Workers Vanguard No. 1089
6 May 2016
PT Popular Front Paved Way for Right-Wing Reaction
Brazil Impeachment: Workers Have No Side
Break with the PT—For a Revolutionary Workers Party!
With a widespread corruption scandal rocking the country, Brazil’s lower house of Congress voted last month to initiate impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff. Since 2002, the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT—Workers Party), first under its founder, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and then under Rousseff, has governed Brazil in a series of class-collaborationist coalitions. Now, Rousseff is being accused of accounting gimmicks to cover up state budget deficits. The PT’s erstwhile coalition partners—many of whom are under investigation or face criminal charges for corruption—are among those leading the charge against Rousseff. This includes Vice President Michel Temer of the bourgeois PMDB, who would take over as president if she is suspended or deposed.
Brazil’s governing bloc is an example of a “popular front,” a class-collaborationist coalition in which one or more workers parties join bourgeois forces to govern on behalf of the capitalists. We oppose these bourgeois formations on principle. Reformist workers parties like the PT have a class contradiction between their proletarian base and their leaderships’ pro-capitalist program. However, when such parties enter a popular-front alliance, the class contradiction is suppressed in the bourgeoisie’s favor, a guarantee that while in power they will not exceed the bounds of what is acceptable to the ruling class. The experience of PT rule has once again confirmed this.
For over five years, Rousseff’s government has inflicted a litany of attacks on working people, from implementing austerity measures and cutting social spending to attacking workers on strike and peasants who protest land seizures. These attacks followed nearly a decade of harsh IMF-mandated strictures under former labor leader Lula who, as president, was a credible servant to both the imperialists and the Brazilian bourgeoisie. Lula’s PT used its authority over the workers movement to carry out neoliberal policies even its right-wing predecessors were not able to achieve. At the same time, the first era of PT rule coincided with a global boom in the price of raw materials, of which Brazil is a leading exporter. The PT was able to distribute some crumbs, such as cash payments to the poor (Bolsa Família) and increases to the minimum wage.
But the boom is long gone. During the past couple of years, Brazil has been undergoing its biggest economic decline in decades. Alongside the impeachment drive, Rousseff’s allies as well as her enemies are caught up in the Lava Jato (Car Wash) investigation over graft and money-laundering schemes involving the state oil company, Petrobras. Much of the population views the country’s politicians as a nest of thieves. Against the backdrop of political instability and deepening immiseration, the PT is largely discredited within its working-class base. Such discontent was visible in the 2013 protests, initially sparked by transportation fare hikes and later spreading to include the government’s extravagant spending on World Cup stadiums, the dismal state of health care and education, and cop violence. The right-wing opposition parties seized on this popular dissatisfaction to lead a major anti-PT campaign.
With elections scheduled for the following year, Rousseff sought to mobilize support among the PT’s base by promising to improve living conditions for workers and the poor. Re-elected in 2014 by a narrow margin, she immediately reneged on her promises and imposed austerity as the country plunged further into recession. This served to demobilize and demoralize working people and the oppressed, further emboldening the right wing, including the PT’s own bloc partners. Today’s millions-strong anti-government protests are spearheaded by reactionary political factions backed by the media oligarchy and by pro-U.S. business groups.
Rousseff and PT loyalists decry the impeachment proceedings as a “violent act” against “democracy” and falsely present it as a coup d’état. Such claims are a potent scare tactic, conjuring up fears in a society where memories of the wounds inflicted by the bloody military regime ushered in by the 1964 coup remain vivid. Many working people, fearful of the right-wing forces coming to power, have mobilized in demonstrations against Rousseff’s ouster. These protests, replete with red flags and leftist and trade-union contingents—centrally the PT-associated CUT (Central Única dos Trabalhadores)—are being used by the PT to channel the workers’ anger back into support for the popular front. Meanwhile, PT leaders sought to head off the impeachment by offering ministerial posts to small bourgeois parties in exchange for a “no” vote in Congress.
At this point, Brazil is not facing a military coup to overthrow the government, but rather a series of sordid maneuvers within Congress to remove the president. To oppose Rousseff’s impeachment would mean a vote of confidence in—that is, political support to—the PT-led popular front. To favor impeachment would amount to support to the right-wing political forces mounted against Rousseff. As Marxists who stand for the political independence of the proletariat, we say the working class has no side in this conflict.
What the bourgeoisie can get away with in attacking the workers will be determined by the level of working-class resistance and struggle. The Brazilian proletariat is the only force with the social power to lead the struggle on behalf of all the oppressed, from the urban poor in the favelas, to women, to landless peasants. Such a perspective requires the forging of a revolutionary workers party, which would fight to break the proletarian base of the PT and the trade unions away from their current leadership as part of the struggle for socialist revolution and for workers rule.
Internationalist Group: Left Tail on Popular Front
Among the more militant versions of class collaborationism in Brazil is that put forward by the Liga Quarta-Internacionalista do Brasil (LQB), affiliated with the U.S. Internationalist Group (IG). As with the bulk of the left in Brazil, their line is “No to Impeachment,” which is a vote of political support for Rousseff’s popular-front government (www.internationalist.org, April 2016). The IG/LQB, while not using the phrase, offers up a version of much of the left’s hype about a “judicial coup” by warning that a “bonapartist strong state dominated by courts and cops”—i.e., a military-police dictatorship—will come to power if Rousseff is removed from office. To obscure their defense of a bourgeois government, the IG/LQB throws around calls for factory occupations and a general strike, even claiming to politically oppose the government.
In reality, their position is no more than thinly disguised fight-the-right opportunism. While the IG/LQB cynically rants and raves about “bonapartism,” they admit that a coup in Brazil is unlikely “since with impeachment the right wing will have obtained its primary goal.” Ritually denouncing the popular front and calling not to vote for it, the centrist IG/LQB simply offers Marxist-sounding rationales to push the same line as much of the reformist left: save the Rousseff government.
The IG/LQB acknowledges that the PT has carried out attacks against the working class, “including some that even the military dictatorship did not dare undertake.” At the same time, they argue that a regime of parliamentary parties to the right of the PT would be qualitatively more dangerous than the popular front. The IG/LQB is, to the extent of its limited forces, helping to prop up the very class-collaborationist alliance that paved the way for right-wing reaction.
The IG/LQB intones that “if the bonapartist right wins, they will proceed with the entire weight of the judicial police apparatus behind them.” As if the PT popular-front government hasn’t mobilized, time and again, “the judicial police apparatus” against workers and the poor! Tell that to the impoverished and predominantly black masses in the favelas facing daily police terror. Earlier this year, Rousseff’s government passed a draconian anti-terrorism law that strengthens the repressive powers of the state against social protests.
The bourgeois state—consisting at its core of the army, police, prison system and courts—exists to defend the interests of the bourgeois rulers against working people and the oppressed. For its part, the LQB in 1996 had no compunction about inviting the capitalist state, through a series of lawsuits, to settle union affairs (see “Court Papers Prove They Sued the Union—IG’s Brazil Cover-Up: Dirty Hands, Cynical Lies,” WV No. 671, 11 July 1997).
The whole history of Leninism and Trotskyism has been a struggle against class collaboration and for the political independence of the working class. That is how the Bolshevik Party was able to lead the workers of Russia to power in October 1917. Following the February Revolution that overthrew the tsarist monarchy, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries entered into a coalition government with bourgeois forces. V.I. Lenin’s Bolsheviks denounced this as a betrayal of the proletariat and refused to give any support to the government under Alexander Kerensky.
To provide an orthodox-sounding gloss for its position on the impeachment, the IG/LQB in a short article (currently available only in Portuguese) invokes one aspect of the Russian Revolution: the attempted military coup in August by General Kornilov to overthrow the bourgeois Kerensky government, sweep away the soviets and crush the revolution. The Bolsheviks responded by calling for a united front of all workers organizations to smash the counterrevolutionary offensive, fighting militarily alongside Kerensky’s troops while maintaining their opposition to the government.
The IG/LQB’s article on the Kornilov coup acknowledges the Bolsheviks’ position, but through a sleight of hand blurs the hard line of military defense versus political support in order to justify its own capitulation to the popular-front government in Brazil! Their article lists the ways that the situation in Brazil today is different from Russia in August 1917: Russia was at war, there was a revolutionary situation, there were soviets and a mass revolutionary party. But they deceitfully omit a significant difference: Russian workers were facing an actual military coup, whereas Brazilian workers are facing empty bluster about a coup intended to whip up support for a bourgeois government.
One year after the Stalinized Communist International enshrined the policy of the popular front (or “People’s Front”) at its 1935 Seventh Congress, Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky stressed:
“From February to October, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, who represent a very good parallel to the ‘Communists’ and Social Democrats, were in the closest alliance and in a permanent coalition with the bourgeois party of the Cadets, together with whom they formed a series of coalition governments. Under the sign of this People’s Front stood the whole mass of the people, including the workers’, peasants’, and soldiers’ councils. To be sure, the Bolsheviks participated in the councils. But they did not make the slightest concession to the People’s Front. Their demand was to break this People’s Front, to destroy the alliance with the Cadets, and to create a genuine workers’ and peasants’ government.”
—Leon Trotsky, “The Dutch Section and the International” (July 1936)
For Marxists, the distinction between military defense and political support is of vital importance. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), the popular front collaborated in the suppression of a workers revolution, paving the way for the victory of General Francisco Franco’s forces. At the time, the Trotskyists were giving military support to the Republican side against Franco and the Spanish fascists. In 1937, Max Shachtman, a senior member of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party, argued in favor of supporting war credits for the popular-front government under Socialist prime minister Juan Negrín. Shachtman asked: “How can we refuse to devote a million pesetas to the purchase of rifles for the front?”
In a 1937 letter, Trotsky insisted that the only correct position would be a “negative vote” on the military budget. He explained:
“A vote in parliament for the financial budget is not a ‘material’ aid, but an act of political solidarity....
“All the Negrín government does is done under the sign of war necessities. If we accept political responsibility for their management of the war necessities, we would politically vote for every serious governmental proposition.... How can we, under such conditions, prepare for the overthrow of the Negrín government?”
—“Letter to James P. Cannon” (21 September 1937)
In opposing impeachment, the IG buries the class line, buying into the reformists’ framework of “progressive vs. reactionary,” which has time and again been used to claim that Marxist opposition to left-bourgeois governments aids the right wing. Such an accusation was raised regarding a classic case of opposition to the popular front. In 1964, sometime Trotskyist leader Edmund Samarakkody and one of his comrades cast a parliamentary vote in favor of an amendment put forward by a right-wing politician that brought about the downfall of a popular-front government in Ceylon (today Sri Lanka). That principled and courageous action was debated at the First International Conference of the international Spartacist tendency in 1979. Earlier, Samarakkody had wrongly repudiated his 1964 vote. Our comrades defended his 1964 vote; a better option for Samarakkody would have been to denounce the parliamentary procedure and walk out of parliament. Against Samarakkody’s repudiation, current IG leader Jan Norden, then a leading member of our tendency, rightly stated in 1979:
“Another common objection to our policy of proletarian opposition to the popular front is the charge of aiding the right. But until you’re prepared to overthrow the existing government, any kind of opposition to a popular front in office will be open to the attack that it is aiding the right.”
—Spartacist (English-language edition) No. 27-28, Winter 1979‑80
But that was then. Since leading a small group of followers out of our organization two decades ago, Norden has moved steadily to the right while covering his tracks with pseudo-militant rhetoric.
The working class has no common interests with its capitalist exploiters and oppressors. Throughout the recent period of left-bourgeois governments in Latin America—whether popular-frontist in Brazil or populist in Venezuela and elsewhere—this is the understanding that the ICL has uniquely and consistently fought to bring to the proletariat. Over 13 years of PT rule provides a graphic example of the lesson Marx drew from the experience of the 1871 Paris Commune: The proletariat cannot wield the levers of the capitalist state for its own interests, but must smash it through a socialist revolution that establishes a workers state in its place.
To unchain the revolutionary potential of the Brazilian proletariat requires the forging of a revolutionary internationalist party, one that is based on a perspective of socialist revolution throughout the Americas and internationally, especially in the imperialist heartland of the U.S. Only world socialist revolution, laying the basis for international socialist planning, can ensure qualitative economic development for the countries which are today under the imperialist boot. The ICL fights to reforge Trotsky’s Fourth International as the necessary instrument to bring communist consciousness to the proletariat and to lead it to power at the head of all the oppressed.