An Original Analysis Of Salazar’s Estado Novo Regime In Portugal

By the time the corporatist authoritarian regime Estado Novo in Portugal started coalescing in the aftermath of the coup d’état of May 28th, 1928, the nation had long suffered a pronounced and precipitous state of decline. The fortunes of the 19th century were indeed quite unkind: from the loss of colonial Brazil, to the wanton destruction suffered during Napoleonic invasion, to the curtailed territorial aspirations within Africa, the entire period presented a series of unending setbacks.

Whatever hope remained at the turn of the century quickly dissipated. The monarchy, already constrained and diminished like her peers throughout the Continent, never recovered from the horrific Lisbon Regicide of February 1908 that claimed the life of King Carlos I; his unfortunate successor, King Manuel II, saw a short and tumultuous reign that ultimately ended in abdication on May 6th of 1908. The ensuing First Republic was the source of shame and scorn throughout Europe, with the sole constant its elevated frequency of coups and insurrections that meant Portuguese governments were not measured in years but months, weeks, and occasionally, even days.

Professor Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, the man who became Prime Minister in 1932 and would alter the course of the Iberian nation, developed his Estado Novo program with the clear intention of reversing national decline. A very private man who lacked the bombastic speeches and voluminous writings of his autocratic contemporaries, Salazar nonetheless provided a window into his views of statecraft from in his 1937 work, Como Se Levanta Um Estado or How to Form a State.

The translations into English from Portuguese are original work, as Como Se Levanta Um Estado is not available in English.

This short work, originally published in France, will be the focus of this essay.

A fierce critic of democracy and the factionalization it engendered, Salazar describes the chaos of the Republican years as follows:

The President of the Republic had neither power nor stability. The Parliament offered the consistent spectacle of discord, tumult, legislative incapacity and obstructionism, invariably scandalizing the country with the inferior quality of its procedures as well as its byproducts. The Ministries lacked any strong cohesion – they could not govern, even when their members wanted to. The public administration, inclusive of both the Metropolitan and the colonies, instead of representing the unitary and ameliorating action of the State, was rather the living embodiment of the general lack of cooperation, irregularity, general disorder, and, even in the best of souls, the spirit of skepticism, indifference, and pessimism. (1)

To Salazar, instability arose from the introduction of a foreign mode of governance into a region whose cultural and historical norms made it ill-suited ground for democratic experimentation:

One of the greatest errors of the 19th century was to assume that the British parliamentary system, or British democracy, constituted a regime that was adaptable to all the European peoples. This is the result: parliamentary democracy conducted every land to instability and disorder, or then transformed itself into a specie of absolute dominion of factions over the veritable nation. (2)

Given that the current American system is also characterized by many as marked by paralysis and inefficiency arising from an increasingly acerbic factionalization – one that has only become more apparent since the 2016 election – it is worth seeing what lessons arise from Salazar’s Lusitanian experiment and what applicable, lessons, if any, can be gleaned. How does Salazar’s Estado Novo regime differ from the current American governmental structure, and how do his viewpoints complement or contradict neoreactionary theory?

Key Precepts of the Estado Novo

Salazar’s approach rests on a two-pronged mode of attack – the explicit recalibration of the state’s philosophical orientation – away from fashionable, modernist ideologies and towards traditional and anti-egalitarian precepts – and the reformation of the various state branches towards a more unitary and authoritarian form governance that interestingly still saw relevance in preserving some democratic optics.

In contrast to standard neoreactionary theory, Salazar puts the emphasis not on the governmental structure but instead on core philosophical precepts: “The Portuguese constitution distinguishes itself from other ones much more from the ideological part and much less from its political construction.” (3)  Indeed, Salazar goes detail around what values are incumbent upon the citizen and should be actively promoted by national policy:

From our viewpoint, on other areas, we do not make large demands: notion of Country and national solidarity; the family – social cell for excellence; authority and hierarchy; the spiritual value of life and the respect due to the human person; the duty to work; the superiority of virtue; the sacred character of religious sentiments – these are the essentials for the mental and moral foundation of the citizen of the Estado Novo. (4)

Even more illuminating are the assorted items to which the regime stood in distinct opposition:

We are, however, against all the internationalisms, against communism, against socialism, against anarcho-syndicalism, against all that diminishes, divides or degrades the family, against class warfare, against those without a country and without God, against the slavery of work, against the purely materialist conception of life, against the notion of might as the origin of right … We are against all the great heresies of our day, as we do not know of a single place in the world were the liberty to propagate seeming heresies has been a source for good; this liberty, when it concedes to barbarous modern times, only serve to minimize the foundations of our civilization. (5)

The American experience with philosophical formalization has been mixed. The most notable failures are within the domain of states’ rights, comprising the longstanding appeals to federalism by state governments dating back to the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 that were ultimately suppressed by sheer military force in the War Between the States. Subsequent history points to two more successful examples within the auspices of government-directed egalitarianism – the efforts within the 1960s towards racial integration and the homosexual advocacy of more recent memory. The general cohesion of stated governmental pronouncements towards radical social changes arguably gave more weight to otherwise more circumscribed executive and legislative action. While the concerted involvement of elite academic and media institutions was incontestably the deciding factor in both episodes, formalized ideology, however, would be more consequential in a setting like Portugal of the ‘30s and ‘40s that lacked as powerful arbiters of public opinion. Should an American Restoration arise in a scenario where the Harvard-NYTimes axis has lost its irreplicable current influence, similarly formalized ideology would arguably be of much higher impact.

The ideological cohesion of the Estado Novo regime represented a source of strength in facing internal division. Salazar’s opposition lacked unified messaging and failed consistently in presenting credible alternatives in the national elections that will be discussed later. While this partially represented the success of some measures of repression and the resulting barriers to political organization, formal philosophical cohesion was certainly not a detriment to the efficaciousness of governmental propaganda and messaging.

Stylistically, Salazar also aimed his regime towards strict and dignified modes of interaction with the public at large:

The [regime] should not only be profound in its objectives, but also its processes. With this, I mean two items: sincerity and gravity … no political regime that employs lies as a method of governance or limits conventional truth, can have credibility on the popular level … We elaborate: the lack of seriousness in the public life is at the root of more than one political movement … Believe me, the masses have profound intuitions. They know how to distinguish who possesses the concept of seriousness and who does not possess it by any means. (6)

The current progressive political construct the West provides a clear test to Salazar’s first point.  Can a ruling regime built on a myriad of falsehoods – such as labeling biological realities as social constructs – really stand the testament of time? If Salazar is correct, calm and steadfast commitment to timeless and inconvenient truths should be a long-term winner for the project of Restoration.

The second observation is particularly salient in the current year’s political climate. While a reliance on the more ubiquitous tactic of trolling and more esoteric approaches such as “meme magic” were a forced necessity in the repressive, progressive controlled political discourse surrounding the last presidential election, Salazar would suggest that the ultimate success of an authentic political “right” would ultimately require pivoting to more serious, deliberative methods.

Structure of the State

In the wake of longstanding political instability, Salazar was keenly aware of the realities conspiring to curtail the survivability of his Estado Novo regime. To that end, Salazar sought a strong constitution that constrained political changes:

We do indeed belong to the group of countries with a strict and rigid Constitution, meaning a Constitution that cannot be modified by regular legislative power – to which, meanwhile, the Executive may confer, when deemed opportune, constitutional powers. (7)

Salazar, in this approach, both echoes and contradicts some neoreactionary precepts. His focus on a written constitution appears ill-founded when one hearkens back to De Quncey’s insight, namely that the written constitution is secondary and what really matters is who the people in power and what sort of power they wield. However, the desire for a hard-to-alter constitutional framework captures well what Henry Sumner Maine said helped account for America’s success – the structural guarantees for immutability.

The fundamental precept of Salazar’s political reorganization was, unsurprisingly, the consolidation of power within the executive branch of government:

There is no strong state where the executive power is not also strong, and its weakening is the general characteristic of those regimes dominated by individualistic liberalism or socialism, per the spirits of party and faction, and the disorders of parliamentarism. (8)

One can see key parallels between Salazar’s comments and Maine’s reading of the Federalist Papers and Constitutional Convention, where the American Founders leaned more towards the near historical notions of the rightful powers vested in a King, and less on the then more contemporary agitations towards vesting more power in Parliament. Salazar’s system makes one key distinction though versus the American system when it comes time to appointment:

The executive power, exercised by the Chief of State, with the Ministries freely selected thereupon, without depending on any parliamentary indication of approval, has as its mission the right, the obligation, and the responsibility to maintain the honor of the nation, and to guarantee the public tranquility, to respect and to make respect the laws, and to make all believe that its relation to the conservation and functioning of the Nation are indispensable. (9)

This enumerated ability to appoint heads of departments at will would have made a considerable impact on many American administrations. This is especially true of the current Trump administration, where many of the administrative positions remain vacant due to legislative obstructionism, and many other appointees are party apparatchiks to appease powerful establishment precincts that remain lukewarm to the president. Under Salazar’s system, President Donald Trump would perhaps have nationalist economists at the Treasury and civic or even ethnic nationalists in immigration enforcement capacities.

Although mentioned only in passing, the process of selecting the prime minister would ultimately prove of significant importance. The Portuguese constitution called for popular election of the president, at whose request the prime minister would ultimately serve. The election process, while described officially as “popular”, in fact relied on a highly-restricted franchise that also included various electoral limitations. This roundabout construct, a violation of formalism, would prove costly for the regime: sequentially increasing support for opposition candidates in national elections led ultimately to abolition of even the limited franchise and the establishment of an electoral college. The damage was done, however, as regime opponents were given a barometer of public support that emboldened the leftist military leaders that ultimately overthrew the regime. Finally, it is worth noting that while the president was a rubber stamp figure during Salazar’s reign, his successor as Prime Minister, Marcelo Caetano, had a contentious relationship with President Américo Tomás who in fact saw himself as having a clear role to play in setting policy.

Since Salazar saw contemporary European legislatures as the epicenter of governmental dysfunction, his stated goals for that branch were broad, designed to:

restrict the content of the law to the basic foundations of the juridical regimes, with the goal of abbreviating deliberation and making it more accessible; to grant upon the government the ability to confer laws in certain cases by simple decrees, aiming to fill the gaps in short legislative sessions, with a goal of tackling the most urgent matters and remove from the administration its indolence; in the end, to make the assembly, as much as possible have a corporatist character, composed of technocrats, whose analysis should serve as the basis for  discussion and votes for the National Assembly. (10)

Structurally, the Estado Novo aimed for real legislative bicameralism, similar to what was originally intended within the Constitution and shuttered with the 17th Amendment. Rather than integrate states’ rights and federalism, though, Salazar’s Estado Novo instead sought a balance between a contemporary electoral chamber and one based on his ideology of corporatism, itself agreeable with formalist principles. His upper house consisted of representatives of the various trades and industries, the military, the Church, and various other societally important segments. While primarily a consultative chamber during his tenure, Salazar seems to have wanted it to play a more active legislative role in the long term.

Lastly, Salazar was committed to an independent judiciary. While not entirely dissimilar to the American experience, it is worth noting that the American judiciary was by design an anti-democratic and elitist institution – much to the chagrin of traditionalists and other conservatives living under the judicial activism of the Warren and Burger courts.

Undeveloped themes

What is oddest about Salazar’s work are the items that received minimal elaboration. While Salazar goes into extended detail on some key themes, it becomes clear that there are highly critical areas where much work still remained to be done. The two most consequential such omissions were the military and the colonies.

Salazar’s relationship with the military was highly precarious. In a nation with a long history of military coups, the risk of insurrection was an omnipresent threat. The lengths to which Salazar undertook to maintain control were wide and varied: from entering NATO to ensure better armaments and supplies to the coup prone naval and air forces, to developing a complex internal paramilitary police force as a counterweight to the armed forces, and to even establishing rigid marriage restrictions from the officer corps. After admitting that the military “is not yet all that we hope it would be” (11) in terms of requiring still more financial resources, he showcases his tenuous footing in delivering a lengthy soliloquy rejecting the notion of military meddling:

As a man of the State, and with the conviction to serve towards the honor of the military, I always fought so that the intervention of the Armed Forces … would not be diminished, defamed, reduced to another example of a military takeover or a party-led revolution. I always maintained, against the tendencies in certain quarters, that the initial thinking of the 28th of May would not be debased … to a problem of combining various party factions, of alternating government by one faction for the government of another. Instead, that the finality would be to obtain the establishment of the political, administrative, economic, and social conditions that were capable of guaranteeing the rebirth of the Portuguese nations. (12)

Such lofty rhetoric would ultimately prove insufficient to discourage the leftist military coup that ultimately toppled Salazar’s successor.

Nothing sticks out quite as much, however, as the paucity of ideas on how to handle the Portuguese imperial holdings – the topic for which the Estado Novo was most identified with internationally both at the time and since. Salazar references the need for economic integration: “One of the fundamental principles of our economic reconstitution is that the economics of the Metropolitan and the colonies should complement one another and lead towards a unified Constitution” (13). He later on mentions that this economic union is just an extension of the political one:

Angola, Mozambique or India are under the sole authority of the State, exactly as Minho or Beria. We are one juridical and political entity, and for the trade of primary goods, foodstuffs and manufactured good, between the distinct parts of this whole, all desiring to contribute towards an economic union that is as much as possible perfect and complete. (14)

With so many items to tackle at home – suppressing the communist threat, establishing fiscal rectitude, spurring economic growth – it is not surprising that the regime was ultimately caught somewhat flat-footed when the topic of the colonies burst to the fore in the 1960s. That topic is so rich for analysis that it will be left for a future post.


So, what lessons does Salazar’s work ultimately offer to contemporary aspirants of an American Restoration?

First, with small to medium modifications of the current American regime – many of which would be just reversions to governmental structure that existed at the American nation’s founding – one would have a state structure that would be relatively reactionary. Some additional changes would be required in terms of formalizing powers already assumed by the presidency overtime and removing some of the “speed bumps” created under checks and balances, such as the aforementioned point on legislative approval of executive appointments.

Second, political innovation is most useful to the extent to which it conforms to formalism. The faux democratic precepts built into the Estado Novo’s presidential election process created regime instability by giving opponents an unnecessary opening. On the other hand, the creation of a legislative body that provided representation of key functional constituencies represents a creative means of increasing the usefulness of legislative consultation for a strong executive.

Thirdly, neoreactionaries should perhaps be less quick to dismiss the benefits available from a State’s formal elaboration of political philosophy. The success of the Estado Novo regime in achieving political goals, the seeming disorganization of its non-Marxist opposition, and the relative longevity of the regime all point to some benefits to formally elaborating the philosophical priorities and enmities of the state.

Lastly, the Restoration will ultimately pay for whichever areas of policy do not receive necessary and sufficient quantities of attention, analysis, and review. The piecemeal approach to securing military cooperation, while a reality of Salazar’s political limitations, ensured that the challenge to regime power would ultimately arise from those quarters. Similarly, the lack of an official, cohesive approach to colonial management helped create the battle flag around which the ultimately victorious opposition would coalesce. Those who, like Salazar, aim to arrest national decline and re-establish order, should ensure that all the hard work has already been completed in meticulously reviewing the full totality of public policy.

The Estado Novo’s efforts in colonial Africa and its wider implications in the Cold War will be the subject of the next investigation of the Salazar regime.

[1] António Oliveira Salazar, Como Se Levanta Um Estado (Lisbon: Mobilis in Mobile, 1991) 21.

[2] Ibid. 50.

[3] Ibid. 49.

[4] Ibid. 47.

[5] Ibid. 47.

[6] Ibid. 27-28.

[7] Ibid. 48.

[8] Ibid. 56.

[9] Ibid. 57.

[10] Ibid. 66.

[11] Ibid. 73.

[12] Ibid. 74.

[13] Ibid. 38.

[14] Ibid. 76.

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  1. Incredibly interesting, and indeed an under-examined topic. Long term, the question of the military sticks in my craw, for I would see the only way of ensuring a Traditional mode of society without the threat of profligacy-seeking military coups, to be the re-landing of the military as a warrior caste, that is, tying segments of it under different landed command structures similar to the feudal system, in which all have fealty up the chain to the sovereign, but cannot easily act as some kind of unified, standing ‘bloc’ or bureaucratic arm.

    Also I’m highly partial to Slazar’s paramilitary efforts as a counterbalance. Ideally, this would be a radical empowerment of domestic law enforcement (likely in a very non-secular sense), and while this contingent would be centrally managed, it would be smaller in scope than the entirety of the national warrior caste, thus minimizing a coup risk on its own part.

    Perhaps though, in Salazar’s case, he simply didn’t have enough helicopters 😉

  2. Just as the institution of marriage benefits when men don’t try to be white knights for the poor abused wives of other men, it’s much easier to be a wise, gentle sovereign when the “international community” doesn’t meddle in your nation’s internal affairs.

    Constantly chasing down foreign agents and throwing them out of helicopters is a lot of work, and makes you look like a villain.

  3. Eleanor d'Cayat May 18, 2017 at 1:43 pm

    Superb exploration of Salazar’s political philosophy and its application to contemporary American politics.

    Salazar actually said “believe me”? Brilliant.

  4. Kenneth Schmidt May 19, 2017 at 12:35 am

    I always liked Salazar. It strikes me odd that one of the greatest dictators of the 20th Century was trained as an Economist.

  5. Very interesting take on Salazar.

    Despite all the misinformation and outright lies that are passed off as dogma in the schools and universities, he is without a doubt the best statesman my country has had since before the Napoleonic invasion.

    The endemic issues we had with parliamentarism and that he identified early on, are once again destroying our nation.

    I would say that his only real mistake was a sort of sentimentality in his atitude towards Africa and the Empire, but perhaps it would be difficult to foresee in his time how much pressure he would be under from supposed allies (like the US), to handover the societies the Portuguese had created in Africa to Soviet sponsored barbarism. His, and his successor’s, insistence on fighting the whole international community on this was eventually what would lead to the military insurrection that spelled the end of the regime.

    Lastly, I would say we desperately need another reasonable and strong personality to take the lead and undo the leftist destruction that we have had since the 1974/1975 coup and subsequent handover of all institutions to the Left. Much like the experiences in other countries, there hasn’t been a true Right since then.

  6. Great essay, thanks for the elucidation of Portuguese history. Having done some reading around this essay, it seems like Portugal never exercised what we would call “intellectual sovereignty” in the 19th or 20th centuries. Especially in the 19th century, all the dissidents were ‘second-handers’ who were enamored with either French or Italian Republican ideals.

    Also, on the subject of military coups, I would read Luttvak’s Coup d’ Etat pages 68-70. The book, written in 1968, surveys Portugal’s military situation. This reading suggests that much of Portugal’s armed forces were stationed in Africa so as to neutralize them in a fast-moving coup.

    Also, on the overseas empire, Magus Janus’ When Progs Attack is required reading:

  7. Eliade once stated that Salazar’s rule was a dictatorship of love. I always quite liked that description and I think its fair to say it was an apt one.

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