Brazil's PT: Socialism as Radical Democracy

September 25, 2007

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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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-
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-
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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