theory and tactics

Image: Elyeser Szturm

By Ronaldo Tadeu de Souza*

Bolsonaro's impeachment tactic is not a study, a survey and a well-thought-out idea aimed at answering burning questions. It involves the very conditions of political action.

The recent, very recent facts, involving the coronavirus pandemic crisis and the actions, postures and statements of the President of the Republic, as well as his closest family circle, Eduardo Bolsonaro, federal deputy, at the forefront, brought to the political discussion (still we are at the level of debate, hypotheses and possible scenarios) the impeachment process of Jair Bolsonaro.

In addition to influential sectors and figures in public opinion, two federal deputies (Sâmia Bonfim and Fernanda Melchionna) and a federal deputy (David Miranda) filed an impeachment request. The proponents and the proponent of Bolsonaro's impeachment stand out for being PSOL policies, a radical leftist party that distinguishes itself from other leftist parties in Brazil for having political-institutional representation and at the same time bringing in its principles and guidelines of struggle the socialist (and democratic) horizon.

With this, the following question arises for the Brazilian left as a whole: is the fight for the impeachment of Jair Bolsonaro the best path to follow? Or would there be other options to be debated by the leftist forces? Or, could we not combine the alternative of impeachment with other political options?

Obviously, I will not go into the internal party issues of the PSOL here; the disputes of groupings and currents that make up the organization and life of the party. Which are, contrary to what many think, the expression of vitality and enthusiasm in the search for a truly better, free, fair and egalitarian future for those at the bottom. No leftist party was strong without debate and internal conflict at the highest level and respect. The German and Bolshevik social democratic parties (with due considerations, specificities and history) are distinct examples of this.[1].

My argument will be around impeachment as a tactic that we can use in the current political struggle, but with a few small questions and suggestions, so to speak. Before that, a brief historical and interpretative commentary.

Thus, it is more than necessary to establish the proper differentiation within the political and historical position of the left, not only between theory and strategy – but between theory (principles), strategy and tactics. This discernment of theory in relation to strategy, and the latter in turn to tactics, is not arbitrary; or even a militant filigree (out of place these days, and which some leftist groups still haven't disentangled). It is part of left-wing history and culture; since when it was forged, effectively, with the Communist League and Marx's participation in it.

It is in this circumstance that The Communist Manifesto it was written; the league commissioned Marx and Engels to write the organization's theoretical document[2]. O Manifest… it was a founding theoretical writing, and for that reason it expresses certain weaknesses, as a strategic elaboration. It was the social democrats at the turn of the XNUMXth to the XNUMXth century[3] who promoted the first notions of strategy in the political struggle of the left. At that time, everyone had socialism on the horizon, but different ways of understanding politics at the time; Kautsky and Martov, Bernstein and Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg and Hilferding, Otto Bauer and Lenin understood[4] that Marx's theory required – as Marx himself wanted – to follow the historical framework of the class struggle.

The political strategy should be in accordance with the social, cultural, moral and epistemological constellation of its time, without abandoning its theoretical principles in the first and even second moments. In Lenin's terms, socialist theory goes through historical vicissitudes[5] and as such it needs to adapt to these strategically. How did the debate over tactics emerge in the history of the left? Precisely, in the arc that goes from the expansive wave of revolutions in the second decade of the 1917th century (the Russian 1918 and the German 1920 as the most expressive) to the stabilization process of Western capitalist states in the 1930s and XNUMXs.

In this context, the first congresses of the Third International (until 1922) and Gramsci were decisive[6]. With the waning of revolutionary subjectivity and momentum, combined with structures of class domination temporarily recomposed and repositioned – the left would need to articulate strategy and tactics[7] fight points. Forming a historic bloc with various social groups to break the balance and stability of capitalism and the ruling class would require left-wing forces and organizations: tactical flexibility[8].

Even Walter Benjamin, in his own way, years later, in the Theses on the concept of history, understood the determination to think about the tactic of exception[9] momentary policies that corresponded to that historical temporality: he will say, “o now, which as a model of the messianic abbreviates in an immeasurable summary the history of all mankind, coincides rigorously with the place occupied in the universe by human history.”[10].

To mean; if theory are, in a certain way, and well understood, in a certain way, “irrevocable” principles, the strategy of adapting to historical vicissitudes – the tactics (always flexible) are everyday demands (the now…), and sometimes isolated and limited, of the political struggle. And because it is flexible, and it should be, it can be combined, articulated and juxtaposed with so many other tactics in order to meet the “immediacy” of everyday life – and conform to break the relative stability of capitalist governments.

The impeachment of Jair Bolsonaro, defended by Sâmia Bonfim, Fernanda Melchionna and David Miranda and signed by other important figures of the national left, is a tactic – a daily, limited demand for the now – that we will be able to use in the immediate political struggle. It is an exception. It is not a strategy that keeps pace with changes in the fundamental historical framework of the class struggle, much less the theory. Which means to say that the impeachment of the Bolsonarist group, and to the extent of its flexibility, other tactics of political action are possible and even necessary.

The demand for Bolsonaro's impediment alone will not be enough for us to leave isolation, present an option to those who will be most affected by Covid19: and break the relevant balance (which is debatable its existence at the present moment of the Bolsonaro government drastically and unexpectedly weakened in a few weeks not to say days). It is true that the impeachment of a president of the republic is a political process and decision.

But it is also true that it is a legal-institutional procedure within contemporary constitutional democracies. It is worth saying; Impeachment, as a procedure, has “narrowness and relativity [...], thousands of restrictions and real artifices”[11] that we should be aware of if we use this tactic. Well, it will demand our political and institutional energies and attention. We have strength and institutional arms[12] consistent for this? Will we know how to explore the intricacies of the parliamentary regiment in our favor? Do we have an organization and media structures that are minimally honest to highlight the performance of our deputies who will take this process forward?

This is not yet another study, research and well-thought-out idea aimed at answering these burning questions – it is, rather, about the conditions of political action. Furthermore, in Brazil, if on the one hand the Bolsonarist group is ridiculously unprepared for the institutional game (which is debatable), on the other hand our parliamentary elites, or what Gaetano Mosca called the political class (moral, economic, cultural and psychologically capable of governing and making decisions[13] for their interests and those they represent) are well prepared in the techniques of institutional combat. And they can: use Impeachment to their advantage. (Rodrigo Maia, João Doria, Witzel, the Jereissati, Carlos Sampaio, Fernando Bezerra, Álvaro Dias, Lorenzoni, Eduardo Braga: they are astute and rapacious politicians who care little about the needs of the most vulnerable.)

Furthermore, it is not unfounded, or even unreasonable, the concern of certain sectors of the left that in the eventual impeachment of Bolsonaro (and his children) we will have, by constitutional rule, a military president. Deputy Hamilton Mourão would take over, and with him sectors of the barracks. If we were in Spain where the rumor of sabers was rooted out, in Argentina where the rumor was controlled and partially silenced, the fear would be groundless. In Brazil the rumor of sabers[14] echoes through all spaces of social life, unfortunately.

The four shots that Marielle Franco took to the head of two former military police officers and the lack of resolution after two years as to who engineered the cowardly and vile murder of the black councilor is the fatal explanation of this. The 1964 cut, as Paulo Arantes so rightly told us, was made to no longer heal: “the civilizational criteria [were] irretrievably broken by the condominium elites in 1964”[15] with the military dictatorship.

Can the military, eventually, be strengthened with the impeachment process, and with them the sectors that support such process? What is lost and what is gained if this occurs? How will the popular sectors interpret a leftist tactic that momentarily accepts that political-state power will remain with the military? What will happen if the military takes over the Brazilian State and the socio-economic situation gets worse in the coming months? Such questions need to be thrown into the debate on the left. With all due care, the moment of practical action – does not definitively exclude the (critical) diagnosis in the best sense of the article Traditional theory and critical theory by Max Horkheimer.

To the impeachment process proposed and filed by Sâmia Bonfim, David Miranda and Fernanda Melchionna, other tactics could be discussed. With the flexibility of now, (a) why not organize neighborhood committees – with all the care and health recommendations required for the moment, obviously – to help the population without access to prevention materials in the fight against the coronavirus and at the same time discuss the importance of direct collective organization to solve their own problems? No, we are not suggesting dual power, soviets, dictatorship of the proletariat. Just a space for solidary and democratic reconstruction of our subjectivities of struggle, for a long time trapped in the framework of institutions, again it is not about abandoning the (flexible) tactics of Impeachment, and we are not in a position to abandon the parliamentary struggle.

(b) What would make it impossible for us to encourage a broad national campaign to defend the State (SUS, Social Security, research funds for Public Institutions of Higher Education, etc.) with the poor population? Mourão, Augusto Heleno, their chief liberal economists and the capitalist class will not do it, at least in the medium and long term – on the contrary, they will act in a diametrically opposite way, aiming at their profits. Those last two are intransigent always in search of the Katekhon of time; whether Bolsonaro or another…

(c) The left forces (MST, black collectives, PSOL, PC do B, MTST, PCB, UNE, representative unions – subway workers, oil workers, teachers – PT, intellectuals, PDT, Trotskyists, students and feminist and peripheral collectives) do not could they propose a public-practical debate, in order to effectively form a broad, radical and systematic political movement that makes use of the organization of the most materially endowed parties and sectors aiming at short-term political alternatives, reflecting medium-term actions?

Immediately this movement, not being able to meet in person and on-site visit, could it not be possible, through virtual platforms, to discuss that the fight against the coronavirus is directed at the poorest and most vulnerable sectors of the Brazilian population and in the medium term an action tactic aimed at the political struggle after the Covid-19 pandemic that will be fratricidal thinking, including in the next municipal elections?

(d) Finally, a problem that invariably goes unnoticed in the left debate is the struggle of ideas[16]; Perry Anderson had already warned about the need to be “irreducible […] [and not concede] to the arrogant claims of the right”[17]; we need to shake up Brazil a little in terms of ideas. Couldn't this be a propitious moment to undertake caustic analyzes and criticisms of the conservative ideas that began to circulate a few years ago with a certain vigor and prestige? At this point, and perhaps the only one, we are “well positioned”, because left-wing social theory in our country is highly sophisticated, dense, diversified, plural and powerful – we have intellectuals (researchers, writers, activists, militants) of the highest level in Brazilian society. What we sometimes lack is a more combative spirit. Fortune presented itself to us; The virtue it's up to us to build.

PS With the modesty and simplicity that suits me; as Gramsci would say: “But these lines were written in everyday life and, in my opinion, should die at the end of the day.”

*Ronaldo Tadeu de Souza is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Political Science at USP.


[1] Even the PT in its origins was a party that favored internal debate and conflict, and for that reason it became one of the biggest leftist political parties in the West. Unfortunately after 2002 the scenario changed profoundly.

[2] See David Ryazanov, La Vida y el Pensamiento Revolucionario de Marx e Engels. Institute of Marxist Training, 2003, pp. 63, 64 and 65.

[3] In this context, virtually all party groups designated themselves as social democrats. The situation, in terms of name and party designation, changed after the German Social Democratic Party voted for war credits in August 1914 and the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the creation of the Third International. See Carl Schorske, German Social Democracy, 1905-1917: The Development of the Great Schism, 1983; and Vladimir I. Lenin, The Bankruptcy of the II-International, 1979.

[4] Obviously the strategy between them and their respective organizations differed.       

[5] See Vladimir I. Lenin, The Historical Vicissitudes of Karl Marx's Doctrine. In: Essay Notebooks, nº 1, 1988, pp. 85 to 88.

[6] The united front tactic and the notion of hegemony responded to this peculiar context. Gramsci will say that: “the rupture of the balance between forces did not occur due to immediate mechanical causes of impoverishment of the social group interested in breaking the balance, and which in fact broke; but it took place in the context of conflicts above the immediate economic world, linked to 'class prestige [...], to an exasperation of the feeling of independence, autonomy and power”. Hence the need for hegemony. To see Machiavelli, Politics and the Modern State, Civilização Brasileira, 1980, pp. 53. The edition I use here is not the most suitable, unfortunately, according to Gramsci scholars in Brazil. The best edition we have, for those who don't read Sardinian in Italian, again according to Gramsci scholars in Brazil, is still the one organized by Carlos Nelson Coutinho in the 2000s by Civilização Brasileira. On the context of elaborating the notion of a united front and hegemony, see Perry Anderson, Gramsci's Antinomies. In: As Selective Affinities, Boitempo, 2002 and Peter D. Thomas, “The Turn of Moscow”: the dialogue between Gramsci and the Bolsheviks (1922-1923), October Magazine, nº 30, 2018. For those who know the Gramscian debate, these two contemporary socialist theorists do not have the same reading of the Notebooks of Prison from Gramsci. See also: Alvaro Bianchi, Gramsci's Laboratory: philosophy, history and politics, Azouk, 2018 and Marcos Del Roio, Gramsci's Prisms: The Political Formula of the United Front (1919-1926), Boitempo, 2019. 

[7] For the specific and even technical distinction between strategy and tactics see Leon Trostsky, October Lessons.

[8] On the issue of tactical flexibility see Vladimir I. Lenin, Leftism Childhood Disease of Communism, various editions. Contrary to what certain historians and theorists say, Lenin, in the context of the 1920s, never defended any kind of sectarianism, isolation and hyper-avant-garde actions. His last message was a tactic to reach the masses, in Perry Anderson's formulation: "the central problematic of the united front - Lenin's last [tactical] advice to the Western labor movement before his death, [and this was], the first Gramsci's interest in prison”. Var Perry Anderson, Oops. cit., p. 99.  

[9] Not here in the conceptual sense that Benjamin elaborates in thesis 8 of the Theses…

[10] See Walter Benjamin, Theses on History, various editions.

[11] See Vladimir I. Lenin, The Kautsky Renegade. Despite Lenin's theoretical and political criticisms of Kautsky, the main theoretician of the II-International was an exceptional socialist writer. His works range from a theory of imperialism to a history of Christianity. It is a pity that very little of Kautsky's work is translated into Portuguese, so that we can verify what he said, in addition to his relative misconceptions about the Russian revolution of 1917. And we could measure his criticism of Lenin and his contribution more slowly and rigorously for leftist political theory.  

[12] On institutional policy in Brazil, its regulations, commissions and norms, see Fernando Limongi and Argelina Figueiredo, Executive and Legislative in the Constitutional Order, FGV/Fapesp, 1999. Although it has received criticism over time, especially from those who at every political crisis defend a political reform to argue (and demonstrate) the ungovernability of our political system, the work of Limongi and Figueiredo is still the main explanation of the inner workings of our institutions. Their research forged an important research agenda in Brazilian political science. Obviously, as they are not in the area of ​​institutional studies and do not systematically follow what they write, I do not know if Limongi and Figueiredo still support, theoretically and in terms of explanation, what they wrote two decades ago. 

[13] See Gaetano Mosca, The Political Class, Fund for Economic Culture, 1995.

[14] See Jorge Zaverucha, Rumor of Sabers: Military Guardianship or Civilian Control?, Ática publishing house, 1994.

[15] See Paulo Arantes, 1964, The year that did not end. In: What Remains of the Dictatorship, Boitempo, 2010, p. 208.

[16] This is not a strictly tactical aspect. It acquired a certain tactical aspect in the current situation.

[17] See Perry Anderson, Ideas and Political Action in Historical Change, Left Bank Magazine, nº 1, p. 92.

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