Lula and the politics of cunning – from metallurgist to president of Brazil



Considerations on the biography of President Lula

Historian John D. French, in his book Lula and the politics of cunning: from metallurgist to president of Brazil –published in Portuguese, by Expressão Popular and Fundação Perseu Abramo, in 2022 (the original in English is from 2020) – he knew the risk he was taking when he started writing a biography about Lula. Fernando Morais had already started the task with direct access to Lula and precious primary sources, such as the 17-hour interviews granted by the biographer to Frei Betto in the late 1980s.

At first glance, John D. French's resume would not seem to qualify him for the challenge. A doctoral thesis on ABC workers in the first half of the XNUMXth century, supervised by Emília Viotti da Costa, at Yale University. It could also be said that the training and practice of a historian does not make anyone a biographer.

But John D. French exercises his new trade with excellence and aplomb. the teacher of dukeuniversity speaks Portuguese, knows the history of ABC like few others, having dedicated himself to accompanying it before and after the rise of the Lula phenomenon, during the last forty years. As the author reports, referring to Lula, whom he met only three times, “had consumed more of his words, and considered them more carefully, than anyone else in the world”.[I]

your book The Brazilian Workers' ABC covers the period prior to Lula's unionist career. In the dense research of his thesis, he shows that a good part of the studies on “populism” – understood as a mere stratagem to dampen class conflicts – is impregnated with the ideology of some intellectuals to justify the 1964 coup. manipulated and classless workers.

In its clever balcony, the “populist consensus” had as its last character the historians and social scientists who transformed it into an empty theoretical formula, among them Francisco Weffort, its favorite target.[ii]

Another differential of John D. French is taking Lula's origins seriously, starting from the testimonies of Lula and several of his relatives collected by Denise Paraná in her doctoral thesis, later transformed into a book.[iii]

The merit of his work is not only due to his deep knowledge of the scenario (the ABC of workers) and the bibliography on the popular classes in Brazil, nor to his handling of the theory of history. This is not enough for a good biography, as the character needs to walk through the pages. And especially someone, like Lula, who goes through several transfigurations, from migrant to worker, union leader, leader of the PT, candidate for president and president of the Republic.

The historian converted into a biographer manages to do this through a methodical research with all available sources, tracing the steps of Lula and all those who lived with the character in his various spheres of sociability, especially until 1980. an important segment on the rise in Brazilian society, in an interaction full of nuances and unforeseen, the author manages to capture the rupture, when the arc of influence of the message transmitted by this central personality of our history is expanded.

John D. French wonders why intellectuals and “public opinion” never bothered to highlight “Lula” as a “central personality” to understand the movement of Brazilian society from the 1980s onwards. In his view, this is due to the refusal to accept the role of the individual in the historical process – generally seen as “subjective”, “mystifying” and inaccessible to the interpretive schemes of liberals and Marxists.[iv]

Here, his distance as a foreigner allows him to move beyond the discourse of intellectuals and the mainstream press, which often hide behind the “charisma” attributed to Lula, a prejudiced way of referring to the social and political learning of those who did not complete formal schooling. . He would be endowed with a “magic”, therefore, far from the erudition of intellectuals and journalists, full of diplomas and prestige.

The counterpoint with FHC, “the prince of Brazilian sociology”, is used by John D. French to illustrate yet another consensus created by the elites. FHC is “studied”, versed in several languages, and endowed with “rationality”, while Lula is, at best, a “pragmatist”, which sounds like “lack of principles”.

Florestan and Lula

An important exception to this consensus that is silent about the presence of “Lula” as a central character in our contemporary history – which suggests, on the other hand, that the biographical individual is an “ABC by-product” – is found in the article written in 1994, before Lula's second presidential campaign, by Florestan Fernandes.

Florestan Fernandes sees Lula as part of the turmoil that Brazilian society has been going through since the end of the 1970s. Regarded by the ruling classes as the northeastern man who was “lucky” and rose socially, “Luiz Inácio's interests were encrusted among the workers and poor populations in the coming-to-be of social class itself”. For this fusion to take place, “at a time when the legal order was in contradiction with the social order”, the character underwent personal mutations that were of historical importance.

Thus, the “perennial mark” of its leadership emerged on the horizon, willing to “assert itself against the existing order in the working-class world without breaking the limits of non-conformity accepted by the capitalists”. His “invulnerable political vocation”, putting the issues up for debate, without almost interfering in the discussions, to enter the scene with “an inclusive solution”, sprouted as soon as the opportunities for his outbreak arose. Finally, it is not about “just any personality”, as it is driven by “an unusual capacity for self-learning and reflection on oneself and others”. But, adds Florestan, “there are gaps about the ups and downs of this phase of blossoming of a potential rebel”.[v]

A biography with method

John D. French fills in several of these gaps in his biography. His methodological scheme combines different temporalities. In the foreground are the social, political and cultural processes through which the “biographical Lula” enters the scene, transforming himself to act on the same processes (second plan), thus giving birth to the “imagined Lula” (third plan), according to the positive, negative or indifferent interaction that the various class segments of Brazilian society have with it. The author clarifies that Lula “is not treated either in isolation or as someone wholly merged with his context” in his work.[vi]. The fusion is carefully crafted throughout the narrative.

To complete this task, in which the biographical Lula and the history of Brazil intersect like waves that overlap each other, John D. French makes use of three methodological instruments: political sociology, anthropology and a refined discussion of the relations between individual and historical process.

At this point, someone might ask, is a methodological scheme necessary for writing a biography? Isn't it enough to interview people, read period material and follow the footprints left by the character? This is not the case with this singular biography.

The bet on the individual and his subjectivity as endowed with a transforming historical capacity requires a break with structuralism and its “structural invariants”, which lead, for John D. French, to “theoretical anti-humanism”. He relies on Sartre – “you are what you do with what has been done to you” –, recovered by Marshall Sahlins: “individual historical action” must be understood from the “historical structures that authorize it”. If done well, a biographical account may not necessarily lead to the “illusion” denounced by Bourdieu, that a life is always imbued with meaning, traced from what is known afterwards.

To illustrate this conception, perhaps it is worth making an analogy with Leon Trostky’s phrase about the Russian Revolution, also mentioned by the American biographer: “Lenin was not an accidental element, but a product of Russian history” [vii].

Lula is not an accidental element either, but a product of Brazilian history. These considerations appear in the introduction and epilogue of the work and are essential to its understanding. As well as the first chapter, “A Apoteose de Lula”, which describes the various ways in which Lula appears “biographed” – campaign materials, comics, children's books, academic theses, books by biographers from various countries, large-scale films run, derogatory reports about “the crude Karl Marx from Vila Carioca”, until it became a theme for the samba school Gaviões da Fiel.[viii]

John French's book is also a biography in the broad sense of the word. It covers Lula's trajectory from a double focus: it understands “the phenomenon of politics as a set of relationships” that go beyond the power structure and permeate everyday life; and conceives of “leadership as work embodied in words”,[ix] which are meaningful for those who name the world and find social support.

Miss Lindu and Lula

Since Lula's most recent unjust arrest, consummating the 2016 coup, the figure of his mother has increasingly become part of his autobiographical repertoire. This is not a rhetorical device. The education he received from his illiterate mother was guided by the example of his everyday attitudes. “Temosia” is Dona Lindu’s code name, as French describes it, and can be characterized by the refusal to submit expected subordinates to the “facts of life” [X].

Moving from Baixada Santista to Greater São Paulo in 1955, after putting an end to her husband's aggression, she settled in Vila Carioca, in the district of Ipiranga. The eldest sons have various types of profession and the daughters work as maids. There was a family economy in which “investments” in sons and daughters were made according to their possibilities in the boiling metropolis.

Lula was the youngest child and the only one with complete primary education (up to fourth grade at the time). This was the condition for access to a SENAI course. The bar was low, as those with more education tended to opt for white-collar jobs. It also narrowed the pool of potential applicants without a primary education, as the aptitude test would test reading, writing, and math skills.[xi]

Dona Lindu would walk eight kilometers round trip to the SENAI school, on Avenida Ipiranga, in search of places in the apprenticeship course at the factories. Enrolling in the course for mechanical lathes was for a few “lucky ones”, who rose to a higher working-class condition.[xii]

Dona Lindu's tenacity is better reported here than in Morais' biography. Lula's mother, "ethereal as a shadow", appears, in the journalist's biography, as the moral force preventing the young man, before becoming a worker, from queuing for an apple at the fair, a Ping Pong ball gum or even a note 20 cruises in a van with open windows.[xiii]

How Lula remembers his mother is important, but it does not reveal the actual role played by her in his social ascension, and why he was the “chosen one” as part of a family project. It was not about creating a “winner”, but an aspiration shared by several housewives of the same social status,[xiv] to get what was rightfully possible. Out of sheer stubbornness.

Perhaps for the same reason, she did not like to see him take office as president of the São Bernardo metalworkers union in 1975. “I was afraid of all these things”, as Lula reports in a 1993 interview.[xv] Imagining him going up the ramp of the Planalto Palace, that simply did not figure in his horizon of possibilities, a result of the country in which he grew up, but not the one that his son was helping to create, when facing the “sharks” of the industry and the military regime.


“SENAI was everything I dreamed of in life. Learn a profession! […] My mother was so proud […] I was the scientist. […] I felt like I owned the world” [xvi]. This is how Lula would refer, decades later, to his first historical transmutation.

In addition to a series of benefits and services, the learning environment was well structured and employment at the company was assured. The conception of SENAI, elaborated by its founder Roberto Mange, consisted in the qualification of an elite of workers, since the industry did not face a shortage of “anatomical arms”, but “of thinking arms”. Even so, bottlenecks existed. The institution could not cope with the demand, as it offered intensive three-year courses.[xvii]

The young apprentice, in order to master “universal machine tools” such as the lathe, needed “flexibility and versatility”. Each apprentice had an instructor worker, a kind of “professional father figure” in his factory, who in Lula's case was the black mechanical lathe operator, nicknamed “old Barbosa”. In addition to skills, non-cognitive factors were strategic, such as self-discipline, organization and willpower to complete the course.[xviii]

According to John D. French, this highly qualified segment was composed of the “intellectuals” [xx] of the working class. The work was not just manual: “after receiving the drawings of the piece, they study and analyze it carefully, and decide practically the entire work process”. Economist Paul Singer, in an article for the magazine VISION, from 1973, reports the result of his field research with these workers: they were more “free” to think with their own heads, assuming complete responsibility for the result of their work.[xx]

Self-realization, on the other hand, generated resentment, as they knew that their remuneration does not follow the productivity of their work. These segments were more aware of injustice and, thanks to their prominent position in the factory structure, were more prone to union organization.

One of the great insights of John D. French's work is to draw a parallel between these working-class intellectuals and the “talented young people” of the Center for Industrial and Labor Sociology (CESIT), founded by Florestan Fernandes and directed by Fernando Henrique Cardoso.[xxx]

The process of internationalization of the Brazilian economy engendered two new segments of intellectuals: one, mostly from the elite, who, using “techniques of social awareness”, would map the various class behaviors; and the other sprouting from his own class consciousness, from the concrete world of work, imposing himself on the political world, already courted by this intellectual elite in the late 1970s. starting from different positions and tactical schemes.

However, there are frictions between these two universes, as can be seen in CESIT's studies on the world of work before Lula entered the stage of unionism. The attack is now aimed at Leôncio Martins Rodrigues, but it is up to everyone at CESIT[xxiii], reverberating the new perspectives on the working class after the 1980s, among which John D. French is one of the main references.

To a large extent, strongly structuralist explanations were based on “limited observations about an emerging collectivity that was politically and socially alien to them”. The social distance between the researchers and their object of study was due to ideological reasons: workers, flesh and blood, did not fight against capitalism. Hence the statements that they were driven exclusively by “individual social mobility” and saw the union only as “a social service agency”. They appeared, therefore, as “a differentiated whole”.[xxiii]

The policy of cunning

the noun "cunning” of the title of the biography in English loses part of its original meaning when translated by “cunning”. Whereas "cunning” refers to dexterity and sagacity, in Portuguese, astúcia rhymes with cleverness and trickery. In a context of classist and pejorative use of the so-called Brazilian “jeitinho”, particularly when imputed to subordinate classes, it is important to bear in mind the semantic nuances between “cunning” and “cunning”.

For John D. French, who at this point relies on Michel de Certeau – a French historian halfway between linguistics and anthropology –, the power of astuteness can be captured in the “lucid speech” that reveals “a subtle, stubborn and deliberate activity. resistance”, in short, “an ethic of tenacity”.

Lula's astuteness appears reconfigured in the urban and industrial context of ABC from the 1950s onwards. Subaltern groups use stratagems – a camouflaged action – to circumvent the rules of an oppressive space. But if cunning is the weapon of the weak, it can both shape horizontal attitudes against those of the same condition, and weld a vertical perspective in which “us” is opposed to “them”. Incidentally, astuteness was the behavior used by the worker interviewees to circumvent the research conducted by academic intellectuals.[xxv]

The “high astuteness”, as conceived by John D. French, is the one that Lula practices when combining experience, intelligence and persuasiveness in dealing with superiors. He was neither a sycophant (pelego) nor a complainer (subversive), as French has used them. It opens the game by acknowledging the differences between the parties and simulating the possibility of accommodation of interests, however much it starts from the inevitability of the conflict. Government, union and employers played “legitimate roles” [xxiv] – hence the need to talk to everyone in order to expose the farce and weld the union of the working class.

This appears, with mastery, in the account of Lula's performance in the strikes from 1978 to 1980. John D. French highlights the use of orality anchored in the daily experience of the “peões”, to weld the class unity. Through a subtle inversion, the use of this pejorative term becomes “an emblem of confident militancy”. In the same vein, the emphasis on not having the “tail caught”, verbalized by the unionist Lula, embodies the leader who represents those who sweep the floor, those who work on the assembly line and the toolmakers, all of them “pawns” [xxv].

At the same time, in relations with the various members of society – journalists, MDB politicians, the governor of ARENA, Paulo Egydio, representatives of the Church, the military and businessmen themselves – Lula seeks to gather strength for the rising labor movement, playing against each other , in order to raise the space of power in favor of its class. Without the “peãozada” there would be no “industrial progress”. They had ceased to be “the children of fear”, a term coined by the journalist and former ABC worker, Roniwalter Jatobá, in his romanticized account of 1980.

They realized little by little, Lula especially, that they found an echo in the rest of society, then awake from the long lethargy.

Lula and the world of football (transposed to the political sphere)

If the politics of astuteness appears with Lula, in full form, at the end of the 1970s, John D. French tries to show that his transmutation from a skilled worker into a trade unionist is anything but linear. It's borderline improbable.

Lula liked to play soccer, he worked up to 40 hours of overtime per month, and he didn't want his brother Frei Chico to “piss him off” with “this unionism thing”. In the “tale of two brothers” traced by John D. French, the “good boy” and the “rebel”, respectively, indicate the different possible trajectories in working-class sociability, subject to changes in the face of conflicts that gave new meaning to the its members.[xxviii]

How to explain the transformation of the “good guy” into the union leader, sure of himself, with his peculiar orality, picking up everyday facts and converting them into an exercise in political pedagogy, today recognizable by any Brazilian citizen?

The American biographer suggests that there is a combination between “socialization”, “personal dispositions”, which sometimes wait to emerge or never emerge, and the “facts of life” that end up imposing themselves.[xxviii] Lula’s “incipient discontent” – resulting from the factory accident that led to the loss of his finger, the experience of unemployment in 1965, the death of his first wife and child due to medical error, the torture suffered by his brother in 1975, among others so many other “facts” – gained new contours when he joined the union in 1969 and, three years later, when he took over one of the boards, now freed from work at the factory.

Anchored in his dense research on Marcos Andreotti, a “party” militant and president of the Santo André metallurgist union – his last administration ended in 1964 –, John D. French highlights his conception of the union as a “transmission belt” in the political development of workers. Entry into the trade union world took many forms. A “mobilization philosophy” was needed, which even involved knowledge of football to participate in conversations.[xxix] There was a daily resistance in the factory beyond the “pelegos” and “subversives”.

Lula's access to this new world comes with the promise of “adventure”, of expanding horizons. Indicated to compose the list by his brother, he knows the union leaders, with whom he had only distant contact. He is enchanted when Friar Chico, in a heated argument, goes “on the slap” with other unionist colleagues. Like in soccer, where he, Lula, “screamed, fought and cursed”.[xxx] The new trade unionist perceives politics as a space for personal affirmation and the reconstruction of his identity after the personal traumas he has suffered, which are placed in a broader perspective.

Lula, between 1972 and 1975, actively participated in the union gear. With dedication and self-discipline he begins to take care of all aspects considered “worldly”. This work involves coordinating the Tiradentes Educational Center (CET), in charge of technical training and courses equivalent to high school, in addition to activities related to disbursing FGTS, BNH loans, retirement benefits, pensions and medical and dental assistance. Considered by many to be “assistencialists”, they served, at most, the 10 members of the union.

At the same time, the new union operator is surrounded by a competent technical team with lawyers (Maurício Soares and Almir Pazzianoto) and economists (Walter Barelli from DIEESE), just to name a few examples. The doors of the trade unions are open to everyone for the “maker” who listened and “talked to the people and not to the people”. The union becomes part of working life, while the new headquarters becomes the “public sphere of the working class”, articulating everyday issues with the political world [xxxii], then towards the slow, gradual and safe transition.

There is, therefore, a gap, followed in every detail by the biographer, between the Lula who read the inaugural speech as president of the São Bernardo metalworkers union, in 1975, written by an advisor, “when he didn’t know if his heart was shaking anymore” knee or paper in hand”; and the one who was reappointed to the post, in 1978, “when he left the speech on the table and let the dogs loose” with his strong and blunt verbiage.[xxxi]

Then came the rallies at the Vila Euclides stadium, whose “crazy idea” came up when he was watching, along with some companions, a Corinthians game against São Paulo: “the day we have half of that there in a meeting, we turns the world upside down”. No sooner said than done. Twenty thousand workers would show up on March 13, 1979, at the stadium, in the rain, according to Dops estimates. [xxxii] A new Brazil was emerging at this time.

What's Missing in French's Biography

John D. French refers to his book as the “first comprehensive and rigorously documented biography of the former president of Brazil” [xxxv]. On this, we are in full agreement. However, this statement is valid only until 1980, the year of the creation of the PT. The report on the first decades of the PT's existence is, to say the least, insufficient, as well as the transformations that the Brazilian economy, society and politics are going through. The historical process loses scope and the biographical Lula is left loose, as if he advanced and the rest of the picture was stagnant.

Lula's skill and leadership practice seem all-powerful in his relentless relationship-building "as he ascends ever higher in the political stratosphere."[xxxiv] The same breath of research was lacking and the methodological instruments, so well applied until 1980, were not mobilized. The last chapter “The president, the man who keeps his promise” adds nothing to the campaign materials produced by the PT. He doesn't even touch the contradictions of his government, only asking for passage to contrast Lula's Brazil with what would come after 2016.

Due to the analytical richness and research material contained in the biography, so that the book has greater reach among Brazilian readers, it is advisable for the next edition, which we hope will come soon, a careful revision of the translation and the final text, in addition to the inclusion of a list of abbreviations and a name index. A biography, a reference work by definition, requires a name index.

Many biographies are yet to come

In May 2019, when Lula was still in prison, I wrote an article entitled “Warning to historians: Lula will be a lot of work”.[xxxiv] The intention was to launch the hypothesis that “the last forty years” had been marked, to a large extent and gradually, by Lula's centrality in national life. His arrest, contrary to what was said, revealed “that this centrality had never been so present”.

At the time, nobody imagined that Lula would be released, declared eligible and the cases against him closed. And that he would win the elections the way he did, bringing together, at the same time and in such a short period, the people of the popular leader and the statesman.

The article also stated that Lula would “make a lot of work” for historians. Well, now he is reconciled with the new historical cycle and we still don't know what merger will occur and what kind with the real world. But one thing is certain: his return will ignite new controversies and even shed new light on the past and the not-so-distant past. New biographies will follow and they have much to gain from the seminal work done by John D. French. The second volume of Morais should bring new clues to deepen the understanding of this character who is confused with the potentialities and fractures of our society.

Finally, historians and biographers will have a lot of work ahead of them and it is good that they have, because in addition to the challenge of national refounding that has just begun, Brazil has the greatest popular leader and the greatest statesman of the first quarter of the XNUMXst century. This is not about pride, but a historical fact to be scrutinized in its various shades.[xxxviii]

*Alexandre de Freitas Barbosa is professor of economics at the Institute of Brazilian Studies at the University of São Paulo (IEB-USP). Author, among other books, of Developmentalist Brazil and the trajectory of Rômulo Almeida (Mall).

Originally published on pink magazine [], no 7.


John D. French. Lula and the politics of cunning: from metallurgist to president of Brazil. Translation: Lia Machado Fortes. São Paulo, Expressão Popular & Fundação Perseu Abramo, 2022, 688 pages (

pdf available here.


[I] FRENCH, 2022, p. 15.

[ii] FRENCH, John. The Brazilian Workers' ABC: class conflict and alliances in modern São Paulo. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1992, p. 8-10.

[iii] FRENCH, 2022, p. 56. Denise Paraná's book was first published in 1996, a second in 2002, having been the author and screenwriter of the film directed by Fábio Barreto, “Lula, o Filho do Brasil”.

[iv] Same, p. 40-41.

[v] FERNANDES, Florestan. The Necessary Contestation: Intellectual Portraits of Nonconformists and Revolutionaries. São Paulo: Ática, 1995. p. 39-41, 44-45> in this collection, Lula appears along with José Martí, José Carlos Mariátegui, Luís Carlos Prestes and Carlos Marighella, among others.

[vi] FRENCH, 2022, p. 31.

[vii] Same, p. 635-643

[viii] Same, p. 54-68.

[ix] Same, p. 44

[X] Same, p. 104-105.

[xi] Same, p. 118-120

[xii] Same, p. 115, 117, 122, 125.

[xiii] MORAIS, Fernando. squid: biography, vol. 1. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, p. 214. In presenting Dona Lindu's “family economy”, Morais seeks to demonstrate, in a rhetorical exaggeration, how Lula rationalizes his mother's method of supposedly managing the Republic's budget.

[xiv] FRENCH, 2022, p. 116, 121

[xv] Same, p. 621

[xvi] Ditto, p. 109.

[xvii] Same, p. 111-114, 130-131.

[xviii] Same, p. 126, 128-129, 317

[xx] This denomination runs through the entire text and seems to us to be an important theoretical and historical contribution.

[xx] Same, p. 133-134, 276-277.

[xxx] Ditto, p. 108.

[xxiii] The critical tone is somewhat attenuated when French refers to Luiz Pereira, professor and researcher at CESIT, and an important source for his research, especially his unfortunately forgotten classic “Trabalho e Desenvolvimento no Brasil”, published in 1965 by DIFEL.

[xxiii] Same, p. 110, 165-169.

[xxv] Same, p. 280-285.

[xxiv] Same, p. 433-434.

[xxv] Same, p. 439-447, 492-494.

[xxviii] Idem, p, 175-176.

[xxviii] Ditto, p. 215.

[xxix] Same, p. 148-149, 212.

[xxx] Same, p. 213-217.

[xxxii] Same, p. 303-305, 310, 315-321.

[xxxi] Same, p. 288, 456.

[xxxii] Ditto, p. 460.

[xxxv] Ditto, p. 24.

[xxxiv] Ditto, p. 531.

[xxxiv] BARBOSA, Alexandre de Freitas. “Warning to historians: Lula will be a lot of work”. In: A reformist nationalist on the periphery of the system: reflections on political economy. BARBOSA, Alexandre de Freitas. Belo Horizonte: Fino Traço, 2021, p. 132-137. Also available in ebook version.

[xxxviii] The author is grateful for comments by Professor Tamis Parron on the first version of this review.

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