In the last week, far-right Brazilian President has forced out his Ministers of Health and Justice, provoking a showdown between his own neo-fascist followers and the political and economic elite. Meanwhile, as of April 25, Brazil is reporting 54,043 coronavirus infections and 3,704 Covid-19 deaths, figures that grossly underrepresent the real toll. As Bolsonaro himself hints at a coup and rumors are running wild, actions (albeit confined by social distancing) have been announced by Brazil’s mass unions for May Day. Brazil may well see the world’s first coronavirus coup or impeachment and assessing the likelihood of various outcomes and their impacts on the pandemic will provide critical lessons for the international left.
Valerio Arcary is a leading member of Resistência, a revolutionary socialist current inside the Party for Socialism and Freedom (PSOL) in Brazil. Translated and published by No Borders News as part of our ongoing international coronavirus coverage.
1. The confirmation of Justice Minister Sergio Moro’s resignation is yet another sign that “Fora Bolsonaro” (Bolsonaro Out!) strikes the right tone as a tactic to harden up the left’s role in opposition to President Jair Bolsonaro. The Party for Socialism and Freedom (PSOL), and now, the Workers Party (PT) have decided, correctly, to promote this slogan, thus transforming it into an agitational demand. The question of whether or not to embrace this slogan generated a sharp controversy on the Brazilian left. Some believe it is premature, others consider it to be weeks or months late. These are two understandable positions. Whenever there is a turn in the political situation, it is reasonable to expect that there will be some disagreement over the timing of different tactics. The appreciation of timing, rhythms, moments, and cadences is of crucial importance in defining what to do. This text argues that it was not correct to promote Fora Bolsonaro before the impact of the pandemic– which led to a sharp change in the political situation – but that it would be a mistake not to do so at this time.
2. Fora Bolsonaro became useful because the political conjuncture changed. The pandemic’s shock provided the key factor in this shift in the political balance of forces. Bolsonaro’s stance against the quarantine triggered a division in the ruling class that weakened the government. An overwhelming majority of governors disagreed with Bolsonaro’s orientation for so-called vertical isolation. The fracture even reached into the Ministry of Health, resulted in Luiz Mandetta’s resignation. The Supreme Court (STF) took a stand in favor of the governors and mayors who were opposing the president. Bolsonaro’s relative institutional isolation ensued. This change in the superstructure of society was quickly reflected in a shift in sectors of the middle classes, and the consolidation of a majority in the working class against the government. Bolsonaro launched an immediate counteroffensive. He climbed into the back of a truck at a rally of his supporters and threatened a coup, strengthened the presence of the military nucleus in government ministries, and approved the integration of the Centrão (a bloc of centrist parliamentary parties) into his government. But now he has lost the support of Rodrigo Maia, the President of the Chamber of Deputies representing the center-right Democrats party. The social relationship of forces, however, remains unfavorable for workers.
3. No fraction of the ruling class, for the time being, supports the idea of an impeachment. So, for the moment, it’s not going to happen. Of course, everything may change, and do so dramatically, in a few weeks as we witness one thousand Covid-19 deaths a day. There are several institutional paths to overthrowing Bolsonaro, but all are very unlikely as the pandemic is only just beginning to peak. Transforming the slogan Fora Bolsonaro into a concrete impeachment proposal runs through the opposition parties reaching an agreement among themselves. This implies the adoption of legitimate joint action and a correct parliamentary tactic, but nothing more than this. Serving an impeachment petition will act as a demand placed on Maia. It is the equivalent of saying that in order to save lives, Bolsonaro must be stopped. This will function as political agitation.
4. However, the demand Down with the Government is not some eleventh hidden Commandment. No one should be considered more revolutionary because he or she started defending Fora Bolsonaro a few weeks or months before the others, especially because when the conditions had not yet been met to effectively mobilize for overthrowing the government. And the conditions do not yet exist at this moment in the conjuncture. No government in the world is ever overthrown by the left without monumental, extraordinary, colossal popular mobilizations. And we are not even able to attempt such a thing at this time. Additionally, to win, the left must have a clearly-defined project. Let us learn from what happened in Chile last fall. Conservative President Sebastián Piñera trembled, but did not fall.
5. While Down with the Government is an agitational slogan, but not yet a call to action, the criterion for its use must be assessed, tested, and calibrated to determine whether or not it plays a positive role in the accumulation of forces. That is, whether or not it helps to unify a mass base in the working class and the youth. As long as we are limited by the quarantine’s conditions of confinement, the left cannot rely on our social shock force taking to the street actions. Breaking the quarantine would be a serious mistake. What we can do is agitate and popularize this slogan on social media. We need patience and firmness.
6. In the anarchist tradition, Down with the Government is a permanent mantra. As the well-known Spanish aphorism goes, “There is a government and I am against it.” And this is usually accompanied promoting a general strike. This point of view is based on two premises. The first is that every government must be overthrown because workers are being attacked and suffering under capitalism. An odious government deserves to be hated, and it has to be overthrown. The second is that it does not matter whether or not there is a majority in the working class to accomplish this. It is enough that there is a vanguard that has the foresight and determination, the consciousness and inclination to act.
7. In the Marxist tradition, there is a political method for defining whether or not to initiate a campaign to attempt to displace a government. This criterion was established during the most successful revolutionary experience in a society with some degree of urbanization and industrialization, that is, the Russian Revolution of 1917. In Lenin’s April Theses, he did not propose the slogan “Down with the Provisional Government.” Rather, Lenin defended placing demands on the moderate socialist leader of the liberal Provisional Government Alexander Kerensky, including “Land, Bread and Peace” and “Down with the Ten Capitalist Ministers, All Power to the Soviets.” We should remember that the soviets (mass assemblies of democratically-elected workers, soldiers, sailors, and peasants) had a Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionary majority of moderates up until September. The Bolsheviks only raised the slogan “Down with Kerensky” after the defeat of reactionary General Lavr Kornilov’s coup attempt in late August after which the Bolsheviks attained a majority in the Petrograd and Moscow soviets. The lesson that follows is that if the majority is not against the government, it is wrong to demand Down with the Government because this slogan divides, confuses, and generates mistrust within the working class. Socialist policy must be supported by a majority of the working class to be put into practice.
8. The success of a campaign organized around an action program to “Save lives, prevent layoffs, strengthen the Unified Health System (SUS), tax the rich, and Fora Bolsonaro” will depend on the construction of a Left United Front. Therefore, it must be independent of parties that rely on fractions of the capitalist class. The call for a unified May Day by union federations and centers via social media was a positive initiative. But the invitations extended to the Democrats’ Maia and former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso (FHC) of the neoliberal Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB), among other representatives of fractions of the bourgeoisie in conflict with Bolsonaro, were very serious mistakes. Because May Day is a day when workers’ organizations must defend their own interests. Is Maia in favor of banning layoffs? Is FHC is in favor of strengthening the SUS? Are they in favor of taxing the rich?
9. We should not organize a front that is so broad as to include even FHC and Maia, unless, hypothetically, its aims are reduced to Fora Bolsonaro in defense of democracy. Even then, this would only be possible if we consider the potential for a “cold” impeachment, that is, a purely legalistic and procedural process. Such an outcome would represent a limited evolution, however progressive, because Bolsonaro is a neo-fascist and his fall would mean a democratic victory. However, it would be a very partial one if it simply opens the way for Vice President Hamilton Mourão (a military general) to assume office in his place. But a parliamentary tactic is not the same as a political strategy. In reality, it will be impossible to overthrow Bolsonaro, even if the left accepted this very limited program, without mass mobilizations. And it is not possible to mobilize the popular masses in defense of “All power to Congress.” Only sectors of the middle classes could respond to this call.
10. The only way to change the balance of forces is the mobilization of workers and youth. And historical experience indicates that the social base of the left will only come to life, will only accumulate the necessary fury and indignation, through a process of facing the destructive impact of this pandemic with its many thousands of deaths, and the escalating economic crisis with its many millions of unemployed. Nothing can replace the practical experience of millions confronting the impending catastrophe. At the same time, tragedies only lead to the building of social strength if that anger and indignation can be galvanized politically by the left with a program that defends its concrete interests.