Ancient Dilemma of the Left: The Case of Brazil

Commentary No. 277, Mar. 15, 2010

On the occasion of the celebration of the 30th anniversary of the creation of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT, the Workers’ Party) in Brazil, the principal independent left newspaper, Brasil de Fato, published interviews with four leading left intellectuals in Brazil. All four were once active in the PT, indeed among its founders. Three of them have withdrawn from the PT – the historian Mauro Iasi to join the Partido Comunista Brasileiro (PCB); the sociologist Francisco de Oliveira to join the Partido Socialismo e Liberdade (PSOL); and the historian Rudá Ricci to be an independent leftist. The fourth, the historian Valter Poner, remains in the PT as a leading figure in its left faction.

They came up with strikingly different analyses of what Ricci calls “the ancient dilemma of the Brazilian left–how to be both popular and on the left.” But of course this has been the dilemma of the left throughout the world, and remains so up to now.

Brazil is an interesting place to analyze this dilemma and how it plays out. It is a country with a long and active political tradition, and today enjoys very much a multi-party situation. Brazil is also a country whose national economic sitution has much improved in recent years, particularly in the last decade. And Brazil is a country which has been asserting much political leadership in Latin America. So the question becomes how do we measure the “popularity” of a party and how do we assess its left credentials?

The interviewer of Brasil de Fato opened his interviews by noting both that Pres. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (“Lula”) is a charismatic figure who is the most popular president since the redemocratization of the country and that the PT over its history has increased its support among the poorest strata of the population. In order for the PT to become more popular, he asserted, “it had to make concessions to pragmatism.”

How did the four intellectuals react to this premise? For Ricci, “Lulism” has become more important than the party, which inverts the original concept of the PT. The PT has become, he says, “Americanized.” It is today simply an electoral machine. The left finds it difficult to be popular because of its “roots in European theorizing.” Popular culture, he says, is “complex and conservative,” and Lula dialogues with this popular culture. The PT is statist and developmentalist, hence conservative and pragmatic. So the problem is to return to the PT’s original “utopia of a democratic left, without becoming elitist.”

For Iasi, the PT has become one of two principal parties of Brazil, a party of the center-left with a “petty-bourgeois” program. The price it paid for the size of its support was the “abandonment of the principles and political objectives that were originally there.” “Lulism” or “populism” is a mode of getting the masses to agree to policies that are not in their interest.

For Oliveira, the PT which started out with a base in the workers, liberation theology, and democratization movements has simply become part of the “general marmalade” of the Brazilian party system. A socialist perspective is not one based on the “poor” but on a class analysis. As for the PT’s program of nationalization (estatizaçao), this is 100 years out of date, part of the “infantile malady of statism.” It’s a program to strengthen Brazilian industries and has nothing to do with the left or socialism.

Poner sees the situation quite differently. He agrees that at first the Lula government was social-liberal in orientation. But after 2005, the party turned leftwards. Yes, he says, the party is developmentalist. But there are two varieties of developmentalists – conservative and democratic-popular. With the crisis of capitalism, “socialism has returned to the debate.”

What is striking about the three critical analyses is the fear of “populism.” What is striking about all four analyses is the absence of any discussion of geopolitics.

Just a few days after the article in Brasil da Fato, Fidel Castro published one of his regular “Reflections” in La Jornada in Mexico City. Lula had just been to visit with Castro. Castro said he has known Lula for 30 years, that is, since the creation of the PT. Given Cuba’s history and difficulties over the last 50 years, Castro said that what was “transcendentally important for us” was the recent meeting in Cancún where it was decided to create a Community of Latin American and Caribbean States which included Cuba and excluded the United States and Canada. This meeting was in large measure an achievement of Lula.

Castro went on to underline “the importance and symbolism” of this last visit by Lula before he ceases to be president of Brazil. Castro remembered his “emotional meeting with Lula, his wife and his children” in their simple dwelling in the 1980’s and commended Lula’s “pleasure in the struggle which he conducted with irreproachable modesty.” No critique of Lulism here.

Everything that the Brazilian left intellectuals criticized, Castro commended – the technological development of Brazil, the growth of the GDP, becoming one of the ten largest economies of the world. Even on the question of ethanol production, to which Castro says he is opposed, he did not blame Lula. “I understand perfectly that Brazil had no other alternative, faced with the disloyal competition and the subsidies of the United States and Europe, than increasing its ethanol production.”

Castro ends on this note: “One thing is indisputable: The metallurgical worker has converted himself into a distinguished and prestigious statesman whose voice is heard with respect in international meetings.”

How could Brazilian left intellectuals and Castro draw such different pictures of Lula? It is clear that they were looking at two entirely different things. The Brazilian left intellectuals were looking primarily at the internal life of Brazil and bemoaning the fact that Lula was nothing but at best a left-of-center pragmatist. Castro was looking primarily at Brazil’s and Lula’s geopolitical role, which he sees as one undermining the primary enemy, United States imperialism.

Which priority then for left politicians? This is not merely a Brazilian question. It is a question that can be asked almost everywhere, taking into account of course the history and the geopolitical status of the country in question.