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Lula, Brazil and the future of the Left

Chapter 3: The political character of the PT.

  E: A changed Party

During the 2003 election campaign a letter formally addressed to Lula was issued by the Federal Workers Union of Brazil that approximated to the typical class consciousness of the PT’s core labour supporters: ‘Comrade Lula. We are convinced that now is the moment to change course. It is now or never. It was for this moment that the Workers Party was built 23 years ago and that it has grown into a mass party of the Brazilian working class. Today, millions of working and oppressed people are supporting your candidacy because they see in you and in a PT electoral victory the possibility of moving toward a dignified future for the youth and for those who work for a living. They see the possibility of paving the way to the creation of a truly democratic and sovereign country where it is up to the people and not the IMF to determine our destiny.’

Class-consciousness can only really be measured in terms of political movement; it is either coming under pressure to move to the left or under pressure to move to the  right. After eighteen months of the PT in government we can say on the basis of the accumulated evidence that the class-consciousness of Brazil’s workers is coming under pressure to accommodate to the political right. The agent of the pressure is of course the PT government itself, for it shows no readiness or inclination to alter Brazil’s neo-liberal policy. The only promises being met are ones that were given to a tiny minority of advisers and lobbyists representative of the special interest of global finance and of the domestic trading sector. The workers party is openly operating as a proxy government for capital. It is already apparent that under Lula’s political watch Brazil’s extreme class divide in income and wealth disparity is not going to be narrowed. What has the PT supporting anti-globalisation left to say about the manifest betrayals of the Lula government? 

So far two explanations have been offered. The realist or pragmatist account pretends that Lula’s radical government is being held back because of the unfortunate circumstance of it being bound to the terms of a negotiated coalition government. This we can dismiss as a very flimsy justification to continue giving support to a wholly rightwing government. The other more critical explanation is of a populist type. The populist explanation assigns the blame for the government’s numerous betrayals chiefly to the personal faults of President Lula and maybe a handful of his inner circle of acolytes. This means finding Lula to be just another one of those, by now all too familiar, populist politicians who clamber to the highest political position by making all sorts of promises to the working class without ever having the sincere intention to carry them to completion. A populist explanation of course comes with the added bonus of saving the good reputation of the mainstay of the PT, permitting international fellow travellers to continue to support the party.

To a degree the explanation works, Lula’s political leadership is often populist in orientation, his political persona has always outshone the PT, and many more people routinely vote for Lula than for the Workers Party. Lula has always coveted the big prize of the Presidency and turned his nose up at becoming a PT deputy. Sociologist James Petras recently referred to Lula’s political method as populist in form and reactionary in content: ‘For the poor he enacts emotional scenarios accompanied with acts of personal compassion, he cries real tears faced with child poverty. Abruptly he follows with a major reduction in social spending and massive transfers of wealth to the creditors. He meets with the MST and playfully puts on one of the organisation’s hats and then in a press conference ridicules their agrarian reform programme, reassuring the big agro-exporters with increased subsidies. Lula has mastered the pseudo-populist demagogy of the US ex-President Clinton by telling people he feels their pain while he proceeds to push one regressive measure after another.’             

While it is a recognisable fact that under the supremacy of Lula the PT has taken on a few populist traits like the double discourse of making irreconcilable promises to opposing class constituencies, the more effectual political truth is that the PT is a not the expression of a typical Latin American populist movement; a mere party machine for a charismatic leader. The PT is workers party that was forged out of the spontaneous class-consciousness of workers - of the new unionism of the 1970s; it did not come into existence to lay down cleared paths for would-be career politicians. In the early years the winning of elections was secondary to initiating the class struggle. Yet after 23 years of steady electoral growth the PT is now synonymous with a minor army of elected officials that comprise a managerial layer that no longer thinks in terms of deepening the class struggle against capital. Brazil’s institutional system certainly favours the worst populist tendencies, but Lula’s government is acting against the historic majority line of the PT and enjoys the loyal support of a large majority of the party membership. This means that any proper analysis of what has gone tragically wrong with the Lula/ PT government must come to terms with the changed class basis and political profile of the PT over time.             

For the socialists who established the PT and the CUT the most essential achievement was establishing the political independence of the working class. Before the formation of the PT and the CUT the working class were represented by political parties and unions that subordinated all workers political activity to maintaining a class alliance with the so called national bourgeoisie. The Communist Party had stuck to a popular front strategy of accommodating to the national bourgeoisie on the grounds that Brazil was a ‘dual society’ both capitalist and feudal. The most class-conscious workers were instructed to think that the reactionary feudal elements were the main political danger to the working class and a class alliance with the capitalist bourgeoisie was the basis of a progressive political movement. The Brazilian national bourgeoisie invented left wing populism specifically to exploit the advantage of an absence of independent class-consciousness among workers, going so far as to establish State controlled unions and political parties that subordinated the interests of workers to building national capitalism.

"We want a Workers Party which, as the PT's founding documents put it, 'arises from the aspiration for the political independence of workers tired of serving as foot-soldiers for political parties committed to the preservation of the current economic, social and political order; a party that harbours within it the will for emancipation of the popular masses; a party that truly seeks to offer a political expression for all the exploited and oppressed in the capitalist system. We are a party of workers and not a party to fuel illusions among workers. We are a party open to all those seeking to help the cause of defending workers and their program, and this is why we want to build a structure of internal democracy where the collective decisions, leadership and program are decided by the ranks of the party.' (excerpt from the  PT's February 1980 Manifesto, Collegio Sion, Sao Paulo)"                  

With the formation of the PT a section of Brazil’s workers had taken a giant political leap forward in class consciousness.  One, because it grew out of a recognition that the workers required a political party and a union movement that stood for the independent class interest of workers and two, that the workers movement ought to be led and controlled by workers themselves. In the beginning the PT intended to establish its credentials as an independent political party of workers’ class interest by giving primacy to supporting workers struggles in contradistinction to setting up an electoral machine: ‘Participation in elections and parliamentary activities will be subordinated to the objective of organising the exploited masses and their struggles.’

However this did not mean that the PT began life as a Marxist led workers party. The primary of class struggle was an expression of the condition facing the new trade union movement of the time and not an imputation of revolutionary theory. In the formative years about 60 percent of the party membership were recruited from the ranks of the new workers unions. The party differed from a Marxist party not least because it started with an open door ideological policy. Various Marxist intellectual groups joined but their ideological influence was countered by the ideas stemming from a range of savants like Irma Passoni, the Catholic activist and founder of the Cost of Living Movement, economists Paul Singer and Eduardo Suplicy, the art critic Mario Pedrosa, and the educationalist Paulo Freire, the originator of the ‘pedagogy of liberation’.

The essays of political scientist Francisco Weffort especially influenced Lula and his trade unionist activists. Weffort argued that in a society scarred by an authoritarian culture, democratic values in themselves were revolutionary, that the ‘Marxist’ standpoint equating bourgeois democracy with class domination was inappropriate for Brazil. The early PT voted down the concept of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ on the grounds that it was ‘insurrectionist’ and democratic centralism on the grounds that it was ‘vanguardist.’ Despite the ideological indeterminateness of the PT, during the 1980s, Brazil’s organised workers maintained a high degree of class combativeness. There were no less than four general strikes, in July 1983, December1986, August 1987 and March 1989. The numbers of workers participating in strikes increased over the course of the decade, the first involved around three million workers, the fourth about 20 million.

The election of President Collor de Mello in 1989 brought full throttle neo-liberalism to Brazil for the first time. The new neo-liberal prescription set the conservative bourgeoisie on the offensive, inducing three years of economic recession that hit the unionised working class hard. Industrial production dropped from a 3% growth rate in 1989 to minus 4.4% in 1990 and unemployment in the unionised sector rocketed from 8% to 16%. Production, employment and wages all deteriorated in the midst of the neo-liberal onslaught. The new offensive contributed to a great fall off in strike activity: in 1990 some 12 million workers had participated in some form of strike activity, in 1991 the number of workers participating fell to 8.8 million and in 1992 it fell again to just 2.5 million. The number of workers affiliated to the CUT federation fell from 20 million to just 8 million. The offensive also brought about resurgence in ‘pelego’ unionism, the traditional form of populist trade unionism whereby employers covered the costs of the upkeep of the union in return for workers cooperation. In 1991 a sector of the union movement regrouped to form a right of centre union federation called the Forca Sindical that brought together several thousand of the smaller unions, with memberships of less than 500. As things stand today only around 20% of Brazil’s workers have any union and hence legal recognition.        

The downturn in the class struggle impacted on the PT by shaking up its social composition, political practice and ideological definition. For most of the 1980s the PT had acted as a kind of co-sponsor alongside the new union federation and the MST for the general strikes against government policy. However in the 1990s the PT staged a definitive electoral turn and became mainly orientated to winning State elections and proving itself to be a party of responsible government. The PT changed from being a party of tendencies but still supportive of workers struggles, albeit with the handicap of an indeterminate socialist programme, to being a party led and managed by a petty bourgeois layer of officials adopting the programme of international social democracy.    

The years of economic recession had seriously eroded the class-conscious and union base of the early PT. The largest decline in union membership occurred in the industrial and banking sectors, between them they lost over 600,000 jobs in the 1990s. The above sectors constituted the class-conscious social base of the early workers party. In the 1990s union leaders supported by the PT union grouping Articulacao Sindical steadily surrendered to ‘new realism’, seeking social partnerships with business in the form of Sector Chambers. The once vanguard metal workers union became the smallest and the most conciliatory union in the CUT federation.  Of the ten largest CUT affiliated unions, six are now ‘moderate’ education based unions that have consistently favoured the ‘new realism’ and four are social security based unions. In May 1995 Vicentinho the President of the CUT, (a former official in the metalworkers union), was able to win a majority for passage of a resolution devised by the union leaderships, indicating that the union federation would discuss with government its proposals concerning all labour related matters, proposals that had only a few years previously provoked general strikes. The main result of the resolution was that the CUT started a process of negotiating social security reductions with the neo-liberal government of Cardoso.   

The changed economic condition and the much reduced level of union opposition provided an opening for the opportunist tendencies within the PT to come to the fore and propel the party into a solely electoral strategy.  By the end of the year 2000, there were some 3,000 PT members who were elected government officials: deputies, senators, councillors, mayors etc. The elected PT officials now employ another 7,000 party members. The 10,000 public office holders enjoy salaries and pension way above those of average workers. They also provided the party with a large fraction of its financing, $20 million of the party’s funds out of $60 million in the year 2000. In a study presented by the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper (11/5/2000) approximately 80% of elected officials or of those who worked for one, belonged to Lula’s tendency; Articulation. As the electoral turn took hold the PT also began to seek out donations from businesses; unions are not legally permitted to finance political parties. Today there is no bar on capitalists becoming PT members or even from contesting elections on behalf of the Party. Brazilian elections are almost as costly as they are in the United States and the PT needs all the money it can raise to contest them. In summary we can say that following the electoral turn of the mid 1990s the PT rapidly acquired a sizeable bureaucracy with a defined role of working within the existing institutional framework of the Brazilian State.                                                                      

F: The Redefinition of Socialism

The PT is often thought of as being something of an exception, a political party of a new type: ‘the workers party defies definition. Union leaders created it, rather as European social democracy was created at the beginning of the twentieth century but it does not fit any model, not even that of the British Labour Party with which it has some similarities. Margaret Keck, author of the seminal study of the workers party called her work ‘the study of an anomaly.’ In contrast with the Labour party, the PT never had formal links with trade unions, nor is it funded by them.’ (Bernardo Kucinski: Politics Transformed. Lula and the workers party in Brazil ed Sue Branford)    

The PT was deemed to be anomalous because it succeeded despite presenting itself as a socialist party at a time when socialism everywhere else appeared to be in disarray. Just as anomalous, it was a political party that was organised around opposing tendencies. The PT even provided room for the various strands of Trotskyism and Maoism to openly organise their own tendencies from within.  At its first national congress in 1981 the party approved a code of ethics for its members that was raised above the actual political programme. At all levels the rank and file had many opportunities to participate in deliberation and decision making and competition for leadership posts was based on proportional representation of slates running candidates.  The institutionalisation of tendencies made for a public image of a political party that seemed to be in a perpetual state of rancour. From 1983 to 1993 Lula’s slate called Articulation was generally in overall charge of the party, yet in 1994 Articulation split over the question of the significance to be given to electoral work and it lost control of the party. By 1995 Articulation was back in control, since when it has consolidated its dominance.

A crucial turn for the PT was taken after the 1994 Presidential election setback. In the middle of 1993 trust in bourgeois politicians hit at a new low after the impeachment of President Collor for soliciting bribes. The impeachment process was widely followed on television, only the PT seemed to be to be free from the endemic corruption. It was widely touted that Lula would win the new election. In fact he did not even manage to make it into the second round as in 1989. His vote only increased marginally from 16% to 22%. Lulled by the high poll ratings, the PT leadership were taken by surprise by the election result and looked around for an explanation and found it in middle class perception of the party as being ‘too left wing’. Immediately after the election setback, Jose Dirceu was elected to the Presidency of the party with a warrant from Lula to bring about a major revision to the party’s version of socialism. A strategy was drawn up to reduce the ideological and organisational influence of the PT’s left wing.

The changes to party organisation and programme were modelled on ones all too familiar to those with knowledge of the changes enacted by the political parties of European social democracy. The subsequent party congresses voted yes to almost all the changes asked for by Lula and Dirceu. The party’s National Directory created a Citizenship Institute as an extra-party policy making organisation in 1996 to allow Lula to formulate his personalised election platform free from the normal party channels of accountability. The Citizenship Institute now employs about a dozen full timers and is financed by corporate sponsors. The Institute has since become the primary source of policy making for the PT. During the recent election campaign the media took the statements and publications of the Institute as the real basis of PT policy rather than the official publications of the party. In 2000 the party leadership reformulated the statutes of the party to introduce direct membership election for the important positions within the party and for the membership of the National Directory (the equivalence of the British labour party’s NEC), to eliminate the influence of the activists. It also introduced a new statute permitting the party Presidency to revise party policy on any given issue by asking for a plebiscite of the paper membership. The changes extended the term of office for the position of party president and other leading positions from two to three years. These changes consolidated the overall hold of the Articulation slate over the PT.

G: The November 1999 PT Congress

The 1999 Congress passed a new ‘Programme for the Brazilian Democratic Revolution’ that stated that social reform would have to be carried out in Brazil with the wide support of other political parties and social actors: code word for a programme of popular front style government.

The election to the National Directorate listed five slates.

*Democratic Revolution: the slate of the Articulation tendency got 44% of the votes.

*Socialism or Barbarism: grouped around Left Articulation, got  21% of the votes.

*PT Movement: got 13% of the vote.

*Our Time: the slate grouped around the DS tendency got 10% of the vote.

*Radical Democracy: the slate of the rightwing got 8% of the vote.

The leadership slate around Lula got everything it wanted from the Congress including changes to the programme and statutes. The centre right bloc of the party comprising the Democratic Revolution, PT Movement and Radical Democracy had at least a 60% majority whenever a vote was called. The resolution put to the Congress by Radical Democracy slate was that all references to the word socialism be removed from the PT programme.  This was rejected by the congress but it was indicative of the general perspective. The Congress rejected a proposal by a left slate for the party to support the campaign led by the MST around the slogan ‘Out with Cardoso and the International Monetary Fund’ on the grounds that the PT was seeking coalition alliances with other political parties that would not never ware such a campaign.

The political weakness of the PT left at the congress of the party was equal only to its very embarrassment. In its submission to conference the PT left had called for a programme demanding the suspension of the national debt, and the re-nationalisation of the privatised industries, the submission was dismissed. The leadership mercilessly ridiculed the proposal on the basis that the left controlled government of Rio Grande do Sul had itself independently decided not to suspend making its own contributions to the national debt or to renationalise private industry, or even expand the health and education services, or provide public sector job relief for the unemployment. The PT leadership also made it clear that it was in favour of forming popular front governments at all levels of State institutions.  The PT left had little basis for opposing electoral pacts with the political representatives of the bourgeoisie, as the left controlled government of Dutra and Rosseto in Rio Grande do Sul was itself a popular front government even in self-designation. In fact it depended on the support of the capitalist PDT to stay in office. 

H: The Retreat of the Left Wing

When the PT was formed most of the anti-Stalinist left joined, there was no bar on entry and so they organised openly. The leading Trotskyist tendency at the time of formation was the ‘Morenista’ PSTU but it was expelled in 1993 for refusing to abide by rules drawn up by the National Conference of 1988 banning tendencies from running their own newspapers and having their own finances. The DS of the Fourth International is now the major left tendency operating within the PT but its growth has been bought at a price and its policy of offering critical support to Lula is now at the crossroads. On December 14 the National Directorate of the Workers Party (PT) voted to expel three PT federal deputies (equivalent to members of the House of Representatives) and one PT federal senator, Heloisa Helena. These expulsions marked a new political situation for the PT and for the left within it.

These four elected officials were expelled on charges of "party indiscipline" because they voted in the Brazilian Congress against PEC 40, the law introduced by the Lula government (and supported by the PT national leadership) aimed at "reforming" the public sector workers' pension system. These so-called reforms, as we have noted, in fact attacked workers' pensions and opened the door to the privatisation of the State pension system. 

The four dissidents defended themselves before the PT by maintaining that opposition to privatisation had been the erstwhile position of the party as evidenced by votes at   all previous PT national conventions. The action to discipline the four nationally elected leaders of the PT was approved by the PT's National Directorate by a vote of 13-7 and was later referred to the PT's Ethics Commission for determination of the sanction to be applied. The Ethics Commission of the PT, by a 4-2 margin, called for expelling the four dissident PT leaders.
In the lead up to the December 14th meeting of the PT National Directorate, supporters of the PT majority position (or Articulation) were outspoken in their denunciation of the four dissident PT elected officials. A top PT official was quoted: "There is plenty of room in the PT for people who have criticisms of the leadership. But there are limits to these criticisms. ... Militants who want to build the PT without supporting the policies of the government do not have their place within the party."
The motion that was submitted to a vote of the PT National Directorate was emphatic: ‘The Workers Party (PT) unswervingly supports the policies of the Lula government.’

Members of the DS on the PT National Directorate submitted an amendment to the resolution, an amendment that was accepted by the PT leadership. The DS amendment added one sentence to the majority text, so that its final and amended version read as follows: ‘The Workers Party (PT) unswervingly supports the policies of the Lula government. The PT must be the most resolved supporter of the actions of the government that go in the direction of a democratic and popular program and that answer the aspirations and hopes raised by the victory of Lula, as well as the changes expected by the people.’

The amendment by the DS members did not change in any way the outcome of the resolution. In reality all of the government’s reactionary policies flow from the PT's ‘democratic and popular program.’ The amendment is even more meaningless since all of the other national deputies of DS voted in favour of the pension ‘reform’, with the exception of two who abstained. As they cast their vote, the DS members of the National Assembly with the exception of the two abstainers explained their vote in a public statement that said: ‘Because of the imperative of party discipline and also because we consider that the discussion over the course adopted by our government is not closed but rather is becoming more defined and concrete in relation to the debate over economic policies, we are hereby voting in favour of the reform of the pension system.’

By voting in favour of PEC 40, the DS isolated their own comrade and contributed to the PT leadership's tirade against them. It is clear that the DS did little to defend the integrity of the decision taken by its own comrade. It is equally clear that its policy of defending the historic programme of the PT and continuing to lend ‘critical support’ to the Lula government is as contradictory as it is unprincipled. In fact the DS is not genuinely enacting a policy of critical support as it claims.  How can a political organisation be only lending critical support to a government that it is serving in - right up to the highest ministerial level? The DS is not a revolutionary opposition current within the PT, it has adjusted so much that it is at best a dissident current within the party.

The overwhelming control of the Articulation leadership faction was manifest at the first meeting of the National Directorate after the election triumph of Lula and the PT. In March 16th 2003 two proposals were tabled for discussion. The leadership proposal endorsing the neo-liberal economic programme received 54 votes or 70% of the whole and the dissident proposal received 21 votes or 28% of the whole. The vote over the expulsions of the left deputies merely confirmed the politically weak minority position of the left within the PT. The PT had been so much transformed that all talk of the PT coming to power on a socialist programme is so much washed out nonsense, as is calls for support for its ‘democratic and popular program … that answer the aspirations and hopes raised by the victory of Lula, as well as the changes expected by the people.’ The PT is now a party of right wing social democracy. In strictly scientific terms it is a bourgeois workers party, a party that depends on the votes and support of the organised working class but is in no way made accountable to the working class or advances its interests.  



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