One night that lasted twenty years

Image: George Becker


The 1964 coup paved the way for an economic-social regression

“Pity the revolutionaries who are content to carry out a half revolution, they are only digging their own grave” (Saint-Just, Rapport à la Convention, March 3, 1793).

The aftermath of the night of March 31, 1964 lasted twenty years. It was a historic defeat. The March barracks were a preventive military insurrection. The military dictatorship established in 1964 was a social counterrevolution across the board. Precipitated by the fear that a revolutionary situation could precipitate and get out of control in the face of the growing social and political instability of the class struggle during the João Goulart government.

No one could have anticipated, however, under those circumstances, that the dictatorship would be so lasting. The military regime paved the way for an economic and social regression. The workers' and popular organizations, and the trade union and political left did not prepare for the confrontation. They were surprised by the coup and defeated, unable to resist, prisoners of their illusions in the João Goulart government's willingness to fight. “They had their fists clenched, but their hands were in their pockets”, in the words of Rosa Luxemburgo. In the words of Jacob Gorender, when they should have called for arms to fight, they retreated. When they took up arms, heroically, after 1968, it was already too late. The social and political demoralization among the broad popular masses was irreversible. The fear of reprisals was overwhelming.

A confrontation with the organized sectors of the workers was sought and built, intentionally, by a pro-Yankee fraction of the bourgeoisie, since the suicide of Getúlio Vargas in 1954. The coup could not fail to establish a new relationship of forces between the classes in scale mainland, leaving Havana dramatically isolated. The coup in Brazil was the executioner of the revolution in Latin America.

The reactionary situation opened after the 2016 institutional coup favored the emergence of interpretations of the coup that insist on rehashing two bizarre theses. The first is the one that states that none of the political forces in confrontation in 1964 had a commitment to democracy. The second, as a consequence of the first, is the one that argues that the Jango government was moving towards a self-coup prior to the elections scheduled for 1965. None of them is true.

The Brazilian left was dominated by the PCB. If there was a political force committed to constitutional legality in 1964, it was the PCB, which is ironic because the PCB was not legal. Since 1948 he had lived semi-legally, that is, semi-clandestine. It was not unknown who its most prominent members were. But the PCB paid the price of fighting in the context of the cold war, and it was one of the most disciplined parties in Latin America, after the political turn led by Khrushchev. The PCB was committed to a reformist strategy and, for this reason, was almost destroyed. One can have a very critical perception of what Prestes' party policy was in 1964. But to accuse the PCB of preparing a revolutionary split is dishonest and unfair.

Jango's self-coup theory is another easily refuted conspiracy tale. But it is true that the political situation in Brazil in 1964 was one of misgovernment, that is, pre-revolutionary. A revolution was, of course, necessary, so that popular demands could be satisfied. But the working masses did not have any organized, lucid and determined support from which to defend themselves against the counter-revolution, taking the initiative or responding in self-defence.

There were three camps fighting in 1964, not just two. There was the political field of the Jango government, and the political field of the coup military business opposition. But there was a third field that, while no-brainer, was also important. This third camp was that of the working and popular masses.

It is true that this third camp has not gained its political independence. It was tied to the government-run field. But so much did he exist that it was his grandeur that made Jango give up putting up any resistance. He feared a civil war and the possibility of being overtaken in a revolutionary mobilization against the coup leaders. Jango also feared that Brazil would become a new Cuba. Jango was not a moderate socialist. He was a leader of varguismo, a national bourgeois current. Jango was heir to a national-developmentalist wing of Getulismo. Evidently, the assessment that prevailed among the coup's senior military officials was that the possibility of Jango having his Fidel Castro “moment” was not ruled out. The decision to leave the country proved them wrong.

Revolution and counterrevolution are phenomena indivisible from each other. It teaches the most elementary dialectic that causes become consequences, and vice versa. The revolution is a lever of social transformation, when reforms are not possible. Revolutionary methods are those that the masses have at their disposal to prevent coups or bury obsolete regimes that stand in the way of their interests and refuse any negotiation.

If they do it with an excess of radicalism, if revolutions make mistakes and exaggerations, if in the violent current of mobilizations of millions, they are dragged along with the archaic forms of social organization more than would eventually be necessary, and if injustices are committed, perhaps , irreparable, it is meaningless to judge.

It is because there have been victories by revolutionary methods in some countries that concessions have been possible won by reformist methods in others. But even to achieve reforms, mobilizations with revolutionary impulse are necessary. We learned from the institutional coup of Dilma Rousseff's impeachment in 2016, more than half a century after 1964, that the Brazilian ruling class cannot be trusted.

* Valerio Arcary is a retired professor at IFSP. Author, among other books, of Revolution meets history (Shaman).

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