What happened to that PT?

Clara Figueiredo, untitled 2_essaio Filmes Vencidos_Analog photography_digitalized_Moscow_2016


The Workers' Party was much more a network of plural regional and social expressions than a centralized party in São Paulo

When the first black female councilor elected in Rio de Janeiro took office, the Chamber wanted to deny her an official car because he could not go up the hill of the favela where she lived. That year several workers arrived at the Chamber of Deputies. The first caucus in São Paulo elected three women from the left. The mandates were conceived as collective and held regular plenaries. The party was joined by militants from the health and housing movement, psychologists and architects, teachers and students, domestic servants and small traders, gays and lesbians, housewives and members of the black movement, mothers' clubs, and Catholics from the base ecclesiastical communities, ecologists and theater groups. There were meetings in unions and parish halls, school blocks and spiritist centers, public squares and unions and, mainly, in the homes of militants.

No! This is not the portrait of the left in the 2020 Brazilian municipal elections, nor of any new European party-movement. This is the 1982 elections! and, of course, the history of the PT. It is, in a way, the same conciliatory party that won four presidential elections in the 2016st century, whose leadership grew old clinging to positions and detached from ideals and suffered a coup d'état in XNUMX.

class struggles

The first mayor of a PT capital was Maria Luiza Fontenelle, in Fortaleza. She governed with popular councils and was accused of encouraging the population to occupy abandoned buildings and of calling for a strike by municipal employees themselves. In Diadema, the deputy mayor Tonhão joined the housing movement and confronted the police and the mayor of his own party. In Salvador, militants from a clandestine group sheltered by the PT decided to expropriate a bank. Bank workers threw marbles at bank windows at night. Even in electoral campaigns, thousands of militants were arrested at the exit of polls, ran from the police or clashed with right-wing opponents.

The metallurgical opposition in São Paulo emphasized organization in the workplace and a union central that would also bring together union opposition and not just elected union leaders. That's why CUT was called Central Única dos Trabalhadores, it was against the labor legislation bequeathed by Getúlio Vargas (the CLT), the union tax and the State's tutelage over the unions. But that was an ascending moment of struggles and a positive overcoming of the CLT was on the radical horizon of the working class. Even so, the communists and old workers warned of the risk of leaving small unions and less mobilized professional categories out in the open. Bad with the hide, worse without it, they said. This is because the lack of legal support for male and female workers prevents the protection of rights at the time of hiring and termination, when the person is alone in front of the company. Destroying unions can also generate instability in labor relations for the entrepreneur, but he is not the biggest loser, since in most cases there is no spontaneous mobilization to put pressure on the bosses.

Despite the discourse of the CUT and the PT, in the 1980s the self-organization of the working class sought to take over the union leaderships and not suppress them and ended up living with the labor legislation and maintaining and even expanding the material and legal assets of the unions. This did not prevent innovating the forms of struggle. After previous defeats due to repression by the army, in 1985 the ABC Paulista wage campaign adopted the Vaca Brava tactic. Knowing the map of the productive chain, the workers stopped a sector in a factory and prevented the supply to other companies. In the 1970s, the popcorn strike interrupted different sectors in the same factory. Now, workers at an assembly plant were stopped due to lack of delivery of parts and not because they were on strike. But when supply returned to normal, it was their turn to declare a strike.


That PT of the 1980s was also not just a workers' association that spread out from the metallurgical strikes in the ABC region of São Paulo. Certainly, Lula's unionism and leadership were vital and exercised a centripetal attraction. But that only happened because there was social energy spread across the country that organized itself autonomously. Researching historical sources allows us to reconstitute a movement that was much more a network of regional and plural social expressions than a centralized party in São Paulo.

Their contradictions and internal struggles were also born out of this diversity. Manual workers without university education and who made up the first party leaderships never came to hold outstanding executive public positions or ministries in PT governments, as was the case with Osmarino Amâncio of the rubber tappers of Acre; the Ganzer brothers from western Pará farmers; Manoel da Conceição of rural workers from the interior of Maranhão or unionists from São Paulo such as Jacó Bittar, Vicentinho and Meneghelli. Of course, there were important exceptions: Lula, the lathe operator at Villares, was president; domestic worker Benedita da Silva, governor of Rio de Janeiro; and Braseixos metalworker João Paulo Cunha, president of the Chamber of Deputies.

The experience of a party formed by grassroots groups and that emerged in landless barracks, rubber plantations, Catholic convents, trade unions, leftist groups and in the student movement soon collided with the reality of institutionalization. From 1984 onwards, the PT gradually substituted that federative logic of nuclei for the dispute of organized tendencies. Or rather: between the Articulação, the dominant tendency that brought together the strength of the unions and politicians with greater electoral expression, and the groups of the party left. The adoption of proportionality in the composition of the PT leaderships was the modus vivendi found by the leaders.

Despite the inherent oligarchization of political parties, the PT leaders had a project for the country. Even domesticated by successive concessions, alliances, commitments and abandonment of ideals, the reformist program that came to power in 2003 changed the face of Brazil, changed the relations between classes and bequeathed social and human rights programs.

Since the 1987th National Meeting in 1990, the PT has sought to elect Lula president and implement the popular democratic program. Throughout the 30s, that program incorporated the defense of racial quotas, specific policies for women and young people, and many others. Internally, PT congresses guaranteed day care centers for mothers to participate in political discussions and established 50% of them in management positions (today XNUMX%).

However, those initiatives did not contradict the general program. They were integrated, albeit in an incipient way. If, on the one hand, the PT lost protagonism in policies in which it was the pioneer, on the other hand, the new militants often reduce their actions to pure tacticism. I will return to this topic later.

The question asked today is what happened to that PT?

The Dialectic of Power

It is a truism to remember all the mistakes of the PT governments: the economic policy, the mission in Haiti, the laws that strengthened the juridical-repressive apparatus and everything that was improperly known as republicanism.

An example of this were the appointments to the STF. The Constitution guarantees the President of the Republic and the majority he constitutes in the Federal Senate, the power to interfere in its composition. Thus, it is the constitutional duty of the president to appoint people who are in accordance with the program that the population freely established by vote. When Fernando Henrique Cardoso was elected, he appointed judges who created the legal understanding within which he built the economic model chosen by the people. It would be up to the judges to make unfeasible questions that doubted the privatizations, for example. In 2002, the people chose a new development model and the president was expected to appoint judges to the STF who would support their option for the social, punishing dictatorship criminals, etc. But, unlike FHC, Lula followed an erroneous interpretation of what the Republic would be because the STF is a political court. This is because Law is not just a set of facts or norms, as the positivists pray, but the expression of a power relationship. None of this is against democracy. This is just the form of a domain cloaked in societal consensus. Violation of the right occurs if one of the parties uses force and places itself outside the law. After all, the press itself calmly deals with the partisan position of the members of the US Supreme Court, but blusters against any “political choice” in Latin American countries, such as Venezuela or Argentina.

Lula's misconceptions were not personal, but derived from a political culture marked by the rejection of vanguardism and workerism. It allowed the party to grow close to the people's daily struggles, but it also introduced prejudice against Marxism and neglect of strategic debate. When the PT came to government (and not to power), its leading core was unprepared to conceive of this difference. He acted as if the State were a neutral body and left the armed forces and the judiciary untouched.

Obviously, it was not just a matter of choosing or not knowing a Marxist theory of the State, but also a pragmatic accommodation to positions and fear of confrontation. But regardless of that, the social conflict would intensify anyway, as the ruling classes do not tolerate the poor increasing their share of the public budget. The inversion of the economic cycle was enough for them to opt for the coup d'état, supported by the military, congress, the media and sanctioned by the judiciary.

Despite all the media propaganda, the PT demonstrated that it was prepared to manage the state better than the conservative parties and with a much lower degree of corruption. However, he was not prepared to wield power.

a programmatic crisis

By transforming the PT and the CUT into mere transmission belts for the Federal Government, that Articulation that had promoted the updating The PT's social democrat has lost its historic function. Devoid of ideals, she was left with positions. Like a postponed corpse, this group that today parasites the PT's history and consumes its last symbolic resources, remained intact in successive internal disputes because it still had electoral results to deliver to its entourage. After all, under the policy of accommodation in power, the PT won four elections and everything seemed to be going very well.

Symptomatic of the lack of ideas is that the generation of union or armed struggle leaders was gradually overthrown by the scandals of the monthly allowance and the car wash operation. Historical leaders such as José Dirceu and José Genoíno were replaced not by young activists from social movements or left-wing organic intellectuals, but by bureaucrats who began their political careers as managers or local professional politicians. The leadership of former members of unions and armed struggle organizations was replaced by another. Not by chance, some of the main formulators of the CNB held the same position: the secretary of finance, through which the interface of the national direction with corporate donations for campaigns and the distribution of funds from the public party fund was made. Their PT is not the workers' party, but the treasurers'.

Former leaders can be characterized as neo-PT while new militants as defenders of the party's historic flags. This is not a simple generational cut, therefore. Former Bahia governor Jacques Wagner, who praised his public security secretary when he shot MST militants in 2013, is a founder of the PT, but he is not on the left. Camila Moreno, a young woman from the national executive committee, defends the party's historic flags.

It is not up to an intellectual to define what the left should do, much less the PT black capes. But it is clear that the model of negotiating government that the PT used no longer works. Not that there shouldn't be alliances to rule. But the left only maintains its objectives if it threatens, before negotiating. This also applies to the PT's internal struggle. The partisan left has never been a threat to the CNB. When I wrote to History of the PT in 2010, it still seemed correct to speak of the party's left and right. Today is different. There are left and right wingers. This is a change resulting from the party's organizational fragility, but also from its hegemony in the popular democratic field. Because otherwise it would not be understood why a PT politician attacks his own party but does not abandon the PT legend. Such a “fictional” character is not from the “PT right”. he is same from right, maybe from the center, and probably social liberal and democratic. Once again, it should be remembered that this is not an attack on a specific person, who must think of herself differently. It is a characterization of his public opinions and actions.

But it must be said that the former PT has a lot to teach us. Portions of the “new” left seem to have unlearned the centrality of social class, while the “old” militancy has not learned that the class itself needs to be re-signified and assume its black and feminine faces, which are the majority in Brazil. Without this link between the partial and the appeal to the universal and between tactics and strategy, we are going to defend legitimate agendas, however easily assimilated by the bourgeois order. Obviously, one should not generalize and we have many theorists who constantly call our attention to this, such as Silvia Federici and Roswitha Scholz with great theoretical sophistication and historiographical basis. Or in the black movement Angela Davis and the Brazilian Clovis Moura, among a myriad of others. The problem remains to integrate the theory into a truly socialist and classist practice.

The corporate press, for example, condemns racism, but defends fiscal adjustment. But in Brazil blacks and browns make up the majority of the working class. Therefore, the fiscal adjustment is racist. The attack on labor rights and the unified health system are manifestations of historical racism. It is enough to see what happened to the public school when it became universal: resources dwindled and it lost the importance of the past. Just look at what happens in public universities after the expansion promoted by the PT governments: they are being financially asphyxiated.

The reason is obvious: what serves poor and black people must be of poor quality. Combating propaganda or a racist speech by a celebrity is valid, but it does not change the material lives of the majority of black men and women in the country. Getting proletarian students into the university was as important a step as getting all children into primary school. But it is easy to maintain this policy by cutting student permanence funds and depleting teaching salaries. It is in the light of these structural issues that the left needs to redesign its strategy and promote the meeting of the class with those who experience it in its multiple dimensions.


Arithmetic does not define PT's failure. His brutal fall in the 2016 elections reflected his political defeat signaled by the fall of President Dilma Roussef. Four years later, the party's electoral situation has not changed substantially, but the party preference rate has risen again. Even in its lowest moments, the PT has been the most preferred party by voters since 1999.

On the other hand, Bolsonarism is far from defeated.

The PT was left with two tasks. One internal and one external. The first consists of defeating the new black capes (as the party chiefs were called by the militants). For that, his opponents would need two things: a radical project for the country and the ability to impose fear on the leadership. Externally the task is similar. Regardless of the electoral dispute, it is necessary to attack the actions of the right in everyday life. Radicalize and not propose well-behaved alternatives in the national congress to correct the government's economic policy. Link each fight with an overall strength idea. The time for a parliamentary opposition ended when politics moved to the streets and social media and a fascist movement with anti-systemic discourse came to power. The mere construction of a center front (PDT, PSB) with the left (PT, PSol, PC do B) is the preferred route of PT leaders. It is unlikely because the parties believe they need their own candidates in the first round due to electoral legislation that prevents proportional coalitions.

For the left to return to the negotiating table will have to be feared. Starting by questioning old taboos. In addition to the necessary defense of the working class, why not discuss the extinction of the senate, notaries and the second round (or an intermediate alternative like that of countries like Bolivia and Argentina)? This is even an agenda that reopens the discussion with the middle classes. It would be necessary to resolutely propose a much higher maximum tax assessment rate. It already reached “Nordic” levels in Brazilian history before the 1964 coup and even at the end of the dictatorship it remained high. In 1988 social rights were expanded, but the tax collection potential was reduced. This is the basic contradiction of our Constitution. There was a reduction in the number of income brackets taxed and the maximum rate was lowered. Add to this the end of the tax on profits and dividends and the laws of fiscal responsibility and the cap on public spending, established over the decades. Incidentally, it was the ultra-liberal Minister Paulo Guedes who demonstrated his intention to levy tax on profits and dividends and reinstate the contribution on financial transactions. Against the position of the neoliberal majority of Congress and its president, the “democrat” Rodrigo Maia.

The left needs to establish its strategic objectives. Since it is not revolutionary, will it be a true social-democratic left, defender of a social class and a State primarily focused on it, or will it be a liberal social left that monetarily compensates individuals expelled from the productive process? Will it be nationalist or globalizing and semi-colonial? Finally, do you intend to defeat Bolsonaro or elect a left-wing government? It's not the same thing. From there derives a program, its operationalization, tactics, alliances, etc.

The PT is the partisan expression of a vast popular democratic field that has been established since the massification of electoral politics in the 1940s. It could hardly be replaced without disaggregating the material space it occupies. He is not ideologically cohesive. As in Argentine Peronism, left and right PT parties will continue to clash. Only when the working class regains strength to move will that popular field open up the chance for the PT or another organization to lead a new era of construction of social and labor rights in Brazil.

* Lincoln Secco He is a professor in the Department of History at USP. Author, among other books, of History of the PT (Editorial Studio).

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