally known, embodies the history of the European as well as the Portuguese 20th-century left. His career – as student dissident, exiled organiser, national politician, foreign minister, prime minister, president (1986-96), and now head of a Lisbon research foundation that bears his name – has made him, at 80, Portugal’s most respected politician.

But behind the deceptive smoothness of this political trajectory is a more complex, embattled story of the people of a marginal, poor, largely rural yet also colonial society, ruled by traditional elites, seeking political mechanisms and leaders capable of negotiating their transition to modernity.

Portugal has been a republic since the revolution of 1910, one of the string of upheavals in semi-peripheral states – from China, Turkey and Persia, to Russia and Mexico – that presaged and in some degree provoked the first world war. But it was a much later convulsion, the “carnation revolution” that toppled the fascist state in 1974, that created a political formation capable of leading Portugal towards new relationships with Europe, the post-empire, the United States, and globalisation. No single figure has either represented or helped to shape this political path more than the “uncrowned monarch” of this country of 11 million people: Mario Soares.

The Portuguese storm

In a lengthy Lisbon conversation, Soares – while revealing loyalty to some ideas from his radical Portuguese past, like anti-clericalism – reiterates the four great themes that animate his mature political intelligence:

  • the critique of United States power, in particular in Palestine and Iraq, and of the American the abandonment of commitment to international law and institutions
  • the need for a strong, federal, Europe to play an independent role in the world
  • alarm at the spread of uncontrolled global problems
  • defence of the social and political advances made by the European socialist movement in recent decades.

Soares was denounced in the 1970s by the Portuguese far left as an agent of US imperialism, yet he is today a tireless critic of the US role in the middle east, of neo-liberal globalisation, of the short-sightedness of contemporary European Union rulers, and of the banal and visionless mentality of political elites across the western world.

He has, if anything, become more radical in his post-presidency years: as a prominent voice at the Porto Alegre summits of the World Social Forum, and a severe critic of establishment policies on issues like human trafficking, the drugs trade, and global epidemics. Yet he retains a resolute optimism: he takes care to point out that he was a socialist rather than a social democrat, opposed alike to violence, the Soviet behemoth, and contemporary capitalism.

Under the Salazar dictatorship that had seized power in 1926, Soares – like his father, a minister in the democratic years – was imprisoned and exiled. His membership of the Communist Party (from 1944-50) was impelled by anger at the indulgence shown by western democracies to Franco and Salazar, and the party’s role as the sole organisation actively opposing Portugal’s dictatorship.

In breaking with the party over disgust at its lies, he began a second education in the work of Arthur Koestler, Hannah Arendt, and George Orwell, and to denounce the fascist state to western European and American audiences. As the colonial wars in Portugal’s African territories (Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau) began to wear down the regime, he helped refound the historic but defunct Socialist Party in 1972.

When the unexpected, exhilarating revolution of 25 April 1974 took place – a popular uprising sparked by the refusal of military personnel to accept transfer to colonial theatres of war – Soares was in Germany. In the absence of air links, he travelled through Spain by train and was amazed to be greeted at the first railway station, Vilar Formoso, by a banner-waving crowd – and a request from the local troops’ commanding officer for instructions.

Eighteen months of political drama in Lisbon followed, including attempted coups from right and left: by General Spinola, the conservative president after April 1974, and by the communists and elements of the far left with support in the military. These culminated in the events of November 1975 when the far left coup led by Otelo de Carvalho collapsed. It was the end of the dream of a “workers’ and peasants’ Portugal”, a collectivist outpost in Europe’s deep south; it was also the start of the long march of the Portuguese socialists to power.

Soares is scathing about the veteran communist leader Alvaro Cunhal’s romantic Bolshevik vision of the prospect of an armed seizure of power. Cunhal once gave the game away to the Italian interviewer Oriana Fallaci, saying that parliamentary democracy would never establish itself in Portugal. But in the April 1975 elections, the socialists won 37% of the vote, the communists only 12%.

Soares is equally scornful of another personage he met at that time, the US secretary of state Henry Kissinger. Kissinger told him that Portugal was lost to the communists, and that Soares was, in effect, “the Portuguese Kerensky” – an interim leader shortly to be swept away in the red tide. Unlike Kissinger, who appears to have learnt nothing from his years in power, Soares insists that the events of those years altered and shaped his thinking.

From Iberia to the world

In retrospect, the Portuguese revolution of 1974-1975 was not – as it seemed to many at the time – an insurrectionary moment of workers, landless peasants and radical soldiers that promised the first socialist revolution in western Europe, but the convulsive, late incubation of Portugal’s membership of the modern democratic world. The process involved the abandonment of African empire, the gradual evolution of new institutions and political parties, and (in 1986, alongside Spain) entry to the European Union.

The drama of the crucial months between April 1974 and November 1975 – with their military posturing, land seizures, and theatrical politics (among the Maoist youth leaders of the period was José Manuel Barroso, now president of the European Commission) – are unforgettable; but their deeper meaning is that Portugal was (like Spain and Greece) experiencing a form of “catching-up revolution” which was to be experienced, fifteen years later, by the Soviet bloc countries of east-central Europe.

In this light, the key to understanding Mario Soares is historical context: he is one of the last survivors of a generation of European socialists who fought and in the end overcame the fascist epoch that dominated so much of the continent in the 20th century. The anger he felt at American, and European, acceptance of Franco and Salazar after the second world war has never entirely left him.

Most of those whose opposition to communism made them high-profile figures have lapsed into silence, eccentricity, or collusion with power: Lech Walesa, Natan Sharansky, and Vaclav Havel among them. But it is noteworthy that those who lived through and fought fascism – in central Europe and Italy until the 1940s, or in the Iberian peninsula until the 1970s – have retained a resolute commitment to democratic and secular values, and to a critique of capitalist globalisation. These include politicians like the late Willy Brandt, philosophers like Jűrgen Habermas and the late Norberto Bobbio, writers like Jorge Semprun – and Mario Soares himself.

After years of rule under governments of the right, Portugal’s people elected a socialist government led by José Socrates in February 2005. Soares hails with excitement the rare coincidence that Spain and Portugal, isolated for decades from the centre of European politics, both now have centre-left governments. Will José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and José Socrates together remake their countries and region, and in the process revive and sustain the steady but radical values that Mario Soares has long embodied?

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