Brazil: Lula fails the working class – Is it time for a new left party?

"I am not saying that the dream is over, but I think I dreamed the wrong dream”. Those were the words of former PT (Workers’ Party) federal deputy from Rio de Janeiro, Fernando Gabeira, who has just announced his resignation from the PT in protest against the Lula government’s environmental policy.

The last straw for Gabeira was allowing genetically modified seeds to be planted. The PT has always opposed this – it is a key issue for several social movements, including the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST).

Besides environmental and public health risks, allowing transgenic soybeans in Brazil will mean profits of over one hundred million dollars a year for Monsanto alone, with losses for small farmers and the national economy.

Gabeira was never among the ‘radical’ PT members, the ones who insist on maintaining the original policies of PT – of a combative, class-based and anti-capitalist nature. But the federal deputy has been moved to make this comment because the PT and the Lula government have converted to the religion of capital and neo-liberalism and there is widespread dissatisfaction in society as a result.

There is now a big debate on the Brazilian left on the need to build a new mass party of the working class, and of learning the lessons of 23 years of the PT. There is much discussion on continuing to raise the banner of class independence, mass struggle and socialism. These aims are becoming more possible with each passing day.

Cardoso’s policies – and then some more

After almost ten months in government, Lula’s policies have deepened recession and provoked rising unemployment. High interest rates attract speculators and provoke stock exchange euphoria but life has only worsened for most people.

The Finance Ministry predicts growth of less than 1% for 2003. During Lula’s administration, unemployment has risen by over 800,000. Unemployment is around 13%.

Working conditions are deteriorating. Over 52.5% of the economically active population are not formally registered and have no rights. The number of these ‘informal’ workers has increased 15% over the last year.

At the same time, during 2003 Brazil has paid more than 100 billion reais (about US$ 33 bn) in interest and charges on public debt. To raise this money, Lula raised the primary budget surplus (before including interest charges) from 3.75% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (as required by the IMF) to 4.25%. Meanwhile, social spending dropped from 2.59% to 2.45% of GDP.

But when it comes to the auto industry demanding mass layoffs and the privatised electricity companies on the verge of bankruptcy, the government’s attitude is to use public money to help them with tax breaks, soft loans, etc.

The pension reform passed in the government Houses and now awaiting the vote in the Senate, represents a huge step backwards. It cuts public sector employees rights to help square the budget and opens the road to mega profits for pension funds.

Also, the tax reform being debated in the Senate perpetuates unfair taxing and will legitimatise attacks on social spending.

Only one conclusion on the character of the PT government can be made from this: The Lula administration is continuing the policies of the previous president, Cardoso, of taking from workers and giving to bankers, speculators and big business.

Besides this anti-working class economic policy, there are democratic issues at stake too. Conflicts on the land have sharpened as landowners have lashed out. The government has been ridiculously slow to move in relation to land reform. It is unacceptable that there are political prisoners, the members of MST and other land social movements, during a government of the PT. It is outrageous that so many landless activists are being killed and their murderers remain unpunished.

The Lula government has also refused to take legal measures to compel the Armed Forces to open secret files to find out what happened to missing combatants in the Araguaia guerrilla movement, which was decimated in the 1970s. Torture, police violence, death squads and the violation of human rights are still commonplace in Brazil today.

Will the government change course?

Some sections of the left say this government is not yet completely lost and the same goes for the PT. Lula’s foreign policy, they say, is an example of how the government may move forward.

It is true that the Brazilian government helped build the Group of 22 emerging countries at the Cancún WTO meeting. Recently, Lula and the Argentine President, Kirchner, also announced the moderate Consensus of Buenos Aires, supposedly an alternative to the neo-liberal Washington Consensus.

In a period of economic stagnation and heightened strains in international economic relations, even capitalist governments have been forced to take positions contrary to the IMF and imperialism.

But the Lula government is not the best example of this. Argentina has been forced to suspend debt payment, control capital flow and reject the worst IMF impositions (although Kirchner can always change course).

Lula’s actions do not even came close to Kirchner’s positions. In fact, Lula was one of the few Latin American presidents who did not openly side with Argentina when it announced the moratorium that forced IMF to renegotiate more acceptable bases.

Lula even vetoed a sentence in the Consensus of Buenos Aires that spoke about the two countries, Brazil and Argentina, making an effort to pay their debts but not causing additional sacrifices for working people. Lula thought it was too radical.

On the FTAA (the ‘free trade’ agreement for the Americas), the Brazilian government oscillates between defending so-called ‘FTAA lite’ and pure and simple acceptance of US impositions. The proposal to break off negotiations for the FTAA and not to sign the agreement in any situation, which was supported by over 11 million Brazilians in a people’s plebiscite held last year, is not even part of debate in the government.

Only a mass movement can force a break with the FTAA, the IMF and imperialism. But to do that, it will have to defeat the Lula government’s current policy. Under the pressure of the economic and social crisis and mass struggles, Lula may change policy, but he will never take a consistent anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist line. For this to happen, a workers’ alternative has to be built.

Witch hunts in the PT

The experience of the Lula government is causing turbulence on the left. Almost all groups and tendencies have seen crises, splits and realignments. The leaders of the main tendencies on the PT left have been put on the spot by the leadership’s policies. They are feeling the heat from the rank and file who are asking many questions.

The critical moment in this process was the vote on pension reform in the House. Most PT left deputies (about one third) voted for it but made a public statement with criticisms of the legislation. Eight deputies abstained (one of them later voted against in the second reading) and only three, known as the ‘radicals’, openly voted against it in the first and second votes. In the Senate, one PT senator, Heloísa Helena, from the state of Alagoas, is set to vote against.

The ‘radicals’ (federal deputies Baba, Luciana Genro, João Fontes, and the senator, Heloísa Helena) will soon be expelled when the PT National Committee meets on November 15-16.

The witch-hunt is spreading. Council member Julieta Lui, from the town of São Carlos, has already been expelled for criticising the local administration and aligning with the ‘radicals’. The same may happen in other areas. Even the eight deputies who abstained on the pension reform vote, who in general hold more moderate views, got 2-months’ suspension.

The PT left is facing enormous restrictions in attempting to stand candidates for the 2004 local elections. Disregarding the PT’s own statutes, the São Paulo party leadership rejected the pre-candidature of Plínio de Arruda Sampaio Júnior, of the PT left, who would have stood against current Mayor of São Paulo, Marta Suplicy, in internal ‘primaries’.

The party leadership is running a campaign aimed at signing up hundreds of thousands of new members, without any real criteria of membership. There will be thousands of opportunists and careerists joining the PT, as the party of government.

In the 2004 municipal elections, the PT plans on making alliances with its past capitalist enemies, such as the PMDB, PTB, or PP, who are now supporting the Lula government in Congress. Any PT left candidate will have to adapt to this opportunist policy or be blocked by the machine of the party and the government.

A section of the PT left insists that the PT can still be rescued from the neo-liberals. They make complaints but obey the rules imposed by the leadership, vote with the government’s policies that attack workers and they fear the consequences of having any association with the ‘radicals’.

Experience will show an important sector of activists from the left of the PT there is no possibility of reviving the PT with a left programme. But the idea of building a new left party has already taken root and will spread.

Movement for a new party

The PT lefts who did not retreat under threats of sanctions and expulsions from the PT leadership are now posing, in a much clearer manner, the need for a new party. Once expelled, the PT ‘radicals’ will not insist on remaining in the PT structures, even if that were possible. So we are at the beginnings of preparations to launch a movement for a new left party.

The political forces that could create a new party have different origins and dynamics. There are leaders and public sector union activists who have already called for the construction of a new party. They are rank and file activists and leaders of teachers’ unions, judiciary employees, and social security and university workers, etc. These are the most advanced sections politically – they have drawn far-reaching conclusions from the experience of the strike against the Lula government’s pension reform. On a smaller scale there are youth activists, private sector unions, and the different urban and rural social movements.

Then there are the political organisations that have already talked about building an alternative to the PT. From the PT there are the radical currents, such as CST (Socialist Workers’ Current), MES (Socialist Left Movement) and SR (Revolutionary Socialism – the Brazilian section of CIO/CWI), besides regional groups. There are also people splitting from moderate left PT tendencies.

Outside the PT, the PSTU (Unified Socialist Workers’ Party), which split from the PT in 1992/93, also calls for a new party.

New formations are appearing, with people from in and outside the PT, such as Socialist Resistance (PRS), a grouping of former PSTU and PT members in the state of Pernambuco, in the northeast of Brazil.

Organisations that have already split from the PT are also involved in this process. These include the MTL (Land, Labor and Freedom Movement), the result of a split from the PSTU, combined with other mainly rural movements.

Senator Heloísa Helena is particularly important for the process of construction of a new party. She is a member of the Socialist Democracy tendency of the PT (DS – which is linked internationally to the United Secretariat of the Fourth International). However, her position is to the left of the DS. DS is part of the government in the shape of the Minister for Agrarian development, Miguel Rosseto! This minister is responsible for land reform, an issue that has proved one the greatest disappointments so far of the Lula government.

Unlike the DS leadership, Heloísa Helena has said she will vote against the pension reform bill in the Senate. She will be expelled and so will not be able to stand for mayor of Maceió, state capital of Alagoas, where she leads in the opinion polls.

Some PT members want a milder punishment for Heloísa Helena than for the three ’radical’ deputies. But she has been continually saying that she will not accept a different punishment and that if she is expelled she will help to build a political alternative on the left.

Heloísa Helena’s full engagement in a movement for the construction of a new party would greatly strengthen that process. She has become nationally known for her resistance to the shift to the right of the PT and the Lula government’s adaptation to the IMF and the elites.

What kind of party?

There is a debate on what kind of party should be built amongst those starting to work towards the construction of a new formation and even among those who have not clearly taken this that road as yet (but who understand that this task will be posed sooner or later).

The proposal of most of the sections involved is for a left party, with a clear anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist policy and a socialist orientation. They want a party that prioritises struggle and not only elections; a party that not only revives the most progressive aspects of the PT but that also learns from the last 23 years, since the PT was founded. In other words, a party on a higher political level than the PT was when it was founded.

Of course, the new party should be based on a left programme unifying broad sections splitting from the PT. The new party should be inclusive, capable of attracting a broad section of workers and youth and of winning mass influence.

Therefore, the party must guarantee internal democracy, the right to organize tendencies and respect for different trends. Unity will have to be built through the experience of joint work and winning confidence among the different sections of the new organisation. The party should take up positions on the main issues but it should respect the rights of minority positions.

A party of this kind could bring together different left currents that would otherwise be dispersed, isolated and fragmented.

Within this party, revolutionary Marxists could put forward their ideas and programme against any reformist or centrist illusions, and democratically and fraternally struggle for the party to take a truly revolutionary course.

This is the way to avoid the new party being exclusively an attempt by one of its components to build their own membership, which would prevent it from becoming a genuinely new formation with mass influence.

That is why the proposals presented by the PSTU, for a new party on a strictly centralised basis (which calls for the immediate dissolution of component organisations) and assuming its own programme (which the PSTU considers the ‘maximum expression’ of a revolutionary programme) is a sure way of aborting the process.

The PSTU proposes opening up a long discussion amongst all groups and tendencies involved in the struggle for a new party and at the end of that process deciding either for full unification of the organisations in a centralised party or for separation.

This would stop the construction of the new party getting underway in 2004 and reflects the narrow interests of the PSTU.

A substantial group of PSTU members recently left the party, rejecting the narrow approach of the PSTU in relation to a new left formation and the leadership’s exaggerated perspectives of a supposed world revolutionary situation (both of which make it difficult for PSTU members in have a dialogue with the PT rank and file). These ex-members also had problems with the PSTU’s internal regime.

The creation of broad party of the Left that is capable of attracting mass influence would undoubtedly be a huge step forward for the working class and poor of Brazil. However this aim should not mean the vital need for revolutionary organisation and programme is abandoned. There is great pressure on sections of the left to abandon the concept of the revolutionary party and the idea of democratic centralism – party democracy. But if we want to see the socialist transformation of society, we must forge an instrument capable of the task – a revolutionary and socialist workers’ party.

The formation of a new mass workers’ party in Brazil would be a huge step forward and would have the potential of becoming a force to change society fundamentally.

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October 2003