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What’s ‘Left’ of Lulism?

by | April 4, 2022

This piece first appeared in print in Salvage 11: Already, Not Yet. Issue 11 is available to buy individually here. Our poetry, fiction and art remains exclusive to the print edition, and our subscribers have exclusive access to some online content, including all audio content. New subscriptions can be taken out here, and start with the next issue. 



Bolsonaro’s popularity is in apparent decline. Bolsonaro (currently, independent) projects the image of ‘the outsider’, despite having been in politics for decades. Most of these years were spent in the Progressive Party (PP) – the party with the highest number of politicians investigated for corruption. Three of his four sons are also in politics, and currently his whole family – ex-wife, included – are also being investigated. The charges include hiring fake employers with public money, including militia members (the ‘rachadinha’ scandal), spreading fake news, and attacks on democracy. Furthermore, Bolsonaro’s government is being investigated in the ongoing Parliamentary Inquiry Commission (CPI) over his criminal dismissal of Covid-19 and the likely corruption behind the delayed purchase of overpriced vaccines. Brazil totals over 580,000 deaths from Covid-19 and thus, perhaps unsurprisingly, this inquiry became known as the ‘CPI of death’. Attention to the investigation reached its peak in June-July 2021, when Brazilians were hooked to Parliament TV watching the CPI involve an ever-increasing number of government and military officials. 

Making sense of Bolsonaro’s government and actions is a Homeric task. With every new scandal (and the closer his family members are to facing trial or being exposed), Bolsonaro issues a new sequence of fake and scandalous statements to divert attention. The most recent was the threat of a military coup during Brazil’s Independence Day (7 September), which seems factitious given the presence of the military in all echelons of the government. 

All eyes are now on the General Election of 2022. Currently, polls show an almost certain victory for Lula, who’s been cleared to run for public office. But Bolsonaro has already responded by launching a campaign against the current voting system and threatening to suspend the elections. What seems puzzling is how Brazilians could move from Lula to Bolsonaro, and then back to Lula in such a short period of time. 



The Left

Brazil has been a conservative part of the region since its formation when the Portuguese crown prince Dom Pedro declared the independence of the country in 1822 and became its Emperor. Brazil was the region’s last country to entirely abolish its monarchy as well as slavery. As the region’s largest economy, the conservative influence of its oligarchy-based political structure meant that the country was (and remains) a repressive force for the left in Latin America.

On the Latin American left, Marxism has long been the primary ideological influence. Yet vastly different interpretations of Marxism marked the institutionalisation of the left in Brazil. For example, the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB, founded in 1922) believed that the bourgeoisie would lead Brazil’s path to communism. Therefore, the party adopted a strict ‘stagist’ view of development, hoping to copy the English experience described by Marx. For the PCB, Brazil struggled with feudalism and was still to enter its capitalist-industrial phase. Consequently, dissenting intellectuals, such as Caio Prado Jr., who believed Brazil was already capitalist (‘a part of the great Portuguese enterprise’) were excluded from the party. 

Except for Mexico in 1910, where a revolutionary project was implemented, the region by and large pursued industrialisation as the solution to the problem of underdevelopment – the economic paradigm of the twentieth century. In Brazil, the ‘national developmentalist’ and authoritarian government of Getúlio Vargas (1930-45; 1951-54) imposed state-led industrialisation based on foreign investment, adding targeted social reforms. The rise of Developmentalism as a project helped to marginalise socialism, especially after the term was adopted by US foreign policy advisors. 

Combining Cold War narratives with the excuse of development, US intervention was sold as a modernisation project. In reality, modernisation meant the privatisation of resources and suppression of peasant activism. The increasingly cosy relationship between US and Brazilian elites led to the 1964 civil-military coup when the country became another example of the US international ‘military modernisation’ campaign. Now in power, the Brazilian military became the champion of the US-formulated National Security Doctrine across the region, unifying the Southern American armed forces against the ‘communist threat’. 

When the coup took place, intellectual disagreements on the left had real consequences. The PCB saw the coup as a revolution; the industrial bourgeoisie had fulfilled its historical role of leading Brazil out of feudalism. Hence, the party failed to foresee the consequences of the coup and lead a unified opposition from the left. Among the dissident groups were the Marxist-Leninists of the National Liberation Action (ANL), who denounced the PCB’s alliance with the bourgeoisie and with the removed president João Goulart. They also criticised the Party’s belief in a non-violent revolution, even prior to 1964. Following the coup, Carlos Marighella became the leader of the ANL and of the armed struggle against the dictatorship. What followed is well-known: complete crackdown on social and political organisations, torture, killings, and disappearances. Marighella was killed in 1969 as ‘Brazil’s n.1 enemy’, only a few months after the publication of his Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla in the United States. Censorship hid both the violence as well as the failures of the regime, which amounted to increased indebtedness, poverty, inequality, and corruption. By the 1980s, the US had established its new paradigm of ‘liberal democracy.’ The military had to go, but not without the ruling elite securing its interests. This was the opposite of the ‘development’ that had been promised.

Among the many evils left behind by the regime is the creation of a coalition of opposition parties Brazilians call the ‘centrão’ (‘big centre’). During the transition, this group rebuffed progressive policies in Parliament and built a veneer of neutrality around itself. They allegedly represent ‘the middle-ground’. Thus, appeasing the centrão, the majority in Parliament, has remained central to any government since 1987. It is here that the story of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) begins.



The PT Enters the Scene

The PT, founded in 1980, emerged from the congruence of trade unions, grassroots movements, and Base Ecclesial Communities at the end of the dictatorship (1964-85). With its roots in the trade union movement in São Paulo, the PT was a reformist party that proposed an alternative to both the Vargas model and communism. ‘Democracy as universal value’ was the consensus of the time, which the PT uncritically accepted. Meanwhile, leftist organisations criticised the bourgeois character of the proposed democracy, following the Leninist tradition. It is this ‘neutral’ discourse that the PT adopted as its official strategy in 1987, with the launch of its Popular Democratic Project (PDP). 

The PDP continues to divide the Brazilian left. On the one hand, the PDP proposed concrete policies, such as defaulting on international debt and ending privatisations. On the other hand, it completely abandoned anti-capitalism and defended the ‘accumulation of (political) forces’, i.e. reform. By the time the 1988 Constitution came into force, the PT had amassed some success in local elections, and Lula had started to gain national prominence. Despite its small number of representatives in Congress, the Party also led the campaign against the Constitution, arguing for more social guarantees. This consolidated the PT as the voice of the ‘left.’ 

But the victory of Fernando Collor de Mello in the first open election of 1989 cemented the PT’s power-oriented strategy. Collor won with a slight margin against Lula, following a heavy anti-PT marketing campaign supported by the unholy alliance between political and business elites and the media. Throughout the 1990s, the PT continued to adapt its rhetoric. And by the time it finally came into power in 2002, most of the radical policies proposed in 1987 had been abandoned. Instead, big electoral donations and marketing campaigns came to the fore, leading to several changes in the party’s strategic plans and branding. The PT even toned down the use of ‘red’ in its campaigns; a difficult task considering that its symbol is a red star. In this context, it is worth invoking Florestan Fernandes, who in 1991 asked, ‘will the PT maintain its nature of the workers and social movements’ historical needs if it prefers the “occupation of power” to the Marxist revolutionary optic?’



The PT in Power: Lula’s liberal programme

The early 2000s were marked by economic crises across the region following the implementation of the Structural Adjustment Programmes. Brazilians faced a third term for the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), which was facing a series of corruption allegations known as the ‘privataria tucana.’ The scandal exposed the enrichment of the high ranks of the party and the government during the privatisation of state companies, such as the mining giant Vale do Rio Doce and the national telecom company Telebrás. Unsurprisingly, voters opted for a more substantial change, increasing the participation of the left in Congress as well as resulting in the election of Lula. Moreover, the PT had successfully rebranded itself and managed to appease a section of the centrão during the election. 

During the electoral campaign of 2002, Lula launched the ‘Letter to the Brazilian People’ directed at the transnational capitalist elite. In the Letter, Lula promises to maintain the orthodox economic policies of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (alias FHC; 1995-2002). Still, when the polls leading up to the 2002 election showed a likely victory for Lula, Wall Street firms raised Brazil’s risk rating. Brazil’s currency lost value, and foreign investors pulled out of the country. All these trends continued following Lula’s election and first day in office; of course, the Brazilian media was quick to point this out, continuing its campaign of discrediting the left. 

Brazilian politics has always been dominated by the right. And conservative, liberal, and nationalist governments never fundamentally challenged the liberal economic basis of the country’s elites. This means that leftist politics and agendas are historically misrepresented or completely side-lined by the mainstream media, pundits, and politicians. In this context, I would argue that it was not Lula’s alleged leftism that appealed to voters but the belief in his exceptionalism. 

Yet, once in power, Lula fulfilled the promise he had made to the elites in his 2002 letter. The PT government kicked off with the Zero Hunger campaign, which aimed to tackle inequality whilst signalling to the elite that the party could be trusted; after all, neither left nor right could claim ownership of ‘ending hunger.’ The story of the PT reveals the contradictions and limits of a conciliatory government. As Barbosa dos Santos writes, the ‘Lulist model of regulating social conflict’ rendered the PT effectively useless. But what is this model?

In his first year in power, Lula led the Workers’ Party proposal of the pension scheme’s reform, which furthered the liberal policies proposed by his predecessor. For example, the reform moved the management of part of the pensions to investment funds, corroding the logic of a collective, generational pension in favour of individual accumulation. ​​It is worth noting that the PT had opposed some of the 2003 reforms when FHC was in government. But Lula’s popularity and ‘man of the people’ image helped generate the kind of support for a liberal policy that FHC could only have dreamed of. The PT parliamentarians who continued to oppose the policies were expelled from the Party. This eventually led to the formation of the Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL).

The PT thus presented itself as the party of a successful neo-developmentalism whilst adopting a clearly neoliberal agenda. Domestically, Brazil bet on the expansion of consumption and on credit for competitive companies to drive growth. In the backdrop of its so-called ‘entrepreneurial diplomacy’, exporters of primary products and construction companies received billions in incentive. As a result, Brazil’s food industry boomed, and the country became the biggest exporter of meat in the world. The construction sector gathered even more attention: first, for its successful internationalisation; later, for mounting corruption cases. The relatively successful neoliberal reforms had brought with them a string of corruption cases that would haunt the PT for years to come. The first of these focused on the popular national oil company, Petrobras, and involved both construction companies and Lula. 

But perhaps more important than corruption were the failures of the PT model. The industrial sector remained in the hands of multinational companies, and so did its revenue. Consequently, the PT turned to traditional sectors of the economy. The redirection toward large agribusiness and mining companies not only fed a sector that had historically opposed the Party (and the left), but also facilitated environmental and social catastrophes, such as Belo Monte and Mariana. The construction of Belo Monte in Amazonia united the PT with opposition parties against environmental experts, Indigenous leaders, and thousands of families that denounced the social and environmental impact of the dam. The controversy around private and public partnership reached a peak in 2015, when the municipality of Mariana was flooded with a toxic by-product of the nearby iron ore mine. Nineteen people were killed in the flood. The mud also reached the river Doce that feeds circa 230 cities, and the sea in the state of Espírito Santo; no detailed study of the effects of the disaster has been carried out. 

The social impacts of the Party’s liberal reforms are also apparent in the higher education sector where reforms parallel international trends. The PT was rightfully applauded for its extension of public university quotas in 2008 and 2012. After years of Black activism, public universities must now allocate 50 per cent of their vacancies to students with high school degrees from public schools and whose families earn one to one-and-a-half minimum wage salaries. A percentage of these quotas is redirected to students who self-identify as Black, Indigenous, and mixed race, according to the demographics of each state. This reform guarantees that students with similar backgrounds compete against each other in the universities’ entrance exams (vestibular) and therefore have a higher chance of getting a better and totally free education. 

Brazilian elites have misrepresented and opposed the reform from its inception. Yet, the PT overlooked the appeal and strength of this alliance between the media and the conservative and liberal elites. Instead, the party maintained its neoliberal agenda and coalition with the right. Notably, the real focus of the government’s budget was the private sector which boomed during the PT’s administration. The government subsidised private universities by offering flexible credit for students (i.e. ProUni, and Fies), targeting the lower classes. Consequently, 90 per cent of the new vacancies created during the PT’s term were in fee-based, private universities. And while the sector grew exponentially, recent graduates found themselves highly indebted and thrown into a precarious and elitist job market that looks down on their qualification (public universities are considered elite institutions). 

The  PT government did enable some important advancements: absolute poverty was reduced and domestic work is better regulated, guaranteeing jobs and personal security for a large portion of the population. Workers’ wages also increased and so did consumption and access to education. But the belief that the PT’s popular support was unshakeable made the Party particularly vulnerable to attacks from the right. This became clear when power shifted back to the conservative elite in 2016. The events that followed also showed how the PT’s reforms were not enough.  



‘The people on the street’

The widespread frustration and the political re-awakening of the capitalist establishment became apparent in 2013, when the announcement of a rise in transport tariffs led to a series of protests across the country later rebranded as ‘anti-government’ by the media. The PT was largely suspicious of the protesters, implying they were angry middle-class or poor people expecting too much. Yet for anyone who followed the protests on the ground, it was clear that these explanations were limited, if not ill-intentioned. 

The first series of protests took place in the city of Natal, in August 2012. As more cities announced their budgets, the protests multiplied, reaching an apex in June 2013. Because the initial organisers of these actions were groups to the left of the PT, the media coverage followed its traditional line: across the country, news channels highlighted how the protests were disrupting traffic and the economy and focused on their supposedly violent nature. The protesters’ reaction was to gather outside media conglomerate buildings where, unsurprisingly, the police were waiting to heavy-handedly disperse the crowd. The more violence, the more people joined. Solidarity protests continued even in cities where the tariff rise was revoked, calling not only for an end to the tariffs but for social reforms.

Then Mayor of São Paulo and presidential candidate in 2018, Fernando Haddad (PT) criticised the protests and defended the action of the military police – a legacy of the military dictatorship. Revealingly, so did the conservative governor of the state, Geraldo Alckmin (PSDB). By the end of June, it was estimated that 1.5 million people were on the streets. Hundreds of protesters had been arrested and attacked by the police, and one journalist had lost his eye after being hit by a rubber bullet. The media changed its tone in this context: the protests were now anti-Dilma, anti-PT, and anti-corruption. More and more people started to question if continuing the actions was a wise decision. After all, when the left is not the political norm, how to criticise it without facilitating the rise of the right? 

Dilma was forced to address the nation and promised urban and transport reforms. But the PT maintained what Arantes has called an urban ‘anti-reform’. It was within the neoliberal paradigm that the PT oversaw the country’s preparation for the World Cup of 2014 that was largely criticised by the population. How could a country riddled with inequality spend billions in football stadiums and high-end accommodation? Who would live there? Who could afford to attend the games?

By 2015, the economy was in a downward spiral, and between March and April another wave of national protests took off. Unlike in 2013, the 2015 protests were organised and financed by different liberal organisations with links to think tanks based in the US. Furthermore, the participants were mainly middle-class and upper-class white Brazilians in their 30s-50s. And the press exhibited evident support: televised news overlapped a biased coverage of corruption allegations with the coverage of the ‘people on the street.’ But despite the different contexts in which they emerged, both protests showed an inflexion of PT’s political base: the Party could no longer claim ownership of the streets. 

As corruption allegations mounted and the centrão changed sides, the impeachment of Dilma was decided. A technical and controversial pretext was found, and the impeachment vote happened in 2016. Watching the vote was sickening and telling of what was to come. Before announcing his vote, Bolsonaro’s speech saluted the dictatorship and called Colonel Brilhante Ustra a hero, a particularly harrowing choice as Brilhante Ustra is known to have participated in torture sessions inflicted on Dilma. Worryingly, other members of the Congress similarly expressed a nostalgic conservatism in their voting speeches. Several parliamentarians made nods of support for the military, who they argued would bring order to an increasingly corrupt political system. Ironically, most of them are embroiled in corruption investigations themselves. Furthermore, echoing the pre-1964 coup demonstration in support of a military intervention – the March of the Family with God for Liberty – parliamentarians voted for the impeachment in ‘defence of the Brazilian family’, and ‘of God’ who, according to them, hates communism, corruption, and the PT. 

With the impeachment, power went back to the hands of the conservative right-wing elite, and the ‘communist threat’ paradigm re-emerged. Since then, Brazil has been experiencing a new wave of politically motivated corruption investigations and prosecutions, as well as killings and disappearances. The most famous cases are the arrest of Lula in 2018, and the killing of Marielle Franco in March of the same year. Yet these cases need to be analysed alongside the rising number of crimes against Indigenous communities, the arrest of nine leaders of the squatting movement in São Paulo, the record high number of police killings, etc and etc. Together, these cases show how emboldened and violent the liberal-conservative establishment really is.

At the height of the 2018 election, Bolsonaro was campaigning from a hospital bed after a conspiracy-ridden knife attack, whilst Lula was in prison. Attempts by the PT to call Lula’s arrest political were also clearly failing, and the Party was forced to field a new candidate. Lula convinced Fernando Haddad to replace him, but the campaign was centred on Lula. Not even the choice of a leftist deputy, Manuela D’Ávila (Communist Party of Brazil, PCdoB; formed in 1962), changed the PT’s campaign strategy. Establishment candidates with national presence, such as Geraldo Alckmin (PSDB), and Henrique Meirelles (Brazilian Democratic Movement, MDB) received a neglectable percentage of votes. The right now faced an easy choice between the Party they had persecuted and Bolsonaro, who had voiced unwavering support for a liberal economy. They once again chose authoritarianism for the sake of ‘freedom’: economic but also political, as many now call the PT a communist party.



The PT seemed to believe the tiresome fallacy that the provision of social goods guarantees electoral success. But the rich ethnographic work of Brazilian scholars has shown that continuous marginalisation along with urban violence fed the politics of ‘fear’ and ‘hate’ responsible for the popularisation of the right. For example, Kalil et al (2021) have discussed the mobilising power of the fear of an international communist takeover. And Pinheiro-Machado and Scalco (2020) have looked at how the fear of an economic downturn fed into a violently masculine (or hateful) response towards progressive politics. Moreover, the work of these scholars shows how these discourses are not fixed. In fact, not even tropes we now associate with ‘Bolsonarism’ are attached to Bolsonaro. Discourses change, things happen, and different groups are de/re-mobilised. 

What is perhaps more worrying about this realisation is that different threads associated with Bolsonaro are reaching people outside his electorate and are, in fact, international. For example, researchers and activists have warned of the spread of anti-vaccination fake news targeting Indigenous communities – a group with a historically high adherence to vaccination and overall rejection of Bolsonaro. Meanwhile, centrão candidates distance themselves from the government by openly criticising Bolsonaro but maintaining their alliance in Congress where 130 impeachment requests are waiting to be analysed. It is worrying how these liberal, conservative, and authoritarian voices are leading both the mainstream and the fringe, the ‘common sense’ and the ‘revolt against the system.’ In this seemingly apocalyptic scenario for the left, it is important to highlight the names that continue to work against this trend.



The Left beyond Lula

Bolsonaro’s presidency has no silver lining, but it did facilitate an alliance between left-leaning parties. The next test will be the General Election of 2022. Two prominent names of the left are likely to run and win the governor’s election in their home states, should the PT refrain from fielding candidates. With the participation of the PT, however, the left will be split, and a victory of right-wing candidates is certain. 

Guilherme Boulos (PSOL) from São Paulo is undoubtedly on the rise after decades of activism and political work. Boulos is one of the coordinators of the Homeless Workers’ Movement (MTST) and has built solid support in his home state, currently larger than that of Haddad (PT). Boulos ascended nationally after joining the Presidential race in 2018, fairing very well in the debates. In 2020, Boulos ran for Mayor of São Paulo, and despite a small budget and only seventeen seconds on national TV for campaigning, he received 20 per cent of the votes, far more than any polls had predicted. Today, polls foresee a victory against the right-wing candidate Paulo Skaf (MDB), with a 10 per cent difference between the two. 

Another important left candidate is Marcelo Freixo (Brazilian Socialist Party, PSB) from Rio de Janeiro. Freixo gained national prominence after he presided over the ‘CPI of the militias’ (2008) that investigated the relationship between politicians, businessmen and the police in the state of Rio de Janeiro. The CPI uncovered a complex web of favours, campaign funding, and violence that ultimately guaranteed the militias’ control over deprived communities. Hundreds of policemen were arrested, and seven politicians were investigated – which has made Freixo a target ever since. A close friend of Marielle Franco, Freixo is a leftist figure in Brazil who has loudly denounced the Bolsonaro family and led the movement for a united anti-fascist front in the previous election. Currently, polls show his victory over Cláudio Castro (Liberal Party, PL) with a small margin. There is also a chance he will join forces with Lula, acting as his deputy. 

Current governor of Maranhão, Flávio Dino, is another critical leftist leader who, along with Freixo, recently left the PCdoB to join the PSB. Dino has a high approval rating in his state. Openly communist and current president of the Legal Amazon consortium, he has been under continuous attack by right-wing groups. Randolfe Rodrigues (Sustainability Network, REDE) is the strong leader of the opposition in the Senate and a historical proponent of more radical economic policies. As such, Rodrigues is another leftist candidate to look out for. 

These leaders have continued to rise despite the ascendance of the right. While they might give us hope, they also need our support. For a long time, the PT justified its distance from the left by arguing that an association would undermine the Party’s chance of winning elections. But the PT’s policy of compromise backfired: the centrão impeached Dilma, and the party now needs left allies to win any future elections. The PT also needs to retreat and build up its grassroots movements to help renew the narrative about the Party and the left in general. The story of the PT is a lesson that compromise is likely to lead to electoral defeat and the further encroachment of conservative politics. As Barbosa dos Santos summarised, non-oppositional approaches render leftist parties effectively useless. 

To change this dynamic, parties (and any organisation) cannot refrain from challenging establishment discourse and policies. In the end, the most crucial question for Brazil is not where the left is, or who can replace Lula, but what kind of society is ‘left’ when the opposition retreats?



Luísa Calvete Portela Barbosa is an academic from Brazil now based in London. She is a Lecturer of International Relations at Cardiff University and a volunteer at LAWRS, where she is working on a report about the work and life conditions of Latin American domestic workers in Britain.

This piece first appeared in print in Salvage 11: Already, Not Yet. Issue 11 is available to buy individually here. Our poetry, fiction and art remains exclusive to the print edition, and our subscribers have exclusive access to some online content, including all audio content. New subscriptions can be taken out here, and start with the next issue.