Year Zero 1989: two Trotskyisms and the workers’ movement in Brazil

Issue: 172

John Rose

Could the workers’ movement of Brazil have become a global epicentre for resistance to the intensification of the neoliberal onslaught on trade unions, pay, jobs and hard won welfare, pensions and health rights in the 1990s?1 Neoliberalism thrived on the back of the implosion of Soviet Communism and its satellite state system in 1989.2 Not just “Communist” state interventionism but the capitalist version too were now allegedly destined for history’s dustbin. International market forces, multinational corporations and highly mobile international capital, criss-crossing the borders of nation-states in nanoseconds via the internet, was to shape our futures.

Yet, in 1989, Brazil saw a marshalling of the forces of resistance and “unprecedented levels of direct worker engagement”. Much of the action was organised through Brazil’s rank and file-focused trade union federation, the Unified Workers’ Centre (CUT; Central Única dos Trabalhadores), whose formation took place in the 19080s. Jeffrey Sluyter-Beltrão, a Weberian sociologist who has carried out a remarkable investigation of the CUT, claims that Brazilian “strike militancy” was the “highest in the world over the latter half of the 1980s”. Industrial workers were the “backbone” of what came to be known as “organised Brazil”.3 Some 25 million workers took part in a two-day general strike in March 1989.4 The CUT was closely tied to the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores) and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, better known as “Lula”, a former metal worker trade union militant who rose to international notability while the Workers’ Party’s leader. The Workers’ Party was the world’s first post-Communist mass-based workers’ party. Although the party was dominated by a faction linked to Lula, “Articulation” (Articulação), it also openly welcomed revolutionary socialists into its ranks. The left wing of the CUT itself was dominated by two highly influential Trotskyist factions, both providing a challenge to Lula and the Articulation leadership.5

In 1985, the Brazilian workers’ movement, after repeated waves of aggressive strikes, had finally broken the junta that had ruled since 1964—one of the world’s most vicious military dictatorships. A new constitution was agreed in 1988, enshrining many important workers’ rights.6 The first test of the constitution would be the 1989 presidential elections, which brought Lula and the Workers’ Party tantalisingly close to government.

An outstanding article in International Socialism in 1987 captured the spirit of these early workers’ struggles, drawing particular attention to the revolutionary potential of one rank and file metal workers’ movement, the Metalworkers Opposition.7 This organisation spearheaded the mass strikes and resistance. It built factory committees that were part of the trade unions but, if necessary, could also act independently of them. The Metalworkers Opposition stated that factory committees existed both for the economic struggle—“sectional issues, control over the work process and wage questions”—and also for the political struggle—“the class struggle, when we advance beyond trade unionism and have the potential to become instruments for revolutionary transformation of society”.8

Labour historian Marieke Riethof documents the first roots of the workers’ movement sunk under the dictatorship: “The strike cycle began in May 1978 when 1,800 workers stopped work in the Saab-Scania truck factory in São Bernardo de Campo”. This was part of the newly industrialised area in Greater São Paulo, a central base for the workers’ movement, known as ABC region: A for Santo André, B for São Bernardo de Campo and C for São Caetano do Sul. The workers circumvented the military’s limitations on strikes by entering the factory but refusing to switch on their machines. The local press reported the “paralysing of the company’s entire production process within minutes.” Because it was not a normal strike in accordance with the 1964 strike law, with picket lines that the police could forcibly remove, the authorities were unable to repress this “crossed arms” protest.9

Strike leader Gilson Menezes understood this as both a political and economic strike, but he initially doubted how many of his colleagues shared this view:

I knew the strike had a political nature, but the workforce as a whole did not… They participated in a wage dispute. If we had said that the strike was against the dictatorship, then they would not have gone on strike.10

However, this perception soon changed. The strike became “a symbol of labour opposition” to the dictatorship, “sparking similar actions in other factories”. This marked the beginning of a major strike wave that challenged authoritarian politics and reshaped the union movement’s political strategies”. Within two months of the Saab-Scania strike, a quarter of a million workers were on strike in companies such as Ford, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen.11 In 1979, almost a million workers participated in strikes, which involved wider sectors such as education and urban transport.

The emerging workers’ movement of this time developed two critical characteristics: factory committees and commissions elected by the rank and file, and giant assemblies of striking workers that voted on strike developments and proposals from employers and the government.

Over 100 wage agreements were negotiated in the São Paulo region in 1979 by factory commissions rather than the official “pelego” union leaders, who were often appointed by the military government’s minister of labour.12 Many commissions were recognised by the companies after this, although many of their leaders were later fired with the tacit support of the pelego union leaders.13 Indeed, this is how the rank and file Metalworkers Opposition was ultimately broken.14

Despite being smashed, the Metalworkers Opposition had a profound, lingering impact. It was dedicated to rank and file activity, and there was a sense that a new form of politics was implicit in this approach. This helped to shape both the Workers’ Party and the CUT as they emerged. The Metalworkers Opposition had its own distinctive leader, Waldemar Rossi, a rank and file metalworker. Rossi’s politics were complicated by his commitment to the militant Catholic liberation theology grouping, Pastoral Operäria (Workers’ Pastoral). This group was very influential among rank and file workers. Rossi mixed Marxism with radical Catholicism, but the resulting perspective tilted towards the secular left:

People who entered into the movement, who had a clear class vision of the struggle, and an expectation, in terms of the movement, of creating a class-based movement and not one of Catholic orientation… Central were the question of liberty, the question of equality, the question of democracy, the democratic process, sticking to the decisions of the majority, going forward together, working at the base…a process that goes from below to above and not from top to bottom.15

Giant open air assemblies of striking workers voting on the progress of their strikes were a major challenge to the faltering military dictatorship. These assemblies expressed genuine democratic aspirations but also unintentionally issued invitations for union leader demagogy. One of those who took up the invitation was the most important of the new union leaders, Lula. The assemblies were impressive affairs. Even workers’ wives were encouraged to attend, partly as a strategic response to distorted media coverage; union leaders wanted to keep workers and their partners away from their television sets “in order to mitigate the conservative broadcast media’s stream of ‘demoralising’ information”.16 Yet, despite the huge crowds, “Lula’s charismatic authority…undermined the democratic potential of mass participation. Leaders settled into a pattern of carefully choreographed, univocal plebiscitarian events”:

Lula occasionally spoke openly of the difficulties of living up to the expectations of people who viewed him as a god who would solve all their problems. Workers placed his likeness next to that of Jesus on assembly banners and wrote public prayers for him.17

Lula’s capacity for honing ambiguities defined his emergence as both union and political leader from the beginning. On the one hand he was associated with the “new unionism”, rank and file orientation and participation. On the other hand, he had been deliberately chosen by one of old guard of the compromised trade unions, Paul Vidal. Vidal was president of the officially sanctioned metalworkers’ union and saw Lula as a trustworthy successor.18

A 1985 union report, cited by Riethof, shows how the repression of factory commissions created a “dynamic” that moved social struggles from the shop floor to the streets. Community organising, originally an attempt to broaden solidarity with strikes, became an end in itself. This coincided with the formation of the Workers’ Party, which was founded in 1980.19 Although the Workers’ Party fought to preserve and revive factory commissions as a vehicle for rank and file trade union organising, they were not seen as a decisive political organising base unit of the new party.

In 1983, workers elected factory commissions in 20 companies in Greater São Paulo, rising to 101 in 1986 and peaking at 211 in 1993.20 A resurgence in militancy among workers had occurred in 1983, resulting from an International Monetary Fund-backed government austerity package that meant wage reductions and redundancies in state-owned companies. The government declared the resulting strikes illegal, using the 1964 strike law. Some 60,000 metal workers came out in solidarity, uniting private and public sectors. Pressure mounted for a general strike with clear political overtones, threatening the very existence of the military government. Though this failed to materialise, rank and file union leaders had a strong sense that the protests served as “proof that they were capable of organising a political strike”.21 The CUT was founded in August of that year.

The CUT’s founding conference took for granted that combat with the government was its top priority. However, a planned general strike again failed to materialise, partly as a result of divisions emerging between the left and right. Nonetheless, the CUT conference “identified the general strike as the most important political instrument in the hands of the union movement”.22 At the same time, the military government’s authority was collapsing:

Reflecting Brazilians’ generalised discontent with repression and economic crisis, the strike movement had helped create conditions for the growing pro-democracy coalition…by mobilising large protests, mainly through the unions’ own networks with social movements.23

The Workers’ Party’s relationship to the 1983-5 mass campaign for direct presidential elections, “Diretas Já!” (Direct Elections Now!), put it and the CUT at the centre of the transition to democracy. However, this simultaneously created the conditions to overwhelm the political perspectives and trade union activities of both organisations.

As the Workers’ Party developed alongside the CUT in the 1980s, it, at first, espoused “commitment to internal democracy…and rank and file participation that works to maintain movement solidarity by involving and empowering members.” Sluyter-Beltrão explains:

Militancy and mobilisation were embraced not only as tools of movement empowerment and expansion, but also because they are the primary producers of activists and sympathisers. Pluralist inclusion and toleration of competing viewpoints within consensus-oriented decision-making processes were geared to keeping component groups on board by according minority voices real say in internal debate.24

Lula and the leaderships of the Workers’ Party and CUT were relaxed about the intervention of the revolutionary left; indeed, they positively welcomed what Sluyter-Beltrão calls “factional pluralism and bottom-up participation”.25 Lula readily conceded that he had enjoyed “fruitful cooperation” with independent leftist shop floor groups during strike mobilisations. He argued that political “divergences” should be “resolved through the most democratic discussion possible” before “making a decision which will be carried out by all”.26 He added:

The way to confront these extremist groups is to place them among the working class, and the working class will take it upon themselves to make these groups stop being radical… It’s all very simple, you just have to remove them from the theoretical world and put them in the real world.27

The revolutionary left that Lula was talking about grew out of the well-rooted tradition of Latin American Trotskyism, coming to dominate the CUT’s left opposition at the height of workers’ militancy in the late 1980s. His strategy would prove to be an extremely effective challenge to Brazil’s Trotskyist currents.

The two Trotskyisms 1: Socialist Democracy

In 1979, the Revolutionary Communist League (Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire), the French section of the Fourth International, seconded Daniel Bensaïd, a member of its leadership, to intervene in the rising strike movement of Brazil. Fourth International leader Ernest Mandel had already expressed interest in Brazil’s economic growth in the 1970s, which was generating a massive and concentrated industrial working class. As Bensaïd explained:

The “ABC” industrial triangle alone counted more workers than the legendary Ruhr Valley in Germany… Mandel saw Brazil as a kind of tropical equivalent to Bismarckian Germany, the cradle of the modern European workers’ movement. He was convinced that we could rapidly develop there a revolutionary organisation of several thousand militants.28

It would not be Bensaïd’s first visit to Latin America. He had attended the Tenth World Congress of the Fourth International that had convened in Argentina in 1974. “Controversy raged over the outcome of the armed struggle in Latin America, over the imminence of revolution in Europe and over a Basque unit’s assassination of Luis Carrero Blanco”. Blanco was Spain’s prime minister and the assumed successor to its fascist dictator, General Francisco Franco.

Two blocs had formed at the conference. Debates, still in the shadow of the death of Che Guevara, were caught up in how revolutionary socialists should respond to armed struggles, especially in Latin America. The tangled politics need not concern us too much here. What matters is how the two blocs would evolve and impact on Brazil’s left-wing politics a decade later.29 They would emerge as the leaderships of the two Trotskyist factions that dominated the left wing of the CUT: Socialist Democracy (Democracia Socialista), led by Mandel’s Fourth International, with Bensaïd as its visiting representative; and Socialist Convergence (Convergência Socialista), part of a Latin American network of Trotskyists based in Argentina and led by Nahuel Moreno. Moreno had swung from a Guevaraist focus on “armed struggle” to an orientation on “strikes and urban uprisings”, rejecting the “fetishism of the rural guerrilla inspired by the Cuban revolution”.30 Nevertheless, reconciliation between Moreno and the European-based Fourth International proved impossible.31

Unfortunately, Bensaïd failed to mention this competition with the Moreno tendency in his account of Trotskyism’s impact in Brazil in the 1980s and 1990s.32 This is a serious omission in an otherwise indispensable description of many of the key developments. As noted earlier, Lula and his closest allies welcomed the Trotskyists’ participation in building the Workers’ Party. They believed, with some justification, that they could harness the Trotskyists’ organisational skills in order to grow the party while keeping the “harmful” side of their politics under control.

As soon as he arrived in Brazil, Bensaïd immediately began working with sophisticated activists and potential political leaders who regarded themselves as revolutionary socialists. These included João Machado, who was a co-founder of the Workers’ Party and a member of the International Committee of the Fourth International. Some 20 years later, he went on to become a leading member of the breakaway Party for Socialism and Freedom (Partido Socialismo e Liberdade; PSOL), following the final marginalisation of the Trotskyists when the Workers’ Party formed a government in the early 2000s.

Bensaïd left us some stunning early impressions of his time in Brazil:

In autumn 1980, the great strike of engineering workers in the ABC industrial zone tolled the bell for the dictatorship… A Sunday morning assembly of 80,000 workers gathered in the São Bernado do Camp stadium. Lula’s talent as a popular agitator amazed me. The archbishop of São Paulo, Paulo Evaristo Arns, came to support the strikers, opening the churches for the workers to organise solidarity and food distribution. He asked the crowd to pray for the success of the struggle. Due to the absence of indigenous traditions in the workers’ movement, this collective communion had the value of a solemn oath. There were few who abstained, as we did, from this act of faith. The red flags and the “Internationale” appeared much later in the decade.33

The Fourth International planned to link its growth in Brazil to that of the Workers’ Party. This was conceived “not as a mere tactical opportunity but rather as a strategic orientation.” The aim was “to give the Brazilian working class…a major class party with a pluralist and democratic character. Programmatic and ideological definitions would follow in the due course of collective experience”.34

Bensaïd’s key link in the Workers’ Party was Machado. Machado’s article, “The Experience of Building the DS and the Workers’ Party: From 1979 to the First Lula Government”, published in 2012, is an indispensable source for understanding the Fourth International and Socialist Democracy’s role, and its subsequent demise, in the Workers’ Party:

The idea of forming the Workers’ Party in Brazil was launched at the end of 1978, and it began to be organised in 1979. The original party texts spoke of socialism and denounced capitalism. Their central idea was that of building an independent workers’ party, without bosses, which could express the workers’ interests and not manipulate them. Its Charter of Principles used—without explaining its origin—the famous formula of Marx of the time of the First International: “the emancipation of the workers will be the work of the workers themselves.

To a large extent, the formation of the Workers’ Party mirrored the strike movement that began in Brazil during the final phase of the dictatorship and was driven by a trade union movement called “genuine trade unionism”. Besides these trade unionists, however, various revolutionary political organizations were already participating in the initial process of forming the party. Some had an influence in its initial conformation, particularly two Trotskyist organisations, Socialist Convergence and Trotskyist Workers’ Fraction (Fração Operária Trotskista).35

To fully understand the Fourth International’s approach, the following passage from Machado’s article bares careful study, especially the last sentence:

The defeat of Lula’s presidential candidacy in 1989, at the start of a great international crisis of the left, represented a turning point in the trajectory of the Workers’ Party. Lula and his political relatives gradually began to develop the idea that it was possible for him and the Workers’ Party to win through moderation of its programme and broadening of alliances. Indeed, over time, and more clearly after Lula’s second defeat in a presidential election in 1994, what became the core of the electoral strategies involved a disregard for the inevitability of class antagonisms in capitalist society. The left perspective on elections—the idea that a greater popular mobilisation, likely greater than anything we had known in 1989, could arise because a national election constitutes a moment when class alternatives clash—was rejected.36

We shall explore further the 1989 election defeat and its coincidence with the “great international crisis of the left” in a moment, but here we need to clarify what Machado means in that last sentence. Machado and his comrades understood the Workers’ Party as a “revolutionary party under construction.” Even though Bensaïd criticised this formulation, he accepted the underlying implication that, if such a party succeeded in winning the elections, it would trigger a “moment when class alternatives clash”. In other words, a victorious election campaign could lead to a revolutionary showdown with the bourgeoisie.

The dangers implicit in this approach are obvious. Whatever the intentions, the key perspective—“the emancipation of the workers will be the work of the workers themselves”—hinged on initial electoral success. Of course, we should remember that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had entertained a similar possibility of using the British parliament in this way; moreover, the question of electing a “workers’ government” in a parliamentary system was raised in the early congresses of the Communist International.37 As Bensaïd concluded, these congress debates revealed an “unresolved ambiguity” about “the range of interpretations that they could give rise to in practice”.38 In addition, Lula himself was signalling just such a possibility before 1989. A further factor reinforcing what would become an electoral trap for the Fourth International was that they were far stronger and more influential inside the Workers’ Party than outside. Machado describes the role of Socialist Democracy at that time:

At the end of the 1980s, immediately before the turning point in the evolution of the Workers’ Party began in 1989, Socialist Democracy had around 1,000 activists… It had almost 10 percent of the delegates in the national congresses of the party. It had great importance within the left of the Workers’ Party…a remarkable presence in the CUT…and was a sustained force within the student movement, its original main base. It was beginning to win elected representatives such as Raul Pont, who became a state deputy in Rio Grande do Sul in 1986 and a federal deputy in 1990… The Workers’ Party during this period was moving towards the left, and Socialist Democracy certainly had a role in this process.39

The two Trotskyisms 2: Socialist Convergence

Valério Arcary was a key political representative of Socialist Convergence in Brazil.40 Here he describes relations between the small group of recently recruited youngsters and the Moreno tendency in Latin America:

Moreno was not very preoccupied with Brazil. He only came twice. Argentina was a big mess, and so he was very concentrated on it. He used to say, “I’m not a specialist on Brazil. Brazil is a very different country, a very complicated country.” However, he told us one thing in 1983: “Now you are 25 years old or older. There is a problem. You left your parents’ house. You went to college. And you immediately became full-timers in your revolutionary nucleus. You built it and you are probably very proud of that, but there is a problem—you have to join the working class. You have to go to work, all of you.” So we had a meeting. There were 21 members of the national leadership. Moreno said that only one could remain a full-timer, and it has to be the youngest… The rest had to do two things: “Find a job in the working class, and split up because you are starting to fight each other due to all living in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo… You have to work as a team, but you can’t do it if you don’t split. You have to prove yourselves. Two or three should go to the north east, two or three go the south and a few stay in Rio and São Paulo, which are major cities. But you have to go to work. You can choose different sectors of the working class that are concentrated and have a high level of fighting… You are joining the working class to prove that you can lead fights. So don’t go to backwards sectors of the working class that are still asleep. Go to sectors already awoken such as the metal workers, oil workers, teachers and bank workers, and split yourselves up.” And that’s precisely what we did. It was difficult—some did not survive this period. There was a natural selection, and we had this experience for several years. A new generation of younger people became full-timers. When you have 1,000 people, you do need around 20 to 30 full-timers, otherwise you can’t have a Leninist organisation.41

Paradoxically, however, Socialist Convergence scored an unanticipated breakthrough by intervening successfully not at first with workers, but in a major school student rebellion in the early 1980s. It was able to form the Foundation of Socialist Youth, which became their main base.42 A former school student leader, Henrique Carneiro, has provided a unique insight into the group’s activities this period:

I was elected as the first president of the Metropolitan Union of Secondary Students (UMES) in São Paulo in 1980 and then president of Paulista Union of Secondary Students (UPES) in 1981. There were a few hundred schools participating across the state and polls reached about 50,000 voting students.

I took part, both personally and as a representative of UMES and UPES, in various social struggles in the period. In 1978, before joining the organisation, I had participated in a hunger strike in support of the political prisoners of Socialist Convergence… I also supported the Unified Black Movement demonstrations and the first demonstrations for LGBT+ rights. When Lula and others were arrested in 1979, we went on a one-day strike at Equipe school, where I was studying. Since 1979, I have participated in the formation of the Workers’ Party, and I signed the list of the first members. In 1982, I was a candidate for federal deputy for the Workers’ Party, obtaining 21,000 votes. In 1983, I was arrested for distributing leaflets promoting the general strike during the wave of looting in São Paulo. I was detained for about two weeks and was prosecuted under national security law before receiving amnesty.43

Socialist Convergence was involved in discussions about the formation of a workers’ party from the beginning, and it emerged as one of the strongest leftist factions in the new organisation.44 It developed a reputation for causing problems for the Lula leadership with its advocacy of factory occupations.45 It also resisted multiple compromises that Workers’ Party administrations made when they participated in local and regional governments. Workers’ Party and CUT leaders castigated them as “a band of professional activists who want to use the workers as pawns in ugly spectacles of factory occupations carried out at the cost of destroying machines”. Yet despite the irritation Socialist Convergence caused to the leadership, its militant worker members had to be taken seriously. As Arcary puts it:

Firstly, we were very honest people. Where we worked we were not seen as strange or extravagant but as normal people. When you are inside a workplace and you are a Trotskyist, you get respect because you are a very honest person. That counts a lot and it builds confidence in you. Secondly, we could explain complex ideas to workers that gave us an advantage over the Lula current; workers prefer leaders who understand things better than they do. They don’t want leaders who are not smart. They want smart leaders. We had more educated people who were able to explain what was happening in national politics to workers inside our workplaces. We could also explain tactical differences between the left and right inside the CUT.46

At the peak of Socialist Convergence’s influence, it had about 1,500 members, with a wide periphery. By the time of its expulsion from the Workers’ Party in 1992, it was rooted in the workplaces and respected. It sold about 10,000 copies of its newspaper, mainly to Workers’ Party activists.47

The 1980s had witnessed a series of factory occupations. The most famous was in the General Motors plant in the city of São José dos Campos in 1984, which demanded a 40-hour week. The occupation was ultimately broken by a thousand-strong police raid. Nevertheless, it still assumed almost legendary status in the Brazilian workers’ movement because it challenged the unique, almost apartheid-like, internal structure that pitted monthly salaried “superior” employees against the rest of the workforce. Violence and intimidation were an integral part of managerial “strategy”. There was a very high level of rank and file worker involvement in the occupation “from beginning to end”, according to Moacyr Pinto Da Silva, a white collar worker in the occupation and author of a book about it.48

Renato Bento Ruiz and Antonio Donizete Ferreira (known as Toninho) were young workers during the General Motors occupation, where they first came across Socialist Convergence. Later, they would develop as political cadres for the organisation.49 In the early 1990s, both were caught up in the struggles to resist the neoliberal privatisation onslaught and to defend Socialist Convergence from the Workers’ Party leadership, which was calling for the organisation’s expulsion. Both experienced the intense political disorientation of the time. As Ruiz puts it, capitalism and its ideologues told workers that all communists “thought like Stalin and that the communist or socialist system was not a democratic system…not for expanding democracy… There was confusion…and we lost a lot. The left failed to explain the difference between anti-democratic communism and democratic communism”.50

José Maria de Almeida, also known as Zé Maria, a key worker activist in Socialist Convergence, was one of the leaders of the occupation of the Mannesmann plant, which manufactured telecommunications equipment, at Belo Horizonte, capital of Minas Gerais state. The occupation grew out of the strike—part of the two-day 25 million-worker strong general strike in March 1989. “At the beginning of the process, approximately 2,500 workers remained within the company per shift (the factory had around 9,000 employees at that time). The occupation lasted ten days.” There were several other occupations of companies during the same strike: “In all of these occupations, an agreement was reached along similar lines to the agreement made to end the strike at Mannesmann.” Despite the company obtaining a court order for police to vacate the factory, confrontations with the police were avoided because the state governor intervened. The agreement included a 26 percent increase in wages and no retaliation: “The workers were radicalised, expressing the same feeling of discontent and revolt that was growing throughout the country”.51

Nevertheless, according to a 2017 National History Symposium conference that discussed workplace occupations in Brazil in the 1980s, the occupation movement also endured a massive, indeed murderous, defeat at the end of the 1980s. A strike at National Siderurgy Company (Companhia Siderúrgica Nacional; CSN), a massive steel producer in the city of Volta Redonda, Rio de Janeiro state, was deliberately targeted by the government when it turned into an occupation. It was brutally repressed on 9 November 1988:

Defeating the occupation of CSN…would serve as a message from the government to an entire battalion of strikers. The strike at the steel mill went on for 17 days, but the occupation lasted only three. After cutting off the supply of water, electricity and food to the plant, army troops invaded CSN and expelled the strikers on 9 November 1988, resorting to the use of lethal ammunition. The action ended with the deaths of three workers: Carlos Augusto Barroso, whose skull was crushed by blows, and Walmir Freitas Monteiro and William Fernandes Leite, who were hit by rifle bullets. After the evacuation was over, the troops did not withdraw. Instead, they remained inside the plant for a number of days… Murders of factory workers had not occurred even during the period of the civil-military dictatorship.52

The outgoing military dictatorship was overseeing a carefully orchestrated transition to parliamentary democracy, and it refused to tolerate the challenge from potentially insurrectionary general strike. It feared that such a movement might stimulate widespread workplace occupations and an insurgent land-grab campaign in the countryside. One month after the murder of the three workers at the CSN occupation, Chico Mendes, the leading militant among Brazil’s rubber tappers and a key figure in the Landless Workers Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra; MST), was assassinated.53

Lula, the Workers’ Party and the 1989 presidential election

Lula had made an extremely important speech in 1985, reflecting on the possibility of military intervention in the event of a PT electoral victory. This was just 12 years after the coup that had overthrown the Popular Unity government of President Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973. The speech illustrated the revolutionary potential in the Brazilian workers’ movement as well as the confusion Stalinism had created about workers’ power and democracy. It also reflected pressure from competing parts of the left such as the Trotskyists and some of the former urban guerrilla fighters. These ex-guerrillas were now part of the Articulation leadership and were looking to Fidel Castro’s Cuba for inspiration. Lula balanced between these groupings without making definite commitments to any of them:

I have doubts that the economic power and the ruling classes will allow the Workers’ Party to come to power through elections. That is why, anticipating an armed reaction aimed at preventing the Workers’ Party from taking over the government, I accept the use of weapons by the population to guarantee respect for the results of the ballot boxes… I do not accept the use of the expression “dictatorship of the proletariat”, because when the proletariat reaches power, democracy is being brought to its ultimate consequences. I will not accept the right trying to retain power through the use of weapons, so I am in favour of armed resistance.54

The Soviet Union had so contaminated the idea of “the dictatorship of the proletariat” as to drain it completely of its democratic content. Lula understandably associated it with the totalitarianism implicit in Stalinism, exposing the major fault line that would help derail the left’s advance through the Workers’ Party. For Lenin, however, the dictatorship of the proletariat simply meant a mass-based democratic “dictatorship” over the remnants of the capitalist class. This regime would play a role in the early phases of transition to socialism:

Simultaneous with an immense expansion of democracy—which for the first time becomes democracy for the poor, democracy for the people, and not democracy for the money-bags—the dictatorship of the proletariat imposes a series of restrictions on the freedom of the oppressors, the exploiters, the capitalists. We must suppress them in order to free humanity from wage slavery.55

Lenin’s perspective presupposed workers’ control of production in a workers’ state, but the Workers’ Party’s presidential election programme in 1989 had no such proposals. Nevertheless, it was sufficiently radical to terrify the employers. This was “reflected in a famous public warning by Mario Amato, head of the country’s leading industrial association.” Amato claimed that “if Lula won, 800,000 Brazilian entrepreneurs would abandon the country”.56 Sluyter-Beltrão explains that:

The party’s programme…called for a “rupture” with free market capitalism and the construction of a democratic-socialist welfare state geared to redressing Brazil’s unsurpassed social inequalities… The Workers’ Party called for an immediate suspension of payments on the foreign debt, radical land reform “under workers’ control”, nationalisation of the financial and transport systems, and ambitious state-led overhauls of the housing, healthcare and education systems.57

Lula was defeated by Fernando Collor de Mello, who became the first elected president in almost three decades.58 This defeat accelerated the shift of the Lula leadership to the right, especially under the impact of Collor’s neoliberal agenda. Nevertheless, it need not and should not have done so. Lula had every reason to be extremely proud of the 1989 election. The Workers’ Party-led Frente Brasil Popular (Brazilian Popular Front) coalition received 47 percent of the 70 million valid votes cast.

There was a widespread view that the extreme bias of the Brazilian conservative mainstream media had undermined the democratic process.59 Workers’ Party historian Lincoln Ferreira Secco documented some of the abuses and showed how Collor won support from the some of the “shirtless”: the very poor, unemployed and crowded into the slums, the favelas, from the countryside.60 There was an already expanding base of evangelical Protestants, and the media highlighted religious leaders’ warnings that Lula would close all churches.61 There was also a claim that Lula had forced a woman to abort her child following a relationship with her. A media “exposé” on the matter, directed by Collor’s brother, was proved to be false almost immediately.62 The kidnapping of a businessman was also attributed to the Workers’ Party.

Ann Eidenham, one of the authors of the International Socialism article referred to earlier, witnessed the election.63 Her reporting captured the two sides of Lula’s campaign, which tilted left as it was pulled along by the movement he himself had helped to unleash:

Though Lula often tried to appear moderate and appeal to the middle classes, especially after the first round of the election, in other ways his style and his message were anything but moderate… He insisted that strikes should not be called off, even if they might damage his electoral chances, and that workers’ share of the national income could only increase by reducing profits. Political discussion involved huge numbers of people that no previous electoral campaign had reached. By the second round of the election, it was the ruling class versus the workers.64

In other words, at this stage Lula seemed to be maintaining an opening for the left, sustaining a view that his election victory could indeed be a springboard for far more radical action. In fact, Lula had an unambiguous mandate to fight the incoming Collor government with its neoliberal policies. A clear majority of workers, especially organised workers, had supported him.

The Workers’ Party’s regional and local electoral perspectives

Before turning to the collapse of the Workers’ Party and the workers’ movement in the face of the neoliberal onslaught, it is important to stress how deeply the Workers’ Party was already committed to electoral politics. This commitment developed due to some significant successes in regional and local elections.

Grinding urban poverty helped propel these successes. One third of the population in Brazil’s biggest city, São Paulo, for example, lived in favelas, lacking even minimal infrastructure. Infant mortality stood at about 83 per 1,000 live births, contrasting with an average just over 50 for São Paulo state as a whole. Because children worked from a very young age in order to contribute to their families, less than 40 percent finished four years of schooling in 1980, and only 8 percent finished eight years. Few central roads were paved and public transport was inadequate. Add chronic flooding, mudslides, and lack of sewage and regular garbage collection, and it is easy to see why favelas became the focus for the party’s attention.65

The Workers’ Party developed a model of electoral success and political change in such areas when it contested and won the mayorality at Diadema, part of the industrial belt in Greater São Paulo, in 1982. There, former metal workers’ leader Gilson Menezes, one of the organisers of the action at Saab-Scania that had triggered a strike wave in 1978, became the Workers’ Party’s first democratically elected mayor. As Margaret Keck explains, “The Workers’ Party’s focus on democratisation from below led to the call for the formation of popular councils and the development of mechanisms of direct democracy”.66 Keck provides a comprehensive account of Gilson’s efforts as mayor to stimulate popular participation in genuinely progressive projects. In one of many examples, his team opposed attempts by the bus company for a fare hike. It created a Transit Users Commission, negotiating with the bus company at public hearings. Gilson’s team made the case for fare reductions, “leaving Diadema with the lowest bus fare in the region.” Later, it secured free passes for senior citizens and the unemployed to travel outside rush hour.

Open neighbourhood budget hearings were encouraged, informed by the idea of grassroots popular councils controlling local spending decisions. This would become a hallmark of Workers’ Party local and regional government. Later, however, once the Workers’ Party had finally formed a national government at the start of the 21st century, the flaws in this approach quickly became apparent. In a seminal essay about the Workers’ Party’s local governance in the southern city of Porto Alegre, the British socialist writer Hilary Wainwright summed up the situation under the subheading “Under Siege”: “Unrestrained, global deregulation…and pressures to privatise and run down the state’s social capacities…means federal government has strengthened central control over public spending and cut the funds going to cities”.67

In fact, in 1990, a São Paulo public transport strike had already brought to a head the contradiction between the Workers’ Party’s electoral strategy and the continuing militancy and high level of expectation of its base among organised workers. Some 60,000 bus workers went on strike for nine days, halting 90 percent of public transport:

The strike…pitched the union against the Workers’ Party-led municipal government…over proposed wage increases… The city government was under budgetary pressure…resulting in the Workers’ Party mayor firing 475 public transport workers.68

Machado, the Fourth International and Socialist Democracy leader cited earlier, has provided a startling account of the experiences of the Workers’ Party in local and regional government:

We never made a joint assessment of all the experiences of our participation in municipal and state administrations… We never seriously confronted the problem of campaign finance… The election campaigns of the Workers’ Party benefited from the contributions of companies very early on. From the second half of the 1990s, and even more clearly after 2001 and 2002 when two mayors who were members of the Workers’ Party were assassinated in circumstances which remained unclear, we had some information indicating that methods of fundraising in the town halls linked to the Workers’ Party were far from “orthodox”. The most plausible hypothesis to explain the assassinations of the mayors of Campinas and Santo André is that they tried to stop or limit fundraising from companies working for the local governments. These hypotheses were formulated by relatives of the murdered mayors but denied by the Workers’ Party leadership.69

The Workers’ Party surrenders to the neoliberal offensive

The Brazilian Marxist economists Alfredo Saad-Filho and Lecio Morais define neoliberalism as a system of accumulation of capital that intensifies exploitation by using a global base rather than a national one.70 This creates a “dependence on foreign suppliers, markets and technologies” and the “subordination of strategic planning to the global interest of transnational corporations”.71 This combines with local labour “flexibility”, minimising legal protections for workers and creating mass unemployment and a huge “informal” labour sector with few if any rights.72

Sue Branford, a writer who has focused on the early growth of the Workers’ Party, has identified one decisive way in which neoliberalism broke and then transformed the Workers’ Party in the 1990s before it became a national government in the 2000s:

Trade barriers were smashed and the market flooded with cheap imported manufactured goods. One third of manufacturing jobs were lost. State companies were privatised, and thousands of public sector jobs were wiped out. The social base of the Workers’ Party was shattered. The party responded by moving to the centre… In what many saw as a betrayal of the Workers’ Party’s original vision, power became concentrated in the hands of professional politicians. The earlier practice of consulting the base on important decisions was abandoned.73

Mike Gonzalez has placed these events on a broader canvass:

Export agriculture and the extractive industries were the areas that attracted new external investment throughout the 1990s—from China in particular—at the expense of manufacturing and services… Direct foreign investment in agriculture grew exponentially… Soybean cultivation and cattle farming spread across the region at an accelerated pace, together with maize production—not for food but the production of ethanol for fuel. The devastation this expansion caused was and is most visible in Brazil, where vast swathes of the Amazon rainforest were cut down to permit the conversion of the land to arable and cattle-raising use…Their populations were driven off the land to add to the swelling populations of the marginal communities around the region’s cities. The numbers involved are astonishing. It was often impossible to imagine where these people were in the overcrowded barrios of Latin America… It seemed inconceivable that so many human beings should be crammed into such restricted space.74

Here was a huge increase in numbers of the “shirtless” crowding into the shanty towns and favelas, creating a target for the “US-based Protestant evangelical groups with their vast wealth.” These churches were able to “establish links with those who had been abandoned by the state”.75 At least 15 percent of Brazilian voters would come to identify as evangelicals. Evangelicism “expanded rapidly in the working class”, and its adherents voted “massively” against Lula and for Collor.76

Was this victory for neoliberalism inevitable? Perhaps not. Actually, the attempt by the newly elected Collor administration to impose neoliberalism was a complete disaster. His government ripped up some of the most progressive parts of the constitution of 1988—a provocation that delegitimised the 1989 election result, which had been based on this new constitution. Collor’s measures allowed foreign companies to explore the subsoil and removed the state monopoly on shipping in coastal routes.77 The state monopoly on telecommunications and oil exploration were also weakened. Financial institutions could obtain a stake in the social security system, and privatisation and labour “flexibility” would now be underpinned constitutionally.78 However, these plans failed in their own terms, resulting in hyperinflation. Collor was forced out in 1992 amidst a stunning array of scandals involving sex, theft, drugs and the embezzlement of public funds.

Nevertheless, according to Arcary, the Workers’ Party leadership vehemently opposed proposals at the party’s 1991 national congress for mass mobilisation to challenge and bring down the Collor government.79 The Lula leadership was certain it would win elections planned for 1994, and it was obsessed with demonstrating that it respected the recently installed electoral processes. It was convinced that if they mobilised to bring down Collor, a Lula government in 1994 would face “revenge” from a similar type of mass mobilisation from the right wing.80

The Lula leadership was now determined to shatter the belief that socialism was possible. José Dirceu, the party president and one of Lula’s closest associates, asserted the Workers’ Party must abandon any identification with socialism, which he bluntly referred to as an “unburied corpse”. As Secco put it, “The Berlin Wall fell on the party”.81 The 1991 congress formally adopted a position that stated, “We have to recognise that we are witnessing the end of the cycle of socialist revolutions begun by the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the model of society that they inspired”.82

Florestan Fernandes, Brazil’s most highly respected radical sociologist, exposed the debilitating flaw in the evolving Workers’ Party strategy:

The working class, unionised or not, support predominantly explosive, offensive positions due to the degree of resentment they have towards the existing order… The party does not try to take political advantage of the potential of this collective behaviour and allows it to dissipate in directions that are institutionalised and regulated by the system: representation and ritualised elections. Nor does it infuse it with a permanent duration and with ideological content hostile to the system.83

In other words, the Workers’ Party leadership has to take a major share of responsibility for the de-mobilisation of the workers’ movement in the face of the neoliberal onslaught. This resulted from ideological disintegration and strategic surrender to the electoral process.

Driving out the Trotskyists

Could the Trotskyist organisations have stopped the rot? There is confusion about their strength; combined, they numbered no more than a few thousand. Nonetheless, their influence was much greater than these figures suggest, as illustrated by Arcary’s fascinating anecdote about the party congress in 1991:

There were more than 1,500 delegates in the gigantic shed of the disabled Vera Cruz film studios in São Bernado Do Campo. The Trotskyist delegations and their supporters were about one third of the Workers’ Party. We received information that the US embassy was to be represented by the consul. We demanded that the Workers’ Party congress refuse official representation from the US government. The congress was halted while Lula’s majority tendency called a parallel assembly, lasting some four to five hours, where they discussed what to do. They decided that the diplomatic representative of the US government should stay at the congress. The Stalinists split off and voted with us. At that point, there was a dramatic intervention by the official diplomatic representative of Cuba, Marta Harnecker. Harnecker was the wife of Manuel Piñeiro Losada, the revolutionary leader who was responsible for liaising with Latin American guerrilla groups during the 1970s. She broke with the Lula tendency majority and came to sit with us, side by side with the Trotskyists, as a public signal of Cuba’s displeasure. The delegations of all the left-wing currents stood up and shouted for about five minutes at the top of their lungs, “Cuba! Cuba! Cuba!” She was touched.84

The Workers’ Party leadership were concerned about the Trotskyist opposition to their embrace of electoralism and began a sustained campaign to expel Socialist Convergence, which was regarded as the most serious threat to their plans. The attack began almost the moment the 1989 election was over.85 The pages of the party’s Teoria e Debate journal were thrown open for a full scale assault on Socialist Convergence, led by Apolônio de Carvalho. De Carvalho was an ageing former Stalinist and a combat veteran of the Spanish Civil War as well as a guerrilla leader during the military dictatorship. He was widely respected among Workers’ Party activists. The campaign reflected the Workers’ Party leadership’s view that the party’s left-wing factions had contributed to the failure to win the 1989 election.86

The argument was unambiguous. De Carvalho claimed that moderates and radicals were incompatible in a liberal democracy. The Workers’ Party’s electoral success would depend upon “consolidation of its position at the centre of a broad party alliance”.87 The attack was followed by a Teoria e Debate interview with Socialist Convergence leader Arcary that “ostensibly ‘balanced’ exploration of the hard left perspective”.88 However, Sluyter-Beltrão was unimpressed by the exchange. No friend of the hard left, he nevertheless perceived the deliberately “aggressive” nature of the interview.89

Behind the rhetoric lurked a more important argument that had dogged the Workers’ Party leadership for several years after the defeat of the dictatorship: Socialist Convergence’s promotion of factory occupations as a strategic weapon in the class struggle. As noted earlier, this provoked accusations from Workers’ Party and CUT leaders that Socialist Convergence used workers as “pawns”. These remarks were made by mainstream Articulation union leaders during a crucial election in February 1990 for control of Brazil’s fourth largest metal workers’ union, Sindicato dos Metalúrgicos de São José dos Campos.90 Thus, the victory of the Socialist Convergence-led, left-wing slate over Articulation by an impressive margin of 5,785 to 4,760 was all the more stunning. It came despite “active public support for Articulation from both Lula and—for the first time—CUT president Jair Meneguelli”.91 For Meneguelli, “who had consistently demonstrated genuine commitment to being the leader of all CUT factions, this was a jarring shift.” He was widely criticised and, “admitting he had erred”, he “promised that it would not happen again. Nonetheless, his aura of neutrality had been broken”.92

The Articulation leadership was losing support at a critical moment. The new Collor administration was digging in; its neoliberal “reforms” were kicking in and there was the beginning of the relentless job losses that would characterise his presidency. In 1990, the number of industrial workers in the state of São Paulo fell by 10 percent. At the same time, “The left minority factions had established themselves as the CUT’s advance guard, often taking advantage of Articulation’s strategic waffling”.93 Strikes by electrical, social security and bank workers were led by Socialist Convergence and the so-called CUT Rank and File.

The part played by the CUT Rank and File was potentially important. Here was an opportunity to unite the most militant and advanced sections of the Trotskyist left with others who shared some of their views. Arcary explains:

This third current, bigger than us but smaller than Articulation, was very plural, very diversified. There was left-wing Catholic unionism and anarcho-syndicalist tendencies. Many came from the left wing of the Catholic Church of Brazil… Waldemar Rossi was their main leader…plus the Trotskyists with roots in Europe, associated with the tendency of Ernest Mandel, and smaller groups. This sector was a fighting sector, although politically they were inclined to accept the political leadership of the majority of the Workers’ Party. So you had this ambivalence. They were fighters in the unions, but their political references inside the Workers’ Party were simultaneously in tension and collaborative with the Lula leadership.94

However, this opening for the far left proved to be only momentary. The Articulation leadership of the CUT was consolidating its grip in a particularly ominous fashion. It was increasingly involved with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), which had strong ties to the conservative trade union leaderships of the AFL-CIO in the US, the Trades Union Congress in Britain and their equivalents in continental Western Europe. By 1989, two major training schools and associated projects, organised by the Articulation leadership, had been funded to the tune of 10 million dollars with ICFTU assistance. Affiliation to the ICFTU was perceived by the majority leadership as critical to winning the CUT to “a unionism that accepts much of the business competitiveness agenda”.95

It is unsurprising that demands for occupations and democratically elected factory committees revived in response to impending factory closures and Collor’s accelerating neoliberalism. These ideas were a means of reasserting rank and file unionism. Meneguelli, the CUT president, had been quite open about why the idea of factory committees had been abandoned: “They don’t exist because they would share power with union leaders. The more people you organise, the more people you have stepping on your toes and giving you a hard time in the union”.96

This attitude led to the expulsion of Socialist Convergence in 1992, eliminating prospects for a political combat organisation able to exercise power at the point of production through factory commissions.

Meanwhile, the Fourth International and Socialist Democracy continued to believe that electoral participation and a Lula presidential victory in 1994 would provoke a class confrontation with revolutionary implications. However, Machado reports disagreements opening up within the Fourth International leadership with both Mandel and Bensaïd voicing doubts about this perspective. Certainly, by 2002, when Lula finally won a presidential election, Machado reports telling Bensaïd that the Lula government “would be even worse than he thought”.97

Bensaïd went back to Brazil in 2002. There, he could write with some justification that Lula’s victory “was also our victory to a degree”.98 However, he was under no illusions about the implications:

Politically…the country had changed. Lula sat in the Palácio do Planalto, where the generals had been enthroned. Since 1994, his public relations advisers had set out to fashion him a respectable image. No more wrinkled suits and tousled hair… He was ironically termed “genetically modified” by the leaders of the landless peasant movement… The ex-Trotskyists in his entourage, who had rallied to the neoliberal model, were also dressed up to the nines.

In December 2003, Bensaïd witnessed the beginning of the expulsions of the Fourth International-linked Trotskyists in Socialist Democracy. Some were now prominent and very popular Workers’ Party politicians, such as Heloísa Helena, who had struggled to maintain basic principles, but were now excluded officially for opposing the party’s plans for pension reform.99

Later Bensaïd would reflect, in this journal, on the strategy of viewing a potential Lula administration as a “workers’ government”:

It would be irresponsible to provide a solution that is universally valid. Nevertheless, three criteria can be variously combined for assessing participation in a government coalition with a transition perspective:

a) The question of participation arises in a situation of crisis or at least of a significant upsurge in social mobilisation…

b) The government in question is committed to initiating a dynamic of rupture with the established order. For example…radical agrarian reform, “despotic incursions” into the domain of private property, the abolition of tax privileges, a break with institutions…treaties, military pacts and so on;

c) Finally, the balance of forces allows revolutionaries to ensure that even if they cannot guarantee that the non-revolutionaries in the government keep to their commitments, they have to pay a high price for failure to do so.

In light of these criteria, participation in the Lula government in Brazil appears to have been mistaken:

a) For ten years or so, with the exception of the landless movement, the mass movement has been on the retreat.

b) The colour of Lula’s social-neoliberal politics was clearly shown in his electoral campaign and in his “Letter to the Brazilians”, which promised to keep to the previous government’s financial commitments. The financing of his agrarian reform and “zero hunger” programme was mortgaged in advance.

c) Finally, the social balance of forces within both the party and the government was such that to be a Socialist Democracy half-minister in agriculture was not to support the government “like a rope supports a hanged man” but rather like a hair that could not. That said, and taking into account the history of the country, its social structure and the formation of the Workers’ Party, we chose not to make this a matter of principle (though we expressed our reservations orally to the comrades about participation and alerted them to the dangers). We preferred to go along with the experiment so as to draw up the balance sheet alongside the comrades, rather than give lessons “from a distance”.100


The two very different Trotskyist experiments within the Workers’ Party both failed. Readers familiar with the political traditions of this journal might consider the following thought experiment as an alternative. It requires a “what if”, and “what ifs” are pure speculation—the “counterfactuals” so disliked in the academy. Nevertheless, we can ask, what if the Trotskyist organisations had combined around a perspective of building revolutionary socialist organisation in the factory commissions? It would have meant immediate expulsion, but what kind of organisation would have emerged from that? Crucially, would it have carried a significant proportion of the Workers’ Party’s base among workers?

In seeking answers to these questions, three important facts, among others, bear consideration. First, we have seen that the Workers’ Party and CUT leaderships wanted to close down the factory commissions by the early 1990s precisely because of the threat they posed to their political authority.

Second, the Trotskyists did have some level of support from about a third of Workers’ Party activists; Socialist Convergence selling 10,000 papers to Workers’ Party activists hints at the beginnings of a mass base. Of course, this does not translate into the same level of support outside the Workers’ Party. Perhaps thousands of workers may have been ready to endorse a revolutionary socialist perspective from individual Workers’ Party leaders. It is unknown whether they would have followed the same leaders outside the Workers’ Party. When Socialist Convergence were expelled they left with just 1,500 members. The Workers’ Party was greater than the sum of its parts. The strength of its components depended to a significant extent on the mass-based credibility of the whole organisation.

Third, the Trotskyists themselves could not escape the deadening impact of the implosion of the Soviet Union. Orthodox Trotskyism had retained illusions in the Soviet Union as an advance on capitalism in some sense.101 Most importantly, the public mood was deeply affected by a “common sense” that communism had been tried and failed. To quote again the words of Renato Bento Ruiz, the Socialist Convergence worker-militant, world capitalism’s ideologues told workers that all communists “thought like Stalin” and that the “socialist system was not a democratic system.”

The Workers’ Party and the revolutionary left were caught up in an international crisis for socialism and communism, confronting a neoliberal onslaught that they were ideologically ill-equipped to resist. This pattern was everywhere in the early 1990s. It was particularly acute with the outcome of three very different major struggles that helped shape politics and history at the close of the 20th century. First, the overthrow of South African apartheid gave way to the capitulation of the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party to the neoliberal demands of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, foregoing any serious attempt to redistribute wealth.102 Second, in Poland, at the so called “round table” negotiations in 1989, the former Solidarność (Solidarity) leaders, who had so courageously confronted the “Communist” regime, gave way to a privatisation agenda imposed by Western banks. The result was mass unemployment and betrayal of the ideals of equality and self-management that animated the original Solidarność workers’ movement.103 Third, in Iran, the Green Movement, which tried to complete the democratic revolution of 1979 that had stalled as a theocracy, undermined itself by accepting the Western democratic model tainted by neoliberalism.104 This was a particular tragedy because the 1979 Iranian Revolution, one of the most significant events of the 20th century, had briefly witnessed the appearance of “shoras”, democratically elected workers’ councils. The shoras challenged both employer and government rights to manage at the point of production. This might have anticipated a return of the beginnings of a real communism, where workers and the mass of the population control both economics and politics, based on a democratic mandate. However, this debate had disappeared by the 1990s, leaving only Margaret Thatcher’s slogan, “There Is No Alternative”.

John Rose has recently completed a PhD on “Workers’ Power and the Failure of Communism”, which is the basis for a book now in preparation.


1 I would like to thank Sean Purdy, an independent activist in Brazil’s Party of Socialism and Freedom since 2004, and David Karvala of the Marx21 organisation in the Spanish state for their advice and translation assistance on this article. Sean’s own account of the history of the Workers’ Party of Brazil is available as part of a Jacobin roundtable discussion with Mike Gonzalez and others at

2 As Alex Callinicos has written, “The revolutions which transformed Eastern Europe in the last three months of 1989 were that rare thing: genuinely world-shaking events”—Callinicos, 1991, p1. The destruction of the Berlin Wall was perhaps the year’s most symbolically important event.

3 Sluyter-Beltrão, 2010, pp10-11, 178-9.

4 Sluyter-Beltrão, 2010, p270.

5 Articulation sought to portray themselves as defenders of the Workers’ Party against “two extreme wings”: the “right-wing moderates, who constituted a “liberal opposition”, and the “left-wing radicals”—Sluyter-Beltrão, 2010, p134. Included in Articulation were some members of Ação Libertadora Nacional (ALN; National Liberation Action), the former urban guerrilla organisation that had fought the military dictatorship in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Their story is told by Kenneth P Serbin’s From Revolution to Power in Brazil: How Radical Leftists Embraced Capitalism and Struggled with Leadership (University of Notre Dame Press, 2019). Their evolution is summed up by the title of his book, but their later political compromises should not be used mindlessly to scorn their earlier endeavours. The ALN was part of a global trend, taking its cue from Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution, that inspired revolutionary movements as diverse as those in South Africa and Iran. However strategically and tactically mistaken, its members displayed exemplary courage in the face of the ruthless dictators and sadistic torturers who murdered many of their comrades.

6 Alfredo Saad-Filho and Lecio Morais describe its impressive social-democratic content, already a partial victory for the Workers’ Party—Saad-Filho and Morais, 2018, pp45-46.

7 Beecham and Eidenham, 1987.

8 Beecham and Eidenham, 1987.

9 Riethof, 2018, p90.

10 Quoted in Riethof, 2018, p90.

11 Riethof, 2018, pp90-91.

12 The literal meaning of “pelego” is “sheep’s skin”, referring to the blanket that is put between a horse’s back and the saddle. See Bensaïd, 2014, p347.

13 Riethof, 2018, p92.

14 Sluyter-Beltrão, 2010, p90.

15 These quotes are drawn from an interview with Rossi in Mészáros, 1991, p48. Unfortunately, there is no space here to explore the fascinating phenomenon of radical, working-class Catholicism in detail. However, its impact was illustrated during a famous gathering at the Morumbi stadium in 1980. Pope John Paul II was to be joined by Waldemar Rossi, with an anticipated television audience of 120 million people. Given an advance copy of Rossi’s proposed speech, the tottering military government, the Pope and the papal entourage insisted that sections of the speech be excised. The redacted sections spoke of the “fascist, corporative and vertical model” that inspired Brazil’s labour codes, “repressing and impeding the independent organisation of the workers”. The speech went on to say that, in Brazil, “Capitalism imposes violent conditions of work, subordinates and corrupts, and decides its own laws. It is the savage capitalism of the multinationals.”—Mészáros, 1991, p200. Riethof also recognises Rossi’s influence as “an essential figure of the new unionism movement”—Riethof, 2018, p94.

16 Sluyter-Beltrão, 2010, p94.

17 Sluyter-Beltrão, 2010, p94.

18 Sluyter-Beltrão, 2010, p88.

19 Riethof, 2018, pp94-96.

20 Riethof, 2018, p101.

21 Riethof, 2018, p101.

22 Riethof, 2018, p103.

23 Riethof, 2018, p107.

24 Sluyter-Beltrão, 2010, p7. Sluyter-Beltrão discusses this as an example of “social movement trade unionism”.

25 Sluyter-Beltrão, 2010, p12.

26 Sluyter-Beltrão, 2010, p105.

27 Sluyter-Beltrão, 2010, p105-106.

28 Bensaïd, 2014, p214-215. For Alex Callinicos’s obituary for Daniel, see Callinicos, 2012.

29 For a very useful introduction, see Bensaïd, 2014, chapters 10 and 11.

30 Bensaïd, 2014, p128.

31 Mandel’s response to Moreno’s book-length rejection of the perspectives proposed for the Eleventh World Congress of the Fourth International in 1979 captured the breakdown in relations between the two. Among the countless accusations and counter-accusations was an argument about democracy in the supposedly “socialist” countries. This debate would have particular resonance ten years later, when Lula and his allies challenged the idea of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” because of its alleged association with Stalinism. Mandel contemptuously quotes Moreno’s claim: “One of the most important tasks of Trotskyism is to educate the world working class in the recognition of the existing proletarian dictatorships…that they are much more democratic than any imperialist democracy.”—Mandel, 1979. Nevertheless, it should be noted that Mandel himself also defended China, Cuba, Vietnam and the former Yugoslavia as proletarian dictatorships, claiming they were not Stalinist. See Callinicos, 1990, p46.

32 Bensaïd, 2014, chapter 15.

33 Bensaïd, 2014, p218.

34 Bensaïd, 2014, p220. Inexplicably, the Workers’ Party sent some of its cadres to East Germany for training courses. This included some of Bensaïd’s comrades from the Fourth International. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, some of them were in the city. Bensaïd’s comrades “saw the bureaucracy, who were charged with explaining the mysteries of the dialectic to them, fall to pieces, ending up in floods of tears.”—Bensaïd, 2014, p211.

35 Machado, 2012. Thanks to Georges Paizis for assisting with the translation. Francisco Weffort, Workers’ Party advisor, integrated Marx’s famous one-liner into the party’s perspective. He linked it to Lula’s 1989 presidential campaign in Teoria e Debate, the party’s theoretical magazine, in September 1988. However, according to Bernado Kucinski, Weffort simply “put into accepted neo-Marxist language what Lula and his fellow workers knew by instinct”—Kucinski, 2003, p27. The Trotskyist Workers’ Fraction was a small Lambertist organisation that was influential mainly because its leader, Paulo Skromov, president of the São Paulo Leather Union. A brief background to the Lambertists can be found in Callinicos, 1990, pp35, 38.

36 Machado, 2012 (my emphasis).

37 See Callinicos, 1983, pp160-162.

38 See Bensaïd, 2007. Stathis Kouvelakis discusses this article as well as Bensaïd’s evolving disagreements with Mandel—see Kouvelakis, 2016. In their article on “The Workers’ Government”, Chris Harman and Tim Potter argue, like Daniel Bensaïd, that the Third International failed to provide clear guidelines on the question. Nevertheless, they take a position that Lenin had considered before the successful 1917 October Revolution in Russia: “Recognising that the Bolsheviks were still a minority in the working class, Lenin stated that, if the other socialist parties were to form such a government, the Bolsheviks would act as a ‘loyal opposition’ which would continue to criticise its failings in front of the class. The Bolsheviks would take no responsibility for its policies and maintain their independence from it”—Harman and Potter, 2007. This is clearly distinct from positions put forward by Mandel, Bensaïd and Machado, ruling out participation in such a government.

39 Machado, 2012.

40 Arcary was interviewed by Alex Callinicos in this journal after the election of the current right-wing Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonara—see Arcary, 2018. I also have had the good fortune to interview him twice.

41 Interview with Arcary on 24 July 2020.

42 Ribeiro de Miranda, 2014, p160-161. In 1982, Moreno formed his own “international”, the Internationalist Workers’ League, following his split with Mandel’s Fourth International—see Ribeiro de Miranda, 2014, p151. He died in 1987.

43 Personal correspondence with the author on 6 December 2020.

44 Keck, 1992, p79-80.

45 Sluyter-Beltrão, 2010, p291.

46 Interview with Arcary on 24 July 2020.

47 Arcary, 1990.

48 Interview with Moacyr Pinto Da Silva on 26 September 2020.

49 Today, Ruiz is a member of PSOL and Toninho is part of the United Socialist Workers’ Party (Partido Socialista dos Trabalhadores Unificado). Both are derivatives of Socialist Convergence. According to Renato, the division between the two organisations resulted from disagreements about what attitude to have to the impeachment and removal from office of former Workers’ Party President Dilma Rousseff in 2016.

50 This is an extract from an interview with Ruiz. Interviews were carried out in September with Ruiz, Toninho and other workers who had been politically active in the 1980s and early 1900s in Brazil.

51 From correspondence between the author and de Almeida on 20 October 2020. De Almeida later became a leading member of the United Socialist Workers’ Party.

52 See Martins, 2017; Secco, 2018, p136.

53 Unfortunately, the phenomenal rise of MST cannot be explored here. For an excellent brief summary, see Gonzalez, 2019, pp142-147. Mendes’s assassination did not halt the MST’s campaign of land occupations, which grew from 30 in 1988 to 62 in 1989—Secco, 2018, p136.

54 Cited in Arcary, 2014.

55 Lenin, 1964, chapter 5.

56 Sluyter-Beltrão, 2010, pp13-14.

57 Sluyter-Beltrão, 2010, p12.

58 Saad-Filho and Morais, 2018, p36.

59 Sluyter-Beltrão, 2010, p13.

60 Secco, 2018, p137. Arcary warns about the dangers of misunderstanding or ignoring the division in the Brazilian working class between registered and non-registered workers. This issue cannot be explored in detail here, but his warning must be put on the record. The growth of the Workers’ Party and the left in the working class was based mainly among registered workers with contracts with their employers, which were a minority. The majority of the class worked in small workplaces without contracts or were self-employed or casually employed. A significant additional number were involved in criminal activities. Arcary also stresses the lack of secondary education and literacy among the majority of workers who migrated from the countryside in the 1970s and 1980s as an additional source of problems for the left—interviews with the author on 24 July 2020 and 9 October 2020.

61 Secco, 2018, p137.

62 Secco, 2018, p139.

63 Beecham and Eidenham, 1987.

64 Eidenham, 1990.

65 Keck, 1992, p201.

66 Keck, 1992, p198.

67 Wainwright, 2003, p124. The Workers’ Party’s approach to local politics is an example of the leadership of a workers’ movement seeking to raise society-wide demands and increase mass political participation by shifting focus from the workplace to the community. However well-intentioned, these moves weakened the workers’ movements, thus undermining the party’s own strategy. This is also a lesson from the very different circumstances of the Iranian Revolution and the South African struggle against apartheid.

68 Riethof, 2018, p133.

69 Machado, 2012. Secret campaign slush funds were “a secret for many years”, finally being “revealed only in 2005.” They consisted of “party financing schemes…in many Workers’ Party-led city halls, extracting money from firms that bid on municipal contracts.”—Hunter, 2010, p103.

70 Saad-Filho and Morais, 2018, p74.

71 Saad-Filho and Morais, 2018, p56.

72 Saad-Filho and Morais, 2018, p76.

73 Branford, 2009, p155 (my emphasis).

74 Gonzalez, 2019, p13. “Neoliberalism was not simply an economic strategy. The creation of a global system in which no obstacles…were placed in the way of the movement of capital required both cultural hegemony and political control.”—Gonzalez, 2019, p12. See also Martin Upchurch’s article on “extractive capitalism” in International Socialism 168—Upchurch, 2020.

75 Gonzalez, 2019, p15.

76 Hunter, 2010, p115.

77 Subsoil is the layer of earth immediately below the surface soil, containing materials such as iron and aluminium compounds.

78 Saad-Filho and Morais, 2018, p59.

79 A reluctant Lula leadership did finally put itself at the head of a mass movement to bring down Collor, but this served as the finale for the confrontations that arose.

80 Interview with Arcary by the author on 9 October 2020.

81 Secco, 2018, p146.

82 Branford, Wainwright and Kucinski, 2003, p47.

83 Fernandes, 1991, analysing the 1991 Workers’ Party congress.

84 Interview with Arcary on 9 October 2020.

85 Sluyter-Beltrão, 2010, p317.

86 Sluyter-Beltrão, 2010, p317.

87 Sluyter-Beltrão, 2010, p318.

88 Sluyter-Beltrão, 2010, p319.

89 Sluyter-Beltrão, 2010, p319.

90 São José dos Campos, the site of the 1984 General Motors occupation, was seen as a conservative city. In his book, Ação e Razão Dos Trabalhadores Da General Motors de São José Dos Campos, Moacyr Pinto Da Silva reports difficulties raising support for the General Motor workers there.

91 Sluyter-Beltrão, 2010, pp291-292.

92 Sluyter-Beltrão, 2010, p292.

93 Sluyter-Beltrão, 2010, p292.

94 Interview with Arcary on 24 July 2o20.

95 Sluyter-Beltrão, 2010, pp410-411.

96 Sluyter-Beltrão, 2010, p283.

97 Machado 2012.

98 Bensaïd, 2014, p227.

99 Bensaïd, 2014, p228. See also Bensaïd, 2014, p226-228 for an excellent discussion of this impressive woman activist. The deep disillusion of key members of the Fourth International cadre in the Workers’ Party is powerfully expressed in the “Letter to the Comrades of Democracia Socialista (DS-PT), Brazil”, which was signed by Michael Löwy, Daniel Bensaïd and Francisco Louca—

100 Bensaïd, 2007.

101 Orthodox Trotskyism preserved Trotsky’s original analysis that the Soviet Union remained a workers’ state albeit a degenerated one. The fall of the Soviet Union’s in 1989 cleared the way for capitalist restoration, and thus orthodox Trotskyism perceived it as defeat. Confusion dominated the ideological fall out within Trotskyism at the very moment when clarity was essential. The inconsistencies of the degenerated workers’ state position, of course, formed the basis for Tony Cliff’s recasting of the Soviet Union as state capitalist. A useful summary of these arguments and their implications can be found in Callinicos, 1990. Unfortunately these arguments did not form part of the discourse of Brazilian Trotskyism.

102 Kasrils, 2017, p229.

103 Rose, 2018.

104 Rostami-Povey, 2010, p48.


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