SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 79, November 2003

Brazil: a new left party?

One year into a government led by the Workers’ Party (PT) and hope has turned to anger. Working class people have been hit by job losses, cutbacks in social services and attacks on pensions. Now the PT is expelling left-wing activists from the party. ANDRÉ FERRARI, from Socialismo Revolucionário – the CWI’s Brazil affiliate – reports on moves to form a new left party.

‘I AM NOT saying that the dream is over, but I think I dreamed the wrong dream’. Those were the words of Fernando Gabeira, former Workers’ Party (PT – Partido dos Trabalhadores) federal deputy from Rio de Janeiro. He has just announced his resignation from the party in protest against the environmental policy of the government led by president Luis Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva.

The last straw for Gabeira was the decision to allow genetically modified (GM) seeds to be planted. The PT has always opposed this: it is a key issue for several social movements including the Landless Workers Movement (MST – Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra). Besides environmental and public health risks, allowing transgenic soybeans in Brazil will mean profits of over $100 million a year for Monsanto alone, with losses for small farmers and the national economy.

Gabeira was never among the ‘radical’ PT members, the ones who insist on maintaining the PT as a combative, class-based and anti-capitalist party. The PT and the Lula government have converted to the religion of capital and neo-liberalism and there is widespread dissatisfaction. There is now a big debate on the Brazilian left on the need to build a new mass party of the working class, learning the lessons of 23 years of the PT. Raising the banner of class independence, mass struggle and socialism is becoming more possible with each passing day.

After a year in government, Lula’s policies have deepened economic recession and provoked rising unemployment. High interest rates have attracted speculators and fuelled stock exchange euphoria. But life has only worsened for most people. The finance ministry predicts economic growth of less than 1% for 2003. During Lula’s administration alone, unemployment has risen by over 800,000 and is around 13%. Working conditions are deteriorating. Approximately 52% of the economically active population are not formally registered and have no rights. The number of these ‘informal’ workers has increased 15% over the last year.

At the same time, Brazil has paid more than 100 billion reais (about $33bn) in interest and charges on public debt this year. To raise this money, Lula increased the primary budget surplus (the difference between the state’s income from taxes etc over its public spending, before including interest charges) from 3.75% of gross domestic product (GDP) to 4.25% – a measure dictated by the IMF. Meanwhile, social spending dropped from 2.59% to 2.45% of GDP. But when it comes to mass layoffs in the auto industry, or privatised electricity companies on the verge of bankruptcy, the government’s attitude is to use public money to help them with tax breaks and soft loans.

The attack on pension provision, which was passed in parliament and is now awaiting the vote in the Senate, represents a huge step backwards. It cuts public sector employees’ rights and is designed to help square the budget while opening the road to mega profits for pension funds. Also, the tax ‘reform’ being debated in the Senate perpetuates unfair taxing and legitimates attacks on social spending. There is only one conclusion: Lula’s government is carrying out the policies of former president, Fernando Cardoso, by taking from the workers and giving to bankers, speculators and big business.

Besides the unacceptable economic policy, there are democratic issues, too. Conflicts on the land have sharpened as landowners have lashed out and the government has delayed land reform. It is unacceptable for there to be political prisoners, members of MST and other social movements on the land, under a government of the PT. It is inadmissible that so many landless activists are being killed and the murderers unpunished.

The Lula government has also refused to take legal measures to compel the armed forces to open secret files to find out what happened to the bodies of combatants in the Araguaia guerrilla movement, which was decimated in the 1970s. Torture, police violence, death squads and the violation of human rights are still commonplace.

Will the government change course?

SOME SECTIONS OF the left say this government and the PT are not yet completely lost. Lula’s foreign policy, they say, is an example of how it may move forward. It is true that the Brazilian government helped build the Group of 22 emerging countries at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) meeting in Cancún, Mexico. Recently, Lula and Argentinean president, Néstor Kirchner, also announced the moderate ‘Consensus of Buenos Aires’, supposedly an alternative to the neo-liberal ‘Washington Consensus’.

In a period of economic stagnation and heightened strains in international relations, even bourgeois governments have been forced to take positions contrary to the IMF and imperialism. The Lula government, however, is not the best example of this. Argentina has been forced to suspend debt payments, control capital flow and reject the worst IMF impositions. But that does not mean that Kirchner could be won over to a consistent left policy. Lula has not even come close to Kirchner’s position. In fact, Lula was one of the few Latin American presidents who did not openly side with Argentina when it announced the moratorium on debt repayment that forced the IMF to renegotiate. Lula even vetoed a sentence in the Consensus of Buenos Aires that spoke of the two countries making an effort to pay their debts, but refusing to accept additional sacrifices for society – he thought it was too radical!

On the issue of the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA), the Brazilian government oscillates between defending a ‘FTAA-lite’ position and the acceptance of US impositions. The proposal to break off negotiations for the FTAA and not sign the agreement in any situation, which was supported by over eleven million Brazilians in a plebiscite held last year, is not even being debated in the government.

Only the mass movement can impose a break with the FTAA, the IMF and imperialism. But to do that, it will have to defeat the Lula government’s current line. Under the pressure of the economic crisis and mass struggles, Lula may change policy, but he will never take a consistent anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist position. A workers’ alternative will have to be built.

The experience of the Lula government is causing turbulence on the left. Almost all groups have seen crises, splits and realignments. The leaders of the main tendencies on the PT left have been put on the spot by the leadership’s policies. Rank-and-file members are asking a lot of questions.

The critical moment in this process was the vote on pension ‘reform’. Most PT left deputies voted for it, with public criticisms. Eight deputies abstained (one of them later voted against in the second reading), and only three, known as the ‘radicals’, openly voted against it in the first and second votes. In the Senate, one PT senator, Heloísa Helena, from the state of Alagoas, is set to vote against it. The radicals (federal deputies Baba, Luciana Genro and João Fontes, plus Helena) will be expelled when the PT National Committee meets on 15-16 November.

The witch-hunt is spreading. São Carlos council member, Julieta Lui, has already been expelled for criticising the local administration and aligning with the radicals. The same may happen in other areas. Even the eight deputies who abstained on the pension vote, and who in general hold a more moderate position, got a two-month suspension.

The PT left is facing enormous restrictions in attempting to stand candidates for the 2004 local elections. Disregarding the PT’s own statutes, the São Paulo leadership rejected the pre-candidature of the left-winger, Plínio de Arruda Sampaio Júnior, who would have stood against the current mayor, Marta Suplicy, in internal primaries.

The PT leadership is running a campaign aimed at signing up hundreds of thousands of new members. Many will be opportunists and careerists joining the party of government for individual gain. In the 2004 municipal elections, the PT plans on making alliances with past capitalist enemies such as the PMDB, PTB, or PP, which now support the Lula government in Congress. Any PT left candidate will have to adapt to this opportunist policy or be blocked by the party machine.

A section of the PT left insists that the party is still up for grabs and can be rescued from the neo-liberals. They complain but respect the rules imposed by the leadership, vote with the government and against the workers, and they fear mixing with the radicals. Experience will show an important section of PT left activists that it is no longer possible to reorient the party on left-wing policies. The idea of building a new left party has already spread and will expand much more.

Movement for a new party

THE PT LEFTS who did not retreat under threats of sanctions and expulsions are now posing the issue of the need for a new party in a much clearer manner. Once expelled, the PT radicals will not insist on remaining in the PT structures, even if that were possible. So there is now a process of preparation to launch a movement for a new left party.

The political forces posing the task of building this new party have different origins and dynamics. There is a layer of leaders and public sector union activists who have already raised the construction of a new party. They are rank-and-file activists and leaders of teachers’ unions, judiciary employees, and workers in social security, and universities, etc. This is the most politically advanced sector which has drawn conclusions from the experience of the strike action against the Lula government’s pension ‘reform’. On a smaller scale, youth activists, private sector unions, and various urban and rural social movements are involved.

Then there are political organisations that have already begun to coordinate the task of building an alternative to the PT. From the PT itself there are the radicals, currents such as CST (Socialist Workers’ Current), MES (Socialist Left Movement) and SR (Revolutionary Socialism – the Brazilian section of CIO/CWI), as well as regional groups. There are also people splitting from moderate left PT tendencies.

Outside the PT, the PSTU (Unified Socialist Workers’ Party), which split from the PT in 1992/93, also poses the need for a new party, although in a different way to the other organisations. New formations are appearing, such as Socialist Resistance (PRS), a grouping of former PSTU and PT members in the state of Pernambuco in the northeast of Brazil. Organisations that have split from the PT are also participating. This is the case of MTL (Land, Labor and Freedom Movement – the fruit of a split from the PSTU), combined with other mainly rural movements.

Senator Heloísa Helena is particularly important for the process of construction of a new party. She is a member of Socialist Democracy (DS – internationally, the United Secretariat of the Fourth International), a tendency of the PT. However, her position is to the left of the DS, which is part of the government in the shape of Miguel Rosseto, the Minister for Agrarian development. He is responsible for land ‘reform’, and has completely failed to address the problems facing the landless workers and poor peasants, one of the greatest disappointments of the Lula government so far.

Unlike the DS leadership, Helena has said that she will vote against the pension bill in the Senate. She will be expelled and so will not be able to stand for mayor of Maceió, the state capital of Alagoas, where she leads the opinion polls.

Some in the PT want a milder punishment for Helena than for the three radical deputies. But she has consistently said that she will not accept a different punishment and that, if she is expelled, she will start over and help build a political alternative of the left. Helena’s full engagement in a movement to construct a new party would greatly strengthen that process. She has become nationally known for her resistance to the rightward-shift of the PT and the Lula government’s adaptation to the IMF and the rich elite.

What kind of party?

AMONG THE SECTIONS already starting to work towards setting up a new party, and even among those who have not clearly taken this road but who understand that this task will be posed sooner or later, there is a debate on what kind of party should be built. The proposal of most of the groups involved is for a left party with a clear anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist policy and socialist orientation. This means a party that prioritises struggle and not only elections. It would need to revive the most progressive aspects of the original PT, and learn from the experience of its 23-year history.

The new party should be based on a left programme unifying groups splitting from the PT, and be inclusive in nature, capable of attracting broad sections of the working class and poor, and winning mass influence. The party must guarantee internal democracy, the right of tendencies and respect for different trends. Unity could develop through the experience of united work and winning confidence among the different sections.

The party should take up positions on the main issues, while respecting the rights of minority positions. It could bring together different left currents that would otherwise be dispersed and fragmented. Within this framework, revolutionary Marxists could defend their positions in an organised manner, taking up any reformist illusions, democratically and fraternally putting forward the position that the party should take a truly revolutionary course. This is the way to avoid the new party being used exclusively by one of its components to build its own membership, which would mean no longer being a genuinely new formation with mass influence.

The proposal presented by the PSTU is a sure way of aborting the process. The PSTU calls for a strictly centralised structure with the immediate dissolution of component organisations and the acceptance of the PSTU programme (which the PSTU considers the maximum expression of a revolutionary programme). The PSTU proposes opening up a long discussion process among all sections involved in the new party. After that, a decision would be taken for either full unification of the organisations in a centralised party or for separation. This would stop the construction of the new party getting underway by 2004 and reflects the narrow interests of the PSTU.

A substantial group of cadres recently split from the PSTU, rejecting this policy in relation to the new party and the PSTU’s exaggerated analysis of what it calls the ‘world revolutionary situation’ today. The PSTU has had difficulty engaging with the PT rank and file, and problems of its internal regime also helped precipitate the split.

The defence of a broad party capable of attracting different sectors and gaining mass influence, however, should not lead us to convert the possible limitations and temporary problems of the new party into virtues. There is great pressure on sections of the left to definitively abandon the concept of the revolutionary party and the idea of democratic centralism. If our strategic perspective is the revolutionary transformation of society, we must forge an instrument capable of the task – a revolutionary and socialist workers’ party. The formation of a new mass workers’ party in Brazil has the potential to take an enormous step forward in this direction.


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