Valerio Arcary: Assessing 40 years of the Brazilian Workers Party

Valerio Arcary is the author of several books including O Martelo de História (History’s Hammer) and a leader in the Resistência current of the Party for Socialism and Freedom in Brazil. This article was originally published in Jacobin América Latina.


There are those who believe that a party is defined, essentially, by its political line: be it of the left, right ,or center, or some intermediate variant. This criterion is insufficient and naive. Political vocabulary oscillates and fluctuates according to transformations in social and political power relations. When the political situation is reactionary, everything shifts to the right. When the situation is revolutionary, everything shifts to the left. But political vocabulary is often hypocritical.

In the eighties, rising working-class and popular struggles against the military dictatorship stood out, growing enormously after the Direction Elections Now (Diretas Já) campaign in 1984. As the pendulum of social forces swung in favor of the workers, the main representatives of the São Paulo bourgeoisie adopted the label social democracy as their own. Of course, this was name by which those socialist parties who had inherited the Second International’s traditions and claimed a base in the working class (such as the British Labour Party) were known. The Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) was never social democratic in this sense. It was always a liberal bourgeois party.

In 2015-2016, the pendulum of the social forces swung in a reactionary direction. And although Bolsonaro heads a neo-fascist government comprised of a far-right coalition, he is portrayed by the media as if he were merely a conservative. Meanwhile, the right-wing political bloc (which won last fall’s municipal elections) conglomerating around the PSDB, the Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB), and the Democrats (DEM) is presented as if it hailed from the center.

Some argue that a party is defined solely by its ideology. This is also a mistake. In the strictest sense, it must be said that the vast majority of parties in Brazil have no ideology; they are simply electoral labels that promote particular interests. 

In reality, several criteria must be employed to accurately analyze political parties. Parties can be usefully judged by the program they propose to transform society. Yet they can also be analyzed by (a) the history of their political lines and struggles, especially internal ones; (b) the difference between the positions they take when they are in opposition and when they approach power; (c) the values and ideas that inspire their programs; (d) the social composition of their members, activists, and supporters, or that of their electorate and leadership; (e) the operation of their internal regimes; (f) their methods of financing; and, (g) their international relations. All these criteria are valid and significant, and the construction of an analytical synthesis requires evaluating these factors over time, taking into account their evolutionary dynamics.

For those who use Marxism as a method of analysis, all these elements are significant. However, the one unavoidable element is a clear class characterization even as Marxist analysis involves studying contradictions at different levels of abstraction, paying attention to all mediations.

Turning to the PT, despite some similarities, it was never a European-type social democratic party. For instance, it maintained relations with the East German Communist Party until 1989, even if it never identified with the apparatus of the parties aligned with the USSR. It established close relations with the Cuban Communist Party, with the Sandinistas of Nicaragua (FSLN), with the Farabundo Martí Front in El Salvador (FMLN), with the Chávez government in Venezuela, and, during the 1990s, it participated in the São Paulo Forum. Yet, it was never a party with revolutionary impetus. 

So, what is the PT? Simply put, the PT is the largest party that the Brazilian working class has ever built. It was born in the 1980s, reached its heyday at the beginning of the new millennium, and began a slow, but uninterrupted, decline from 2013 on.

The PT is a special type of left party. It is an electoral and reformist party, but it does not maintain organic relations with the bourgeoisie. It is not electoral simply because it participates in elections. It is electoral because, for many decades, its survival has depended on parliamentary mandates and public financing, and not on its militants and activists. It is not reformist because it fights for reforms. It is reformist because it advocates the regulation of capitalism and, therefore, pursues class collaboration. But the PT’s electoral condition and reformist policies do not make the PT a bourgeois party. A party is bourgeois when it maintains structural relations with some fraction of the capitalists. In this sense, for example, the PT is different from Argentine Peronism.

Acknowledging the class nature of a party is not to say that its politics represent the interests of a particular class. The matter is much more complex. A reformist party can be an instrument adapted to the management of capitalism and, at the same time, independent of the bourgeoisie. In summarizing a long history and allowing myself to be “brutal,” I would argue that during the 1980s, despite some tactical errors, the PT was a powerful instrument of representation for the interests of the working class and played a progressive role; throughout the 1990s, its role fluctuated significantly; and, after it won the presidency in 2002, its regressive role prevailed. 

But the PT’s real test in the “laboratory of history” came in 2016 when the Brazilian ruling class united to overthrow the government of PT president Dilma Rousseff (elected in 2010), while organizing a campaign to criminalize her leadership and politically destroy Lula, the PT’s most important leader. It became clear that the Lava Jato (Car Wash) anti-corruption operation—although it also investigated the PSDB, the MDB, and the Progressive Party (PP), among others—was a strategic struggle for power by the elite that implied displacing the PT. The class fury of the bourgeoisie against the PT confirmed that the PT was not a bourgeois party. 

It must be said that (in dialectical terms and at another level of abstraction) all reformist parties are parties which depend on an institutional relation with the liberal democratic state. The PT is no different in this regard. The Marxists of the Third International developed a formula to identify such parties’ integration into the state system and their defense of the limits of the established order: they defined the social democratic parties as “bourgeois-workers parties.” That is, they defined them as independent working-class parties that capitulated in the face of pressure from the ruling class. Once they came to government, and took on state managerial responsibilities, they acted as bourgeois-workers parties.

But just like all things, parties are always undergoing transformation and the PT of 2021 is obviously very different from that of 1980. Historical analysis must not merely resign itself to describing particular phenomena at a given point in time. The real challenge lies in discovering what is changing. In the case of the PT, although its leadership remains the same, these forty years have not passed without consequences; the party that was born from the struggle against the dictatorship is no longer the same.

As it happens, change is not possible without crises. Parties may have growth crises—fueled by their successes or challenges which become more acute as their influence increases—or crises produced by their own mistakes. But it is not possible to avoid crises.

Over the course of its own transformation, the PT has faced many a crisis. The political dynamics of its evolution were never linear and the criteria for defining which of these were the most important will always be subject to debate. What matters is not whether those who lived through these processes understood the seriousness of the transformations at the time, but whether the future development of the party confirmed that one or another crisis marked, indeed, a point of decisive transformation.

We can determine, in hindsight, that a crisis was significant when a party emerges from it as something different from what it was previously. In the eighties, for example, when the political situation shifted to the left due to the active mobilization of workers and youth, the PT suffered its first split, this time from its right wing. But this was a painless break, both for the activists of its organic vanguard and in terms of the party’s electoral influence.

Three federal deputies, Bete Mendes and José Eudes, led by Airton Soares, broke with the party in 1985 because the PT did not support the Democratic Alliance, which indirectly elected the MBD Tancredo-Sarney presidential ticket in the wake of the Direct Elections Now campaign in 1984. These three deputies departed by themselves, without dragging along any militant detachments of party members and without their rupture having important consequences on the party’s electoral influence, which, in fact, continued to grow.

The attitude of the PT parliamentary bloc in relation to the 1988 Constitution (which formally ended the period of military dictatorship) gives us a sense of the party’s nature during this period. The PT voted againstthe Constitution (from the left), but its representatives ended up signingthe document, publicly declaring they would respect the legitimacy of the new regime. The PT leadership knew very well that it was signaling its willingness to compromise to the ruling class. The Brazilian bourgeoisie understood the gesture. It is no coincidence that the PSDB leadership, led by Mario Covas, unanimously declared its support for Lula presidential campaign against Fernando Collor during the second round of voting 1989. So did the Democratic Labor Party’s Leonel Brizola, despite his long-running rivalry to the PT.

If the process of political-social adaptation to the limits of the democratic regime that emerged after the 1985 election of Tancredo-Sarney in the Electoral College was not clear to most members of the PT’s militant vanguard, the party’s subsequent development dramatically confirmed that this adaptation was irreversible. This did not prevent a majority of the PT’s left from believing for the next several years that the PT—including its leadership—remained a party that might still be won over to the project of revolution in Brazil, that is, it was understood to be a party whose ultimate course was open to internal “struggle.” However, although the PT had ceased to oppose the democratic (institutional) regime itself, it not only opposed the Sarney government, but did so in the most intransigent and radical manner, thus obscuring the profound political transformation that had already occurred. 

At the beginning of the 1990s, when the political situation shifted to the right, the PT leadership called the party’s First Congress and expelled the Socialist Convergence, a Trotskyist current. This marked the PT’s second important crisis. From that point on, the leftist tendencies that continued to resist within the PT knew what their fate would be if they challenged the leadership. This particular crisis had no repercussions in electoral terms, but it left an incurable wound: one of the currents of the party’s revolutionary wing had been eliminated.

Paradoxically, after the impulse of “Collor Out” movement, the majority current of the PT—which had gone too far in its turn to the right during the First Congress of 1991—split, giving rise to the Left Coordination current (Articulação de esquerda). This current, together with Marxist tendencies such as DS (Socialist Democracy) and Socialist Force, among others, won a victory at the PT’s 1993 National Assembly. However, this leftward impulse proved to be short-lived. At the 1995 National Assembly, in the wake of Lula’s second presidential defeat in 1994, the Unity in Struggle Coordination current (Articulação Unidade na Luta), led by Zé Dirceu, regained the majority in alliance with the New Left trend, led by José Genoíno and Tarso Genro. From then on, the illusion of a party open for debate collapsed. The impact of PSDB presidential candidate Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s victory in 1994 (FHC as he is known) and the defeat of the 1995 oil strike combined to isolate the internal struggle in the PT as a matter, essentially, to be settle by professional politicians.

Four years later, in 1999 the PT leadership, after the third electoral defeat in the 1998 presidential elections, carried another turn to the right. It vetoed the FHC Out campaign organized by the most important union coalition—the Unified Workers Central (CUT)—and the Landless Workers Movement (MST), a campaign which enjoyed support from the left inside and outside the PT and which mobilized one hundred thousand activists in the capital city, Brasilia. The FHC Out campaign of 1999 aimed to recreate the 1992 Collor Out campaign and had the potential to grow dramatically in a context of intense unrest caused by the mega devaluation of the real currency during the first month of FHC’s second term. The inflexible position taken by the PT leadership—Zé Dirceu conditioned his election to the PT presidency on the defeat of the FHC Out motion—demonstrated to the ruling class that the party leadership was willing to abide by the regime’s electoral calendar.

In July 2002, the PT leadership drew up, under the direction of Antonio Palocci, the former mayor of Ribeirão Preto, a Manifesto for Lula’s fourth candidacy for the presidency. This time, Lula chose Zé Alencar, senator for the state of Minas Gerais and one of the largest entrepreneurs in the textile sector, as his vice-presidential running mate. This document openly promised to honor the payment of the internal and external public debt. Finally, in 2003, after Lula’s election, the PT leadership expelled PT Senator Heloísa Helena from the party along with dissidents who went on to found the PSOL (the Party for Socialism and Freedom), accusing them of indiscipline for having refused to vote in favor of a neoliberal pension reform in Congress. 

Lula’s election and the subsequent expulsions marked the party’s third important crisis and a new transformation. It was made clear that the PT leadership would now consolidate its astonishing turnaround, and the Brazilian ruling class understood the significance of this gesture. This whole period, culminating in 2005, marked the PT’s most serious transformation. A portion of its central leadership (which had itself previously moved against the party’s left) was itself politically beheaded after an outcry erupted in the wake of Congressional vote-buying allegations against the PT in the so-called mensalão, or monthly bonus, scandal. Despite the undeniable satisfaction of the majority fraction of the ruling class with the Lula government in his first term, the opportunity opened by the mensalão crisis precipitated a bourgeois political offensive against Lula from inside the National Congress and on the part of the media, a campaign which found a certain echo in the streets.

The mensalão scandal forced the PT to sacrifice Zé Dirceu (one of the party’s chief architects) and other leaders, leaving the it partially demoralized. This was especially so among critical sectors of workers’ and popular activists, combative elements of the student vanguard, and honest left-wing media intelligentsia.

The fourth great crisis was precipitated by the June days of 2013. Millions of people mobilized in the streets against local, state, and national governments without giving those led by the PT a pass, including Fernando Haddad’s city administration in São Paulo and PT president Dilma Roussef’s in Brasilia. These protests ended ten years of political stability. In just a month, Dilma’s government’s approval ratings plummeted from almost 60 percent to just 30 percent in a context very similar to that of “que se vayan todos” (Throw them all out) in Argentina during the December 2001 mass protests, the “precarious generation” protests in Portugal, the “indignados” of Puerta del Sol in Madrid, and even the unemployed youth of Greece. 

In the short term, the PT government managed to recover after September 2013. Yet, the absence of political certainty and a trend towards economic stagnation infected the majority of the bourgeoisie’s psychology and they subsequently raised the intensity of their demands in the wake of Roussef’s narrow 2014 reelection against PSDB candidate Aécio Neves. In response, the PT leadership, drawing confidence from its fourth consecutive presidential victory, once again played the class conciliation card, complying with ruling class ultimatums, for instance, agreeing to hand over the Ministry of Economy to Joaquim Levy, who was recommended by Bradesco, one of the largest banks in the country. At the same time, Dilma’s government accepted fiscal adjustments that plunged the country into the most serious recession since the end of the dictatorship. That decision precipitated the fifth great crisis: a break between the younger generation of the working class and the PT. This break implied a qualitative leap.

However, nothing can be compared to the offensive that began in 2015, culminating in the impeachment of Dilma Roussef, the Temer government in 2017, Lula’s imprisonment, and Bolsonaro’s election in 2018. In the face of these defeats, the PT experienced its sixth great crisis when it became clear that it was no longer capable of mobilizing in the streets against the imminent anti-Roussef institutional coup. In fact, the party hesitated in calling for popular mobilizations for a whole year, failing to use its institutional positions to defend itself. In vain, it handed over all responsibility for its own defense to the CUT and MST.

Now, in early 2021, the PT is going through its seventh great crisis. The PT has lost its influence over the youth to PSOL, although this is less true among activists who lived through the 1980s and 1990s and who generally come from the more organized sectors of the working class. It is difficult to foresee this aging PT’s fate, especially when we consider the rising power of the feminist movement spurred by young black women, environmental mobilizations, the impulse of the LGTBQ community, and of the PT’s break with a new generation of workers, who are simultaneously highly educated and miserably precarious.

Who will lead the next wave of struggle in Brazil? Will the left rise to the challenge of defeating Bolsonaro? It is not possible to predict whether the PT will recover as we are still suffering through an unfavorable and defensive situation in the fight against Bolsonaro. But history suggests that class struggle develops slowly before suddenly taking off.

The same goes for the fate of political parties.