The popular-democratic strategy

Image: Andrei


Recognizing a democratic-popular stage does not please revolutionary verbiage, but it is what really makes it possible to achieve a popular democracy

Within the revolutionary left, it is currently common for the democratic-popular strategy to be confused with the path adopted by the majority of the PT throughout their governments. Not long ago, the book The popular-democratic strategy: a critical inventory, dedicated to systematically propagating this misconception, was published by Mauro Iasi and his disciples.[I]

According to them, Lulism would be the “historically determined realization of the democratic-popular strategy”. Although they present fair criticisms of PT reformism, the authors mix it in a blender with the democratic-popular orientation, to attribute the unpleasantness of one to the other.

It turns out that, as will be seen, the great triumphant revolutions of the 20th century, such as the Russian, Chinese, Cuban and Vietnamese, were all popular-democratic. This fact was far from being faced by Iasi and company.

With the fall of the USSR, popular democratic movements and conceptions were pushed into ostracism, through attacks from the right and the left. Recovering the experiences and ideas that proved successful in the proletarian struggle is fundamental to the success of the revolutions that will come in the 21st century.

Marxism-Leninism and the popular-democratic strategy 

It is known that bourgeois revolutions broke out to eliminate obstacles to the development of capitalism. But each in their own way. How the classes were grouped, how they faced each other and how they changed their behavior were factors, among others, that varied according to the economic and political circumstances of each country and at each moment.

Marx stated that “in the English revolution of 1648, the bourgeoisie was linked to the modern nobility against royalty, against the feudal nobility and against the dominant Church. In the French revolution of 1789, the bourgeoisie was linked to the people against royalty, nobility and the dominant Church”.[ii] In the German revolution of 1848, initially, the big bourgeoisie supported the proletariat and the peasants. Soon after, fearful of the popular advance, she stopped herself and the revolution, in an alliance with the Prussian nobility and the bureaucracy.[iii]

It was with the Russian revolution, in 1905 and 1917, that there was a profound change in quality in the fight against archaic and feudal regimes. Unlike all previous revolutions, for the first time in history the proletarian and peasant classes showed themselves capable of, with their own hands, directing bourgeois-democratic transformations, expanding them to the maximum.

Although in the German revolution of 1848 the proletariat had already developed as an autonomous class, with its specific interests, there was an “essential difference” in relation to the Russian revolutionary movement, as Lenin highlighted in his work Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution “The enormous difference that exists between the German social democracy of that time [1848], and the current Social Democratic Workers' Party of Russia”.

In his words, “the proletarian characteristics of the movement, its proletarian currents, in the German democratic revolution were weak (due to Germany's delay in 1848, both in the political and economic sense, and its state fractionation)”. And he concluded, “the proletarian current is much more powerful in the democratic torrent of our revolution”.

This leap in proletarian development corresponded to an advance between the strategy defended by Lenin in the Russian revolution and that to which Marx and Engels had to restrict themselves in the circumstances of Germany. Now, the workers and peasants, in alliance, could fight for the constitution of what Lenin called a “democratic dictatorship of the workers and the peasantry”.

This does not mean that the Bolshevik leader was failing to recognize the bourgeois content of the Russian revolution. But he considered that, given the workers' and peasants' capacity for struggle, it would be possible, even without breaking the limits of capitalism, to “extend these limits to colossal proportions”, satisfying the immediate and strategic needs of the proletariat.

The purpose of this popular dictatorship would be “to institute a new and radical distribution of land ownership for the benefit of the peasants, to carry out a consistent and complete democracy going as far as the republic, to uproot all Asian and servile characteristics, not only from the living conditions of the peasants, as well as living conditions in factories; initiate a serious improvement in the situation of workers and an increase in their standard of living; and finally, last but not least, spread the revolutionary fire in Europe.”[iv].

The Bolsheviks had to fight a strong battle against the Mensheviks who, relying on the schematics they made of past revolutions, did not want to see the possibility of the democratic dictatorship of the workers and the peasantry. “The neo-Iskrists [Mensheviks] learned that democratic transformation has at its economic basis the bourgeois revolution, and 'understood' this as the need to lower the democratic tasks of the proletariat to the level of bourgeois moderation, to the limit beyond which 'the bourgeoisie turns its back on it' (…) Marxism does not teach the proletariat to remain on the sidelines of the bourgeois revolution, not to participate in it, to hand over said revolution to the bourgeoisie, but, on the contrary, teaches it to participate in the most energetic and more determined in the fight for a consistent proletarian democracy so that the revolution can be carried to the end”.[v]

The development of the 1917 revolution proved Lenin right. Even more than he anticipated.[vi] The Soviets of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies, which signified the implementation of the democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasantry, established a government capable of not only extending bourgeois-democratic transformations, but also of paving the way to socialism in Russia.[vii]

This type of revolution, in which the proletariat and the popular classes take state power with a program that does not yet break with capitalism, but which removes obstacles to it, solves the immediate problems of the lives of the masses and makes a transition to socialism possible. , is what we can call popular-democratic. The first to coin this terminology, following Lenin, was Mao Zedong, accompanied by the revolutionaries of Vietnam and Cuba.[viii]

Mao pointed out, “the objective of the Chinese revolution, in the current phase, is not to abolish capitalism in general, but rather to overthrow the domination of imperialism, feudalism and bureaucratic capitalism and to found a new democratic republic of the great popular masses, having the working people as the main force (…) The forces that determine the character of a revolution are, on the one hand, its main enemies, and, on the other, the main revolutionary forces. At present, our main enemies are imperialism, feudalism and bureaucratic capitalism, while the main forces in our fight against such enemies are all manual workers and intellectuals, who represent 90 percent of the country's population. And this gives our revolution, in its current stage, the character of a new democratic revolution, a popular democratic revolution (…)”.[ix]

Of course, Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cuban, etc. societies. had distinct characteristics, which resulted in different developments of the revolutionary struggle. For example, the proletariat was already reasonably strong in incipient Russian capitalism, while it was weak in semi-colonial China. This had strategic consequences, such as enabling the former to succeed in an urban insurrectionary struggle, while requiring the latter to wage a prolonged war from the countryside.

However, there were also important characteristics in common between these countries. In all of them, (i) it was the alliance between the proletariat and the peasants that could lead the revolution to the end; (ii) with a program that would destroy obstacles to capitalism (whether semi-feudal, colonial or imperialist) and place democracy at the service of the popular classes.

The popular-democratic strategy constituted one of the great legacies of Marxism-Leninism. Today, especially for countries dominated by imperialism.

Reform, revolution and counter-revolution in dependent countries

Some of the premises of the popular-democratic strategy presented in the book led by Mauro Iasi are still correct. “The assumption of the immaturity of a certain economic-social formation (in our case, the Brazilian one) for open and immediate engagement in a socialist transformation; (…) the commitment to strengthening the bourgeois-democratic components of the society in which it operates, supposedly so that the conditions, objective and subjective, mature for a future possibility of overcoming capitalism”.[X]

However, for Mauro Iasi and others, the “historically verified” result of these premises and this strategy would be to “get closer to the commitment to the bourgeois social order” and send the intensification of conflicts and rupture to “an indeterminate and indeterminable future”. He states, “it has historically been verified that the defense of this hard core was able to come close to the commitment to the bourgeois social order tout court, or better yet, with a version considered softer, more palatable, and more human.”

Let us take the example of the Cuban revolutionary process to carry out a “historical verification” ourselves. What were the first tasks of the Cuban revolution? A 50% reduction in the value of rent; reduction in electricity tariffs; improvements in public education and health; replacement of Batista's army and police by the Rebel Army; proclamation of the Agrarian Reform Law; nationalization of US companies and national and foreign banks, etc.

It was the Moncada Program, propagated by Fidel Castro in his self-defense, “History Will Absolve Me”. All of these measures had a “commitment to strengthening the bourgeois-democratic components of the society in which we operate”[xi]. They did not break with capitalism, they did not have a socialist character, but rather a popular-democratic one.

But why didn't Fidel and the other revolutionaries of the 26th of July Movement defend an immediately socialist program? Precisely because Cuba's level of economic development and the proletariat's fighting capacity made this impossible. In other words, due to the “immaturity of a certain economic-social formation”, in this case, the Cuban one.

Fidel himself explained, “our program of struggle against Batista was not a socialist program, nor could it really be a socialist program. Because the immediate objectives of our struggle were not yet, nor could they be, socialist objectives. They would have surpassed the level of political awareness of Cuban society at that stage; would have exceeded the level of possibilities of our people at that stage”.[xii]

Now, the defense of a democratic-popular program did not push the Sierra Maestra guerrillas towards a “commitment to the bourgeois social order”, much less sent the Cuban revolution to “an indeterminate and indeterminable future”, as maintained by Mauro Iasi and his supporters . The conquest of the masses to defend a democratic-popular program resulted in exactly the opposite in Cuba and other colonial, semi-colonial and dependent countries. It resulted in the intensification of the class struggle and revolutionary ruptures, which provided material and cultural progress for workers and enabled a transition to socialism.

In the words of the Cuban revolutionary Manoel Piñero, the national and social liberation revolutions in Latin America and the Caribbean, “in their dialectical course, in a first stage assume tasks with a democratic, popular and anti-imperialist content and tend, in their development – ​​as an indissoluble part of its own process and in accordance with its general historical character, to carry out purely socialist tasks.”[xiii]

What happens is that, in dominated countries, popular-democratic reforms are intolerable for imperialism, which feeds on its system of plunder. These reforms have the potential to dynamize class antagonism, push the mass movement towards a rupture and imperialism and its lackeys towards counter-revolution, in the opposite direction of what is declared by Iasi.

Let’s look at another “historical check”, this one more familiar to us. It is unquestionable that the Getúlio Vargas, João Goulart and Dilma Rousseff governments did not have any revolutionary inclination. However, they were targets of coups supported by imperialism. Why?

The first two because, albeit in a moderate way, they supported popular-democratic reforms. In turn, the PT government promoted very modest reforms, with several setbacks and concessions, without escaping the same fate.

These governments, even without any intention of promoting a rupture, were faced with imperialist intransigence. In all these cases, the conflicts were not sent to “an indeterminate and indeterminable future”, but were anticipated and accelerated. National, democratic and popular tasks are so essential in dependent countries, and have such a great potential to mobilize the masses, that revolutionaries must take them into their own hands.

The processes of intensification of the class struggle in Brazil were never directed around the conquest of State power with the masses. However, Mauro Iasi has been attributing to the recent PT governments, in a confusing and strange way, the conceptions of the democratic-popular strategy. Let's examine how and why.

The PT and the democratic-popular strategy

For Mauro Iasi, “the historical cycle in which we find ourselves is characterized by the predominance of the Popular Democratic Strategy. This formulation finds its form of organizational and political expression in the Workers' Party (PT) and its development corresponds to the historical path of this party from its formation in 1980 to the government experience that completes ten years in 2013”[xiv].

In other words, according to Iasi, there would not have been a rupture, a change in quality, between what was the PT in the 1980s and what came under the Lula government in 2003. And, thus, the predominance of the PT would mean hegemony of the democratic-popular strategy on the left. Well... Perhaps remembering some emblematic episodes, even briefly, will help to recover the truth of the facts.

In the 1989 elections, between Lula and Collor, during a campaign in which the bourgeoisie united against the PT, the then president of FIESP even declared that more than 800 thousand businesspeople would flee the country if Lula won the elections. In the 2002 elections, Lula's vice-president was the businessman José Alencar and the PT published the so-called “Letter to the Brazilian people”, a set of commitments to “calm down” the big financial bourgeoisie. On both occasions, would it be the same PT?

In his writings, Mauro Iasi does not completely ignore this difference. But he suggests that this is a mere “consequence of the implementation” of the popular-democratic strategy. According to him, the supposed “limits” of this strategy could not lead to a different result, they would only have determined “changes in form”.

He says, “it remains to be seen whether this outcome implies the rupture of the strategy or is a consequence of its implementation. It seems to us that the only way to assume that the product does not correspond to the initial political intention is to assume that the forms of political implementation could lead to a qualitatively and essentially different result. It is evident that political action takes different directions and historical results cannot be understood within a framework of inflexible and unidirectional developments, however, if we are correct in our analysis, the essential factors highlighted would determine a background in which changes in form, although important and with very different political results, they would not have the power to change the limits of strategic formulation”[xv].

It can be seen that this is a mere game of words, which does not address the really essential issue in a popular-democratic strategy. The issue of the revolutionary seizure of State power, which had been abandoned by the PT.

In 1987, the 5th National Meeting of the PT approved a political resolution that expressly defended a democratic-popular strategy. The PT, with an anti-monopoly, anti-imperialist and anti-landlord program, would elect a government with the aim of triggering a revolutionary process. The resolution expressed, “under Brazilian conditions, a government capable of carrying out democratic and popular tasks […] is a government of social forces in conflict with capitalism and the bourgeois order, therefore, a government hegemonized by the proletariat, and which only could be made possible by a revolutionary rupture.” Were these the intentions of the Lula government elected in 2002? Obviously not.

Nor was the PT, in the 80s, a homogeneous whole that was guided by the resolutions of the 5th Meeting. There was a polarization between revolutionary activism and another that was limited to defending some social reforms. This polarization, however, later lost its strength. What the Lula and Dilma governments assumed was a neo-developmentalist program that responded primarily to the interests of fractions of the bourgeoisie, and only secondarily to the interests of the popular classes.

In these governments, the large national monopolies were strengthened, anti-imperialism was replaced by a very specific and limited resistance to imperialist domination and agrarian reform gave way to timid support for small peasant production. At its most basic, the policies of the PT governments that promoted improvements in the lives of the people were completely separated from any effort towards popular organization to conquer power.

We are with Valter Pomar when he says that “the predominant strategy in the PT, since 1995 and mainly since 2002, is no longer the democratic-popular strategy articulated with socialism approved at the fifth national meeting of the PT”[xvi].

But why did Mauro Iasi try to get around this obvious fact? Why did he mix the reformist concepts that have guided the majority of the PT and the democratic-popular strategy?

This seems to have been a subterfuge found to attack the democratic-popular strategy in an easy way, through the insufficiencies of the PT governments, inducing the false association of one with the other. The truth is that contesting the popular-democratic strategy in the face of triumphant revolutionary struggles would be a difficult and dubious task.

“Socialism now” and the abandonment of political struggle

In contrast to the democratic-popular strategy, Mauro Iasi argues that “the character of the necessary transformations in our country is anti-capitalist and, therefore, socialist”[xvii]. He qualifies as “stageism” the identification of stages in the democratic-popular strategy[xviii].

To those who refused to recognize stages in a revolution, Mao Zedong declared, “we are supporters of the theory of transition of revolution and not of the Trotskyist thesis of 'permanent revolution'. We are for the realization of socialism through all the necessary stages of the democratic republic. We are against followership, and also against the spirit of adventure”[xx].

It is not the desire of revolutionaries that determines the economic and social tasks of a revolution, but the contradictions that actually exist. In a country like Brazil, with economic development stifled by imperialism and a poorly developed proletariat, proclaiming socialist measures, rejecting democratic-popular political tasks as mere “reformism”, has only resulted in mistakes such as the cult of demand movements and other forms of denial of political action.

Those who worship the demand movements believe that strikes and other struggles for rights can, through a large demonstration or a redemptive general strike, elevate workers to the sky of socialism. This spontaneist cult ends up functioning as a false compensation for abstentionism in the face of non-socialist political struggles.

The denial of political action can also manifest itself in various forms, such as catastrophism (the idea that capitalism will become rotten); politics treated as a mechanical reflection of the economic (the insinuation that we don't need to do anything, capitalism would be a mole that would dig for us); capitalism as a result of “human alienation” (good preachers would be enough for humanity to “enlighten itself” and emancipate itself), etc.

All these conceptions, in essence, reflect inclinations specific to the middle sectors, which are critical to the advancement of capitalism, insofar as it harms them, but do little to overthrow it, insofar as it benefits them. The defense of an immediately socialist program, “socialism now”, is a close relative of anarchism.

When they venture into the political struggle, defenders of “socialism now” stumble upon the unavoidable reality. An excerpt from the Political Revolutions of the IV National Assembly of Popular Consultation summarizes it very well. “Those who criticize the current nature of a national, democratic and popular program for the Brazilian revolution are not only incapable of formulating an alternative program with tasks of a socialist nature that can be placed on the immediate plane but, in practice, they end up applying it to its bases and electoral campaigns precisely what they criticize so much: a program of a national, democratic and popular nature, full of terms such as 'nationalization', 'readjustment', 'participation', 'reform', 'democratization' and 'rights'. This is, therefore, a cynical and contentless criticism.”

The current economic, political and social circumstances of a dependent country like Brazil make it impossible to defend an immediately socialist revolution. Recognizing a democratic-popular stage does not please revolutionary verbiage, but it is what really makes it possible to achieve popular democracy, national sovereignty and raise the living conditions of the masses to another level, advancing towards socialism.

The popular-democratic revolution in Brazil

Imperialism and dependence constitute Brazil's fundamental contradiction. It is this contradiction that the democratic-popular strategic program is called upon to resolve.

As Carlos Marighella identified, “in Brazil — as we have already seen — it is about resolving the chronic structural crisis. And this today consists of a new fact: its content and evolution are engendered by the growth of capitalism in conditions of dependence on imperialism and the maintenance of large estates. It is the growth of capitalism — in such circumstances — that has been determining the entire Brazilian political process.”[xx]

Confronting imperialism in Brazil involves several tasks that a popular-democratic dictatorship must carry out. State monopoly on finance, foreign trade, natural resources, communications, energy and fundamental services; confiscation and distribution of large landholdings; popular control of weapons and public administration; implementation of a robust industrialization plan; Brazil's withdrawal from its status as a satellite of US foreign policy; expansion and development of science and technology; reform of the entire education system; quality assurance in health care; progressive socialization of reproductive work; general improvement of social indicators, with the promotion of employment, universal housing, etc.

A program of this type cannot be fulfilled by the Brazilian bourgeoisie. But it is capable of mobilizing the popular classes for the revolutionary conquest of power.

Iasi also ignores that external dependence weakens the proletariat not only in the fight against the bourgeoisie, but also in promoting rapid economic and political development after the seizure of state power. This is an indispensable condition for the effective improvement of the living conditions of the urban and peasant masses, which is what can strengthen, in the face of counter-revolution, the position of the proletariat, the only one capable of defending popular conquests and advancing decisively towards socialism.

Schafik Handal, a great revolutionary leader from El Salvador, summed up well the relationship between a democratic-popular program and the struggle for socialism. He says that, in the revolution in Latin America, “socialism cannot be achieved except through the anti-imperialist democratic revolution, but neither can the anti-imperialist democratic revolution be consummated without achieving socialism. So that between the two there is an essential indissoluble link, they are facets of a single revolution and not two revolutions. If we look from now to the future, what is presented is the anti-imperialist democratic revolution and which does not present itself as a separate revolution, but as the accomplishment of the tasks specific to the first phase of the socialist revolution”.[xxx]

It is certain that the coming revolutions will reveal many differences in relation to those of the past. Eric Hobsbawm drew attention, for example, that the end of the 20th century “marked the end of the seven or eight millennia of human history that began with the agricultural revolution in the Stone Age, (…) ended the long era in which the majority The overwhelming majority of the human race lived by growing food and herding livestock.”[xxiii]

On the one hand, the peasant mass that existed in our country 60 years ago, on whom Marighella and many other Brazilian fighters rightly counted on forming a revolutionary army, was drastically reduced. On the other hand, the urban masses, even if they are not salaried, tend to play a relevant role in the coming revolutionary processes, as those who came down from the hills in defense of Hugo Chávez in the attempted coup in Venezuela in 2002 have already shown, in an embryonic way.

Despite the new forms that life will present, the general guidelines of the popular-democratic strategy will remain valid. It is with them that the vanguard of the Brazilian proletariat will illuminate its paths to victory in the 21st century. [xxiii][xxv]

*Herick Argolo Public defender and member of the Popular Consultation.


[I] “The popular-democratic strategy: a critical inventory”. Organized by Mauro Iasi, Isabel Mansur Figueiredo and Victor Neves. In the book's presentation, it is stated that it is based on analyzes of four previous texts by Mauro Iasi.

[ii] Karl Marx in “The Bourgeoisie and the Counter-Revolution”.

[iii] Lenin in “Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution”.

[iv] Lenin in “Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution”.

[v] Idem.

[vi] “We must know how to complete and correct old 'formulas', those of Bolshevism, for example, which are generally correct, as has already been demonstrated, but whose concrete implementation resulted in being different. Before, no one thought, nor could think, about the duality of powers”, Lenin in “The Duality of Powers”, April 1917.

[vii] “(…) the Russian revolution of February 1917, in addition to wiping the entire tsarist monarchy off the map and handing over all power to the bourgeoisie, came very close to the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasants. The Petrograd Soviet and the local Soviets of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies are this dictatorship (that is, a power that is not based on law, but on the direct force of the masses of the armed population), the dictatorship of the aforementioned classes.” Lenin in “The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution”, April 1917.

[viii] In “Two Tactics…”, Lenin already spoke of the “popular character” of the democratic revolution that was about to take place in Russia. A revolution that satisfied “the needs and demands of the people in general”, the “unity of will in matters of democracy and in the fight for the republic”.

Mao coined the term “popular democratic revolution”, which he used in texts such as “The Orientation of the Youth Movement” (1939) and “On the Question of the National Bourgeoisie and the Enlightened Nobles” (1948), among others. Later, in 1954, the first Constitution of the People's Republic of China established that this Republic constituted a “State of popular democracy”.

[ix] Mao Zedong in “On the Question of the National Bourgeoisie and the Enlightened Nobles”. The highlight is ours.

[X] “The popular-democratic strategy: a critical inventory”. Organized by Mauro Iasi, Isabel Mansur Figueiredo and Victor Neves.

[xi] “The popular-democratic strategy: a critical inventory”. Organized by Mauro Iasi, Isabel Mansur Figueiredo and Victor Neves.

[xii] Fidel Castro in “Cuba-Chile”, 1971.

[xiii] “The current crisis of imperialism and the revolutionary processes in Latin America and the Caribbean”, Manoel Piñero.

[xiv] Mauro Iasi in “The PT and the Bourgeois Revolution in Brazil”.

[xv] Idem.

[xvi] Interview with Isabel Mansur, published in “Brazilian Revolution”.

[xvii] In “The democratic-popular strategy: a critical inventory”.

[xviii] See the “Letter from comrade Mauro Iasi to all PCB activists and party groups”.

[xx] Mao Zedong in “Let us fight to incorporate the masses by millions into the Anti-Japanese National United Front”.

[xx] Carlos Marighella in “The Brazilian Crisis”.

[xxx] Schafik Handal in “Power, Character, the Way of the Revolution and the Unity of the Left”.

[xxiii] In “The Age of Extremes”.

[xxiii] I thank the companions who participated in the debates and, in particular, André, Armando, Danilo, Thiago, Leitinho, Durval, Du and Jones, who read in advance and sent criticisms and suggestions, without, of course, being able to attribute it to them. any flaws and insufficiencies in the text.


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