Brazil: An explosive brew in land of contrasts

Brazil is vast, a continent within a continent, with a land mass equal to the USA. It is a country of stunning contrasts. The sheer beauty of the Amazon exists alongside the grim poverty which is palpable everywhere, and which sharply contrasts with the urban behemoth of São Paulo.

During October Peter Taaffe visited Brazil on behalf of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI – which the Socialist Party in England and Wales is part of) for discussions with Marxists and socialists, along with Linda Taaffe, who visited schools and also discussed with teacher union activists in the struggle. This is their impression of Brazil’s social and political situation.

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An explosive brew in land of contrasts

This massive, grim conurbation has a skyline similar to Manhattan, of giant skyscrapers within whose shadows one witnesses the poor ‘street children’ and the ‘roofless ones’ who habitually sleep on the streets. Everywhere you turn, Brazil reflects starkly the features of Trotsky’s idea of ‘combined and uneven development’ in the neo-colonial world. The latest word in technique sits alongside backward, barbaric economic and social conditions.

This is reflected, particularly, in the infrastructure. Modern airports exist, a seemingly developed air industry as well, and yet there are virtually no railways. British imperialism at least bequeathed a railway system to the Indian subcontinent which somehow continues to ‘function’ after British imperialism was forced out in 1948.

Capitalism and imperialism left no such legacy for Brazil. Confronted with the rise of the motor car industry, buttressed by foreign investment, the Brazilian capitalist elite embraced this enthusiastically. Therefore roads were ‘in’, as was the air industry, but railways were redundant!

Economic growth

The result is the lopsided character of Brazilian capitalism today. For instance, president Lula, an ex-workers’ leader, is lionised for ‘economic growth’. In Latin America as a whole, an average annual growth rate of 5% has been chalked up since 2004.

It is claimed that Brazil is heading above 5% this year, more than double the past two decades’ average growth. But active workers, particularly those in Socialismo Revolucionário (SR), the Brazilian section of the CWI, point out that this is exaggerated, with real growth 1% or 2% lower than this.

Moreover, this is largely in the bosses’ pockets – the reality for the masses is vastly different. Symptomatic of the situation is the barbaric conditions in the favelas, which we saw in a particularly successful visit to Rio.

There are few places on earth in which the contrast is greater than between the breathtaking grandeur of Rio – as also with Belem in Amazonia that we visited – and the desperation of the poor inhabitants.

Nothing quite prepares you for seeing for the first time the well-known favela of Rocinha perched on a hill, right next to the famous Ipanema beach. Moreover, these urban slums sit cheek by jowl alongside the gated communities of the super-rich.

There is a ‘civil war’ – which we witnessed on TV – between the inhabitants of the favelas and Rio’s police, a brutal armed wing of the Brazilian capitalist state. Workers informed us that in one year, the Rio police have shot and killed 900 people – predominantly black men and young people from the favelas.

Many of them are totally innocent of the charge of ‘drug trafficking’, which is used to justify this state terror. In any case, as the US civil rights campaigner Jesse Jackson correctly argues, when jobs disappear in a neighbourhood, in come the drugs and following them the guns.

Rich and poor

The sense of neglect which stirs class hatred is compounded when the poor live alongside smartly painted blocks occupied by the rich, surrounded by high walls and electrified fences. Lula’s government accepts the so-called ‘Washington consensus’, the programme of neo-liberalism, privatisation, precarious jobs instead of real jobs, the general squeezing of living standards and the undermining of the rights of the working class.

Lula is conducting an offensive against the past gains of the Brazilian working class, particularly the civil service workers, as well as students and education in general.

This sounds familiar to British workers. What is different to Britain at this stage, however, is the organised resistance which is beginning from below. We witnessed this when visiting the spectacular ‘modernistic’ national capital, Brasília, which did not exist before 1960 and now has a population of over two million.

In the spectacular surroundings of buildings designed by famous left/communist architect, Oscar Niemeyer, upwards of 20,000 workers, in a brilliant, colourful demonstration, marched to the pensions ministry and the Brazilian national assembly and senate. The demonstration was organised mainly by a new trade union centre, Conlutas (Coordenação Nacional de Lutas – National Coordination of Struggle).

This organisation has developed rapidly as a rank-and-file revolt against the collaboration of the Brazilian equivalent of the British TUC, the CUT (Central Única dos Trabalhadores), with the Lula government’s anti-working class policies. The initiative for this organisation was taken by the largest Trotskyist organisation in Brazil, the PSTU (Partido Socialista dos Trabalhadores Unificado), which hails from the ‘Morenoite’ movement which has strong historical antecedents and roots in Latin America.

This organisation adopted a sectarian position in its relations to other left organisations in the past. It is now, however, adopting a more open attitude, at least on the trade union front. This has led to the collaboration of some of the most militant workers with Conlutas. It is also hoped it will collaborate and perhaps unify with one of the other rank-and-file movements, ‘Intersindical’.

There are perhaps some lessons here for Britain. Like the CUT, the British TUC, under the stewardship of one of the most conservative leaderships in its history seems determined to put a brake on all the movements in defence of working-class rights and conditions. This is in the service of their further collaboration with Gordon Brown’s New Labour government.

The consolidation of big union blocs, like Unite, seeks to further prop up New Labour and, conversely, comes down heavily on militant trade unions and trade unionism. Therefore a Brazilian-type situation could develop within the unions in Britain. For instance, if the RMT, the PCS and FBU are forced into a straitjacket by the bureaucratic apparatus of these unions, or even forced out of the TUC, a new trade union centre could also develop in Britain.

A ‘scissors’ now exists between the bitter class hatred from below, among working-class people and trade unionists, and the inertia, conservatism and outright sabotage sometimes of the right-wing trade union leaders – as with the Gate Gourmet and other workers, betrayed by the Transport and General Workers’ Union leaders – which could result in a schism.

The unity of the working class is vital, but not if it results in a ‘graveyard’ of bureaucratic leaderships stifling the voice and actions of the working class.

New party

This is as true on the political plane as in industrial conflicts. Brazil has thrown up a new mass party of the working class, P-SOL (Partido Socialismo e Liberdade). P-SOL was the result of a reflex action of workers at Lula’s betrayal of the very base, the civil servants in particular, which raised him to power on its shoulders.

The new party was founded in June 2004. It was led by MPs, such as the ex-senator Heloísa Helena, who along with other MPs, like Baba and Luciana Genro, was expelled from the PT (Partido dos Trabalhadores) after voting against attacks on the pension system.

Lula, unlike Blair, who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and was a ‘capitalist entrist’ in the Labour Party, came from the very depths of the Brazilian working class of São Paulo. Hence the bitter feelings towards his neo-liberal policies. This in turn led to P-SOL’s creation. Most of those who set up P-SOL came out of the PT and were from a Trotskyist background. The PT has subsequently suffered defections because of its degeneration, reflected in recent corruption scandals.

At its conference in Brasília in 2004, P-SOL’s founding declaration was markedly socialist and was peppered with phrases about ‘revolution’. Its programme was explicitly anti-capitalist and pro-socialist. It rapidly became an alternative voice, and a point of reference for the Brazilian working class’ most militant sections. Moreover, it had a very democratic internal regime, with the right of tendencies to exist.

In the 2006 presidential election, the party’s candidate for president, Heloísa Helena, got almost seven million votes as a left alternative to Lula’s ‘traditional left’ which was in reality, a capitalist ‘alternative’. This spectacular success for a very young party was a vindication of those, like Socialismo Revolucionário and the CWI, who consistently argued for a new mass party. SR was one of the pioneers of P-SOL.

Lula did not manage to get elected in the first round because of the votes that went to Heloísa Helena. Although P-SOL did not advocate this, most of the votes of Heloísa Helena were cast in the second round in opposition to the anti-Lula candidate which guaranteed Lula coming to power for a second term.

But while Heloísa Helena made criticisms of Lula’s government during the election, this was not underpinned by a clear anti-capitalist and socialist programme. Instead, the ideas of left reformism became a centrepiece of Heloísa Helena’s campaign. This was based on the fear of losing votes which the socialist left of P-SOL correctly interpreted as a concession to ‘electoralism’ at the expense of developing a party which was active and interventionist in the class struggle.

At the same time, refugees from the PT – repelled by Lula’s further drift towards the right – entered the ranks of P-SOL. They helped to shift P-SOL’s leadership towards the right. This in turn provoked a left opposition made up of different organisations which got just under one quarter of the vote at the 2007 congress of P-SOL.

Socialismo Revolucionário played a key role in the formation of this left, which is struggling against the move towards the right reflected, among other things, in the opposition to abortion, expressed at the 2006 conference, by Heloísa Helena who comes from a left Catholic background.

This is a life and death question for Brazilian women, particularly the working class and poor, who are butchered and often killed in backstreet abortions. This issue was debated openly and the P-SOL conference accepted the right of Brazilian women ‘to choose’. Even when Heloísa Helena spoke against, it was passed by an overwhelming majority.

Positive gains

These developments show the positive advantages of a new mass workers’ party. There has been a huge recession in socialist consciousness following the collapse of Stalinism and the ideological offensive by the capitalists which followed this.

This means that new mass parties are a stage which the working class must pass through in the transition to a rounded-out socialist consciousness and a radical revolutionary programme that would go with this.

But Brazil and the development of P-SOL underlines that a new mass workers’ party is not an end in itself. It is a means of gathering together the left and fighting elements of the working class, and to offer a point of reference in struggle. At the same time, it can sometimes be a check on the capitalists and their parties’ unbridled attacks on working-class people.

This is evident in Brazil where Lula, while he sets about doing Brazilian big business’ dirty work, is nevertheless forced to look over his shoulder and sometimes to accommodate to pressure from P-SOL. This was clear in the 2006 election when, in the second round, in order to court the votes of those who had voted for Heloísa Helena, he was compelled to adopt a more radical stance, at least in words.

The same is true in Germany now where the existence of the Left Party, with all its inadequacies, nevertheless has compelled the social democratic leaders, who have rapidly lost members, to seek to water down a few of the ‘reforms’ – read attacks, on living standards – which have been undertaken by the coalition between them and the Christian Democrats.

But P-SOL also shows that continued success, growth in influence and number is not automatically guaranteed, if a new party shifts towards the right as P-SOL has done recently. To prevent P-SOL succumbing further to the huge pressure of capitalism on such a new formation, a strong Marxist, revolutionary spine is required.

The fate of Rifondazione (RC) in Italy also bears this out. The first of the ‘new mass workers parties’ in the early 1990s it has now shifted towards the right under the leadership of Bertinotti, and threatens to become a liberal capitalist party. Most of the different Marxist and Trotskyist organisations within the RC either accommodated themselves to the Bertinotti leadership or adopted an ultra-left position, or ended up merely as abstract, uninfluential commentators.

In contrast, the organised left opposition to this rightward movement is strong within P-SOL, not least because of the role played by the Brazilian supporters of the CWI. They are in a united front of organisations, a ‘bloc of four’ within P-SOL. Included in this is the organisation ARS (Alternativa Revolucionário Socialista – Revolutionary Socialist Alternative). These comrades are concentrated largely in Belem where we had fruitful discussions over three days.

Another organisation in São Paulo is the CLS (Socialist Liberty Collective) made up of workers with a history of struggle both in São Paulo and Minas Girais, where the CLS has an important base in the social movements, particularly the landless movement and among print workers. It is hoped the ‘bloc of four’ will be consolidated in a series of meetings and public activities in December and could act as a pole of attraction to other wider dissident groups within P-SOL.


At the same time there is a process of political recomposition, regroupment of the left, particularly the Marxist left, involving some of these organisations and others into a larger, more coherent force. With the participation of some of these organisations in SR’s very successful congress – attended by more than 50 delegates and visitors in October – the prospect of building a numerically stronger and far more influential Marxist organisation is posed.

Its task will not be restricted purely to P-SOL which is currently embracing a minority of the working class, but will also face up to the powerful industrial movements which could take place under the whip of Lula’s neo-liberal attacks. His government, emulating those like Sarkozy and other governments in Europe, has sought through new proposals to attack trade union rights.

This takes the form of using financial ‘incentives’ for the creation of new ‘acceptable’ trade union centres. We were informed that there are 18,000 different trade unions in Brazil! Lula’s intention, it seems, is to unify these by using ‘financial incentives’, of course, under the influence and control of the government or its representatives.

But the development of Conlutas shows the resistance both to this and Lula’s capitalist programme. So also does the opposition to the university ‘reform’, which led to the occupation of a number of universities in which SR members play a role.

Brazil, rather than being the showcase for capitalism in Latin America, as its advocates in the western capitalist press portray it, will be faced with big shocks in the next period. Its much vaunted growth rate is based largely on the upward spiral of world commodity prices. Brazil has benefited from a big increase in exports of beef, soya and even the discovery of substantial oil deposits recently.

But this export success was underpinned by the world economic boom of the last period which will now judder to a halt. This will cut the market for commodities at the same time as Brazil is leaking jobs to China and elsewhere, as industry such as textiles, footwear and metalworking goes to the wall. One businessman complained: “If this goes on, we are going to see the deindustrialisation of Brazil.”

The Brazilian currency, the real, has risen recently, thereby undermining the ability of manufacturing companies to compete on world markets. Whereas they once exported to East Asia, Brazilian capitalism is “now building factories there instead”. Add into this already explosive brew the development of P-SOL, as well as Conlutas, and Brazil is set for an explosive social situation, in which the ideas of socialism, Marxism and particularly Trotskyism will grow.

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December 2007