1964: A historic defeat

Image: Elyeser Szturm

By Valerio Arcary*

For twenty years the military dictatorship imposed state terror to preserve political stability. The dictatorship silenced a generation. Persecuted tens of thousands, arrested thousands, killed hundreds.

Fifty-six years separate us from the terrible night of March 31, 1964. But the dreadful legacy of 1964 is still present. Because the 1964 coup was a historic defeat. It is impossible to predict what Bolsonaro might do. Threats of a possible State of Siege, depending on the tragically predictable evolution of the pandemic among us, are in the air. Therefore, all the freedoms won over the past thirty-five years are potentially in jeopardy.

The anniversary of the coup brings back the question, anxiously present in the minds of thousands of left-wing activists: how was it possible for us to arrive in 2020 in this situation? How was it possible for the extreme right, through a neo-fascist adventurer, to have won the presidency through elections? Can we conclude that we have suffered a historic defeat? Or, in simple words, what time is it? To act every day we need to know what time it is. For a revolutionary militancy we need to know what situation we are in.

The argument of this article is that we are in a reactionary situation, but a historic defeat has not yet occurred. But the truth is also that only after a few years of distance and perspective is it possible to assess, without large margins of error, whether a socio-political defeat was historic or not.

Marxism works with several levels of temporalities. We consider epochs, stages, situations, conjunctures, in different degrees of abstraction. We are in the stage opened by a historic defeat in 1989/91, the capitalist restoration. In Brazil the situation has been reactionary for some years. Two weeks ago we entered a new situation, after Bolsonaro's speech against the partial quarantine implemented in most states.

A historic defeat is not a change in circumstances. It means that the structural framework of the social relationship of forces has been unfavorably altered for a long period. It is a much more serious defeat than an electoral defeat. More serious, too, than a socio-political defeat. It is the most serious of all defeats. When a historic defeat is precipitated, an entire generation loses hope that life can change through collective political mobilization. It will be necessary for a new generation to reach adulthood, and mature through the experience of social struggle.

The rise of Nazi-fascism in the 1920s was an international historic defeat. First in Italy, then in Portugal, then in Germany and finally in Spain, paving the way for the Second World War. The rise of Stalinism in the USSR was an international historic defeat. Defeat in the civil war in Greece in 1945 was a historic but national defeat. The 1964 coup was a historic defeat on a regional scale. The coup in Chile was a historic defeat. The most serious of the historical defeats in the last thirty years was the capitalist restoration in the former USSR. It had an international dimension. It ended a stage that extended between the victory over Nazism, from 1944, and 1989/91, with the dissolution of the USSR.

The Marxist-revolutionary tradition bequeathed us a theoretical reference on the subject. There is a ruler that can guide us. There are counter-revolutionary, reactionary, stable, pre-revolutionary and revolutionary situations. And we must consider the transitory situations between them. If the defeat was historic, we are not in a reactionary situation. We are in a counterrevolutionary situation. The electoral-democratic regime has already been displaced or is in the process of being displaced, because the balance of power between the institutions has been or is about to be subverted. Because it no longer has support in the social structure. The political superstructure of the State will be forced to buckle in the face of the new social relationship of forces. But, fortunately, there are good reasons to think that the accumulated defeats since 2015 do not have the maximum severity of a historic defeat.

The interpretation that the victory of the coup, in addition to the fall of João Goulart, and the defeat of the workers' movement and its allies, had the meaning of a historical regression for Brazil as a nation, a recolonization is inescapable. Any attempt to reduce the reactionary impact of the military insurrection that took Castelo Branco, Costa e Silva, Médici, Geisel and Figueiredo to the presidency, with ultra-concentrated powers, in a terrible sequence of arbitrariness, violence and repression boils down to a historical falsification.

For twenty years the military dictatorship imposed state terror to preserve political stability. The dictatorship silenced a generation. Persecuted tens of thousands, arrested thousands, killed hundreds. It was a counterrevolutionary triumph that reversed the political-social balance of forces on a continental scale, reversing the promising situation opened up by the Cuban revolution in 1959.  

Brazil, during the military dictatorship, regressed. We were one of the homelands of the most dependent, savage, barbaric capitalism. The Brazil generated by the dictatorship lost immense historical opportunities for growth with less uneven, less destructive, less unbalanced development. It generated a society muzzled, culturally, by fear; amputated, educationally, by the disqualification of public education and favoring the private; fragmented, socially, by the super-exploitation of the proletariat for poverty wages; transfigured by the explosion of violence and delinquency.

What the dictatorship did was to condemn the country to maintain, for another half century, the condition of North American commercial semi-colony. It created the largest external debt in the world, both in absolute numbers and in the weight of debt as a proportion of GDP. To make matters worse, he accepted that the foreign debt would be made in the form of post-fixed bonds, and with arbitration in New York, in accordance with US legislation. He made Brazil the paradise of international usury.

It does not seem plausible to debate, in 2020, whether or not the consequences of what happened in 1964 were truly, in the most serious sense of the words, devastating. Regressive abysses have victimized, since the end of the Second World War, countless times, contemporary societies of the most different and terrible forms and proportions. In the form of ethnic cleansing, for example, when the State of Israel was founded, the Palestinian Nakba in 1948; in the form of barbaric destruction of the average conditions of existence of the people, as were the sequels of the capitalist restoration in Russia after the Perestroika; and even in the form of genocides, as in Rwanda, in 1994, or in Bosnia, between 1992/95. But tragically, other forms of historical regression have occurred, such as the dictatorships in the southern cone of Latin America. The military dictatorship regime was so reactionary that its main legacy was to have left Brazil, two decades later, as the most unequal society in the world outside Africa.

In an analysis of the situation, it is necessary to study the power relations in social conflicts without losing the meaning of the measures. We must consider a scale of quantity, and qualify differences in quality. Impressionist exaggerations do not help. Insecurity among workers is not the same as despair. Despondency on the left is not the same as prostration. We must be able to mediate. There is a danger of a historic defeat on the horizon if the Bolsonaro government is not stopped. There is a danger of a “Siberian winter”. But Bolsonaro is not unbeatable. Unlike 1964, there will be resistance, whatever the cost. Until the end.

* Valerio Arcary He is a retired full professor at IFSP (Federal Institute of Education, Science and Technology of São Paulo).

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