On the Rise of Lula

Against the Current, No. 104, May/June 2003

Francisco T. Sobrino

IT IS TOO early at this writing (February 4, 2003) to definitely characterize the victory of the Workers Party (PT) candidate Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva in presidential polls in the biggest Latin American country, population 175 million, and the world’s ninth-largest economy.

This electoral triumph reflected a longing for changes in Brazilian society, exhausted by a whole decade of neoliberal experiences, with 52 million people living below the “poverty line.” On its face, then, it may be considered a major defeat of neoliberalism. Voting for Lula, for millions of Brazilians, held a deeply symbolic charge.

Lula’s parents were very poor nordestinos (Brazilian northeasterners). Aged seven, Lula fled with his mother and seven brothers from famine in their home town in the state of Pernambuco, and was sent to work instead of to school. Lula rose from street trader boy to mechanic to leader of the car workers’ union in Sao Paulo, the biggest industrial city of Brazil, organizing some of the most important workers’ struggles against the bosses and the military dictatorship in the late 1970s.

To vote for candidate Lula was considered therefore as a revenge taken by the losers, the humbled and despised people of Brazil, suggesting the revival of a class political instinct or conscience.

The PT’s electoral weight reflects, and at the same time influences, a growing alteration in the relationship of forces in the Latin American arena. These changes, arising in the late nineties, are developing nowadays with such events as the social revolt in Argentina; the electoral influence of peasant leader Evo Morales and mobilizations in Bolivia; a triumph at polls in Ecuador of a military-Indian coalition; mass mobilizations defeating a pro-imperialist coup in Venezuela; and combative demonstrations against privatizations of public utilities in Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay.

This picture shows a remarkable weakening of neoliberal rule across the Latin American continent, and thus clearly more favorable conditions for the exploited masses in their struggle against capitalism. But this is a contradictory process with different paces in every country.

Brazil is far behind its neighbors: The last country to come aboard the neoliberal ship, it is now perhaps the last in wanting to leave it. Economic liberalization and globalization in Brazil have imposed new production processes and hiring arrangements, deindustrializing some manufacturing branches and provoking industrial unemployment, thereby weakening the labor movement.

These facts could explain the apparently contradictory case of Latin America’s biggest left-wing party winning the presidential polls, without any noticeable reactivation of class struggle.

The PT arose in the early 1980s. A metalworkers’ union congress in Sao Paulo, 1979, voted a proposition to build a workers party, “without capitalists,” rejecting any form of bourgeois political manipulation of the exploited masses. An alliance between independent union leaders and “union oppositions,” whose members worked outside the bureaucratic unions and were linked either to Trotskyist and other leftist groups, or to progressive wings of the Brazilian Catholic Church, gave rise to the new Workers Party.

The early PT, with a wide social base among the working class, a section of the middle classes and a decisive influence in the unions, advocated a society “without exploiters or exploited,” and was committed to strive until “economic and political power will be directly performed by the workers.”

But for the PT’s mainstream these statements only meant class independence and radical opposition to the military dictatorship. PT was not considered by its founders a revolutionary party in the Marxist classic meaning. Nevertheless, these features appealed to thousands of young and labor militants, as well to progressive intellectuals, fed up with the bureaucratism and immobilism of Brazil’s traditional left.

The PT’s political structure was a reflection of the mainly spontaneous strike wave that undermined the Brazilian military regime. Repudiating any kind of collaboration with the bourgeoisie, and trusting in rank and file power, gave rise to a profound transformation of politics within the working class.

These spontaneous class practices informed a theoretical spontaneity, so that the absence of more precise strategic definitions was considered as a major virtue of the PT. At the party’s first congress, Lula replied to those who asked about the ideology and socialist conception of the party that “these questions only express distrust in Brazilian workers’ political ability of defining their own path.”

In 1983, a new union federation (CUT) was created by the PT. The party’s labor branches, which used to play a major role within the PT apparatus, were then transferred to CUT. A sort of division of labor took place in which the CUT had direct links with the labor movement, whereas the PT leadership was principally devoted to parliamentary politics.

The theoretical spontaneity that nurtured the reorganization of the political and labor movement of the oppressed classes enjoyed a short lifetime, and could not bear the weight of the PT’s electoral successes. From two mayors in 1982, the number of PT representatives grew to 2,485 town councilors and 187 mayors (2000), six of them in state capitals, including Sao Paulo.

In national elections, it grew from eight federal deputies [parliamentary representatives –ed.] in 1982 to 16 in 1986, 35 in 1990, 49 in 1994, 58 in 1998 and 91 deputies in 2002. Its ascent within the state apparatus was followed by strengthening of the party’s bureaucracy, increasingly isolated from rank-and-file militants.

Throughout the 1980s, the rank and file militant centers were increasingly replaced by electoral committees. This transformation was reflected in the attendance composition of the PT meetings. In the 11th National Meeting (1997), political professionals were nearly 60% of delegates (composed by deputies: 18%; deputies’ advisers: 13%; salaried militants of the social movements: 9%; state or town officials: 8%; PT’s salaried leaders: 6%; internal tendencies’ salaried militants: 2%; party advisers: 1%; mayors or governors: 1%).

Only 31% of the total of delegates were not political professionals (the remaining 9% had unknown occupation). This apparatchik structure then influenced party politics. The early years’ pragmatic class approach faded away and gave way to a state rationale, founded on the massive number of representatives, mayors, governors and their entourage of advisers.

This rationale rests on a conception of the state as a neutral form, supposedly alien to class determinations or influences, and easily accommodating to new social and political contents introduced by its leaders. Realpolitik pervaded party life, its congresses’ resolutions and mainly its leader’s political practices.

This process was not easy nor simple. Bitter conflicts arose within the party, with expulsions and adoption of censure on divergences or criticisms, especially those coming from the PT left wing.

At the 1st Congress of PT (1991), a high official argued that “political democracy cannot be simply understood as a means in order to achieve social democracy . . . but an end in itself. A strategic and permanent value. If this is a social democrat thesis, well, let us be social democrats.”

A final Congress resolution following long discussions stated that socialism was conceived as a combination of “state planning and a socially guided market.” According to this definition, PT’s socialism became a solid foundation for a capitalist agenda in order to supersede the crisis of the neoliberal model.

Little wonder that Guido Mantega, the new Planning Minister and one of Lula’s close advisers briefed: “I would say that the PT is a modern left party, like France’s Socialist Party, or Britain’s Labor Party, or the Italian left. We look for a more efficient, humanized capitalism.”

In “overnment Agenda 2002 — Lula President Coalition,” the PT’s program mainly rests on the implementation of “a new social contract,” tutored by a sort of social-liberal state. In a Lula administration, this kind of social-liberal state would supposedly warrant a mediation between market requirements and social demands, that is, between ruling-class interests and those of subordinate strata, by way of a new social contract.

The PT government will also try to be a arbiter between those who call for labor passivity (the social bloc articulated by former neoliberal government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso) and class struggle advocates: MST (landless peasant movement), CUT’s radical wing and left political groupings inside or outside PT.

From the PT’s discourse flows the old reformist pretension of a “common fate” integrating the classes in a national development project, and promoting class collaboration between workers and bourgeoisie. Lula has announced as priority in his program the project “Zero Hunger.”

As Frei Betto (current coordinator of mobilization for the project) says, “the project aims to meaningfully reduce the social exclusion that has made of Brazil one of the three most unjust countries in the world.” This announcement has triggered a wide debate in the media, and full support from the establishment and the World Bank, whose president James Wolfensohn stated to be enthusiastic about the project “Zero Hunger.”

No doubt the program aims to solve a dramatic problem for Brazil’s poor. But the way the government is going to solve it is accepting IMF-imposed budget limitations. Lula will seek to trim money from existing spending programs and postpone old social commitments in order to divert funds to the new project. Hence the mobilization of resources will not proceed beyond what was at the disposal of the former government.

Inasmuch as “Zero Hunger” is a “priority” of PT’s social policy, the rest of its electoral promises, such as big raises in the minimum wage (today, some U.S.$70 a month) and in public servants’ pay will go unkept.

In this way, the project “Zero Hunger” helps the neoliberal rationale of administration of the social crisis to gain a popular appeal, and to reduce the possible conflicts of PT with the working classes. As Jose Dirceu, former PT president, said: “Lula’s commitment was to double the minimum wage in four years. You should not forget that this proposal was made by the PT in an economic setting and with a budget situation that no longer exists.”

At the same time the new government nominated Henrique Meirelles, formerly BankBoston’s international CEO, as president of Central Bank; Luiz Furlan, a manufacturer’s leader as head of the Development Office; and Roberto Rodrigues, an agribusiness representative, as Secretary of Agriculture.

Of course, the left wing of PT toughly criticizes this move. The PT’s left is divided in several groups, and its total influence ranges from 25-30% of congresses’ delegates and a similar weight in its parliamentary bloc.

The biggest left grouping is the Trotskyist “Democracia Socialista,” linked to the Fourth International (Unified Secretariat), with close to 10% of delegates. DS considers that although the political evolution of PT is going “bad,” it remains the unavoidable point of reference for Brazilian workers, and that inside the PT a very broad space still exists for left politics. But it remains yet to be seen if the PT’s left will be able to prevent the alliance of Lula’s government with the Brazilian “developmentalist” bourgeoisie, or oppose the drift to “look for a more efficient, humanized capitalism.”

Busily managing the present, the PT may end up colliding with the masses’ hopes in the future, hopes awakened by Lula’s sweeping electoral victory. What will the Brazilian left do then?

ATC 104, May-June 2003