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A return to the spirit of 1974?

Are we seeing an anti-colonialist resurgence like that in the wake of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution, asks PAWEL WARGAN

ON APRIL 24 1974, the people of Portugal overthrew the fascist dictatorship of the Estado Novo after nearly five decades of brutal rule. Textile workers, engineers, women’s movements and landless peasants joined hands with the increasingly exasperated soldiers of Portugal’s colonial army. They took to the streets in droves. Passersby put red flowers in the barrels of the soldiers’ guns, christening the uprising the Carnation Revolution.

A few days later, on May 1 1974, the nations of the South mounted a collective offensive against the neocolonial economic system. At the United Nations general assembly, they proposed the New International Economic Order (NIEO), an ambitious vision that sought to translate the gains of political decolonisation into a new economic compact made in the image of the South.

The story of the Carnation Revolution — like that of the NIEO — was one of Southern protagonism in an international system long characterised by Northern domination. Both moments were forged in the convergence of two historical processes that shaped the course of the 20th century. 

The first was expressed in the great revolutions towards communism. From Petrograd to Yan’an to the Sierra Maestra, workers and peasants seized state power in projects that would give momentum to the rising anti-colonial movement — helping fill the hard shell of the colonial international system with the yearnings of its victims. 

The second process was situated in the struggles for national liberation from colonial rule. Often forced into armed confrontation — and backed ideologically and materially by the socialist bloc — these struggles unleashed a wave of political liberation that would converge in new collective projects of the South. From Bandung to the Non-Aligned Movement, these institutions sought to become the fulcrum of power in a new, post-colonial international order.  

The North organised, too. Under the leadership of fascist dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, Portugal became a founding member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) in 1949. It would deploy Nato’s collective arsenal to subdue and oppress the peoples living under its colonial boot. 

Weapons from across the consolidated imperialist bloc flooded the African continent, laying siege to its liberation movements. Observing this violence, Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru called Nato “the most powerful protector of colonialism” at the 1955 Bandung conference.

But Portugal’s colonies fought back. With support from the revolutionary governments of Cuba, the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic and others, national liberation movements like the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique and the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola ground down their oppressor. 

By gradually constricting the arteries of colonial plunder on which Portugal depended, their resistance set the fascist-colonial regime on the road towards collapse. The Carnation Revolution, then, did not begin in Europe. It was brought to Europe by the peoples of Angola, Cabo Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, and Sao Tome and Principe.

The Carnation Revolution came close to establishing the first socialist society in western Europe. But it would soon be disarmed by the political manoeuvres of the United States, which could not tolerate an anti-imperialist force within its domain. The NIEO sought to revise the contours of the capitalist system without calling its essence into question. It lacked a coherent project that would take the place of the moribund liberal order, and Henry Kissinger promised to “pull its teeth and divide these countries up.”

For decades, the NIEO and the Carnation Revolution were forgotten. With the fall of the Soviet Union, their stories were buried beneath the triumphalism of a victorious imperial counter-revolution. But the historical engines that powered them are reactivating.

The struggle for national liberation — expressed today most keenly in the Palestinian resistance to zionist colonialism — is uniting and radicalising movements across the imperial metropoles. The lessons of the Carnation Revolution will not be lost on those following the shocking violence of the US police against students calling for an end to the US-Israeli genocide in Palestine. The revolution of the South is once again bringing the rebellion to the North. 

And, amid new challenges to the architecture of the international system — a system that is long past its due date — bold ideas are once again invigorating the project of South-South co-operation. On April 29-30, in an event co-convened by the Progressive International and the government of Cuba, officials, diplomats, and scholars from Algeria, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Honduras, South Africa and elsewhere convened in Havana’s capitol to develop a plan to renew the NIEO for the 21st century.

This feels like 1974. But the stakes are greater today. The exploitative system of imperialist globalisation has ossified and deepened, entrenching unequal exchange in the international economy. The impacts of climate breakdown are already decimating societies. The genocide in Gaza and the cruel six-decade blockade of Cuba — violence different in form but identical in intent — demonstrate that imperialism is prepared to use any means to extinguish defiance to its diktats. As Colombian President Gustavo Petro said, Gaza is a warning — “a lesson to all of humanity.”  

We cannot afford to repeat the defeats of the past. The lessons of 1974 demand that our political horizon be more expansive: that we absorb the radicalism of Southern resistance into the revolution of the North, and that we let the demands of the South become our vision for a world beyond imperialist hegemony. Israel is the vanguard of the imperialist order — unapologetically armed and shielded by its backers just like Portugal was half a century ago. We, too, must be unapologetic in our defence and solidarity with the oppressed, not only in their suffering, but also in their defiance. Nothing else lives up to the tasks defined by our reality. 


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