EN 40 years – A workers' party: what for?


By Lincoln Secco*

The history of the PT is more than that of an organization. It is of all the vast popular field that was constituted through and beyond it. As a party in this field, the PT carries its own contradictions.

When the Workers' Party was founded in 1980, it had 26 members. The following year there were 210.930. It was a unique experience in Brazilian history. No one else had those characteristics. It was organized within civil society (although supported by some MDB politicians) and was already a numerically important association. Only the old PCB could present similar characteristics, but with a much smaller impact on the country's power structure, although greater on cultural life.

However, in its formative period (1978-1984), the PT was far from establishing itself as a party organization. tout court. It had provisional directorates throughout the country, but in practice it had a federative structure, with a strong horizontal dynamic.


The first observers of the party emphasized the so-called new unionism that had spread from the ABC region of São Paulo to the rest of the country. They captured a part of the formation process, as Lula and other trade unionists traveled to found regional and municipal directories.

In common sense it was an agglomeration of former revolutionaries, radical unionists and progressive Catholics. This reading was obviously restricted. It was at the turn of the 1980s and 1990s that the pioneering studies of three academic intellectuals began to deepen it. They gave documentary and analytical body to a more complex reading without breaking with what most militants and observers of the political scene highlighted at the time of foundation: the PT's originality.

The originality of a model of self-organization of the marginalized in the light of Brazilian party history was highlighted in the seminal study by Raquel Meneghello. Margareth Keck radicalized the argument and presented a party almost as a political anomaly: a creation ex nihilo. But it also revealed the unique tangle of conflicting trends and visions in which the PT emerged. Finally, Marcia Berbel wrote the first academic historical approach based on the documents available at the time, with emphasis on the use of testimonies.

Later research sought to explain the transformations that took place in the 1990s: the change in discourse, the relationship with the press, internal disputes, the evolution of the economic program, etc. In addition, books by regretful, resentful or simply dissidents issued judgments on corruption, moderation, betrayal, changes in leadership, formation of a new bureaucratic class, unfair internal competition, etc. It would be impossible to go through all this production here.

In the academic area, the transition from a mass association to a party catch all, professional-electoral or “cartel party”. But one of the most important studies was that of Unicamp professor Oswaldo Amaral who demonstrated, among many other things, the difficulty of framing the PT in a single ideal type described in the academic literature.

Monographs and bases

In its first election in 1982, the PT elected only eight deputies, six for São Paulo. A bench smaller than that of the PCB, which elected parliamentarians through the MDB. For the legislative assemblies, 12 PT deputies were elected, nine in São Paulo; and 118 councilors for city councils, of which 78 in São Paulo.

Those electoral results associated with the mystique of the ABC strikes provided the appearance of a party that was more São Paulo than it was in terms of social force. Much more than a party that spread out from the main industrial center of the country, according to the first readings of the 1980s, what the accumulation of academic monographs allows us to glimpse today is something more socially and regionally complex.

The historical approach allowed us to reconstitute different moments in which the party bases sprouted autonomously, forming a network of several PTs, which makes it impossible to understand their history from a single movement of centripetal force, however significant it may have been. The plurality of regional and local experiences was naturally eclipsed over the years, but it was the indelible mark of the PT's spring years. And the party has continued to create or recreate itself in many places, which was probably the case in the northeast in the early XNUMXst century.

elusive party

The PT could very well have been founded in a Carmelite Convent, on the outskirts of Fortaleza; having an upper-middle-class nucleus in Jardim Marajoara in the capital of São Paulo; or in the house of an unemployed Trotskyist militant and his Catholic mother in the Engenheiro Goulart neighborhood, on the east side of São Paulo, where the militants were proud of having founded the first PT nucleus before the Colégio Sion meeting.

But it was not a socially homogeneous association. On the Sunday morning in which the PT was founded in that College, the oilman Jacó Bittar was the chairman of the working table while the doctor and Senator Henrique Santillo (GO) was the secretary who prepared the minutes of the meeting.

Leaders recognized from the beginning, but linked to manual work and who made up the first party leaderships, never came to hold outstanding executive public positions. When one looked at the emblematic figures of the PT's formation period, Osmarino Amâncio appeared among the rubber tappers of Acre; Avelino Ganzer among farmers in western Pará; Manoel da Conceição in the interior of Maranhão, among many others.

On the other hand, some professional politicians who were involved in the creation of the party like the aforementioned Santillo later withdrew. And no other Brazilian organization elected so many manual workers to important executive positions: Benedita da Silva, Lula and Marina Silva were examples of this.

It was not easy to characterize that party despite the letter of principles that stated that it was a “party without bosses”. In the mid-1980s, the rapprochement with businessmen was mediated by Lawrence Pih from Moinho Pacífico. On the federal bench, metallurgist Djalma Bom and an already established politician from the Matarazzo family could coexist. In Cachoeiro do Itapemirim (ES) in 1982, the PT launched as candidates for Mayor and Deputy Mayor, Pedro Correia Reis, a civil construction worker, and Carlos Gamboa, a railroad worker. In the interior of São Paulo, many liberal professionals, doctors and university professors applied, as happened in Botucatu and Sorocaba. But also in other states the phenomenon was repeated.

On the other hand, people's trajectories are dynamic and hardly imprisoned in watertight labels. On one occasion when this author was present, a notable Trotskyist militant from the metallurgical opposition in São Paulo got irritated because someone described him as a former USP student. But one of the most notable founders of the PT was Paulo Skromov: he headed the Leather Workers Union, an emblematic place of the PT left in the 1980s and had studied history at USP.

Trotskyist and middle-class communist militants were proletarianized or changed their lives on their own, or because of high prices or a myriad of reasons. Some made a union career and never returned to their previous condition. Workers from ABC tried to open a small business, like Raimundo Nonato, from Piauí, who belonged to the removed board of directors in 1981 and waited many years in court for his retirement without leaving the military.

The presence of the PT was so impactful that it divided engaged theater groups, created an unofficial nucleus in the São Paulo Military Police, forged leadership in the health and housing movement, among psychologists and architects, teachers and students, maids and small traders, gays and lesbians. , housewives and members of the black movement.

The meetings of the base groups were improvised in Spiritist centers, rubber plantations, theaters, associations of friends of the neighborhood, farms or occupied urban dwellings, trade unions, soccer fan headquarters, guilds of middle-class professional categories, borrowed restaurants and bars, lounges parish halls or even in public squares. This vast network still lacked a center to give it institutional strength.

Superimposed dynamics

Of course, one cannot simply invent a mythical past of a party made up of militants dedicated to a cause. In 1982, 13% of party members were enrolled in grassroots groups. In the poll on electoral college participation in 1984 less than 10% of affiliated people voted. Even so, the nuclei involved thousands of people in an unprecedented way in Brazil.

The emptying of the nuclei was attributed to party professionalization. However, we usually forget that there were two faces of that process: the first was a professionalization dictated by the growing presence in elective mandates. Militants were transferred to advisory services. Another, smaller-scale facet was the logic of trends.

While the composition of the leadership was majority, that is, Articulação commanded the National Executive Commission alone, the idea prevailed that leftist tendencies would represent the base against the centralism of the dominant current. In turn, this presented itself as the holder of grassroots representation against its kidnapping by “two-shirt” militants, who would be members of real parties within the PT.

The adoption of proportionality in the composition of the party leaderships appeased the speeches and, even though the Articulação was in fact much more popular, it turned out that nobody had a monopoly on grassroots representation. And these, in turn, had lost their deliberative power. Nobody decided this alone. There were irresistible internal transformations that were combined with conscious agreements.

For various reasons, that grassroots militancy could not enter into a dispute that required time, specialized language and financial resources, even meager ones. The documentation shows something of the “workerist” reaction against the typical “black cape” who started to direct meetings, distribute positions and manage people.

The movement of Articulação formulators did not aim to maintain the independence of the bases, but to exclude left-wing currents. And these in turn were looking for a space that would allow them to keep professional staff.

I do not mean by this that both sides did not have legitimate political projects and that Articulação did not bring together cadres who had formed in the social movement itself. Nor that, to a lesser extent, this did not happen in the clusters to his left. What is at stake here is to narrate an objective process of bureaucratization and how it was experienced in the daily life of militancy and theoretically reformulated in the theses of the leaders.

Articulação had an anti-trend image, which prevented it from behaving fully as a party tendency, even though it was. Its intellectuals also came from leftist currents prior to the PT. As much as the other trends, they carried out “entrism”, but in the heart of the unionist and popular majority wing.

The organic intellectuals of Articulação made every effort to give popular and union leaders a program and a socialist language alternative to communism and Trotskyism. But that was not enough to consolidate it.

The Articulation could only maintain unity while the left currents were much less organized and smaller. With the growth of these, there was a call for the expulsion of some, but it was already an authoritarian action of desperation and the trend did not survive after the conquest of proportionality at the VII National Meeting (1990).


This is the party that the 1980s bequeathed to Brazil. In the following decade, the base nuclei gradually lost any power, although they never ceased to exist. Ideological formulation took place increasingly outside trends and in the inorganic margins of the party, in terms of mandates. And the militants who frequented party spaces on a daily basis were employees who could not oppose the “black cape” who commanded them.

It is evident that that militancy was not only in the cabinet, it made the interface of leaders and parliamentarians with social movements and found (as it still does) silent forms of resistance or of influencing political decisions.

The history of the PT is more than that of an organization. It is of all the vast popular field that was constituted through and beyond it. As a party in this field, the PT carries its own contradictions.

The PT that turns 40 is much more the party that grew from Lula's second term than the one described here. Its internal disputes are no longer about theses defended and agreed upon by base delegates only, but the result of a direct election process (PED) of an organization with more than 2 million members.

However, the price that the PT paid throughout the 1990s in terms of bureaucratization and institutionalization earned it the condition of being an option for power, and that was no small feat. Other, much more radical but smaller parties never suffered the same opposition and hatred as the PT because they never threatened to occupy the government.

Although the PT tempered its remarkable social policies with class conciliation, this was to no avail. When the state budget does not allow the coexistence of opposing interests, class struggles intensify and the left in government is discarded by a sleight of hand.

Can this party rescue old proposals such as an inter-nucleus meeting from the 1980s and stimulate meetings of base nucleuses that still resist? Without alternatives, will the popular field still recognize it as its main expression in the eventual 2022 elections? The answer to the second question is likely to be yes. But if at first the answer is no, then we can formulate another much more important one: what would a PT incapable of change do differently in government?

* Lincoln Secco He is a professor in the Department of History at USP.


Amaral, Oswaldo. Transformations in the internal organization of the Workers' Party between 1995 and 2009. Sao Paulo: Alameda, 2015.

Araújo, Ciro Alcantara de. The origin of the Workers Party in Ceará: a popular alternative (1979 – 1989). 2017. 100 f. Dissertation (Master in History) – Federal University of Sergipe, São Cristóvão, SE, 2017.

Acevedo, Ferdinand. PT and the press. San Carlos: Edufscar, 2017.

Berbel, Marcia. Workers' Party: Tradition and Rupture in the Brazilian Left. São Paulo, USP, 1991 (master's dissertation).

Gadotti, Moacir and Pereira, Otaviano. Why PT: Origin Project and Consolidation of the Workers' Party. São Paulo: Cortez, 1989.

Keck, Margaret. The Logic of Difference: the Workers' Party in the Construction of Brazilian Democracy. Sao Paulo, Attica, 1991.

Martins, Richard de Oliveira. The Regulation of the Right of Tendencies in the Workers' Party (1986-1992). Masters dissertation. Campinas: Unicamp, 2015.

Menegozzo, Carlos Henrique M. Annotated Bibliography of the PT (1978-2002). São Paulo: Perseu Abramo Foundation, 2013.

Meneguello, Rachel. EN: the formation of a party (1979-1982). RJ: Paz e Terra, 1989.

Rocha Junior, Jose Carlos. On the heels of fellow workers' party (PT) militants under surveillance by the Espírito Santo political and social order police station (dops/es) – (1978-1985). Vitória/ES: Federal University of Espírito Santo (UFES), 2014.

Secco, Lincoln. History of the PT. 5 ed. São Paulo: Ateliê, 2015.

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