Brazil's PT: Socialism as Radical Democracy

September 25, 2007

THE WORKERS PARTY (PT) OF BRAZIL IS THE most important new political party to form on the Left in Latin America in the last quarter of a century.' When the PT was founded in 1979, structural conditions in Brazil-egregious and growing inequality coupled with a significant increase in the size of the working class-may have appeared propitious for the formation of a mass-based party espousing radical forms of democracy and socialism, but political conditions were decidedly not. 2 Leftist ideologies and organizations worldwide were in crisis, and Brazil, a country long known for elitist politics, was in the midst of a cautious, 16-year transition from military rule. Yet in 1989, as pieces of the Berlin Wall were being sold for souvenirs on German streets, the Workers Party candidate came within six percentage points of winning the first direct presidential elections in Brazil in almost 30 years. The PT's success is due to its unusually rich reinterpretation of the importance of socialism to democ- racy and vice versa. By insisting on the right of the excluded to speak with their own voices and in their own names, the PT broadened Brazil's traditionally narrow conception of democracy. At the same time, this commit- ment to broadening democracy became a foundation of the party's notion of socialism. Therein lies the party's significance, and its testimony to the possibility of contin- ued vitality on the Left. Of course the PT is not immune to the worldwide crisis of the Left. At the end of November 1991, the party held its first congress to promote far-reaching debates on "Socialism: Conception and Paths to Building It," and "Conception and Practice of Party Building and Party Activity." The idea was to re-ground and re-found the party on the basis of a critical examination of its first decade. 3 Margaret E. Keck teaches political science at Yale Uni- versity. Her book, The Workers' Party and Democratiza- tion in Brazil, will be published by Yale University Press this year. 24 REPORT ON THE AMERICASThe party's search for a definition of socialism is a process of "theorizing its practice." 4 At the congress, the crux of the debate concerned whether winning political office and governing should be central to the PT's strate- gic vision, or merely tactical steps in a broader project of social change, in which primary emphasis would go to movement-building. Radical leftist factions of the party interpreted increased stress on political institutions and elections as reformist, as an abandonment of the working class and of the PT's mission. The party's majority faction, ArticulagAo, viewed this emphasis instead as an effective use of available political opportunities. While for most of the 1980s, PT discourse stressed its movi- mentista side, an increasingly self-confidentparty emerged from the first congress determined to shed its sectarian image and build a broader network of electoral alliances with other parties on the Left. WHEN ONE LOOKS BACK ON THE BRAZIL- ian democratic transition, what stand out are the elements of continuity: the remarkable ability of tradi- tional elites to conserve their positions of dominance in the system, and the permeability and gradual blurring of the boundary between supporters and opponents of the military regime.' A vivid illustration was President Jos6 Sarney (1985-1990). After splitting with his pro-military party over its choice of presidential candidate, Sarney was elected vice president in indirect elections on a ticket headed by conservative opposition leader Tancredo Neves. When Neves died before taking office, Sarney became Brazil's first civilian president since 1964 as a new member of the PMDB, the largest party to emerge from the anti-authoritarian opposition. Sarney was not alone in his odyssey; a considerable number of PMDB federal deputies elected in 1986 were former members of the pro- military party. But continuity was not the essential characteristic of the political mood in Brazil in the 1970s. The liberaliza- tion initiated by military president Ernesto Geisel in 1973-1974 allowed social and political organizing to flower. The PMDB's predecessor, the Brazilian Demo- cratic Movement (MDB)-the legal opposition party whose establishment the military government had pro- moted in 1965-began in the 1974 elections to behave like a real opposition, with startling success. A variety of neighborhood organizations and other social movements emerged out of grassroots Catholic associations and base communities. The Cost of Living Movement gathered over a million signatures for a peti- tion to the president. The Amnesty Movement organized nationally and internationally to free political prisoners and lobby for the return of exiles. Press censorship was gradually lifted. Students mobilized on campuses (ini- tially meeting heavy repression) and eventually reconsti- tuted their state and national organizations. And at the end of the decade, Brazilian unions, widely believed to be under the thumb of state corporatist structures, rocked the country with a series of strikes beginning in the automo- bile-producing suburbs of Sao Paulo. In 1977, leftist intellectuals, politicians and political activists began to discuss what kinds of political parties might best address the needs of Brazil's poor. In a parallel process, trade unionists began to talk about the need for a party in which workers could speak with their own voices; past experience had taught skepticism about elite-led parties that claimed to represent their interests. The 1978- 1979 strikes, which catapulted labor leaders like Luis In~cio da Silva ("Lula") to national prominence, made it clear that workers were not seeking to be represented, but to represent themselves. The decision in late 1979 to form a Workers Party was greeted with some ambivalence among the Left. Differ- ences over the extent of real opportunities afforded by the democratic transition and over the centrality of the work- ing class in bringing about change led most of the promi- nent progressives in the MDB (such as Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Almino Afonso in Sdo Paulo) and a number of trade unionists to remain in an MDB successor. Some of the most bitter anti-PT invective of the early to mid- 1980s came from this group. Those who chose to stay with the MDB understood the importance of new social movements and the new union- ism, but were convinced that a partisan appeal on the basis of class was sectarian and would not address the real diversity of political identities in Brazilian society. They also recognized that the military's willingness to leave power was contingent at best, and would require delicate negotiations. The PT' s radicalism threatened to upset the apple cart. MUCH OF THE PT'S EARLY DISCOURSE linked the party's class base to the industrial proletariat of Sdo Paulo's ABCD region, center of the Brazilian auto industry and detonator of the strike waves of the late 1970s. 6 This linkage was personified in Lula, the party's first president and best known leader, who was president of the Sdo Bernardo and Diadema Metal- workers Union and lynchpin of the strike movement. But this rather narrow conception of class, which fo- cused heavily on urban factory workers and their unions, was always somewhat at odds with the party's real base. The "new unionism" contained an important white- collar component, especially bank workers and teach- ers. In addition, from the outset the PT appealed to "workers" not only on the basis of their workplace and union experience, but also on the basis of their involve- ment in a broad spectrum of social organizations in poor neighborhoods. Over time, the PT' s conception of class came to center on forms of self-organization rather than on structural position. This shift owed something to the broadening constituency of the unions associated with the party-their growing influence among farmworkers and landless peas- ants, as well as the astronomical growth of white-collar VOLUME XXV, NUMBER 5 (MAY 1992) 25RThe4 o A4LeftA4 The Left unionism in the 1980s. It also owed a great deal to the identification of neighborhood and other non-work- place struggles as working-class struggles, an identity forged in the streets during the last years of the military regime. In fighting for the right of workers and the poor to speak with their own voices, the PT often seemed to identify class struggle with the struggle for citizenship. From its founding, the party was conceived as a legal political party that would compete within the system on an equal footing. To become legal was a deliberate and crucial decision whose logic structured the party's evolv- ing view of political institutions. The party could have chosen (and with a less herculean effort, given the serious logistical difficulties posed by the military's legal code) to remain outside the political system as a party of resistance. 7 Instead, it chose to pursue both the institu- tional and the societal routes. Party organizers believed that by remaining rooted in civil society the PT would Members of the Brazilian Rural Workers Union. The PT's ba expanded beyond the industrial proletariat to include farm landless peasants and white-collar workers. eventually win elections, because those it sought to represent were a majority. By winning public of- fice, the PT would improve the lot of that majority. And by strengthening the autonomous capacity of move- ments in society, the party would help bring about a rupture with the status quo. The party's first electoral campaign in 1982 was eu- phoric. Lula' s candidacy for governor of SAo Paulo rallied tens of thousands, leaving many PT members convinced of victory on the eve of the elections. Instead, Lula placed fourth out of five candidates, and only in Sdo Paulo and the Amazonian state of Acre did the PT win more than 3% of the vote. It elected eight federal deputies, and only two mayors nationwide. 8 After three years of organizing the party and a year of intense campaigning, PT stalwarts saw these results as a stunning defeat. Subsequently, institutional and electoral concerns be- came distinctly secondary to strengthening unions and social movements. Many believed that the party's early focus on the 1982 elections represented a orkse hars, deviation from its real goals. 9 This perspec- tive was reinforced by the involvement of the I 1 party s top leadershllp n111 wounding ilan buull- ing the CUT labor federation (Central Unica dos Trabalhadores) during this period."' Even so, the party did not desist from electoral activity, and its relatively greater success in the 1985 mayoral elections in state capitals and the 1986 legislative elections helped bring the institutional side of the party's identity back into the equation. The Congress elected in 1986 doubled as a constituent as- sembly. PT deputies wrote sections of Brazil's new constitution and grew increasingly adept at bargaining and coalition-building in Con- gress." The party also actively participated in the presentation of popular amendments to the draft constitution, a process made pos- sible largely by a PT initiative. When the party won mayoral elections in some of Brazil's largest cities in 1988 (in- cluding Sdo Paulo), and Lula came close to winning the presidency in 1989, those ele- ments in PT discourse that downplayed in- stitutional activity appeared increasingly at odds with the party's real evolution. If real change was to come from below, from social movements and organizations in civil soci- ety, what was the proper role of the party in government? To say that government should work with and be responsive to the organized population was one thing, but to do it was quite another story. The party's municipal platform pro- posed governing via popular councils (conselhos populares)-comprised of repre- sentatives of a wide variety of local social REPORT ON THE AMERICASUc--S ~~0 Lula and children of steelworkers celebrate an anniversary. The cake sports the 1989 PT presidential campaign slogan: "Lula is In! We're not afraid of being happy!" movements who would establish priorities for PT admin- istrations. This experiment in broadening grassroots par- ticipation in government and building popular power left unresolved such questions as whether the councils would be consultative or deliberative, how they would be cho- sen, and what their relationship would be to elected parliamentary bodies like municipal councils. While some issue-specific consultative councils have played an important role in PT-governed municipalities (for example, the health councils in Sio Paulo), the popular council proposal foundered on three counts: the difficulties in organizing them; their inability to prioritize demands and consider the needs of the population as a whole; and the recognition that organizing them from above amounted to corporatism under another name. The relationship between direct and representative democ- racy, a problem that has perplexed socialists for genera- tions, remains squarely on the agenda. The entire question of the state's role in social change cries out for more serious reflection. T HE PT HAS ALWAYS ASPIRED TO BE IN- ternally democratic, to ensure a substantial degree of participation by its over 600,000 members. Prior to party conventions (whose composition is dictated by party law), the PT holds pre-conventions with broader participation, which are intended to be the real decision- making arenas. Grassroots activity is supposed to take place in party nuclei organized in neighborhoods or workplaces-a conception which owes as much to Catho- lic base communities as it does to the traditional Leninist cells. The nuclei are intended to stimulate active partici- pation and to provide links between the party and local social movements. In practice, the number of stable nuclei has been far fewer than the party would like; many exist only in pre-electoral periods to take part in candidate selection, or at other times in response to specific contro- versies. In spite of these and other limitations (fragility of the party press and intra-party communications, for ex- ample, particularly during the early and mid-1980s), par- ticipation is extraordinarily high by Brazilian standards. The PT is generally perceived as highly factionalized. From the beginning, it contained a number of Trotskyist and Marxist-Leninist organizations (Converg8ncia Socialista is probably the best known) whose independent existence was illegal under the military regime, and who joined the PT to enhance their influence. Some were groups formed out of the student movement in the 1970s; others resulted from earlier splits in Communist, Maoist, or Fourth International parties. Their activists were im- portant human resources in the logistically difficult orga- nizational phase of the party, and in some regions they were initially the dominant force in the PT. While con- demning these factions' dual allegiance and their com- monly held view of the PT as a mere tactical expedient, party leaders like Lula believed that as the party devel- oped the problem would resolve itself. They expected these organizations either to assimilate or to leave. Some did eventually decide to disband as independent organiza- tions; others continued to act on two fronts. In 1983 much of the PT leadership formed a faction of its own, Articula~go. The idea was to stake out a middle ground between the vanguardism of the leftist organiza- tions and the reformism of those who eschewed move- ment-building, a center that could attract a majority of the membership. Articulaqlo espoused participatory democ- racy and a rather diffuse conception of socialism. The institutional corollary to the formation of Articulaqgo was a rule change providing for proportional representation in party directive organs. Although it made factionalism more visible, this change was arguably a much more democratic solution than the previous system of informal negotiations leading to a single slate. Nonetheless, the existence of well-organized, intensely ideological mi- norities in the party, whose primary allegiance was not to the PT, remained a problem." 2 The conflict came to a head in April 1986, when a group of former members of the PCBR (Revolutionary Brazilian Communist Party), claiming to be PT members, were caught robbing a bank in the northeastern city of Salvador, ostensibly to garner funds for the Nicaraguan revolution. Although the perpetrators were immediately expelled from the party, the media went to town with the story. The PT's fourth national meeting the following month called for a national debate on the issue of parties within the party, and the ensuing process of regulating factional behavior stretched over the rest of the decade. By July 1990, ten internal groupings were recognized as legitimate PT factions, and statutory limits were placed on their autonomy." 3 Regulating factional behavior contributed to internal democracy by rendering the organizational bases of inter- nal disputes more evident. Yet the increased visibility of factions led some to complain that party debates were dominated by factional positions, and that the only way to participate was to belong to a faction. It is hard to evaluate the weight of this complaint: factions always played an important role in party debates, and structuring debate in such a large organization is bound to privilege aggregate positions. For the party congress held at the end of 1991, the debate on socialism and democracy was carried out prior to the congress with the publication of position The PT-linked CUT labor federation on May Day. An Internal party debate rages about the relative importance of winnina political office and aovernina. versus building arassroots movements. papers, each of which had to be signed by at least 100 party members. While some of these represented factional positions, others were ad hoc groupings. At the congress itself, the Articulaqgo position clearly dominated, receiv- ing around 70% of the delegate votes. B Y A WIDE VARIETY OF MEASURES, THE Workers Party has been remarkably successful. The party has become increasingly institutionalized. Internal communications, while still somewhat precarious, have improved enormously. Internal elections are held regu- larly and new leaders have emerged from the ranks. While Lula remains the key party leader, two others have held the post of president. The CUT labor federation, with which the party has close ties, is by far the largest such organization in Brazil, and the PT has a striking presence in a wide variety of social movements, including "new" ones like the ecology movement and urban movements around housing and social services. The PT's influence in rural areas, in rural unions and in the landless movement is growing. The PT has grown well beyond its initial base in Sdo Paulo to become a genuinely national party. It governs three state capitals and a number of other major cities. Lula came within a hair of being elected president in 1989. The party's congressional delegations have approximately doubled with each election, and in 1990 the PT elected its first senator, Eduardo Suplicy from Sdo Paulo. PT federal deputies were elected in eleven states, and state assembly members on PT tickets (including coalitions) won in all but two. 1 4 The PT is, however, still very much an outsider in the Brazilian political game, and not only because it is on the Left. More than ten years after its founding, the PT remains an institutional anomaly: it is a programmatic party among non-programmatic, catch-all parties; its con- gressional representatives respect party discipline while other legislators rarely follow the party line; and it has a rich and conflictive internal party life while most parties are coalitions of notables. In a system where political decision-making continues to rely on elite backroom deals, the party calls for openness and accountability to party organizations and to society at large. The November 1991 party congress did not resolve the problems inherent in asking what it means to be socialist at the end of the twentieth century. Nor did it do what leftist elites outside the PT and Trotskyist factions in the party respectively praised or condemned it for: declare itself social democratic. But the congress did come closer to defining what socialism is not. Although the PT never espoused a dictatorship of the proletariat, the 1991 con- gress explicitly repudiated that notion, and restated its commitment to a mixed economy. These two positions, along with tighter restrictions on internal factions, are likely to exacerbate conflict between the party's majority and its more ideological leftist members. And the con- gress voted to require that 30% of the positions in party directive organs be filled by women-in response to the embarrassingly large gap between the party's stated com- mitment to women's equality and the derisory number of women in the party leadership. Essentially, the congress reaffirmed the path the party has followed throughout its history: a trajectory in which a logic of means, whose core value has always been the extension of democracy, remains in a dynamic tension with a logic of ends, socialism, a society without exploit- ers or exploited. The party claims that socialism will be defined more clearly in the course of popular struggles during a prolonged period of accumulating forces. Com- peting for political office and exercising political power are an inherent part of this process. Socialism, for the PT, is thus inseparable from a radical form of democracy. In Brazil, as nearly everywhere in Latin America, democ- racy remains a revolutionary demand. A decade may be a long life for a Brazilian party, but it is a short time in world-historical terms. Nonetheless, since 1980 the Workers Party has brought hundreds of new actors into politics. It has created new constituencies that expect political leaders to be responsible and ac- countable. And it has insisted that the capacity to partici- pate politically comes not from status or specialized learning, but from the experience of everyday life. The PT has had a marked impact on the new generation. Its strongest support is among the young, and the party may be playing a crucial role in socializing youth into a radically revised vision of what poli- tics is about. The PT's future depends on its ability to convince substantial numbers of Brazilians of the feasibility of the kinds of social change and the kind of democracy it promotes. The party's greatest electoral successes, in 1988 and 1989, reflected its ability to channel a massive protest vote against the status quo. Repeated govern- mental failures and prolonged economic stagnation of the kind that Brazil has seen over the last decade do not, however, necessarily produce a more politicized popu- lation. On the contrary, much recent evidence shows the result to be civic burnout, and a loss of belief that change is possible. This spreading anomie is dan- gerous not only for the PT, but also for Brazilian democ- racy. The challenge for the PT, as for the Left in general, is to discover ways to renew one of the oldest arguments of the Left: that social equality, or attending to the needs of the least favored, is in the interest of society as a whole. Reclaiming this fundamental dimension, while shed- ding the accumulated baggage of failed experiments with models that produced new forms of inequality in the name of socialism, is extraordinarily difficult. The party approaches this challenge with a significant ad- vantage, having recognized and learned from its own experience that the effort to rethink socialism is inextri- cably linked to the effort to broaden and deepen democ- racy. Brazil's PT: Socialism as Radical Democracy 1. This did not occur in other countries experiencing democratic transi- tions around the same time as Brazil, most importantly because of the different treatment accorded political parties and elections. In Brazil pre-existing parties were abolished and replaced with new ones that, however artificial, did compete in regular elections over a 15-year period. In other countries where partisan activity was banned, pre-existing (and longstanding) political identi- ties may have been frozen. In Brazil such identities, in any case of shorter duration, were atleastto some extent reorganized. In addition, Brazil is the only country where the industrial working class as a percentage of the economically active population actually grew (and substantially so) under the military regime; in the other countries in question this sector shrank. As Brazil's military regime was winding down, new industrial workers and increasingly organized elements of the growing service sector were politically "available" in a sense that was unique in Latin America in the 1980s. 2. Most of the ideas presented in this article are discussed in much greater depth and detail in Margaret E. Keck, The Workers' Party and Democratiza- tion in Brazil (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992). 3. Even though party leaders chose to call this its first congress, to emphasize its importance for the party's self-definition, it was the PT's eighth national meeting. 4. Emir Sader (ed.), E Agora PT: cardter e identidade (Sao Paulo: Brasiliense, 1989), p. 8. 5. On the first point see Frances Hagopian, "Democracy by Undemocratic Means? Elites, Political Pacts, and Regime Transition in Brazil," Comparative Political Studies Vol. 23, No. 2 (July 1990), and her forthcoming book from Cambridge UniversityPress;onthesecondseeespeciallyGuillermoO'Donnell, "Challenges to Democratization in Brazil," World Policy Journal, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Spring 1988). 6. ABCD refers to the Santo Andr6, Sao Bernardo do Campo, Sao Caetano, and Diadema; the region also includes the smaller cities of Maud, Rio Grande da Serra, and Ribeirao Pires. 7. For a discussion of the legalization process, see Margaret E. Keck, The Workers' Party and Democratization in Brazil, ch. 5. 8. Of the federal deputies elected, six were from Sao Paulo and one each from Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais. The mayors were in Diadema, Sao Paulo, and Santa Quiteria in the interior of the state of Maranhao; the mayor of the latter left the PT early in his term. 9. This widespread attitude goes a long way toward explaining tensions between the party organization and the legislators it elected in 1982. It also explains the party's delay in attempting to adjudicate conflict between the local party organization and the elected PT administration in Diadema, Sao Paulo over whether a PT mayor ought to be primarily responsible to (or indeed an instrument of) the local party organization (in choice of personnel and policy) or to the city as a whole. The conflict was exacerbated by three factors: a) the mayor, Gilson Menezes, was elected by a small margin in a three-way split of the city vote; b) there were bitter factional differences between the mayor, the leaders of the local party organization, and the PT representatives on the municipal council (who were in any case a minority of the council); and c) as Diadema was the only significant municipality the PT won, what happened there held implications for the party well beyond the municipality. 10. The literal translation of the CUT-Single Worker's Central-is not very satisfactory, as the CUT was not the only central labor confederation formed at this time. For a discussion of the formation of labor confederations, see Margaret E. Keck, "The New Unionism in the Brazilian Transition," in Alfred Stepan (ed.), Democratizing Brazil (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989). 11. In fact, the PT was the only party to present a complete constitutional draft. This was published as Fibio Konder Comparato, Muda Brasil (Sao Paulo: Brasiliense, 1986). 12. As long as these leftist organizations remained illegal, however, those who wanted to discuss their activities openly were constrained by the argument that to do so was akin to denouncing them to the police. The main communist parties were legalized in 1985, opening the way forthe others. Nonetheless, the process remains somewhat difficult (though less so than when the PT was legalized), and unless these parties want to run candidates on their own slate, there is not much incentive to become "legal." Although they are no longer illegal, one might call them a-legal since "legality" for parties is structured around electoral participation. 13. The resolution passed at the party's fifth national meeting held that, "the PT will not allow the existence within it of organizations which have: their own policies regarding the PT's general policies; their own leadership; their own public presence; their own discipline, implying inevitably a double allegiance; parallel and closed structures; their own organic and institutional- ized systems of financing; regular public news organs." ("A Reglamentacdo das Tendencias: PT: Partido estratdgico rumo ao socialismo," resolution approved at the Fifth National Meeting, published in PTBoletim Nacional, No. 33 (Nov. 1987-Jan. 1988). 14. For the numbers of federal and state deputies elected in 1982,1986, and 1990, see Keck, The Workers' Party and Democratization in Brazil, pp. 163-64.

Tags: Brazil, PT, Lula, leftist politics, democratic transition

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