Lessons from the Brazilian Workers’ Party

Brazilian politics is in flux, with a dramatic and alarming rise of the radical right. To help understand the background to how this came about, Brazilian socialist Andressa Alegre examines the experience of the governments led by Brazil’s Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT) between 2003 and 2016.

(Lula during the rise of the PT, before it abandoned socialism and moved to the right)

The PT was founded during the military dictatorship, in the conflict againstthe dictatorship of 1964-85. It came out of the union movement, mostly in São Paulo, and the steelworkers’ union. Luiz Inácio da Silva, known as Lula, the first PT Federal President – who was the favourite to win again this time, but was jailed and disqualified from running – came from the steelworkers’ union.

It was a very radical party. In 1988 it said that the way to end Brazil’s external debt was to nationalise the banks and Brazil’s mineral wealth. It promised a big land reform.

Between the time the party started in the 1980s and when it first formed a government in 2003, it lost a lot of its basic politics. The ideology of the party became more and more washed-out, and when Lula was elected president, it was on the basis of slogans like “Hope will defeat fear”.

By then people no longer expected socialism from the PT, but they expected land reform: the movement of landless workers was big. They expected an end to corruption and taxation of the rich to build a welfare state.

During the PT governments about 20 million people came out of extreme poverty. Many workers previously “informal” gained formal employment status. Lula expanded massively the Bolsa Familia, a benefits system which gives a certain amount of money to families depending on how much money they have, the only condition being that their children attend school.

Lula was more popular at the end of his administration, in 2011, than when he got in, which almost never happens. But resentments built up on the right. You hear well-off people saying, “You can’t find the help any more” (about domestic servants).

The government was able to do what it did because of favourable economic conditions. It had money to spend on benefit systems, but also made deals with big landowners. The landless workers’ movement MST still protects the PT, but says that the PT government was not good for land reforms.

Inside the PT, the internal life is not great. An internal web-forum was set up to discuss the PT’s policy, and then there were fewer meetings. Activists are no longer responsible for political campaigning, which has been outsourced to private companies. The PT now only exists in industrial life, or industrial politics in the union movement. It is much less active on the streets.

The economic crisis from 2014, made it harder for the government to conciliate the ruling class with reforms. Yet the left is really disorganised. In 2013 we had really big demonstrations in Brazil, which were politically brainless. They called for better education and better healthcare, but they lacked the organisation to make a programme, or to criticise the government, or hold them to account instead of trying to throw out. Those two things together made the popularity of PT President Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s successor, fall massively.

The crisis made it much more difficult for the government to conciliate the needs of the ruling class and the working class. The massive unrest was not channelled by the left. The left was not organised to do that. The demonstrations became more and more right-wing and were led, especially in big cities, by the MBL movement, which is like the “Free Brazil” movement, a “neither-right-nor-left”, “new-politics” type of alliance.

The decline of the PT also left a vacuum in communities which was often filled by communalism and/or by Evangelical Christians, who have grown a lot and become a really big political power. This is part of why the extreme right is now resurgent.

The lessons for Labour should be: don’t sell out your principles in order to get into government. It is better to take the “long route” of persuading people of ideas instead of abandoning them in order to get into government.

Secondly, to maintain the internal life and democracy of the party. Do that to maintain your principles and shape policy, and also to hold leaders to account once they are in government.

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