EN 40 years – the open story

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By Juarez Guimaraes*

It is necessary to think about the dialectic between the PT and the Brazilian State, that is, the crossed vectors of change in the PT as a result of its adaptation to the state institutionality and what the PT managed to change from this institutionality

The rise of neoliberalism

The PT's victories and defeats, its impasse and its future can only be well evaluated in the light of an entire historical era of the rise of neoliberalism and the still unresolved crisis of democratic socialist traditions, inspired by Marxism.

It is no less of a coincidence that the PT was born exactly at the time when, in the US and England, neoliberalism reached governments and would begin its path in the following decades to centralize the liberal tradition, defeating social or Keynesian liberalism, and assert itself increasingly as the leading organic force of world capitalism. The very historical process of recomposing and overcoming the historical crisis of democratic socialism was profoundly conditioned and limited by this rise of neoliberalism that organizes an entire epoch of world history, spanning from the 1980s to the present day.

This era of ascension meant, in the first place, a brutal change in the balance of forces to the right, which was expressed not only in the geopolitical plane - the way in which the dissolution of the USSR and Eastern Europe was processed and capitalized, including the establishment of Germany as the main European capitalist economic power –, but in the economy (a violent process of concentration of wealth and income to the detriment of workers and peoples), in terms of communications (with the formation of a formidable structural advantage in favor of the dominant classes), and political culture (with the massification of liberal market and anti-socialist cultures, typical of the Cold War).

The process of the Central American revolution, the anti-bureaucratic struggles in Eastern Europe such as Poland and Czechoslovakia, the liberation processes in Africa and Vietnam, the overthrow of apartheid in South Africa, did not have an emancipatory sequence. On the contrary.

Secondly, the rise of neoliberalism meant a structural historical narrowing of capitalism's reformist possibilities, which thrived in the post-war period until the XNUMXs, for the construction of new rights and structures of the Welfare State. The rise of neoliberalism took the direction of the financialized macro-economy out of the hands of democratic control, fostering a gigantic process of evasion to tax havens, creating structural unemployment and, finally, attacking the very democratic institutions of corporate negotiation within capitalism. .

The crisis of European social democracy, especially the French one, the walling and isolation of the most advanced experiences of the Social Welfare State in northern Europe, the crisis of British labor and, in particular, the tragedy of Eurocommunism are expressions, in national contexts specifics of these major changes.

Thirdly, the rise of neoliberalism aggravated dimensions of the capitalist crisis that must be synthesized in a more general diagnosis of the crisis of civilization: the ecological crisis, the renewal of colonialist patterns of domination and true war zones, the exponential growth of poverty and violence, the renewal of racist cultures and frontal attacks on human rights. More importantly, it functioned as a barrier to contain feminism and reproduce patriarchal and mercantile patterns of reproduction in social life.

The autocratic dimensions, increasingly evident, of neoliberalism – in open alliance with fascist sectors – are not a marginal product, but are at the heart of its rise, of its inability to sustain its legitimacy in democratic contexts, to promote a resumption of the economic growth (due to its rentier roots), in addition to establishing phenomena of social life and barbaric culture (due to its regime of social separation). In a broader sense, neoliberalism would be the expression not of strength, but of the hegemonic decay of the USA in the face of the political rise of China, a great polarizing axis of the XNUMXst century destinies.

The PT experience

How did this historic era of the rise of neoliberalism on the world stage mark the 40 years of the PT?

Deeply and decisively. In the first place, the two cycles of interruption of the rise of the PT in Brazilian democracy that resulted from the conservative transition can and should be understood as nationally mediated expressions of neoliberal international conjunctures: the rise of the FHC governments that reorganized a pact of commination in direct contact with the so-called “Third Way” of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair and the 2016 parliamentary coup with its sequel in the Bolsonaro government that has its political epicenter in the openly anti-democratic development of neoliberalism after the great international crisis of 2008.

The reorganization of Brazilian liberalism via the PSDB and, now, the neoliberal and fascist alliance via Bolsonaro certainly have national roots but lose historical meaning if disconnected from what we are calling the “neoliberal era”.

Secondly, it is necessary to verify the distinct temporality, lagged by a decade, of the politically organized presence of neoliberalism in Brazil. Here, the 1980s were marked by one of the greatest cycles of class ascension of the XNUMXth century, with the creation of the PT, the CUT, the expansion of the MST, which were expressed very well in the resolutions of the V National Meeting of the PT. It was only in the nineties that the political movement led by the PSDB, after Collor's overthrow, promoted a turn to the right in the correlation of forces in relation to the eighties.

Now, there was a political force organized by the PSDB, with the support of the US state, organic to the dominant classes with a center in the national and international financial sectors, organizing a parliamentary majority and a new communicative power. The PMDB, turned to the physiological direction and to the right. This pressure would lead the PT and the social movements to adopt an adaptive posture that was clearly one of resistance, with a new direction, a new strategy and a new party majority predominating from the mid-1990s onwards, more in tune with an institutional process of political struggle, distancing it if mostly from a referential and an anti-capitalist culture.

Thirdly, the neoliberal pressure in the 90s – which was even able to substantively modify decisive points of the 1988 Constitution – shaped a new political scenario of dispute for the Brazilian left. The polarization with the PSDB, which spanned the presidential elections from 1994 to 2014 for twenty years, never allowed the PT to form a majority in the first round or a consistent advance in a parliamentary majority.

Between the left-right polarization, the PMDB always remained as the faithful party in the balance, in an electorate that generally positioned itself 1/3 to the left, 1/3 to the right and 1/3 fluctuating at the whim of polarization. From a social point of view, the working classes no longer experienced an organizational ascension and struggles, due to structural unemployment and new, increasingly strong dynamics of precariousness in the world of work.

If this broad historical perspective makes it possible to construct a meaningful narrative of how the neoliberal era was containing and profoundly conditioning the PT experience, it would certainly be confused with a determinist perspective of serious emptying of the political alternatives historically posed to the PT if it is not mediated by a second decisive political-cultural dimension: the evolution of the PT's political culture, its identity, its program and strategy.

The space of autonomy of the national conjuncture in relation to the neoliberal era must be thought of politically, as an update of the semi-peripheral condition of the country and its historical-structural dimensions, as well studied, for example, by the tradition of Celso Furtado or Caio Prado Júnior . In summary, the neoliberal era strongly conditioned the development of the PT, but did not determine it: its evolution certainly depended on the evolution of its political culture and its socialist program. This is what we will examine next.

The PT and the unsurpassed crisis of Marxism

 The 40 years of the PT were lived in the midst of the long historical cycle of the crisis of Marxism that began with the dissolution of the Second International and the impasse and, later, regression of the Russian Revolution. As a result, the PT, despite establishing its socialist identity from the beginning, never managed to stabilize a paradigmatic field of socialist praxis, that is, one that combined Marxist theoretical foundations with a democratic socialist practical coherence.

In the post-war period until the end of the 70s, the political identities of socialism were politically disputed by the communist parties and the social democracies, with Maoism, Castroism or the different strands of Trotskyism not managing to forge a stable and influential political field. When the PT emerged, these currents, in particular Eurocommunism and social democracy, were already experiencing deep impasses.

The absence of a clear vector for overcoming the crisis of Marxism in the theoretical field was fundamentally expressed in this period by the formation of a set of subcultures that barely communicated with each other (Eurocommunists, Althusserians, Lukasians, the various strands of Trotskyism, Marxism inspired in the Frankfurt School, Anglo-Saxon Analytical Marxism, late Stalinisms). In the political field, due to the absence of a unitary international political convergence that would form a possible field of dialogues and mergers.

Certainly, the way in which the end of the USSR and the political system of Eastern Europe took place brought to the XNUMXs a new international wave of pressures, insulation, disarticulations and corrosion of socialist identities inspired by Marxism. For rising neoliberal culture, the time of Marxism would definitely be in the past.

A panoramic examination of the intellectual life of Marxism is enough to verify that this neoliberal epitaph is being profoundly contradicted: the culture of Marxism is more alive than ever (the book Critical companion to contemporary Marxism, edited by Jacques Bidet and Stathis Kouvelakis, from 2009, impresses with its immense thematic bibliography, in its forty chapters), the complete edition of Marx's work and erudite contextual studies already allow the construction of a narrative with an alternative meaning to the reformist and Stalinist one, there are a vast field of critical updates of Marxism in relation to the realities of XNUMXst century capitalism.

But, in line with Perry Anderson's thought-provoking essay on Western Marxism (Thoughts on Western Marxism, Boitempo), the loss of an organic relationship between the effort to theorize Marxism outside of organic relations with anti-capitalist workers and social struggles was decisively deepened from the 1990s onwards. advanced, has not yet reached an organic political relationship, this being its main limit.

The trajectory of the PT

How did this history of the still unsurpassed crisis of Marxism condition the evolution of the PT?

Again, deeply. The PT certainly occupied the central position of the Brazilian left over these forty years, but it clearly failed to build around it a democratic socialist culture that would affirm its identity, its program and its strategy. More: over time a gap, a lag and, in a certain sense a contradiction, was created between its socialist identity reiterated over time and its program and strategy.

It is not, in the manner of the German Social Democratic Party in its period of maximum influence, at the beginning of the XNUMXth century, a separation between rhetoric and reality, between the maximum program affirmed doctrinally and a practical reformism increasingly accommodated to the status quo. It is a more complex issue.

From its foundation until the end of the 1980s, there was a process of classist radicalization that was accompanied by a successful effort to merge revolutionary traditions inspired by Marxism and the praxis of the PT. The embryo of a program was formed that linked the democratic struggle for a new government with an anti-capitalist direction. The PT came to be evaluated in this period, by a Marxist left that was betting on this merger, as a “revolutionary party under construction”. But the new escalation of the Marxist crisis in the 1990s and the political articulation of neoliberalism in the XNUMXs broke this ascending cycle.

The approval of the document “O Socialismo PT” in 1992, reaffirming and deepening the PT's democratic socialist identity, was a decisive response. But there was no continuation at the programmatic and strategic level in a horizon closed by the political rise of neoliberalism. The strategic debate of the early 1990s was polarized between three alternatives: the reiteration of a Soviet insurrectionary strategy by a dogmatic Marxism, the proposal of a combination between institutional struggle and the struggle of social movements, and the so-called “pincer strategy”, which proposed this combination, but with the center of gravity in the accumulation of construction of an alternative popular power to the liberal State. This strategic debate did not have an explicit and organized sequence in PT culture.

About ten years later, a cycle of debates on “Petista Socialism”, promoted by the Perseu Abramo Foundation, inspired by Antonio Candido, was, in fact, the last moment in which the party concentrated on the theme of socialism and its culture. . Liberation Theology had been going through a regressive cycle and persecutions within the Catholic Church for more than a decade. The PT's class dynamics were going through a process of institutionalization in the precariously transformed official union structure.

in the XNUMXst century

In the new century, after having suffered two electoral defeats in the previous decade against the coalition led by the PSDB, the PT decidedly walked towards forming a government program that was deradicalized and detached from an anti-capitalist perspective, although based on the defense of workers and the most vulnerable sectors. impoverished.

The “Letter to Brazilians” and the program presented for the 2002 elections expressed this separation well, establishing compatibility with the institutional strategy of governing from within the State, based on its possibilities. Certainly, the fourteen years of government dramatically deepened this separation between the socialist identity and the political practice of a reformism incapable of altering the foundations of the structure of reproduction of power and wealth.

The PT, still claiming socialism, disputed the last three presidential elections financed by billions of reais from companies that maintained relations with its insertion in the Brazilian State. This separation between the practice of the PT and a democratic socialist culture certainly favored all kinds of subcultures that adapt to liberalism or, even, of a clientelistic or physiological type, opening up space for relationships with corporate interests of sectors and business groups.

This general picture of dilution of the PT's socialist culture should be partially relativized by the minority but expressive and often decisive presence within it of currents and leaders who affirmed anti-capitalist values ​​in their praxis, by experiences mainly in the municipal scope of radicalization of democracy, for the construction of the World Social Forum and for the relationship with the experiences of the left in Latin America, for the maintenance of a core of resistance of Liberation Theology, for the culture created around the MST that managed to maintain and renew anti-capitalist strands, with the enrichment of feminist, libertarian and anti-racist cultures, with the solitary but memorable work of Paul Singer in his praxis of solidarity economy.

Finally, if the PT failed to build a socialist praxis, it was not absorbed into its identity by a liberal logic, except in the period of Palocci's hegemony in running the economy (course later modified in 2005) and in the dramatic period of 2015 when he put at the head of the main Ministry of his government a secondary leadership of Brazilian neoliberalism. It is symptomatic that, even with the support of Lula and Dilma, the rejection of this policy obtained more than 40% of the votes in the Congress of the Party, the frontal classist opposition of the CUT and the MST. And, in any case, it was inserted in an environment of crisis and disintegration of the government coalition led by the PT.

In summary, if the PT was unable to build a socialist praxis, it remained the main reference in Brazil in these forty years of the struggle against the really existing capitalism. This great historical conquest, magnificent if compared to the tragic fate of these forty years of so many promising experiences of emancipation, has its epicenter in Lula's historic leadership, the greatest and most important ever built in the entire history of the struggles of the Brazilian people.

The dialectic between the PT and the Brazilian State

Based on a tradition of democratic socialism, inspired by Marxism, the identity of a party must be defined based on its relationship with the liberal State. A party of democratic socialism is one that fights to transform the State based on its values, form a State of historical transition to socialism and build a State whose values, institutions, systems of rights and duties, is an alternative to the liberal State.

This is the uniqueness of Marx's work, in relation to other socialisms of his time, the defense of the meaning of the democratic socialist revolution. And this is the fundamental principle of building a socialist hegemony. Without this programmatic and strategic guideline, a party must be characterized as a reformist party, with strong or weak reformism, subject to the pragmatics of force correlations.

From this rigorous point of view, the PT throughout its forty years has not managed to create a dynamic, even an initial one, of revolutionary transformation of the Brazilian State. In general, it is stated that the PT “failed to carry out structural reforms in the system of power and reproduction of Brazilian capitalism”. Which is correct, but not enough: it would be necessary to think about the dialectic between the PT and the Brazilian State, that is, the crossed vectors of change in the PT as a result of its adaptation to state institutionality and what the PT managed to change from this institutionality.

The Brazilian liberal democratic state, emerging from the experience of the 1988 Constitution, in which the PT and the left were a strong minority, soon found itself in dispute with the neoliberal forces, which recomposed a bloc with conservative forces from the FHC governments. . It is critical to understand that neoliberal political forces have had fundamental constituent power from 1988 until today. As the left or a left and center-left bloc never had a parliamentary majority, not even in the Chamber let alone in the Senate, neoliberals and conservatives always had veto power over important constitutional changes and even over the implementation of some constitutional principles that depended on regulation. infra-constitutional.

As a result, the political, economic and social conquests obtained by the PT national governments had little constitutionalization. But beyond that, the FHC government had a parliamentary majority to impose important constitutional changes, in particular by functionalizing the State's macro-economy for the purposes of rentier accumulation. And now, after Dilma's impeachment, the most advanced points of the 1988 Constitution are being rigorously destroyed.

Without constitutional power, having to compete in a political system with strong anti-republican vectors, the historically unprecedented achievements obtained by the democratic rise and by the coalition governments led by the PT are impressive. They translate the maximum civilization achieved by the Brazilian people in the entire existence of the country, which is now being painfully destroyed.

This PT versus Brazilian State dialectic can be summarized in a few dimensions: (a) the construction of an independent foreign policy and the drastic reduction of the country's financial vulnerability (but not the alteration of the structural historical matrix of economic dependence); (b) overcoming the endemic situation of hunger and extreme poverty (but not the integration of this contingent of tens of millions into a stable condition of citizenship); (c) the important expansion of spending on social policies, mainly on education (but not a progressive tax reform); (d) greater investments in the SUS and the beginning of the structuring of a primary care program (but not the reversal of the growth and polarization of private corporate medicine); (e) the increase in employment, the formalization of the labor market and the value of the minimum wage (but not overcoming a historical situation of low levels of labor rights); (f) an unprecedented investment in family farming and settlements (but not a global land reform policy); (g) beginning of an economic planning dynamic (but not the alteration of a macro-economic structure functionalized by rentism); greater construction cycle of popular housing (but not urban and city reform); (h) construction of deforestation control and regulation frameworks, particularly in the Amazon (but not the shift to a sustainable development paradigm); (i) beginning of a participatory cycle at the federal level (but not its constitutionalization or institutional deepening); (j) adoption of quota policies with a great impact on the incorporation of the black population (but not changing historical patterns of racialism, particularly in the area of ​​civil rights and public security); (k) construction of unprecedented legal and institutional frameworks to combat corruption (but not overcoming the systemic nature of corruption, reproduced mainly through corporate financing of electoral campaigns); (l) visibility and adoption of policies in defense of women's rights, in particular the Maria da Penha law (but not changing the foundations of the patriarchal character of the Brazilian state); (m) beginning of the construction of a public communication system through the EBC (but not alteration of the business oligopolistic standards of communication domain).

A positive and dramatic swing

This unprecedented and impressive panel of historical conquests (and their structural historical limits), obtained with social struggles, parliamentary action and government actions, was not able to form a socialist or anti-capitalist conscience in the Brazilian people, but it formed a high conscience of the dignity and the right to have rights of the Brazilian people. Its synthesis translates into the strength of Lula's leadership, into the root strength of the PT. They were not destroyed by neoliberal and neofascist violence. In a context of democratic dispute, it would probably be in the majority today.

For this reason, an assessment of the 40 years of the PT cannot be stated under the sign of failure, since a proud conscience is out of the question. It is a fundamentally positive but dramatic balance sheet that must capture the fatal risk of its destruction. but also the potential overcoming of its historical limits. In a neoliberal state, built amid the violence of a neo-fascist government, there is no historical place for the existence of a PT or any left, even reformist. The dialectic between the PT and the Brazilian State must now gain a democratic socialist dynamic.

A democratic socialist future for the PT?

In the forty years of the PT, there were three phases of its relationship with the Brazilian State: from its birth to 1989, marked by a dynamic of class and popular ascension and by a program of confrontation and frontal change of the Brazilian State; from 1990 to 2016, characterized by a program and strategy that sought to defend and build rights within the democratic institutionality of the Brazilian State, already modified since the early 1990s by neoliberal reformist pressure; from 2016 onwards, centered on a frontal confrontation with the neoliberal destruction of the 1988 Constitution and the reorganization of the State based on neoliberal and anti-democratic principles.

Is it historically possible not for the PT to return to the praxis of the eighties but for an update of its praxis in a democratic socialist sense?

It can be said that this is possible: this democratic socialist path would be closed as a historical impossibility only if the PT had deepened its relations with the national and international ruling classes and lost its relations with the working and popular classes. But the conjuncture of the time, marked by liberal radicalization towards an autocratic neoliberalism, points to the opposite of this. The PT and Lula's historic leadership are still, due to historical merit, the main public reference in the defense of the Brazilian people's rights to freedom and a dignified life.

If a PT democratic socialist future is a possible path, is it likely? The prediction should be conditional.

The first condition is a new period of fusion of the PT's culture with the culture of democratic socialism renewed by the understanding of the anti-capitalist, radically democratic and republican character of the tradition founded by Marx. The second phase of the PT's relationship with the Brazilian state, particularly in the years it was in central government, was marked by the rise of a culture of political pragmatism and the weakening of socialist values ​​and traditions. If there is not this fusion, this renewal of the culture of PT socialism, the PT's path of renewal will certainly be frustrated.

The Marxist left of the PT was, without a doubt, the one that suffered the most and was tested in this process. She had the strength to intervene in several decisive moments, but not to be an alternative director. The institutionalization of the PT in the liberal State was expressed in the internal life of the party through the use by the majority currents of privileged access to positions and money to maintain positions. In the last two party congresses, held in a ballot box with deep distortions, party democracy was strongly affected.

The PT left, referenced in Marxism, is today a minority in the PT. But there is still, with identity, national articulation and public representation in the PT and in the social movements that reference it, a left that is guided by democratic socialist and Marxist values.

Does it have the strength to compose and be part of a new hegemonic composition of the PT?

A second condition for making a prediction is the PT's attitude towards the Bolsonaro government and the neoliberal program. , the average consciousness of the PT reflects in a very organic way the dynamics of class struggles.

The radicalization of the class struggle can and must open spaces for the renewal of a democratic socialist culture. A new rise of political and social struggles could encourage the formation of a new historic PT program aimed at a deeper democratization of the Brazilian State and a more decisive confrontation with its ways of reproducing the inequalities of capitalism. In summary, the renewal of the culture of democratic socialism fundamentally depends on a radicalization of the democratic struggle against neoliberalism and the fascist dynamics of the Bolsonaro government.

Part of this challenge is the PT's reencounter with the social bases of Brazilian workers, deeply affected by unemployment, precariousness, and the introduction of new technologies. In the history of the PT, this classist social base was fundamental. It remains: without this reunion, a democratic socialist culture will not fully find its bases of development.

The PT's biggest risk in this field is facing the challenges of the future with eyes turned to the past, that is, facing the destabilization of Brazilian democracy from a strictly institutional bias, guided by its rites and calendars, its expectations and illusions. As if the political time of neoliberalism, with the coup and its constitutional Thermidor, were still tied to the pure and simple dynamics of a liberal democracy. Now, the dispute for hegemony requires founding a new era, opening new horizons, going beyond the framing of the dispute posed by the dominant classes.

A third condition is for the PT to adopt, as a strategy, the unity of the left-wing forces in the country, that is, to create a dynamic of a rich and necessary historical dialogue with the political forces and the new generations, who have anti-capitalist values, but do not have the PT as a reference. The policy of priority political and electoral alliances with liberal and conservative forces proved to be a path of disasters. And an important part of the new vanguards of the Brazilian left does not have the PT as a reference, although it is open to convergences in a regime of pluralism and non-hegemonism.

The commemoration of the PT's 40th anniversary thus has a triple meaning. It is a scandal, subversive and high-sounding, for all those who have placed the extermination of the PT and left-wing forces at the center of their political will. It is a cause for celebration and jubilation – even more so with Lula's recent release – for an entire generation that dedicated their lives to defending the rights of the Brazilian people and building a democratic socialism. And it is mainly a challenge posed in the history of building a new socialist hope.

*Juarez Guimaraes Professor of Political Science at UFMG

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