The Carnation Revolution as Seen from Italy
Donatella Di Cesare

The Italian philosopher Donatella Di Cesare, author, among other works, of The Time of Revolt, travelled to Portugal in 1975 to witness the ongoing revolution that had had a major impact in Italy. Almost half a century later, she now gives her account of that ‘revolutionary holiday’.

Ana Hatherly

Ana Hatherly, As ruas de Lisboa [The Streets of Lisbon], 1977 © Photo: José Manuel Costa Alves / Scala, Florence / SPA, Lisbon / Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, CAM – Centro de Arte Moderna, Lisbon


Can a revolution begin with a song? This is precisely what happened at dawn on 25 April, 1974, when Radio Renascença broadcast Grândola Vila Morena by José Afonso. It was the signal: there would be no turning back. After almost fifty years, a dictatorship, the most long-standing on the old continent, collapsed in a few hours in a coup d’état led by rebel soldiers. The streets were invaded by tanks that proceeded slowly, waiting for the green light at the crossroads, confident, strengthened by the long pause that history had taken. It looked like an orderly seizure of power, without bloodshed apart from that unnecessarily spilled by the state political police (PIDE), responsible for the only four deaths. From the loudspeakers a firm voice called for calm. ‘The Portuguese Armed Forces ask the inhabitants of Lisbon to stay in their homes. Long live free Portugal!’ But no one took heed. The streets could not contain the overflowing crowd that climbed trees, walls, and even up to first-floor balconies. Suddenly the city, awakened from a long slumber, had been hit by a wave of euphoria, an impetuous embrace, from which the military, almost intimidated, struggled to escape. They shook hands, offered thanks with a smile, lit cigarettes, and issued a few muffled orders. Amidst applause and signs of victory, red carnations were flying: the ecstatic crowd offered them to the soldiers, who in turn threw them back to the crowds, pulling them from their rifles. They were the bullets of a new revolution of the people that in a single day swept away the terror of half a century.

‘Coup d’état in Portugal. Caetano replaced by a Council of National Salvation.’ So read the headline on 26 April in the Lotta Continua newspaper. I immediately read the article with curiosity, but it was a brief and neutral account. I was struck by a singular coincidence of dates: 25 April in Italy is the anniversary of the liberation from Nazi-fascism. That year, too, the procession had made its way through the streets of Rome as far as Porta San Paolo, the symbol of the partisans’ resistance. But the tension was palpable. Those were the years of the so-called ‘strategy of tension.’ We were living in the nightmare of an imminent coup d’état hatched by the subversive right and assisted by the secret services. The left was very strong and the PCI (Partito Comunista Italiano), the largest communist party in the West, had crossed the fateful threshold to become the leading party in Italy. However, in order to govern, overcoming the obstacle of NATO in the midst of the Cold War, it was willing to enter into a ‘historic compromise’ with the Christian Democrats, a deeply ambiguous party, colluding internally with the most reactionary forces and even with neo-fascists. Like many others of my generation, I recognised myself in the extra-parliamentary left, where I preferred the Trotskyists, perhaps in part for their meticulous analysis of international events.

"For us it was not a revelation, but a confirmation. It was not just the end of a dictatorship, but the dawn of a new era."

What did we know then about Portugal? Not much, but enough to detest Caetano and the Salazar dictatorship. We felt repulsion for a colonial war that had no qualms about employing all manner of violence in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea. Perhaps also because it brought the colonialism of our fathers to the forefront. I listened almost obsessively to Luís Cília’s song A bola, which began like this: ‘rola sangrenta uma bola no chão de Angola’ (a bloody ball rolls on the ground in Angola). I was enraptured by the melancholic tune and repeated the words learned automatically, unaware of the anything but metaphorical meaning. It was only later that I realised that the ‘bola’, which the soldiers were passing around while playing football was the ‘head of a black man’. I could no longer sing it.

In early May, more accurate news came from Lisbon. The left-wing newspapers described in enthusiastic tones the large procession that had crossed the city on Labour Day, a procession made up of workers, women, soldiers, students, and ordinary citizens who, after the dictatorial darkness, testified to their desire to participate in public life. The headline in Lotta continua on 3 May was: ‘700,000 red carnations in Lisbon’. Talk about a coup d’état! Indeed, events were presented like a move by the military who, as a counterpoint to the past, in order to redeem history, were allowing an overwhelming mass revolution to take place.

This issue immediately assumed enormous prominence in the local debate and ended up dividing the Italian left irreparably. From the outset, the PCI press organs, starting with L’Unità, expressed embarrassment, never speaking of ‘revolution’ even while emphasising the popular participation and the climate of joy. In the months that followed, there was no lack of attacks on the movements of the ‘extreme left’, described as ‘adventurists’. At that time, the PCI had not only opted for historical compromise but had also devoted itself to so-called Euro-communism, which envisaged a social-democratic conversion in domestic politics and the endorsement of the Atlantic pact in foreign policy. As support for the anti-colonial struggle waned, the PCI appealed to communist parties under right-wing dictatorships for a common struggle against fascism – but there was no mention of a struggle for socialism. The use of the watered-down adjective ‘progressive’ was inaugurated at that juncture. Even the figure of Alvaro Cunhal, who enjoyed great prestige among the militant base, soon became a source of growing perplexity and reservation.