Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The Dictator Who Refused to Die

by tom gallagher
hurst, 360 pages, $34.95

The sinister character ­Salazar Slytherin, of Harry Potter fame, was named after Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, prime minister of Portugal from 1932 to 1968, whom J. K. Rowling had learned to revile during her two years living in Porto in the early nineties. By contrast, the American diplomat Dean Acheson considered Salazar the closest thing the twentieth century had to a philosopher-king. “A libertarian may properly disapprove of Dr. Salazar,” Acheson wrote, “but I doubt whether Plato would.”

Which view is correct? It has been hard for English-speakers to come to an informed conclusion, due to the scarcity of books about the man. Now at last comes a scholarly ­biography of enticing readability from Tom ­Gallagher, professor emeritus of politics at the University of Bradford. ­Gallagher portrays Salazar as a dictator but not a fascist, a Catholic but not a theocrat, a man who possessed all the virtues of a gentleman and almost, but not quite, all those of a statesman.

Salazar was an economics professor who might have lived out many quiet years on the faculty of the University of Coimbra had he not been drafted to run the finance ministry under the military dictatorship that came to power in Portugal in 1926. The budget was then in such a dire state that if Salazar had not been able to set it right, the government would have been forced to go abroad for a loan, which likely would have involved granting a foreign commission control over the national budget. With the country’s sovereignty at stake and economic expertise thin among the generals of the junta, Salazar found himself the indispensable man.

The First Portuguese Republic, which the military coup d’état had overthrown, was an unhappy interlude. In the sixteen years following the abolition of the monarchy in 1910, no fewer than forty-four ministries came and went. The Catholic Church was persecuted, with local politicians banning public processions and the ringing of church bells. Clergy were forbidden to teach in schools and offered government jobs in exchange for renouncing their vows. Streets named after saints and kings were renamed for famous freethinkers. Christmas became the “Day of the Family.” Priests were murdered, convents burned, the Marian chapel at Fátima bombed by terrorists.

Salazar put a stop to the anti-­Catholic harassment. Nevertheless, as Gallagher points out, he did not restore the Church to its former privileges. Civil marriage was preserved, with divorce prohibited only for those who had married in the Church. Religious education was compulsory in schools, but Catholicism was not recognized as the official state religion, nor did the government pay priests’ salaries as it did in Franco’s Spain. The long-serving cardinal patriarch of Lisbon, Manuel Gonçalves Cerejeira, had been a friend of Salazar’s since their college days. This relationship gave the hierarchy a voice in the regime’s counsels, but it also gave Salazar the confidence to part ways with the Church, knowing that his old friend would smooth things over with the faithful.

If Salazar did not run an explicitly Catholic regime, neither did he make a substitute religion of any secular ideology. This, for Gallagher, is proof that Salazar was no fascist. His contemporaries in Germany and Italy wanted to politicize every aspect of life; Salazar wanted the opposite. They shared a disillusionment with parliamentary government—as who would not, after the First Portuguese Republic—but little else. A visitor from Mussolini’s Italy marveled that Salazar made no effort to have the ordinary Portuguese “participate in the life of the state.”

Partly this was a matter of principle for Salazar, who distrusted the passions of crowds. “These good people who cheer me one day, moved by the excitement of the occasion, may rise in rebellion the next day for equally passing reason,” he told a deputy. Partly it was his personality. He abhorred ceremonial occasions, “running to inaugurate things, et cetera,” and preferred to work behind the scenes in solitude. He never married.

It would have been difficult for Salazar to whip up a mass movement even if he had wanted to, considering that, when he came to power, two-thirds of the Portuguese were illiterate. (For comparison, Spain at the time had a male literacy rate above 80 percent.) Portugal was, in many ways, the most primitive country in Europe. The partisan politics that had doomed the First Republic were confined to the urban minority. In rural areas, where most Portuguese still lived, it would have been hard to find someone who could read a newspaper. If fascism is a distinctively modern pathology, Portugal lacked the preconditions for it.

Salazar sought to govern this land of pious peasants by the philosophy of corporatism, a school of thought derived from the teachings of Thomas Aquinas and the social encyclicals of Leo XIII. It holds that rights belong primarily to groups, not individuals, and that society’s classes should strive to be in harmony, not competition or conflict as in capitalism. In practice, this took the political form of an upper house made up of representatives of various community groups, localities, and professions. (There was, for example, a representative of the fine arts and one of fisheries.) The government sponsored official trade unions and employer associations, which met periodically to negotiate salaries, ­prices, and working conditions.

This cooperative system was backed by the coercive power of the International Police for Defense of the State (PIDE), Salazar’s secret police. An estimated twenty thousand civilian informers kept tabs on potential anti-regime activity, from communist bomb plots to unlicensed union organizing. Still, by the standards of the twentieth century, PIDE was not among Europe’s most fearsome secret police. It was not competent enough to be. One American diplomat recalled his consulate once mistakenly receiving a bill from local officials for a “linha de escuta”—a phone tap. “You can’t run a thorough-going fascist state if you are that inefficient,” he reflected.

For improving the quality of life of the ordinary Portuguese, corporatism worked. Per capita income doubled in the decade after 1953. The literacy rate, long Portugal’s shame, rose to 85 percent by 1970. The road between Lisbon and Porto was still a humble, two-lane highway, but Salazar was willing to tolerate a little backwardness. He could have permitted more foreign investment, but he sacrificed a modest amount of economic efficiency in exchange for preserving his country’s independence and the dignity of the workers whose livelihoods would have been wiped out by competition from abroad.

Compare Salazar’s achievement to what his modern heirs have accomplished. When the Carnation Revolution toppled the old regime in 1974, many believed that Portugal would rapidly catch up to the rest of Western Europe. After decades of modernizing rule, Portuguese agriculture and industry still lag behind European standards. Remittances from workers abroad remain a crucial prop to the home economy. The only difference is that now Portugal is billions of dollars in debt to the European Union. The 2010 financial crisis revealed just how much independence Portugal had sacrificed, as well as how prevalent corruption remained, with the friends and relations of politicians drawing generous salaries from state-affiliated banks and utilities.

The strongest criticism of ­Salazar, which even a sympathetic biographer like ­Gallagher endorses, is that he clung for too long to Portugal’s imperial possessions. Salazar was not ashamed of his African empire. Portugal had long prided itself on being the most racially enlightened colonial power, with some justification. Native Portuguese were encouraged not only to settle in Angola and Mozambique but to intermarry with the local population to create a “new Brazil.” Public accommodations were integrated. In Lisbon, the United States promoted Foreign Service officer Clifton Wharton to be Europe’s first black consul general, precisely because the Portuguese were expected to be more welcoming of a black diplomat than other Europeans, as indeed they proved to be.

But the anticolonial rebellions that began in 1961 were too much for the regime to bear. Frustration with the seemingly endless war was a major factor behind the 1974 revolution—especially resentment of the military draft, which put one in four adult males in uniform. Salazar believed the war was winnable because he blamed it on the Soviet Union, which provided the rebels with guns and surface-to-air missiles, and the United States, which provided them with rhetorical support and covert CIA subventions. Without this outside help, the rebellions would have collapsed. Salazar did not want to turn the clock back to the nineteenth century, just to 1959, before his American ally started sponsoring violent uprisings against his country. Considering what has become of the ex-colonies since independence, Salazar’s position should not immediately be dismissed as ­reactionary.

Does the career of Salazar hold any lessons for the United States today? It would be difficult to import his brand of corporatism, since so much of his success depended on Portugal’s size. Like Lee Kuan Yew, Salazar benefited from ruling a country small enough that a single man could stay on top of the details. Portugal’s size also helped him to manage dissent. In a country no bigger than the state of Indiana, the exile of a few well-targeted dissidents could neutralize the threat of violent rebellion for a generation. An American leader would have to resort to mass suppression to achieve the same effect.

Interestingly, Gallagher claims that Western liberal democracies have already adopted their own form of corporatism. After World War II, he observes,

There was a growing tendency among ruling politicians to ensure that issues previously seen as belonging in the political arena were removed and decided “pre-politically” by NGOs, civil servants, and the European Union. Experts drawn from civil society and elsewhere became important players in their own right just as the corporative actors in Portugal had been.

Certainly, American society is more and more managed “pre-politically” by various elites—bureaucrats, tech companies, NGOs. The difference is that our corporative actors answer to no higher authority. The Portuguese had Salazar single-handedly mediating among society’s various interests. They also had a shared idea of the common good and a Catholic moral vocabulary to which competing parties could appeal. Without these external constraints, rule by elites is not corporatism but oligarchy. By presenting a balanced picture of the Salazar regime, Gallagher’s book helps us to understand the difference.

Helen Andrews is senior editor of the American Conservative.