EN 40 years – And now?


By Julian Rodrigues*

Interpretations about the 2003-2016 period that disregard the weight of our slaveholding heritage, the predatory and subaltern nature of national elites, external dependence, and US influence are neither academically nor politically relevant

The official history, the “founding myth” about the emergence of the PT highlights as a differential the construction of a leftist party organized from below and directed by the workers themselves. It is also proud of the plural, democratic and non-doctrinaire character of this organization founded on February 10, 1980, at Colégio Sion, in São Paulo.

Despite a certain arrogance and triumphalism of such PT's foundational narrative – which not infrequently slips into historical ignorance, reproduction of common sense and/or a good dose of anticommunism – the concrete fact is that the singularity, the unique characteristics and the process of complex and plural formation of the Workers' Party really are extraordinary.

The PT emerged in a Latin American country, a giant peripheral, with a significant level of industrialization, a strong economy, and poor income distribution; organized from the legacy of slavery, at the end of a military dictatorship that almost decimated all groups and organized militants of the left, at a time when the capitalist world was turning towards neoliberalism – and the socialist world began to show signs of crisis and exhaustion of your model.

In an unforeseen, unusual and unique way, from the gigantic mobilizations of ABC workers and Lula's leadership, people and organizations from the most different conceptions, territories, social origins and experiences coalesced under the same heading.

Rural workers, bank workers, metallurgists, teachers, oil workers, students, intellectuals and artists as expressive and diverse as Sérgio Buarque de Holanda, Antônio Candido, Mário Pedrosa, Lélia Abramo, Helio Pelegrino, Eder Sader, Paulo Freire, Marilena Chauí, Florestan Fernandes, Henfil, Friar Beto. Priests, theologians, nuns, thousands of liberation theology Catholics, Trotskyist currents from different IV Internationals; communists from many, many backgrounds and organizations, the new feminist movements, black, indigenous, LGBT, quite a lot of Democrats and progressives. A front as heterogeneous as it is dynamic and democratic.

The PT's identity was constituted from the idea of ​​a genuinely classist party in the fight against the dictatorship and for redemocratization – committed to internal pluralism, to the intransigent defense of workers' claims and to democratic socialism.

I highlight these elements to reinforce that this amalgamation, if it was not able to generate a socialist program and strategy with clear contours and density, especially in its early years, provided the emergence of very innovative syntheses and formulations, unifying and mobilizing, which created the foundations for the immense growth of the Party.

Although mostly it has never been a Marxist/Communist/revolutionary/Leninist party, the PT was born and reaffirms, until today, its socialist character in all its resolutions – it is the core of its historical project. In its originality and diversity, it was never characterized as an ideal-type social-democratic party, especially in the period prior to Lula's election. Also because there is no room for the traditional European social democracy in Latin lands – as, incidentally, the coup reaction of the elites and the US to the embryos of welfare state sown by the PT governments made evident.

1980s: V Meeting and Constituent Assembly

The transition from the dictatorship to the liberal-democratic regime, whose milestones are the 1988 Constitution and the 1989 elections, constitute inseparable elements of the formation and struggles of the Workers' Party. In this sense, the history of the PT itself merges with the process of establishment and development in the historical period that began in the late 1980s – and ended with the overthrow of Dilma Rousseff – a moment in which the ruling classes and imperialism broke with a elementary liberal-democratic principle: accept the result of universal suffrage.

Popular and union struggles on the rise, the founding of the CUT, the MST, strikes, marches, mobilizations were fundamental to format the 1988 Constitution. A very advanced text – not only in terms of fundamental rights, but also in the establishment of rights social (the SUS, for example), labor and in the conception of the economic model – the part that was dismantled first, already in the early 1990s.

At the same time that it is organized throughout the country, the dispute within the PT is boiling, with fierce theoretical, programmatic and tactical debates. The great reference of the decade was the V National Meeting of the Party in 1987, the high point of the party's elaboration – still unsurpassed. [An update and re-appropriation of the resolutions of the V Meeting, by the way, could perhaps contribute to arming the PT for current times].

In addition to the detailed and precise analysis of the situation at the time, the tactics, the politics of party and social alliances (the idea of ​​the popular-democratic bloc), the core of the formulation was concentrated on establishing the popular-democratic program (PDP), key of the strategy.

The PDP would be implemented from the conquest of the federal government by a socialist and worker candidate: “what is in question is the possibility of conquest of a democratic and popular government with eminently anti-monopoly, anti-imperialist, anti-latifundiary tasks, of radical democratization of space and of society – tasks that are articulated with the denial of the capitalist order and with the construction of socialism” [1].

At that moment, the PT resolved, by a solid majority, the great tactical-strategic dilemmas, assuming – without mentioning it – the “Chilean path” for the construction of socialism. Playing elections as a way to gather strength to reach the federal government, carry out structural reforms and start a troubled process of transition to socialism. Therefore, insurrectionist ways of taking power were ruled out, such as a revolutionary general strike, foquismo, urban guerrilla warfare or prolonged people's war.

A mediation was elaborated that later became known as the “tweezers strategy” – a combination of social struggle and institutional struggle, with priority given to winning over the federal government (Lula lá), symbol-lever of the popular-democratic bloc and materialization of the transformative project . [Tactic, by the way, that can be reset and updated in Bolsonarist times, as shown by the latest polls. João Pedro Stédile defines it this way: “Lula is the people's permanent candidate for the presidency of the Republic”. Maximum expression of accumulated popular strength and the possibility of change].

Bigger irony, going back to the V Meeting: the probable reaction of the dominant classes to this strategy of structural reforms was already foreseen. The democratic and popular camp should prepare for a coup reaction by imperialism and the oligarchies to the implementation of our program of radical reforms. From this confrontation, both the socialist rupture led by the left and the neoliberal restoration led by the right would be on the horizon [The majority of the PT abandoned this idea – they did not believe in the reaction of the right, since the program had been downgraded and frontal confrontations avoided].

The tactical-programmatic-strategic bases approved in 1987 (added to the resolution on the right of tendency – which organized coexistence between the internal groups) paved the way not only for the consolidation and expansion of the Party but also for the hurricane that was the Lula campaign 1989, the almost there.

Progressive institutionalization and new strategy

Although the first party congress – which took place in 1991 under the aegis of the neoliberal shock, the beginning of the Collor government crisis, but, above all, under the rubble of the Berlin wall (which hit and hurt many communist heads, at the time enthusiastically transmuted into brains liberals) – has promoted lengthy debates, in the end, there was a tie between the more moderate sectors, those who wanted to make a liberal turn and those more to the left. Nothing much has really changed.

After the impeachment of Collor and the painful defeat by FHC in 1994, the turning point of the decade was the X National Meeting of the PT, in Guarapari (1995:). Zé Dirceu was elected, by a narrow margin, president of the Party. It begins to implement another strategy and another conception of organization, very different from those defined in 1987.

In tune with the air of those neoliberal years of decline in the mass struggle, and considering the growing institutional spaces then occupied by the PT – in parliaments and municipal governments, mainly – Dirceu operates according to the logic of building a more institutional, electoral, less militant Party (abandoning the nucleation policy and training staff). Acts to restrict the influence of the socialist, communist, radical or left-wing sectors of the PT.

Without abandoning socialism as a strategic horizon, or denying its structural vision of the world and its chip communist (unlike many other party exponents who turned philosophically towards liberalism), José Dirceu led the PT’s adoption, at the II Congress, in 1999, of the concept of “democratic revolution”. Years later, this formulation – at the time a programmatic moderation to replace the idea-synthesis of the popular-democratic program articulated with the socialist transition – came to be adopted by relevant segments of the party left.

Dirceu designed and built the political and organizational architecture that made Lula's electoral victory possible. It was about forging an alliance with sectors of the business community based on a program based on economic growth, the mass market, social policies, but also peaceful coexistence with monopolies, imperialism, agribusiness and even rentism (see Letter to Brazilians).

A moderate reformist program, promoting large and innovative social policies, aimed at altering the public budget, increasing the portion allocated to the poor, without, however, taxing the rich. Another policy of alliances, another concept, another (center-left) strategy; the objective break with the popular-democratic program of 1987-1989, which was based on structural reforms (the former Basic Reforms of the João Goulart government).

in the federal government

Dirceu and Lula's strategy was successful. In every way. It had its peak, its advances, but also its ceiling. Tensions aside with the initial Paloccist economic policy, the fact is that the two Lula governments and parts of the first Dilma government are an outlier in national history. It turns out that the limits of this strategy appeared and decisively defeated the experience that had been conducted.

The PT grew a lot during this period, both in terms of affiliates, as well as parliamentarians, federal, municipal and state governments. In this movement, it accentuated its character as a purely electoral, reformist, institutional party. He abandoned the training of cadres – he increasingly distanced himself from the role of leader and organizer of social struggles.

The PT disconnected itself from the youth and the new generations of militants – especially from the feminist, anti-racist vanguards, universities, digital activists – today polarized by PSOL and other smaller organizations. References to socialism dwindled. Illusions about the democratic and generous character of the ruling class thrived. Many sectors on the left left the Party.

Some PT leaders not only adapted to the bourgeois electoral financing system, but actually became corrupted. Antonio Pallocci is the greatest symbol of this degeneration. But, register. Contrary to what has become common sense, the number of PT cadres who personally corrupted themselves is much smaller than those who only adapted to the logic of the relationship with large companies and private financing. Lava-Jato cannot be a parameter for people on the left.

The political and academic debate on the PT governments, despite already extensive, has only just begun. From the real existence and meaning of the concept of “Lulismo” to the countless controversies about economic policies, public policies, reforms, limits, errors, successes and everything else.

However, interpretations of the 2003-2016 period that disregard the weight of our slaveholding heritage, the predatory and subaltern character of national elites, external dependence, US influence, the theoretical-programmatic-organizational weaknesses of the set of progressive forces, the world socialist defense since 1989, the enormous advances in terms of public policy and popular support achieved do not really contribute to generating syntheses and/or explanations that are academically or politically relevant.

Probably the core of the conception that led to the defeat of the Lula-Dirceu strategy, and aged/bureaucratized/weakened the Party, is the following: the ruling majority was deceived by the supposedly democratic character of the bourgeoisie and the state apparatus. The concept of “republicanism” – pseudo-sophisticated clothing for a certain petty-bourgeois liberal idealism – gained the status of a party paradigm, elevating to an allegedly theoretical and strategic level what was just common sense, illusion, depoliticization, moderation and adaptation.

None of the governments led by the PT moved towards carrying out structural reforms – agrarian, urban, political, tax or the means of communication. “Republican” politics regards the state and its institutions as neutral and technical, as devoid of class character and interests. Thus, it would be enough to strengthen and give prestige to the Armed Forces, the Public Ministry, the Federal Police (independent), the Federal Supreme Court and so on…

Following this conception, the structure of the State and its institutions was not altered, not even partially: the military police, the Federal Police, the Armed Forces, the Federal Court of Auditors, the Public Prosecutor's Office or the Judiciary - protagonists of the rupture with democracy started 2016.

After the coup, the destruction wrought by Lava-Jato, Lula's arrest, Bolsonaro's victory, the rise of the right in Latin America, it is impossible not to notice: the PT is challenged to deeply discuss the character of the capitalist State in Brazil and back to truly debating a strategy-programme. Even more: he will need to update his understanding of social classes, of the process of constituting the new vanguard and of the historic bloc that will lead the conquest of the federal government, of the implementation of structural reforms and of the socialist transition.

Will there be another 40?

PT is very, very big. Rooted, representative and quite strong – much to the chagrin of his enemies on the right and his adversaries on the left.

Although aged and weakened, quite plastered, a little discouraged, it is still the main progressive and popular force in Brazil. Lula and the PT will continue to polarize the political dispute in the country for some time.

However, the difficulties of the Party as a tool to lead the overcoming of the Bolsonarist cycle, face neo-fascism and operate efficiently within this new political regime (State of exception) are increasingly evident. The VII Congress of the PT did not establish a qualitative leap in terms of program design, tactics or organizational guidelines. However, it maintained a combative and polarizing tactic and posture, implemented/sustained by Lula and Gleisi since 2017 – some sectors of the more centrist and moderate majority camp were defeated.

Lula is the dynamic point, the leader of the masses and the greatest de facto leader of the PT. The most attuned, prepared, supported cadre, which speaks to millions – a genius, rare popular leadership – indeed, it is, today, further to the left than most of the leading cadres – from different internal groupings.

The Workers' Party as we know it today is the result of the political process that began with the promulgation of the 1988 Constitution. It turns out that the world and the country are entering a new historical period. We no longer live under a liberal-democratic regime. The Bolsonaro government is ultraliberal and neofascist.

Will the PT be able to rebuild itself as the main organized force of the left? Will it know how to combine its electoral strength with social mobilization and cultural-ideological battles? Will it continue to be the main tool of the popular, socialist and democratic bloc in the fight against Bolsonarist forces and against the ultraliberals?

Will it be able to constitute itself again as a hub that unites young people, builds cadres, organizes the social struggle, mobilizes the masses – reconnected with the people, tensioning the capitalist order, disruptive, the main pole of the ideological-political-cultural dispute in the country?

These are definitely open questions. The answers to be constructed in the coming years will define the existence and/or relevance of the PT in the next four decades.

Congratulations on your 40th anniversary Workers' Party. Live long and prosper!

*Julian Rodrigues, militant of the PT-SP, is an activist of the LGBTI and Human Rights movement.


[1] Political Resolution V National Meeting of the PT. In: Jorge Almeida (org.). Resolutions of Meetings and Congresses: 1979-1998. Sao Paulo, Perseu Abramo Foundation.

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