Brazil - The evolution of the Workers' Party

Jan/Feb 1999

The Brazilian presidential election took place last October. There was no need for a second round as the outgoing centre-left president, Cardoso, who had the support of most of the right-wing parties, won an absolute majority and was therefore re-elected for four years.

This election took place against the background of the world monetary crisis. After the collapse of the Far East stock markets, speculation shifted to Latin America and particularly to Brazil, the main industrial power on the sub-continent and the eighth biggest in the world. The Brazilian currency, attacked by speculators, managed to resist, more or less, at the cost of drying up the country's exchange reserves. But the economy is now in recession, bankruptcy threatens and the government is trying to impose drastic austerity measures on the population which, among other things, will reduce welfare provisions significantly.

Cardoso was the architect of the monetary stabilisation plan which ended galloping inflation in 1994. Under his presidency, monetary stability brought a certain prosperity for the middle classes, who were able once again to obtain credit and consumer goods, apartments, cars, etc., while the increase in the cost of living and unemployment hit the poor population. His re-election shows that a considerable proportion of the electorate would like this to continue rather than risk a return to the past economic instability.

As in the previous presidential election, in 1994, Cardoso's main rival was Lula, the candidate of the People's Union. This alliance brought together the Workers' Party (the PT, which has been led for a long time by Lula) and a number of other smaller parties with a social-democratic or ex-Stalinist background. In addition Lula had other supporters, such as former president Collor - a right-winger who beat Lula in 1989 and did not have the right to stand again - who supported him as the candidate most likely to win the vote against Cardoso.

This time, Lula won 35% of the vote, compared to 27% in 1994 (when he was also facing a social-democratic candidate) and 47% in the second round of the 1989 election (when his only opponent was the conservative candidate Collor).

With around a quarter of the total vote across the country, the Workers' Party is probably the biggest political party in Brazil, and certainly the one with the greatest influence among the working class. However, one has to ask what is the real content of its influence and on what policy is it based. All the more so as for most far left revolutionary groups, both in Brazil and worldwide, the Workers' Party has been seen, if not as a proletarian revolutionary party, at least as a party largely representing the interests of workers and therefore different, from this point of view, from the reformist, social democratic or Stalinist parties.

In reality, although the conditions in which it came into being in 1979, under the dictatorship, and its dynamic growth in the early days of its existence were enough to raise hopes and open up possibilities, it has changed considerably since then.

The origins of a specific type of reformist party

It was during the military dictatorship, between 1964 and 1985, that Brazilian industry and the Brazilian working class made a leap forward. The "Brazilian miracle" led to annual growth rates of 10% and the development of new industries: iron and steel, car manufacturing, oil, chemicals, aviation and telecommunications. Plants employing tens of thousands of workers were built. A new working class emerged, arriving from the countryside without political or trade union traditions.

Exploitation, however, proved to be a very effective school and the Brazilian working class quickly learned about class struggle, despite repression by the bosses and the dictatorship. In the course of these struggles, a radical current inspired by left-wing tendencies in the Catholic Church (the so-called "liberation theology") and European social-democracy, emerged within the union bureaucracy which, for forty years, had been closely linked to the state. The best known figure in this radical current was Lula, the president of the metalworkers' union of Sao Bernardo in the suburbs of Sao Paulo, the country's economic capital. In 1978 and 1979, he led hundreds of thousands of industrial workers striking for wage rises.

These events took place against the background of the military's preparation to hand over power to civilian politicians, with the support of the USA and most of the Brazilian bourgeoisie. However, Lula and the union leaders around him did not feel they could be represented by the parties which were being created as a result of the liberalisation. So, in 1979, they created the Workers' Party in order to play a role on the political scene and tilt the law- making process to the unions' benefit.

Even though most revolutionary activists, particularly Trotskyists, took part in the construction of this party and often played a prominent role in it, its main leaders, Lula and the trade-union figures, did not claim to be setting up a proletarian revolutionary party. They did not aim to organise the working class with the goal of a revolutionary transformation of society.

Was is possible, at the time - given the explosive social contradictions and the scale of mobilisation of its working class - to have led this party to move forward and push its leadership toward revolutionary positions, or produce another leadership embodying a different policy? That is an open question. The fact is that the party's core leadership had shown, right from the beginning, its desire and its ability to control the workers' struggles and to deny them any control over its own policy.

The Workers' Party claimed to be a democratic party welcoming all tendencies. But this internal democracy worked mainly in favour of right-wing tendencies, which were soon reinforced by politicians who joined it from the established parties. They could speak and act independently without any discipline being imposed on them. By contrast, the party's left-wing tendencies, which comprised about 10% of its membership, were expected to abide by its discipline and often subjected to attempts at limiting or suppressing their freedom of expression.

While at its inception the Workers' Party had run working class candidates in elections and pushed itself to the fore as the only party where workers' interests would be represented by the kind of people who understood them, it used its initial successes to transform itself into a party that could appear respectable and responsible in the eyes of the national and international bourgeoisie and make inroads into the middle class electorate.

These traits, were already clearly visible in the Workers Party's policy in the 1980s. For instance, after the disappointing 3.2% won by the Workers' Party in the 1982 election, it was argued its slogan "Worker vote for a worker" had alienated potential voters. As a result, in the next election in 1985, the Workers' Party ran mainly middle class candidates and focused on issues like citizenship, social justice, etc.. rather than working class exploitation. Already the Workers' Party was beginning to look much more like a social-democratic party. By 1989, when Lula almost won the presidential election, this was thanks to alliances made to his right - with the "real" social- democratic party, the PDT - which meant the watering down of the Workers' Party's policies particularly on the issue of the huge national debt and on agrarian reform. Not only that, but during the election campaign, Lula tried to distance himself from the Workers' Party, presenting himself as a "statesman", above all classes.

During the nineties these tendencies in the Workers' Party have become entrenched. It has, through alliances with established politicians, obtained a significant number of positions for such candidates - largely from the intellectual and petty-bourgeois milieu - as mayors, deputies, governors. In effect, it has indeed established itself as a "respectable" party in the context of a right-wing, anti-popular and anti-worker drift in Brazilian society.

Democracy? Not for oppositionists

The days when everyone could say what he thought and do almost anything he liked inside the Workers' Party are now long gone. The party leadership never wanted this freedom. It tolerated it sometimes, for example, because revolutionary tendencies (all the Trotskyist groups have been in the Workers' Party and many are still within its ranks) enabled it to gain a foothold in new regions, win control over new unions, etc.. It was also obliged to put up with this freedom to some extent because its party machinery was too weak to silence or expel oppositionists.

Right from its early days, the Workers Party had deputies at state level and even federal level. From 1988 onward, however, it found itself in control of major town councils, i.e. in charge of running these towns. One of its leaders, Jorge Bittar, said in 1992: "We won influence in this power game from 1988 onward with victory in a few major cities such as Sao Paulo and Porto Alegre. I am absolutely convinced that no one is afraid of the Workers' Party any more". By 1990, the Workers' Party had 36 federal deputies and around a hundred deputies at state level.

Winning these positions as mayors of large cities (Sao Paulo has a population of ten million) and deputies, and then as state governors, gave the Workers' Party the financial and social means to set up a machinery made up of full-time officials cut off from its rank-and-file supporters. It is these notables and the professionals in municipal, regional, and other apparatuses who determine its policy.

Rank-and-file activists, reduced to the role of paper members or sympathisers, came to be mobilised only at election time. By 1996, it was noted that the party had to pay its activists in order to ensure that they would campaign outside polling booths, thereby showing that the membership's dedication was no longer what it had been. On the other hand, the party apparatus is in a position to blossom. For instance, in the town of Santo André, out of the 6,500 civil servants working for the town council, 813 have "positions of trust", of whom 320 are directly appointed by the Workers' Party mayor, who can thus award jobs to his loyal supporters.

In the event of an internal conflict, the leadership can mobilise this apparatus to crush oppositionists. This happened in 1992 to "Socialist Convergence", a Trotskyist tendency linked to the LIT (International Workers' League). The country was then in uproar over revelations concerning the corruption of President Collor. Hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated in the major cities. Socialist Convergence took part in these demonstrations with banners reading "Collor out" and they argued that the party should adopt this slogan. The party leadership, however, wanted to play according to parliamentary rules. Eventually, Collor was indicted and impeached. But, in the meantime, Socialist Convergence, had been expelled from the party for indiscipline.

The great fear of the Workers' Party leadership, spurred on by the mass media, is what it calls the "Shiites", i.e. One of the party leaders revealed in a magazine interview in 1994: "I'm afraid the radicals are hindering Lula's campaign. They are doing the Workers' Party a lot of harm". The truth is that beneath their self-professed pro-Marxist stance, pro-Castroite and formerly pro-Chinese and pro-Eastern Europe sympathies, the party leaders have always been anti-communist, despite the red star on their emblems. And red is in fact used less and less as the party's colour on its banners and posters.

The witch-hunt against oppositionists has prompted some of them to toe the line as far as possible in the hope of going unnoticed. Some have ended up being integrated in the leading group as a result. Thus, at the end of the 1980s, most of the leadership of one of the party's Trotskyist tendencies (the OSI, which published the review O Trabalho) joined "Articulation", the leading group linked to Lula.

The "regulations on tendencies" are increasingly strictly applied. This prohibits "the publication of brochures, journals, reviews or other means of communication aimed at organising political intervention in the union movement, in current affairs, and/or at propagating the positions of tendencies external to the Workers' Party". To avoid sanctions, these tendencies end up minimising or hiding their differences and their criticisms. Thus the tendency linked to the United Secretariat of the IVth International thinks that the Workers' Party's alliances with the bourgeois parties are a bad thing. In its review, however, criticism of the alliance with the social- democratic PDT is limited to the fact that the Workers' Party did not get a fair deal out of the negotiation.

A party more interested in elections than militant action

After the local elections of 1988 and the presidential elections of 1989, where Lula nearly won a majority, the Workers' Party turned into an electoralist party which lived and acted mainly with a view to the next elections. Because of this, even if the tradition of bringing together all activists and sympathisers to choose local and regional candidates has been retained, the choice is less and less free and less and less complied with by the party leadership.

In 1992, the party replaced the old way of selecting candidates by means of a public vote in general meetings with secret ballots under the pretext of getting more people to participate and therefore of being more democratic - which shows that Blair's "new" Labour did not invent this "old" manoeuvre.

The Workers' Party prefers to be represented by intellectuals or petty bourgeois whenever the position in question involves a certain level of responsibility. Already in 1985, the General Secretary of the Workers' Party offered the following justification: "There are many workers who do not vote for other workers because they are too much like themselves. And as workers feel incapable, they think that people like themselves will also be incapable of solving their problems". The Workers' Party candidate for the Sao Paulo government this year used this as an argument: "I came from the employers' class, from the bourgeoisie, and I am a member of the Workers' Party. My background means I can run Sao Paulo in a way that has never existed before".

In addition, the Workers' Party, in its quest to form alliances, is increasingly willing to call on people to vote for the candidates of openly bourgeois parties. As one of its leaders explained in 1994: "The Workers' Party has the choice between two clear paths: broadening its alliances, with a programme which does not trouble the other parties or the exercise of government. Or else believing that Lula will govern on the sole basis of social mobilisation". He added of course that choosing the second path would be a mistake: "I do not see any possibility of carrying out reforms in the country without a union between the Workers' Party and the PSDB" - that is president Cardoso's party, which, although social-democratic in name, came to existence as a splinter group of the main centre- right party.

The party leadership's policy in this respect has resulted in many clashes with the membership. For instance, in Recife in Pernambouc state, the Workers' Party supported the local governor, Arraes (leader of the PSB - Socialist Party of Brazil) who was compromised in corruption scandals. A Workers' Party deputy in the state even declared: "The Workers' Party in Pernambouc has several tasks. The first is to reverse the opposition to Arraes in the capital zone. The second is to prevent looting (by the hungry) from destabilising the Arraes government. (...) Lula is the only person capable of getting governor Arraes re-elected". But a large proportion of Workers' Party activists expressed their opposition by chanting in public rallies: "Arraes, senile old man, Pinochet of Pernambouc!".

Uncontrolled elected representatives

In the Workers' Party as in conventional social- democracy, or even more recently in the Stalinist parties, elected representatives behave independently from the party, exercising their power as they see fit, without complying either with the principles or with the instructions of the party. In the event of conflict, they constantly threaten to resign, with the losses of money, influence and full-time positions which this would entail for the party. In such cases, the Workers' Party usually plays for time and tries to forget all about it, even when its own activists are leading protests against the abuses of an administrator elected on its ticket. Thus the Mayor of Vitoria, Victor Buaiz, complained in 1991 that in the town council "the Workers' Party group is leading the opposition to the Workers' Party", i.e. to himself. Meanwhile, the mayor of a town in the state of Bahia noted bitterly: "The Workers' Party activist has two joys. The first is when he gets a Workers' Party mayor elected. The second is when he manages to get him expelled from the party".

Winning control of Sao Paulo, the economic capital, was proof of the Workers' Party's electoral success. One journalist even wrote at the time that Luiza Erundina, the town's new Workers' Party mayor, "brings the extraordinary novelty of impregnating power in Brazil with the smell of the people". But with or without "the smell of the people", the town's authorities under the party's administration behaved with the same anti-working class brutality as before. Luiza Erundina broke strikes, particularly those of the bus drivers in 1992, with sackings, arrests and police baton charges.

In fact, she went much further, by joining the federal government as Secretary of State in 1993. Her participation in a government which the Workers' Party was fighting, at least in theory, posed certain problems. José Dirceu, who was General Secretary of the party at the time, proposed: "Either we suspend her affiliation, or she takes leave of the party". For him, there was not even any question of expulsion even if the left wing of the Workers' Party was demanding it. She was briefly suspended in February 1993 until being dismissed from government in May after only four months. And Lula then became indignant about this "indelicate, coarse and cowardly" dismissal and asserted: "If I have my way, comrade Luiza Erundina will be reintegrated in the party". As for the former Secretary of State, she had the nerve to say shortly afterwards, to fighting public sector workers: "I have left the ministry, I have not left the struggle". As if, in the ministry, she had conducted the struggle for them and not against them, when she advocated the end of job security for public sector workers.

The case of Luiza Erundina was not isolated. For instance, the current governor of the Federal District of Brasilia, also a member of the Workers' Party, sacked workers in public companies and also broke strikes with police baton charges. In August 1997, he had 10,000 inhabitants of a shanty town removed and their shacks destroyed.

On the other hand, it is fair to point out that some of the Workers' Party's elected representatives encourage some degree of control by the population and the party's activists. An example of this is provided by the "participative budget" developed by the party-controlled town council in Porto Alegre, the capital of Rio Grande do Sul. This "participative budget" consists in getting assemblies of citizens together in neighbourhoods to discuss priorities concerning the social investments of the town council, which commits itself to implement the chosen projects. However popular initiative is restricted to the social sector, which no doubt motivates the population more easily but represents only around a tenth of the municipal budget. The control of the poor population over the economy is another matter entirely.

Servile to the bourgeoisie and imperialism

The first generation of Workers' Party activists was very proud of its attacks on the bourgeoisie and imperialism. And the leadership apparently willingly took up these themes, including in the image presented by Lula - an unrefined suburban worker with a shaggy beard and rough-and-ready manners, newly arrived from his half-starved Nordeste.

Today, however, the Workers' Party is striving to appear responsible. For instance, it now does everything it can to avoid being associated with the struggle of landless peasants. And yet the leaders of the Landless People's Movement (MST), who are carrying out occupations of vacant land throughout the country, belong to the Workers' Party, and even to its leadership, just as the farm workers' union activists who are murdered daily by thugs hired by the big landowners.

But Lula plays down the agrarian problem, claiming that he will, once in power, carry out the agrarian reform "at the stroke of a pen". But what he has in mind is the continuation of the agrarian reform as it is currently being conducted, at a snail's pace, in compliance with the Constitution and with compensation for the Latifunda owners. On the other hand, Lula has cancelled his planned participation in rallies of the Landless Peasants' Movement, in order not to risk being accused of supporting land occupations or looting of food.

The policies proposed by Lula and the Workers' Party are marked by a deep respect for capitalism. One of its leaders told a pro-Lula bosses' committee in 1994: "Anyone who wants to produce will have the government's support, for we are not opposed to someone who wants to make money, but we want them to make money by creating jobs".

For workers, on the other hand, the Workers' Party's proposals are illustrated by statements such as this one, made by a union leader linked to the party: "Brazilian workers have understood that the priority is not, properly speaking, defending wages but defending jobs. And the inevitable conclusion is that the union's struggle is no longer against the boss but against the threat of unemployment".

This policy has already resulted in a host of company agreements, such as that at Mercedes (over sub-contracting), at Ford and Scania (over flexibility), which all include... redundancies! And the list is getting longer. In early 1998, a similar agreement at the Volkswagen site in Sao Bernardo (which employs over 20,000 workers), has cut 4,000 jobs, reduced overtime payment by half, the supplement for night shifts by 5% and the workers' annual income by 8%, while imposing flexibility.

The party's mayors, meanwhile, are quite capable of advocating wage cuts for municipal workers in order to "reduce costs" and avoid further redundancies, as the mayor of Santo Andre did in 1997, after firing 549 public sector workers.

Privatisations are another area in which the Workers' Party's retreat can be observed. In 1991, Lula was already recommending a "pluralist social democratic system in which it is not necessary to nationalise the production sectors apart from the strategic ones". Hypocritically, another party leader claimed: "We must discuss what it is essential to put in the state's hands and what is not essential. With what is not essential, we must undertake clear processes of privatisation".

The Brazilian and imperialist bourgeoisie did not wait for these fine words before making inroads into national companies. And the Workers' Party covered them. When, last summer, the national telecommunications company, Telebras, was sold in twelve pieces, for $22bn, Lula contented himself with advocating the maintaining of a single company involving the state, private investors, pension funds, etc., adding: "The state must reserve a strategic presence for itself, leaving the other associates to conduct business directly"... and no doubt also to reap the profits.

These gestures to the bourgeoisie have met with some favourable responses among the bosses. While, in the 1980s, the Brazilian employers' confederation brandished the threat of hundreds of thousands of businessmen leaving the country if Lula won the election, Lula is now wooed by some of its leading lights - for instance the chairman of the Votorantim group, one of the country's biggest industrialists.

Even with regard to imperialism and Brazil's foreign debt, the Workers' Party no longer has a radical position. The trade-union and party leader Vicentinho indicated that "foreign capital must not be the victim of discrimination". Meanwhile the Workers' Party mayor of Porto Alegre wrote in 1994: "We want the integration of Porto Alegre in the world market to serve to generate investment capable of stimulating employment and ensuring that the technological revolution can have favourable spin-offs for the city's population".

With regard to foreign debt to imperialist countries, Lula said in 1989: "We will suspend the payment of foreign debt. In a country where the population is hungry, we cannot afford the luxury of filling the banker's belly at the expense of our children's bellies". Lula and those he was addressing knew what talking means: suspending does not mean cancelling. Translated into last year's election language, this became, in the words of another party leader: "If Lula is elected, he will honour all the country's contracts and debt agreements".

Appearing respectable in the eyes of the armed forces was probably one of the Workers' Party's first priorities. Even the bourgeois press no longer has any quarrels with it in this respect. His defence programme is worked out in collaboration with the army. He promises them that current projects for nuclear submarines, space missions and military aviation will be continued. A general asserted in 1994: "There is no mutual sympathy in the rapprochement between the Workers' Party and the army. It's pure pragmatism". But while the Workers' Party's efforts do not make the army any more friendly to it, the reverse is not true, as was shown, for instance, by Luiza Erundina who, during her short term in government, managed to find the time to offer the army salary increases not linked to general public sector increases, and, of course, higher.

In its early days the Workers' Party refused to be described as revolutionary and already had, in spite of the radical language of some of its activists, many of the features of classical reformism. But since its first major election successes, in 1988-1989, it increasingly clearly displayed its respect for bourgeois society and values and adopted the internal habits which enabled it to resist any potential pressure from its working class base.

Things have now reached the point where, in the aftermath of the 1998 presidential election, there is talk of refounding the party, or of a new party of the centre left. Last October, a Brazilian review quoted Lula himself as saying that "we need to create a new Workers' Party", while another party leader added "we must ally ourselves with the contemporary left".

Whatever the situation regarding these projects, for Brazilian revolutionaries the essential task is still to open the eyes of those in the working class and popular masses who continue to feel close to the Workers' Party, to combat their illusions and offer them the clear alternative of a revolutionary party and a class policy.

4 January 1999