This paper reviews Portuguese adult education policies from 1974 to 1999. A realistic portrait in the evolution of adult education system is important primarily, because it may be able to guide other researchers in their investigations. Secondly, this type of analysis allows us to reflect upon wider issues that could represent interesting points of debate at an international level. The Portuguese adult education system has shown considerable changes, caused by the rapidity of political and structural change in the past few years. Radical tendencies, that followed the 1974 coup d'état and the subsequent revolutionary period (1974–1976), ended after the rebuilding of a capitalist regime. Normalization, abandoning former practices, and concentration of the adult educational offer in schools were characteristics brought about by the establishment of neo-liberal policies. Nowadays, we consider that Portuguese adult education is marked by a strong dichotomy between the formal adult education system, and the non-formal one, performed mainly by civic associations. The paper concludes by debating two issues: first, popular education and its failures; second, the state and civil society.