The Paradoxes of Lulism

Blanca Alaníz, Velos de color sobre el commerce series, digitalized analogue photography, Mexico City, 2020.


If, on the one hand, Lula is the best option to defeat Bolsonaro, on the other hand, Lulism presents itself as an obstacle to the political and ideological reorientation necessary to defeat neo-fascism.

The annulment of the convictions imposed on former President Lula represents an important victory for democratic and popular forces. The devolution of political rights to the greatest popular leader in the country could open a new stage in the political process, by enabling a truly competitive candidacy to win Bolsonarism in 2022. On the other hand, the circumstances of national political life call into question the strategy that remained known as lulism, establishing a paradox between the possibility of electoral defeat of neo-fascism and the repetition of the policy that contributed to the defeat of the working class in the last period.

A new stage in the political process

Despite the wishes and desires for electoral success, and the speeches that claim that anti-PTism is a broader social force than anti-Bolsonarism, the fact is that recent opinion polls indicate that Lula is the candidate with the greatest potential for votes in the field of center-left. Despite this, the data do not offer a guarantee of victory, since Bolsonaro has solid social support in sectors of the middle classes, the petty bourgeoisie and neo-Pentecostal workers in large urban centers, in addition to advancing against informal and low-income workers. income through emergency aid measures. So far, opinion polls present an unstable and unpredictable scenario for the electoral dispute, which if it happened today would probably be resolved vote by vote.

As a possibility, this new stage in the political process depends on the ability of the Workers' Party (PT) and Lula to manage to avoid a new conviction or any type of coup that prevents their candidacy. Although a new disqualification does not present itself as the most likely hypothesis, due to the wear and tear caused by the “vaza-jato” and the convergence of broad sectors against lavajatismo, it is also not an impossible hypothesis, due to the persistence of the conservative movement of the upper middle class that is articulated inside and outside the state apparatus. The threat of the Clube Militar, which considered the decision of the Federal Supreme Court (STF) to be unacceptable and foreshadowed a “breaking point”, or Bolsonaro’s threats about “the ease of imposing a dictatorship in Brazil”, are more than enough to dispel naiveties about a supposed return to “institutional normality” or a “victory of justice”.

The current situation

If he can be a candidate, Lula and the PT will need to gather strength to be elected, take office and be able to govern. The social sectors with greater political activity in recent years, the lavajatista and bolsonarista wings of the middle classes, despite the rows that led to their breakup, converge around the interdiction of the left and the popular movement on the political scene.[I] It is, therefore, a very different moment in relation to 2002 and the following years of economic growth and political stability, when such forces were inexpressive or non-existent and Lula was able to overcome the “mensalão” crisis (2005) by appealing only to the support of the great national capital, dispensing with the mobilization of workers. On that occasion, Paulo Skaf and the Federation of Industries of the State of São Paulo (FIESP), which in 2015-16 reigned on the political scene through the campaign for the reduction of taxes and the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, went public to defend the government during the political crisis, dissuading the movement that had been articulated by the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) in the National Congress to depose then President Lula.[ii]

With the 2016 coup, the portion of the Brazilian bourgeoisie that supported the PT governments allied with imperialism and its internal allies around neoliberal reforms against workers, re-editing the same political configuration of the 1989, 1994 and 1998 elections, when the bloc in power unified to prevent the PT's victory in the presidential elections.[iii] The coup that resulted in Michel Temer's government and which created the conditions for Bolsonaro's electoral victory in 2018, marks a quality change in the political correlation of forces, as the ruling classes reunited around the measures of the “cost of Brazil” – business jargon that justifies the reduction in the cost of reproducing the workforce (pension reform, labor reform, spending ceiling, etc.) – and that this reunification coincides with or results from the entry into the scene of the mass movement of classes middle and yellow-green petty bourgeoisie.

The sudden rise of Jair Bolsonaro as a national political leader and, subsequently, his electoral victory in 2018, is not the work of chance or a bolt from the blue. The arrival of neo-fascism in the government is the result of a specific political crisis, provoked by the particular combination of the following contradictions: i) the entry into the scene of the mass movement of the middle classes, initially by the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff and later by “military intervention”; ii) the political offensive of the dominant classes against the popular masses, with the unity against the “custo Brasil”; iii) the crisis of hegemony, which led to changes in the hierarchy of power among the dominant classes; iv) the crisis of representation of the bourgeois parties, with the abandonment of traditional representations and the adhesion of the big bourgeoisie to Bolsonaro's candidacy;[iv] iv) successive political defeats and the ideological crisis of the working classes, which were unable to build a political alternative to stop the process of fascistization in the country.

The development of these contradictions produced a permanent political instability, which extends to the present day. The ruling classes confiscated Bolsonarism to carry out regressive measures against the workers, who in turn are dispersed and disorganized to build a resistance to match. The advance of fascism, neoliberal reforms and military tutelage over democracy present a much more unfavorable political situation for the democratic and popular forces, indicating that the possibility of a new stage in the political process does not depend only on an eventual electoral defeat of Jair Bolsonaro.

The reissue of neodevelopmentalism

Despite the unfavorable correlation of forces for the workers, Lula's presence in the electoral process could change the positioning of the social forces in presence and make possible a new edition of the neodevelopmentalist pact. The support of a large contingent of workers and the electoral competitiveness that credits Lula as a real alternative for the presidency of the republic may allow the reorganization of sectors of the Brazilian bourgeoisie that are eventually dissatisfied with the measures to open the internal market promoted by the current government, or even with the denialist management of the health crisis that has been making it impossible to resume economic activity. Although there are still no signs of clear ruptures with the government and this possibility is not immediately raised, it still cannot be ruled out in advance.

The political positions of the bourgeois fractions are not constant and their political representations organize, not just channel, capitalist interests as a social force. In capitalist society, where the State presents itself as the representative of the “public interest”, the different classes and fractions of classes need to fight to make their economic interests be met by state policy. Even the bourgeoisie depends on a representation or political organization, capable of organizing its interests in a program to demand them from the State. In such a way, Lula's presence in the electoral process can shift the contradiction between national capital and foreign capital to the center of the political dispute again, if there is agreement around the old commitments of prioritizing the Brazilian bourgeoisie in the face of foreign competition in the space national economy.

This re-edition, however, could not take place in the same terms from 2002 to 2014, due to the new conditions of the political crisis with the threat of authoritarian alternatives, and the accumulation of institutional changes that deepened the shielding of the economic policy instruments under the control of the financial capital. However, despite the fiscal restriction measures, emptying of public banks, dismantling of social and labor protections, salary freezes and readjustments, privatizations and sale of assets of state-owned companies, Central Bank autonomy, etc., have reduced margins for a repetition of neo-developmentalism in the previous molds, on the other hand they do not prevent the reissue of this pact under the new circumstances, since they do not affect the possibility of adopting measures to protect and favor national capital, which constitute the pillars of economic policy neodevelopmentalist.

The recent institutional changes constitute, in fact, an obstacle for the industrial policy and for the expansion of social policies, but the Brazilian State has international reserves in the order of US$ 355 billion and the government still controls the state banks, which they have strong enough loan portfolios to force competition on private interest and make productive investment. Even if the re-edition of neo-developmentalism will probably take place in even lower terms, this does not mean that the margins for this type of economic policy are exhausted. The design of state institutions, to a certain extent, is shaped by power relations and disputed class interests, so that it can be changed again in a more favorable conjuncture for the arrival of the left in government.

The Paradox of Lulism

The possibility of defeating neo-fascism and building a left or center-left government depends on a significant change in the correlation of forces. The division in the bourgeois camp is insufficient to thwart the threat of new coups and fund the repeal of neoliberal reforms, which would improve the conditions for carrying out redistributive measures and public investments. In this context, therefore, there are no alternatives other than popular organization and mass struggles, which are incompatible with the dominant political strategy of the Brazilian left in recent decades, of institutionalizing conflicts and social demobilization. This strategy contributed to the dispersion and political apathy of the working classes in the recent period, when they passively watched the coup and the withdrawal of rights without presenting a corresponding resistance.

And here is the paradox of Lulism.

If on the one hand Lula is the best option, if not the only one, to defeat Jair Bolsonaro electorally, on the other hand Lulism presents itself as an obstacle to the political and ideological reorientation necessary to defeat neo-fascism.

Lulismo is defined by the exclusively electoral and disorganized relationship between political representation and its social base, which aspires to social and economic protection from the State, feeding illusions about its social function.[v] The paternalistic relationship of the social base with the political leadership, which is manifested by gratitude as beneficiaries of social policies and not by conscious identification in a political program to expand rights and structural reforms, does not educate the huge contingent of poor workers who constitute the base of Lulism to organize autonomously to defend their political interests.[vi] In other words, Lulism does not generate organizational balance and advances in workers' political awareness. It is, effectively, a bourgeois policy of the workers,[vii] more precisely, a policy of the internal bourgeoisie, insofar as it seeks to integrate them as a support class in a political front led by big national capital.

The social policies that link the material interests of the working classes to Lulism, however important and legitimate they may be, by themselves are not capable of ensuring the ideological and organizational conditions for them to organize themselves in their defense and against neo-fascism. Despite being sufficient and effective for a period in which economic growth dampened class conflict and ensured some political stability, Lulism became obsolete with the current crisis, disarming workers' resistance by maintaining a strictly institutional strategy. From the coup, through the caravans through the Northeast, through the period of his imprisonment and even after his release, in all these moments Lula and the PT bet all their chips on the electoral possibility, under the naive expectation that the bourgeois institutions would do " justice”, or that some force or initiative external to their control overthrew the government and contained the authoritarian escalation, renouncing the task of organizing and politicizing their social base.

With the new fact that returned Lula's eligibility, Lulism must bet all its strength on repeating the strategy that "worked", in its most radicalized version. In the current context, it is not possible for Lulism to turn to the left without breaking with what defines it as a political and ideological phenomenon – the exclusively electoral and disorganized relationship with the working masses, based on the ideology of the Protective State. In this way, the socialist left, which will have to defend and fight again for Lula's right to be a candidate, will not be able to feed illusions about the possibility of "disputing Lulism", but work to build an autonomous alternative for workers, without falling into political isolation. .

If it does not want to lose political independence, the socialist left must develop a relationship of unity and struggle against Lulism: unity around the anti-fascist and anti-neoliberal struggle, in defense of its candidacy; ideological and political struggle against electoralism and the limits of neo-developmentalism, in defense of Marxism-Leninism and a democratic and popular program (anti-imperialist, anti-monopoly and anti-landlordism).

For this, it is fundamental that the popular movements and political organizations that in the previous period correctly understood the nature of the PT governments and developed a line of critical support, without falling into subordination to Lulism and without incurring in sectarianism, do not retreat to an adherent position that renounces the struggle for hegemony over the working classes. The preservation of a revolutionary strategy and the clarity of political tasks in the current situation allow the socialist left to influence the new cycle of struggles that is inaugurated from now on.

* André Flores Penha Valle is a doctoral candidate in political science at Unicamp.


[I] Both currents are authoritarian, but differ in terms of objectives: while the first seeks to prevent the left from reaching the government, preserving a dehydrated bourgeois democracy, the second seeks to close the political regime and implement a dictatorship.

[ii] See: Danilo Martuscelli, Political crises and neoliberal capitalism in Brazil (2015).

[iii] See: Décio Saes, Republic of capital: capitalism and the political process in Brazil (2001).

[iv] Financial capital, which presents itself through the ideological discourse of the “market”, only actually adhered to Bolsonaro’s candidacy during the 2018 election campaign, as middle-class voters strengthened the captain’s candidacy to defeat the PT, dehydrating its organic representative, Geraldo Alckmin (PSDB).

[v] See: Armando Boito, Lulism, Populism, and Bonapartism. Latin American Perspectives, 2019.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] On class struggle in the terrain of ideology and the existence of different ideologies and ideological class subsets, see: Lenin, What to do? (1902) and Nicos Poulantzas, Fascism and dictatorship (1970) e Social Classes in Today's Capitalism (1974).

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