Brazil: Party for Socialism and Liberty (PSOL) congress consolidates moderate leadership

But socialist left in party can still grow

This article was written following the recent PSOL congress which was attended by members of Socialismo Revolucionário (SR – CWI Brazil) who formed a vocal and visible part of the proceedings. The interest in the principled ideas put forward by SR was shown by the fact that its members sold 300 papers (nearly one in two of those attending bought one). SR members were the only political group to organise a stall with political material which was there for the whole meeting and which was a focal point for many discussions with individual delegates and groups of delegates who were interested in what SR had to say and wanted further cooperation.

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Party for Socialism and Liberty (PSOL) congress sees consolidation of ’moderate’ leadership

Delegates and visitors at the first congress of the Party for Socialism and Liberty (PSOL), 7- June, Rio de Janeiro

The first congress of PSOL, the Party for Socialism and Liberty, that took place from 7 June in Rio de Janeiro, marked the beginning of a new phase for the party. PSOL grew rapidly as a left alternative to the failure of PT (Workers’ Party) and the neo-liberal course of Brazil’s President Lula and his PT government.

The Party for Socialism and Liberty (PSOL) was founded in June 2004, following a movement led by MPs that became known as the "radicals". This was headed by the ex-senator, Heloísa Helena, who, along with other radical MPs, was expelled from PT after voting against attacks on the pension system, which were imposed by President Lula.

Leading figures and left currents from different origins campaigned for the foundation of the new party. Most of them came from the PT, with many of them having a Trotskyist background. Others came from left Catholic groupings. Against the background of the governing PT (Workers’ Party) degeneration, the Party for Socialism and Liberty (PSOL) rapidly became the main political reference for the left as a party which had not sold out or given up.

In September 2005, in the midst of corruption scandals that involved the PT and Lula’s government, there was a new wave of splits from the PT. Currents and dissidents from so-called ’PT-left’ currents, and well-known personalities like Plínio de Arruda Sampaio, joined the Party for Socialism and Liberty, broadening its ranks and parliamentary base.

The attempt to be an alternative voice of the working class given the PT’s rightward trajectory, lead to the foundation of the Party for Socialism and Liberty (PSOL) and its adoption of a programme that was explicitly anti-capitalist and pro-socialist.. In addition the programme adopted was committed to a democratic internal regime, with the right to tendencies and also the local branches being the fundamental building block of the party.

PSOL managed to make progress, even in a period of political confusion amongst big layers of the working class, caused mainly by the role played by Lula’s government and the PT leadership in the main organisations and networks known as the ’social movements’ and in CUT (the trade union federation). PSOL managed to obtain legal status, collecting more than half a million signatures, and was recognised by the Electoral Court.

In the 2006 electoral race, the party’s candidate for president, Heloísa Helena, got almost 7 million votes as a left alternative to Lula and the ’traditional left’. Lula did not manage to get elected in the first round, as many had expected, because of the votes that went to Heloísa Helena.

In the Pt’s campaign for the second round of the presidential elections, against the candidate of the traditional right, Geraldo Alckmin, Lula was forced to use more left-leaning rhetoric to try and win votes that went to Heloísa Helena in the first round. Despite that, Lula’s second turn in office is marked by more neo-liberal policies and attacks on workers’ conditions.

The existence of PSOL in the day-to-day life of the social movements, and in the electoral process, made it evident for millions of workers and youth that the left in Brazil did not die with the loss of the PT to right-wing neo-liberal policies. This has been fundamental in the process of rebuiolidng of the social movements and the re-emergence of struggles against the government and its neo-liberal reforms.

André Ferrari, a member of Socialismo Revolucionário (SR – CWI in Brazil) and of PSOL’s National Board, addresses the June PSOL congress

Political and organisational retreat

In spite of the progress represented by the existence of Party for Socialism and Liberty, during the last years, the party went through a process of political and organisational retreat compared with the foundations upon which it was built.

The 2006 presidential campaign was marked by a clear lowering of PSOL’s political programme. Severe criticisms against Lula’s government were not followed by an alternative based on an anti-capitalist and socialist programme, but on a new version of Brazilian and Latin-American left reformism, which called for state intervention alongside the existence of the market economy. These kind of ideas were dressed up in the phraseology of so-called ’national development’ ideas.

In the same way, the election campaign was not consciously directed to promote trade union and working class reorganisation and resistance against new neo-liberal attacks.

The dilution of radical socialist ideas in Heloísa Helena’s electoral campaign was based on the fear of possibly losing votes if a more radical line was adopted. This was a clear shift compared to the original platform of PSOL.

Instead of developing a party of activists and working-class fighters, organised in party branches, and with a leadership controlled by the rank and file, PSOL ended up limiting its party organisation to a front of political tendencies and functioning on the basis of agreements between the leaderships of those tendencies.

A previous PSOL congress was supposed to take place before the election campaign but was cancelled after an agreement between the major tendencies in the leadership. The absence of the congress contributed to the political shift during the election campaign, to a more a ’moderate’ position, and to organisational dislocation of the party.

The congress dynamic

The first congress of PSOL ended up taking place after more than one year’s delay, and with a quite different party membership composition, compared to the early stages of the party.

About 730 delegates participated in this June’s PSOL congress (728 voted on the different written thesis/congress documents and 736 on the different slates for the party leadership). Out of a sum total sum of 22, 000 affiliated members, at most 8,000 participated in at least three meetings of party branches or aggregates since 7 April for pre-Congress discussions. Many of the party branches were artificially set up, only to elect delegates to the congress and participate in the dispute over the party leadership.

Unfortunately there was a dual approach towards attendance at the congress. The congress Credentials Commission adopted a very strict approach which lead to the ruling out of many left delegates, the PSOL leadership ended up dropping some criteria for approving delegates, like the payment of a ’congress fee’.

In spite of all this, the holding of the congress encouraged discussion amongst party members who had never participated in meetings before. Compared to the period of the collapse of many party branches, during and after the 2006 presidential election campaign, there is more internal life in PSOL now, albeit with regional variations.

The congress was marked by informality and disorganisation. There was no clear procedure on how to conduct the entire congress. The decision-making was random and followed the will of the majority of the Executive Committee and agreements between currents and tendencies.

The opening of the congress, on 7 June, began with a public rally in Complexo da Maré, which is a conurbation of favelas [poor shanty towns] in Rio de Janeiro. This area has a PSOL branch and some social movements.

The official political opening of the congress took place on the same evening, with the participation of 1,500 party members and also national and international visitors. Incredibly, none of the international guests were allowed to speak. The fundamental reason was the presence of Venezuelan trade union leaders, like Orlando Chirino, who have a critical stance towards Hugo Chávez’s government. The majority of the PSOL leadership, in a suppression of the right of democratic expression in the party, did not want these opinions to find any room during the congress.

The congress debates began very late, on the next day, with speeches made in favour of the different written thesis/congress documents from different party currents, groupings and leading party figures. The day after, there were discussions groups on proposed resolutions. The voting in the plenary session began late in the evening and tended to continue to late at night (the police turned up because of the loud noise caused by the plenary discussions!) Voting resumed on the last day.

Congress sees more ’moderate’ line

The principal feature of the Party for Socialism and Liberty (PSOL) congress was the consolidation of a more ’moderate’ political line. A majority supported that position.

Before the elections in 2006, there was a political struggle in PSOL between two wings; one was made up of currents that participated in the foundation of the party and the other was dominated by those that joined the party in 2005. This profoundly changed the process that led to the first party congress. The more moderate part of the party founders allied themselves with the moderates in the new currents, and together they formed a majority in PSOL.

The biggest current in the party today is the result of a fusion between MES (Socialist Left Movement), led by the MP, Luciana Genro, along with the PP (Popular Power), a political group formed from a social and political movement called MTL (Land, Work and Liberty Movement), headed by Martiniano Cavalcanti. The thesis presented by MES/PP, together with other smaller groupings, got the support of 36.3% of the delegates at the June congress.

Despite their Trotskyist origins, as one of the tendencies which traced its origins to parties led by Moreno in Latin America , the MES (Socialist Left Movement) went through a process of revising their old positions. The MES thesis presented to PSOL congress stated the electoral campaign of Heloísa Helena was completely correct. In contrast to the original aim of PSOL to build a social and political front based on the independent action of the working class, the MES talked about an "anti-neo-liberal front", with a ’broader character’, which is open to other sectors in society considered ’progressive’. In practice, the MES (Socialist Left Movement)/ PP (Popular Power) recognise the possibility of the Party for Socialism and Liberty (PSOL) making alliances with ’non-neo-liberal’ capitalist political parties. The MES/PP also holds a "Chavist" position; giving support to Hugo Chávez, president of Venezuela, but without making any criticisms of his polices. The MES (Socialist Left Movement)/ PP (Popular Power) current in PSOL want to reproduce a Chavist position in the Brazilian left of co-operating with all ’progressive .elements of the capitalist class’

The second biggest force at the PSOL congress was represented by the APS (Socialist Popular Action) tendency. The APS split from PT (Workers’ Party), the governing party, in September 2005, and was, at first, very reluctant to join PSOL, judging it to be "too sectarian". In the end, APS (Socialist Popular Action) opted to join PSOL. Now inside, APS (Socialist Popular Action) disputes the direction of PSOL and argue a position that, to a great extent, aims to turn PSOL into what the PT was like in "good old times", before the PT’s degeneration. But APS (Socialist Popular Action) states this without drawing all the necessary lessons of what led to the PT’s political degeneration.

The thesis defended by APS, together with some other smaller groupings, got the support of 26.6% of the PSOL congress delegates. The principal feature of the MES (Socialist Left Movement)/ PP (Popular Power) tendency was their call for a "democratic and popular" programme, a formulation typical of the PT (Workers’ Party). This is not a socialist programme, but a programme for reforms within the capitalist system, with general and vague aim of trying to build forces to struggle for a socialist perspective.

A leadership election slate, uniting MES (Socialist Left Movement)/ PP (Popular Power) tendency and APS (Socialist Popular Action), which is headed by Heloísa Helena, along with some regional groups and more moderate activists, like the ex-MP, Milton Temer, from Rio de Janeiro, got 63.7% of PSOL congress votes and now make up the majority in the leadership of the party.

The fact that Heloísa Helena headed this slate marked her separation from the party current she was previously a member of, the ’Enlace’. Enlace is a front of groupings that arose from dissidents formerly in the left of the PT (Workers’ Party). Enlace is lead by militants that split from the DS (Socialist Democracy) tendency inside the PT. The DS, in the past, organised members of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International and ended up divided, mainly because of their leadership’s unconditional adherence to Lula’s government, which included accepting government ministerial positions.

During the June PSOL congress, Enlace decided to act independently, with their own slate, despite their close political agreement with the more moderate wing of Party for Socialism and Liberty (PSOL). This was done mainly to prevent new splits amongst themselves. The Enlace slate got 10.6% of congress votes.

A left slate

From the beginning of the PSOL congress, there was a huge pressure to have general agreement between all currents, in the name of ’party unity’. In fact, this was an attempt by more moderate sections of the party leadership to avoid a real debate on the issues facing the party. The fact that the main left tendencies refused to make this accord and took their political differences to the congress, was a progressive feature of the PSOL congress. This helped to clarify the debates and meant it was clear to the ranks of the party there is a pole of resistance within the party to the ’moderate’ majority leadership.

A slate uniting the left of the party was formed and got 23.6% of the votes, coming second. The biggest components of the left slate was made up of the CST (Workers’ Socialist Current), which is a grouping around the ex-MP, Babá, which is Brazilian section of the UIT (International Unity of Workers), another component of Latin-American Trotskyism which traces its roots back to Moreno. The CST (Workers’ Socialist Current) got the support of 12.6% of the delegates.

Also on the left slate was C-SOL (Socialism and Liberty Colective), which has its origin in a rupture of the PSTU (the biggest group in Brazil coming from a Morenoite tradition). The C-SOL presented a thesis together with Plínio de Arruda Sampaio, who is a well known figure who came from the Catholic left and who has evolved in a more leftward direction. Practically, Plínio became an alternative to Heloísa Helena, and he conducted open polemics against the majority ’moderate’ camp in the PSOL. The Plínio and C-SOL thesis got 7% of PSOL congress votes.

However, the left slate would not have been formed without the clear and firm intervention of a political camp formed by currents that acted jointly in the congress, including Socialismo Revolucionário (SR), the Brazilian section of the CIT/CWI. Although a minority at the PSOL congress, representing little more than 4% of the delegates, this sector was decisive. It called for left unity and argued against the idea of a ’big accord’ at the top of PSOL, which would have lead to a single slate presented to congress, sweeping all the real political differences under the carpet.

This political camp, which Socialismo Revolucionário (SR) helped form, was composed of dissidents from MES (Socialist Left Movement) called AS (Socialist Alternative), and also former oppositions form MTL, called CLS (Socialist Liberty Collective), as well as SR (CWI) members. Working alongside those currents is another tendency called ARS (Revolutionary Socialist Alternative), a former grouping in the CST (Workers’ Socialist Current). Although the ARS did not take part in the congress slate, it is working with the perspective of forming a common front with the SR, AS and CLS, which will act together, including after the PSOL congress. Together, these currents are present in 10 Brazilian states, and will have representation on the National Board (the main national elected body) of PSOL.

Resolutions

The principal political resolution voted for at the June congress was a document that served as a basis for unity between the MES (Socialist Left Movement) and the APS (Socialist Popular Action) party tendencies. In general, the resolution did not develop positions previously adopted by PSOL. It talked about the failure of PT (Workers’ Party), denounced Lula’s PT government, and posed PSOL as a left opposition. The resolution made a positive evaluation of the PSOL, and defends the need for "revolution of the party’s organisation". It emphasizes the necessity for a party structure that is ’more organised’ and calls for deeper intervention in Brazilian society by PSOL, aiming mainly at the 2008 elections, which the resolution singles out as a key priority.

On Latin America, the resolution emphasised uncritically, the ’progressive role’, of the governments of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. It also defends explicitly the ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas) as an alternative for Latin-American integration., without pointing clearly to the perspective of a Socialist Federation of Latin America. However, the way ALBA is put forward by Chavez and other populist leaders in the region is for a "progressive" Latin American capitalism. The resolution argued that the socialist content of a struggle is not determined by the programme adopted.

Regarding the programme, the resolution claims to try to differentiate from opportunistic and ultra-left positions, but ends up proposing a moderate platform that it claims is anti-imperialist, anti-monopolist and anti-latifundio (against the big estate owners).

There are clear cases of political retreat in the points made by the resolution. For instance, on Brazil’s debt, the resolution only talks about "treating the domestic debt with new criteria". That is, it does not speak of the suspension of the payment of the domestic debt. It is this part of the debt that now plays a central role in the dependence of the financial capital. On political reforms, the resolution emphasises plebiscites and referendums, as a way of ’democratising’ the capitalist state.

Finally, the resolution calls for a new campaign to increase affiliations to PSOL, and directly links this to the 2008 elections, considered this "our priority next year". This position holds the risk of an even bigger artificial increase in party membership, as those interested in holding office in councils join PSOL with their supporters, in order to put themselves forward at local level.

2008 elections

Two issues are central for the future of Party for Socialism and Liberty (PSOL): its role in the current struggle against the neo-liberal reforms of Lula’s government, and its policies for the municipal elections in 2008. The decisions of congress on these themes were contradictory.

A very positive PSOL congress decision, passed with a small majority, was to approve the resolution that defends the unity of the more fighting sectors of the trade union and social movements. This resolution calls for the building of a new united trade union federation, as an alternative to the CUT (current union federation), which is an apparatus at the service of Lula’s neo-liberal government.

Included amongst the new left alternatives in the trade union movement is Conlutas, lead by the PSTU (Unified Socialist Workers’ Party), which also has big participation by PSOL activists. This is a more dynamic sector of the unions. Another alternative to CUT is the Intersindical, which is dominated by the more ’moderate’ sectors of PSOL and by independents.

A resolution that supported the fusion of Conlutas and Intersindical got majority support at the PSOL congress. A PSOL trade union conference, planned in the next period, will go deeper into this theme.

Against the position of the left of the party, the PSOL congress decided not have wider discussions about the 2008 elections and to call a special Electoral Conference, next year. The main objective of this line of argument is to look at the possibility of making alliances with pro-capitalist parties or parties that support Lula’s government in several cities. The moderate PSOL currents did not feel they could take this debate during the June congress and postponed the discussion.

The left of PSOL defended that the policy of alliance based on the Left Front set up in during the elections in 2006, which included, besides the Party for Socialism and Liberty (PSOL), the PSTU (Unified Socialist Workers’ Party) and the PCB (Brazilian Communist Party), parties with a base amongst the working class, and which are in opposition to Lula’s federal and state governments.

Another resolution that stirred feelings in congress was one defending the right to abortion. Heloísa Helena, who comes from the Christian left, argued against the resolution, and pushed for the issue not to be discussed. The resolution was finally presented to congress, and even with Heloísa Helena openly calling for a vote against, it was passed with a big majority.

This decision was important, not only because of the decisive character of the issue, which is a life and death question for millions of Brazilian women, but also because it sent a signal that there is room for democratic debate in PSOL and that the rank and file can defeat even ’big figures’ in the party. That would have been unthinkable in the PT (Workers’ Party) of Lula, even in the period when the party was relatively healthy.

Build a revolutionary left in PSOL

PSOL came out of its first congress with a political line that is more moderate compared with its political positions at its foundation. However, in spite of that, the congress showed there is a big space for the socialist left within the Party for Socialism and Liberty.

PSOL continues to be an important political reference for millions of workers, not only during elections, but also during mobilisations against the new neo-liberal ’reforms’ of Lula’s government, like the new pensions cuts.

The militant potential of thousands of activists in the social movements, who are sympathetic towards PSOL, needs to be channelled into the construction and strengthening of a socialist and revolutionary wing of the party. This is the only guarantee that the lessons of the failure of PT will be understood and that PSOL will not have the same final results.

Members of Socialismo Revolucionário (SR), the Brazilian section of CIT/CWI (Committee for a Workers’ International), viewed the congress as making positive steps in building such a left wing, despite the elements of political retreat that some of the adopted resolutions represented. The internal political debate will continue in the state congresses of PSOL, which will take place in the coming weeks throughout the country, but also during protests of workers, youth and poor against government policies.

Many united activities have been called by Conlutas, Intersindical, the Landless Movement (MST), and other organisations, over the coming months. One of the principal activities will be a popular plebiscite in September, organised by social movements, which aims to collect more than 10 million votes. In this plebiscite, people will be asked if they are in favour of the re-nationalisation of Companhia Vale do Rio Doce (one of the biggest mining companies in the world, which was privatised in the 1990’s), the non-payment of the domestic and foreign debt, the pension counter-reform, and, finally, if those participating are for or against the electricity fees charged by the privatised companies.

Together with the struggle for higher wages, which could lead to mass protests and strikes by the heavy battalions of the Brazilian working class (metal, petrol, chemical, banking and postal workers, civil servants etc), a huge march to Brasilia (the capital) is set for this coming October.

In this context, the traditional methods of workers’ struggle are beginning to be revived, and even the possibility of calling for a 24 hour general strike against the government does not seem so ’impossible’ any more.

In all these events, Socialismo Revolutionário will continue to strive to be a real part of the re-composition of the socialist left and social movements in Brazil.

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