The return of José Dirceu: Balance and Perspectives


Whether or not you agree with José Dirceu's opinions, it is undeniable that it is much better for the left to have him outside prison.

By Lincoln Secco*

in your Memoirs (Editorial generation) José Dirceu believes that the historical cycle that brought the left to power has not ended. Between comings and goings, the contradictions that the experience of the PT government revealed cannot be eliminated by mere repression. There will be ebbs and flows in a long struggle. One of these comings and goings is constituted by the individual trajectory of José Dirceu himself. On November 8, 2019, at the same time as former President Lula, he regained his freedom.

The return of José Dirceu has the same meaning for the Brazilian left as Lula's return has for the Latin American left in general. Steve Bannon, in a recent interview, acknowledged that Lula is the greatest leader of the “globalist left” – he certainly must know what he is talking about.

Dirceu was the strategist who transformed the PT from a parliamentary and social opposition group into a government party, aimed at power. He operated this change at the cost of internal dissensions, authoritarian interventions and reduction of the party's immediate programmatic horizons. But what good would a maximum program be that would never be put into practice? It was this argument, glued to concrete life, that made him the essential leader in the electoral victory of 2002. And for no other reason the Media Party overthrew him in 2005.

From the Plateau to the Plain

Dirceu's leadership has irrefutable qualities, although it has never been error-free. Both he and the PT did not realize that they were entering a political system in which they would always be a foreign body marked by the sin of origin: having emerged from the bottom up from the working class in the ABC region of São Paulo and from subordinates throughout Brazil.

In the formative years of the PT, the political system of the New Republic stabilized around a political center that, starting from Congress, tended to dilute theoretical programs in a moderate practice of negotiation.

Although the PT did not form part of coalition governments, it served as the negative electrode that closed the system's political circuit. He was radical without reaching power. He was an ethical corrective of public life. It is a paradox that radicalism was functional to the reproduction of the bourgeois order and later moderation dysfunctional. But history shows that the bourgeoisie and the oligarchies do not care about programs and utopias. What they never gave up was control of the public budget.

Dirceu's strategy strongly altered this scenario, engendering a series of consequences. The PT's social policies, the country's international repositioning and the strengthening of the State were acceptable while economic growth made it possible to accommodate class struggles.

the offensive

One of the effects of the 2008 economic crisis was to bring social polarization to the streets. And this on an international scale. Only in Latin America have there been attempts to overthrow governments in Bolivia (2008), Ecuador (2010) and Nicaragua (2018); coups in Honduras (2009), Paraguay (2012)[1], Brazil (2016) and Bolivia (2019) in addition to successive attempts in Venezuela.

José Dirceu spent most of this process of radicalization of the opposition outside the government due to the “mensalão scandal” of 2005, forged with the purpose of defeating Lula and the PT in the election of the following year.

The second victory of the left, in 2006, meant that the government did not consider the defense of Dirceu (and other politically persecuted) as strategic. He computed it as a mere “tactical loss”. It was not just fear that guided many PT leaders, but cold calculation. But the bill was wrong.

During this period, a Toga Party emerged within the judiciary, supported by an organized current of public opinion. His position in the state apparatus allowed him the legalized use of force and violence. In the dispute for hegemony, he used the media, promoted alliances and distributed promises, blackmail and threats. It was evident that the Judiciary Party (PJ) would not be content until it won the highest prize: the head of Luís Inácio Lula da Silva.

The PT governed the country better than its predecessors. But he did not “rig” the State, he strictly followed the rules he believed to be “republican”, he did not even condition investments in defense to an adequate democratic reorientation of military officers and he renounced a cultural dispute in civil society.

The improvement of people's lives was not propagated as achievements of the organized working class, the popular field, social movements and, ultimately, the PT. On the contrary, the idea of ​​individual merit was allowed to flourish in the country: the basis of criticism of the “inefficient” State.

When Olavo de Carvalho spoke of “gramscism” and praised José Dirceu as a kind of Condotiere, he was arrogantly describing himself. It was he who promoted the cultural struggle and doctrinal intransigence (however bizarre his “doctrine” may be). Olavo endured ridicule and isolation until a crisis in the political system allowed him and other fringe groups access to power.

Unlike the PT, the Bolsonarist group lacks preparation to administer the State, although it is hungry and has a vocation for power. This constitutes its strength and its weakness, as it tends to lead the country to an unparalleled catastrophe in Brazilian history.

war of positions

José Dirceu accompanied the rapid dynamics of the political crisis that began in 2013. He recognized, before many leaders of the Workers' Party, the change in the axis of the dispute establishment parliamentary for civil society. After the 2016 coup, Dirceu used his immense ability to analyze the situation to unearth an original way out of defeat.

With no alternative to return to the official political game, he took advantage of his interregnum of freedom and traveled the country guiding his party from the bottom up and from the outside in. He did not seek a return to the original PT. He understood that there was a historical need to resume grassroots work, under different conditions. The applicability of this political proposal depends, however, on an unknown question: how to resume the organization from the base in a scenario of fragmentation of the working class?

José Dirceu also recurrently commented that the new right wing that emerged in Brazil relies not only on virtual networks, but on the popular rooting of evangelical churches and other private apparatuses that count a lot in the dispute for hegemony.

It is difficult to assess a historical personage in action. The perception of the past is modified by the present. José Dirceu's is still under construction. Whether or not you agree with his opinions, it is much better for the left to have him outside prison.

*Lincoln Secco, professor in the history department at USP, he is the author, among other books, of History of the PT (Studio)


[1]See: Paola Estrada Camargo. “Neocoupism in Latin America: a comparative analysis of Paraguay (2012) and Brazil (2016)”. USP, Prolam, 2019.

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