Valerio Arcary: A revolutionary strategy to beat Bolsonaro

As Brazil’s coronavirus crisis looks set to spiral out of control – with over 6,000 detected infections and more than 200 deaths as of April 1 – far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has put hundreds of thousands of lives in danger with both his policies and personal example. As the Guardian editorialized on March 31, “Many governments will have to answer for their mistakes and complacency when the pandemic is over. Mr. Bolsonaro’s performance is in a league of its own. He has repeatedly dismissed coronavirus as ‘just a little flu’ or ‘a bit of a cold,’ and as a media trick or fantasy. Having finally acknowledged its reality, he has told people to ‘face it like fucking men, not kids. We’ll all die one day,’ and urged the country to “get back to normal” – as if such a thing were possible… The rightwing chief of the strongly pro-Bolsonaro state of Santa Catarina declared himself ‘flabbergasted’ by the president’s stance. There are reports of rumblings in the armed forces. Mr. Bolsonaro may not believe in physical distancing, but he is proving remarkably successful in isolating himself.”

But it’s not only the right and the military that have grown impatient with Bolsonaro’s antics. More than 1,000,000 people have signed a petition demanding his impeachment and anger is growing quickly among Brazil’s powerful working-class, lgtbq, feminist, youth, Afro-Brazilian, and indigenous movements and left-wing parties. It is too early to tell if Bolsonaro’s days are numbered, but if they are, getting rid of him is not enough. Here Valerio Arcary argues for a revolutionary strategy that will not only push Bolsonaro out of power, but will also strengthen the left and the working class in the process. Valerio Arcary is a leading member of Resistência, a revolutionary socialist current inside the Party for Socialism and Freedom (PSOL) in Brazil. Originally published by Forum in Brazil, translated and published by No Borders News as part of our ongoing international coronavirus coverage.

The seriousness of the crisis requires we reflect strategically on the future of the Bolsonaro government. Intense anxiety contaminates the lucidity necessary to discuss strategy and tactics. Anyone who thinks that Bolsonaro’s fall is imminent is jumping the gun. He is not finished yet.[1]Bolsonaro is politically and socially more fragile than ever, but he still has a lot of support.

However, if the worst predictions about the pandemic’s toll are confirmed, current reality may change, and change abruptly. Admitting for this possibility, and as an exercise in thinking through potential scenarios, there are different hypotheses with varying degrees of probability that we must assess. They are divided into two major fields. Either a transition “from above” – that is, a “cold” (purely institutional) transition – or a “Chilean” transition in which the government is pushed to the wall by mass mobilizations. Of course, life is always more complex than theoretical models because the strangest combinations are possible. But these are two different paths.

An institutional transition “from above,” or a “cold” transition, can take several forms: (a) a negotiated resignation; (b) a parliamentary solution where Bolsonaro is impeached and the vice president Hamilton Mourão (a retired general) assumes power; or, (c) the Supreme Court stepping in to revoke Bolsonaro’s mandate. It is not reasonable, at this point, to discuss which among them would be less or more likely because it is simply not possible to know. It would be an exercise in imagination.

The argument I am making here is that all the different hypotheses of “cold” transitions or those “from above” are very unlikely. Why? Because it is unlikely that the social and political forces that organized the coup against Workers Party President Dilma Rousseff’s government in 2016 will unite to push out Bolsonaro in 2020. The risks would be too high. Because they know that Bolsonaro will not go without resistance from below, and these political forces fear the popular masses on the streets much more than Bolsonaro in power. They fear the masses because their strategy is based on continuing to destroy social gains won by Brazilian workers.

Moreover, it would set a very serious institutional precedent for these forces – two governments removed before their terms ended back to back – while moving against Bolsonaro would risk political suicide in the eyes of their own bourgeois and middle-class social bases. Instead, they are betting on Bolsonaro being worn down through wear and tear in time to defeat him in the 2022 elections. But that should not be the strategy of the left.

The bourgeois forces that are, in part, today willing to toy with “oppositional demands” on Bolsonaro are unreliable, whether they be Rodrigo Maia (President of the Congress), or José Antonio Dias Toffoli (President of the Supreme Court), or São Paulo governor João Doria (who campaigned in 2018 as a Bolsonaro supporter), or Rio de Janeiro governor Wilson Witzel. In all likelihood, if we do not build popular mobilizations to overthrow him, Bolsonaro will be able to ride out the end of his term until 2022, and he will be a terrifying enemy in that case.

It follows that the most plausible strategy for the left should not be to pursue negotiations with the political center, represented by Maia, but rather an independent position that bets on the mobilization of the masses, as soon as it is possible to return to the streets. The key tactic today is the fight for an Emergency Plan that imposes a total quarantine to save lives, while powerfully denouncing Bolsonaro. But our strategy must be to develop the conditions for overthrowing Bolsonaro before 2022.

The struggle for Bolsonaro’s revolutionary overthrow is not only the best strategy, it is the most realistic, the most reasonable. Coming to this conclusion is urgent because there is a real danger that a part of the left will search out consultations with the state governors, the Supreme Court, and the bourgeois majority in Congress. This would not be just a waste of time. It would be to sow illusions. And before we arrive at a situation similar to that of Chile last year– when moderate forces choose to negotiate with conservative President Sebastián Piñera, while the left was not strong enough to overthrow him – it is best that we learn those lessons. After all, Piñera remains in power in the Palacio de La Moneda.

Here are the historical-theoretical foundations of the argument. Investigations into the period after the triumph of the first socialist revolution in 1917 reveal a disturbing characteristic: political revolutions were necessary to change the dominant regimes, including the overthrow of governments.

This was so owing to the extreme reactionary nature of the propertied classes at a time, when the system had already passed its historical phase of birth and growth and had started its decline. Most tyrannical regimes of the past hundred years, on every continent, have been defeated by political revolutions. Transitions “from above” were the exceptions. Of course, political revolutions are not the same as social revolutions, but they should not be reduced to the category of (merely) serious political crises.

In the 20th century, every triumphant revolution overthrew a dictatorship. Tsarism was an archaic and monstrous absolutist monarchy. All postwar socialist revolutions succeeded against tyrannical regimes: Yugoslavia under Nazi occupation, China under the Goumintang, Vietnam under French occupation, Batista’s Cuba.

But in the 21st century, political revolutions have already triumphed more than once against governments elected under democratic-liberal regimes, even if this is only true in countries on the periphery of the world economy. The 2001 overthrow of Fernando De la Rua in Argentina is the most emblematic. It proved that it was possible to make a political revolution against an elected neoliberal government in a time of crisis.

Controlled transitions from dictatorial regimes to democratic regimes have become much more difficult, either because of the seriousness of the crises or because of the entry of popular urban social subjects, especially the mobilization of the proletariat and the popular masses. Thus, we see a new historical pattern in the process of changing political regimes and we must recognize that the methods of revolution have become indispensable when it comes to overthrowing tyrannical governments.

Transitions from dictatorial regimes to democratic-liberal regimes without political ruptures provoked by the outbreak of gigantic mobilizations – such as the post-Francoist experience of the Pact of La Moncloa[2]in Spain in the late seventies, or the managed transition in Chile of from Pinochet’s dictatorship to elections[3]in the nineties – are still possible, however, they are rare. Almost always, transitions “from above” were a consequence of processes that led to ruptures that influenced neighboring states, threatening to jump borders – the 1974/75 Portuguese revolution (and its influence on the Spanish transition), and the situations in Peru and Argentina, in the late 1980s (and their influence on the Chilean transition). In other words, ruling classes may preventively adapt their political regime in order to head off the danger of an imminent revolutionary situation.

From the tsar’s dictatorship in 1917 to the Baby Doc Duvalier regime in Haiti, through military dictatorships in Brazil and Argentina in the 1980s, or Marcos’s Philippines in 1986[4]and Suharto’s Indonesia in 1998,[5]we have witnessed countless mass mobilizations that brought down dictatorships with millions of people on the streets.

In the historical period before the October revolution, the pattern was different: political regimes were transformed gradually and predominantly took the form of transitions “from above,” the so-called Prussian road in Germany (studied by Lenin), or the passive revolution in Italy (observed by Gramsci).

The fact that the national bourgeoisies of very different sorts have had increasing difficulties in articulating secure and controlled transitions within the institutions of the previous regime or, in other words, the fact that democratic or “February” revolutions are necessary, is not a secondary theme in historical interpretation.

The inertia of dictatorships that have endured for decades deserves to be examined as one of the characteristics that marks the opening of a revolutionary epoch, an epoch of wars and revolutions as Lenin put it. That the defense of capitalism, after Russian October, led the bourgeoisie across the globe to resort to abominable dictatorial regimes, capable of using the most brutal and barbaric repression, or even the methods of civil war, because they felt threatened by the danger of new social revolutions in countless countries and on all continents, cannot fail to be considered when assessing the nature of our historical era.

In a word, Bolsonaro will have to be overthrown.

[1]For four more important reasons: (a) because governments do not just fall owing to their mistakes, they have to be overturned, that is, displacements of governments by “cold” transitions, “from above” in negotiated transitions, is a very rare outcome and exceptional; (b) because although the ruling class is divided into two blocks in the face of the pandemic, pressure to hold on to governmental power still prevails in the form of an agreement with governors and mayors; (c) because the Bolsonaro government maintains an important social base in the middle class, and even popular sectors, despite growing wear and tear; (d) because the impact of accumulated defeats on the shoulders of the working class still weighs heavily, despite a greater willingness to fight in the youth.

[2]The Pact de la Moncloa was signed on October 25, 1977, two years after the death of Francisco Franco, in a situation of serious economic and social crisis that threatened to spill over into a political crisis of domination after forty years of dictatorship. It guaranteed that the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party of Felipe Gonzáles and the Spanish Communist Party of Santiago Carrillo both backed the controlled transition away from a dictatorial regime that was dying, but preserving the Bourbon monarchy and leaving the repressive apparatus of the Armed Forces intact. The ruling class opted for this pact because the working class was experiencing the most important rise in struggle since the end of the civil war of 1936-39. 

Between January 1976 and the elections of June 15, 1977, more than 7 million workers carried out strikes, that is, a total of 88 percent of the wage workers of the time, and the strikes displayed a high level of combativeness. In order to quell the wave of struggles that threatened the post-Franco democratic regime, which had not yet consolidated, the Adolfo Suárez government proposed a Social Pact with the workers’ representative parties.

[3]In 1973, General Augusto Pinochet of the Chilean army called his troops out of the barracks to overthrow the Popular Front government led by Salvador Allende. He ruled Chile between 1973 and 1990, at the head of one of the most ferocious dictatorships of the 20th century. After the negotiated end of his dictatorship, he was declared a lifelong senator in his country. This position was created exclusively for him, ensuring his political immunity. 

[4]Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda “reigned” in the Philippines for more than 20 years, from 1964 to 1986, imposing, in one of the most densely populated peasant countries in the world, a corrupt dictatorship with the full complicity of the United States, until they were overthrown by a people enraged by their own poverty that contrasted with the ruling couple’s decadent lifestyle.

[5]On September 30, 1965, Suharto orchestrated a coup, supported by the CIA, which was accompanied by the massacre of hundreds of thousands of communists. The Indonesian bourgeoisie resorted to genocide to preserve its political dominance. Suharto remained in power for three long decades, and only fell after countless mass mobilizations.

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