Learning from disaster: The Workers' Party and the left in Brazil

by Mick Armstrong • Published 20 July 2019

The election of Jair Bolsonaro – pretty much an open fascist – as president of Brazil sent shock waves around the world. Most left commentary has understandably concentrated on the terrible threat posed by Bolsonaro to workers and the oppressed, and the need to fight him. But while immediate resistance to this monster is an urgent task, Marxists also need to work out how this disaster for the working class could have happened in the first place. What went wrong on our side? What are the lessons for socialists in future struggles? There is no way of answering these questions without understanding the catastrophic failure of the Workers’ Party (PT) of Brazil.

This is obviously connected to a much broader debate on the international left about what sort of organisations socialists need to build today. It is commonly argued that in the current political context the old sharp dividing lines between revolutionaries and reformists are no longer important, or at least don’t have a day to day relevance to the political practice of a socialist organisation.

These are not just abstract questions. The sheer scale of the defeat in Brazil, I would argue, points very much to the opposite conclusion. How socialists build in the here and now can very much colour the ultimate outcome of the struggle. Clear distinctions have to be made and sharp lines drawn between political currents on the left. We can’t wait for some future mass radicalisation before we begin to clarify these vital issues. Out of the debates and struggles taking place today, a revolutionary cadre which is capable of meeting future challenges and intervening creatively to take forward the next major round of mass revolt has to be cohered and trained.

An honest and critical examination of the history and political development of the PT that was the main party of government in Brazil for 16 of the last 20 years and its intersection with and impact upon the broader class struggle can give us important insights into all these vital issues.

I will look first at the origins of the PT emerging from the mass working class struggles that swept Brazil in the late 1970s and 1980s under the then military dictatorship. I will then examine the nature of the political forces that subsequently shaped the PT, the sharp turn of the party to the right after its charismatic leader Lula (Luiz Inácio da Silva) won the 2002 presidential elections, and how the PT’s neoliberal governmental agenda in turn prepared the ground for a right wing resurgence.

Finally I will examine why the revolutionary socialist forces that had played a prominent role in the PT failed to build a serious mass opposition to the PT’s capitulation to neoliberalism.

The origins of the Workers’ Party

After long years of heavy repression under the military dictatorship that lasted from 1964 until 1985, the workers’ movement in Brazil exploded into action in 1978. That explosion ushered in over a decade of massive class battles. Year after year, great waves of strikes broke out, starting with the car and engineering workers of São Paulo and its surrounding suburbs and spreading to other major industrial centres. Meanwhile the struggle in rural areas, both for land rights and on the great sugar plantations, convulsed society in the north.

Brazil went through an incredible period of industrial expansion in the 1960s and 1970s that saw the development of huge manufacturing plants – car factories, engineering works, chemical plants and the like. The cities grew rapidly. By 1986 São Paulo, the key manufacturing centre, had 15 million inhabitants and Rio de Janeiro 10 million.

A new working class was born as the employed labour force grew from 17 million in 1950 to nearly 50 million in 1980. By 1982 there were 8 million manufacturing workers. São Paulo and its suburb of São Bernardo were key centres of this new manufacturing workforce with huge factories such as the Volkswagen plant employing 30,000 workers. It was in São Paulo and São Bernardo that key groups of militants were to cohere to form the PT and the Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT) – the trade union confederation associated with it.

The militant working class left that emerged was influenced by a variety of sources. Many of the original activists in the PT had been involved in groups such as the Catholic Workers’ Youth or Catholic Action rooted in liberation theology. Others came from a regrouping of socialist militants who were critical of the bureaucratic class collaborationist politics of the Stalinist Brazilian Communist Party.

As early as mid-1968 embryonic factory committees and rank and file worker organisations had been built in some key workplaces such as the large Cobrasma plant in the São Paulo suburb of Osasco. But the military crushed this incipient movement – sending in a thousand troops with machine guns and tanks to smash the workers’ occupation of the Cobrasma factory. Hundreds of workers were arrested, tortured and imprisoned. After this savage defeat there were no all-out strikes in Brazil for almost 10 years.[1]

A defeat of these proportions can produce two reactions. There are those who abandon working class struggle, looking for an easier way out. The openly reformist sections of the left, such as the Communist Party and the main Maoist breakaway from the official CP, immersed themselves in the legally allowed “acceptable opposition” groups, the bourgeois Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement (PMDB), and the military-sanctioned corrupt union bureaucracy. Others turned to guerrilla movements.

Then, vitally, there are those committed fighters who determine that next time they will do things better. To the left of the currents which embraced reformism or worse was an important layer of rank and file worker militants in São Paulo who concentrated on underground work in their workplaces, agitating for factory committees. They eventually cohered as the Metalworkers Opposition (MO), organising against the corrupt union officialdom. When in 1978 the storm finally burst, the long years of dangerous, dedicated and patient work by the São Paulo Metalworkers Opposition began to yield significant results. They established strong factory groups in some of the larger workplaces and their illegal paper circulated in about 20 engineering plants.

The political approach in São Bernardo, where Lula emerged as a key leader, was, however, significantly different. This had a very important impact on the subsequent political development of the PT. Lula became a leading light in the official military-sanctioned union as a protégé of a union bureaucrat, Paulo Vidal. Vidal was less corrupt than most bureaucrats in the official unions but he nonetheless worked within the legal framework. This brought him into conflict with genuine militants. In contrast to the Metalworkers Opposition with its systematic rank and file work, Lula was only on the shop floor for three years before he became a union official in 1969. He was elected union president on a ticket with Vidal in 1975. In 1977 Lula broke with Vidal and the São Bernardo union became more assertive.[2]

The storm broke with a strike by 3,200 Scania workers in São Bernardo. It spread to giant factories including Ford, Perkins Engines and Mercedes. By the second week of this illegal strike 78,000 were out. In every factory the tactic was the same. Workers clocked in, went to their machines and refused to start them. They won a large pay rise. They had breached the dam and other workers poured through. In the two months after the strike at Scania, another 250,000 engineering workers struck.

The strike organisation was much stronger in São Paulo than São Bernardo. The Metalworkers Opposition in São Paulo organised meeting after meeting and 150,000 strike bulletins were distributed. Factory committees were established in all the large firms and began to spread from engineering to other industries.[3]

It was on the back of these strikes that the steps were taken to form the PT in 1979 – the year that political parties were legalised by the military regime. The São Bernardo union leaders around Lula were for founding the PT because they saw politics as an activity distinct from workers’ struggle. This separation of politics from economics is a basic characteristic of the traditional social democratic reformist outlook. For the reformists the union is there to handle workers’ day to day workplace grievances around wages and conditions. However when it comes to broader political issues these, according to the reformists, need to be handled by Labor politicians in parliament.

The Metalworkers Opposition resisted this reformist approach. They had a genuine from the bottom up approach that emphasised workers’ self-activity and not relying on union officials or parliamentarians to advance working class interests. But unfortunately they did not draw the conclusion that it was necessary to organise politically as revolutionaries in the factories. The factory committees remained essentially sectional – very militant but largely focused on industrial grievances.

The movement built around the São Bernardo union that coalesced into the PT included radical Catholics, leftist politicians from the bourgeois PMDB and the new layer of militant trade unionists. Various Trotskyists, Maoists and former guerrillaists also joined and worked relatively openly in the early period of the PT.

The formation of the PT was a major step forward for Brazil’s working class. It was an explicitly working class party and was a conscious break with bourgeois populism and the class collaborationist politics of Stalinist reformism. Unsurprisingly the Communist Party attacked the PT from the right, condemning it for not supporting an alliance with middle class forces and the supposedly progressive wing of the bourgeoisie. The key differences between the approaches of the CP and the early PT were:

1. The PT’s class base and its orientation to the industrial working class.

2. The PT’s democratic structures and its commitment to control by its members.

3. The PT’s commitment to democratic trade unionism.

The PT’s main weakness was that it did not put forward a clear and distinctive class struggle program of what it was trying to achieve. The founding manifesto made no reference to the need for a revolutionary challenge to capitalism. The new layer of union leaders that had formed the CUT in opposition to the official military-sanctioned unions wanted a party that would enact legislative action to allow them to function without confronting the state.

In 1982 more conservative elements of the left, including the Communist Party, argued that the PT was still too weak and called for support for the bourgeois PMDB in the elections, just as reformists in the US today argue for supporting Democratic Party politicians rather than building an independent working class party. They were defeated by a coalition of genuinely left wing forces that included Trotskyists and church elements.

1984 was the golden year for the PT left. The party grew enormously and won 10 percent of the vote in the 1985 elections. By 1987 the PT had 500,000 members, of whom possibly 50,000 were active. The very high level of working class struggle in the late 1970s and 1980s – for example in December 1986 15 million workers struck in the largest single strike in history up until that time – limited the shift to the right by the leaders of the CUT and the PT.

However by the late 1980s the PT was becoming more incorporated into bourgeois society and gradually less democratic. Sections of the leadership also now attempted to water down their program in order to appeal to conservative middle class elements. At the same time the leadership tried to move against the organised socialist groups within its membership.

The CUT trade union confederation represented the working class militants within the PT and was to the left of the mainstream PT leadership. However it did not have a clear revolutionary program. It had a centrist, half-way house perspective, somewhere between reformist and revolutionary politics. Its focus was largely electoralist and for constitutional change, not for confrontational mass struggle.

By 1986 a clash had developed between the Metalworker Opposition militants, who pushed for a socialist program, and the CUT/PT leadership. The MO, in alliance with other rank and file activists, formed a grouping called the CUT from below which opposed the PT/CUT leadership from the left and got 28.6 percent of delegates in the CUT elections.

Lula shifts rightward[4]

Lula ran as the PT’s candidate for president in 1989 and did exceptionally well in the runoff election, winning 47 percent of the vote. But in the 1994 elections Lula was trounced. He and his reformist supporters drew the conclusion – which they had been coming to since 1989 – that they had to move to the right. This was reinforced by the generalised rightward trend in society, as neoliberalism became increasingly entrenched internationally, and by the demoralisation of the Stalinist-influenced left after the fall of the Berlin Wall and Stalinism in Russia.

Though the PT’s radical left won a majority at the 1993 party congress and adopted a left program calling for revolutionary struggle, Lula exerted his strong personal influence to win greater autonomy for his 1994 presidential campaign. Under Lula’s influence the PT moderated its political language, sought closer relations with major business groups, and began to make alliances with various bourgeois parties, including conservative ones. By 2002 when Lula finally won the presidential elections, the rightward retreat had gone a very long way. Lula chose a billionaire, José Alencar, as his vice-presidential running mate and the PT dropped the word “socialism” and adopted Lula’s slogan of “Peace and Love”.[5]

As president, Lula headed one of the largest parties in the Congress, but it was still a minority. His response was to form alliances with various middle of the road and rightist parties. In order to cement his political coalition, he began to buy the representatives of other parties, paying them a monthly allowance – bribes.

Lula and the PT leadership became more autonomous, more loosely connected to their working class social base. Though created by the unions, the PT had never been a labour party with any official ties to the union movement, but now Lula subordinated the unions to the party. The CUT and the metalworkers’ union became political captives of the PT. Many of their leaders formed the party’s leadership and staff. Union leaders appointed as supposed workers’ representatives to the boards of pension funds had, by dint of their positions, become major players in Brazilian finance; their task now being to press for redundancies, sell-offs and cutbacks, in pursuit of higher returns on their investments.

Lula developed a social-liberal strategy. On the one hand were neoliberal economic policies that aimed to boost profits for big business.[6] This served to undermine the living standards of workers in the key industrial cities of southern Brazil that had been the historical base of the PT. At the same time they introduced some limited social welfare measures aimed at the poorest sections of the population, concentrated in the north-east, who had traditionally voted for the conservative parties.

While the economy held up – much like Australia because of the raw material export boom, especially to China – the PT could keep winning elections and contain popular discontent. But after 2010 the economy slowed sharply and disillusionment with the PT government accelerated.[7] Because no coherent fighting left opposition to Lula had been built, either inside or outside the PT, this virtually guaranteed that the main beneficiaries of the rising discontent would be the right and eventually the far right around Bolsonaro.

The role of the far left

But why hadn’t the left that had seemingly been so strong inside the PT been able to build a mass fighting alternative to Lula’s neoliberalism?

As stated previously, there were a variety of left currents inside the PT from its early days. Some of them, such as the pro-Cuban former guerrillaist elements, were on the right wing of the PT from early on. They were heavily electoralist, sought to moderate the PT’s approach and by the 1990s were going over to social liberal policies.

Others took a more clearly left wing stance. In the 1980s there were a dozen or more groups involved in the PT that saw themselves as revolutionary, both Trotskyist groups and splits from the main Maoist Communist Party. Most of these currents argued that the PT could be turned into a revolutionary party. By 1986 these far left groups combined had something like 5,000 members – about 10 percent of the PT’s active membership.

One of the main left forces was the Trotskyist current associated with the Fourth International, that cohered as Socialist Democracy (DS). By the end of the 1980s DS had a thousand members, with the support of a broader layer of PT members. In general DS got about 10 percent of the delegates to the PT’s national meetings. From early on DS played a particularly important role in the PT in two states in the south – Minas Gerais and Rio Grande do Sul. After São Paulo these two southern states were the PT’s most important bases in its early decades.

DS’s perspective was to fight for the leadership of the PT, as they believed there was a serious possibility of turning it into a revolutionary socialist party. They sought to combine building the PT as an independent workers’ party and building DS as a revolutionary current within the PT. DS characterised the PT as a party whose future was open, whose orientation had been in dispute since its foundation, but the outcome of which was not predetermined. DS argued that the PT could evolve and turn into a revolutionary party, but such an evolution would depend on the most left wing sectors of the party winning the battles over its political direction.[8]

Though in retrospect this seems wildly optimistic, this perspective may or may not have had some validity in the first few years of the PT’s development. The real problem was that the DS held to this analysis for way too long. Indeed at its 1988 conference DS adopted a characterisation of the PT as a “revolutionary party in construction”.

This was a dangerous formulation. It significantly undermined the ability of DS to cohere and train a cadre that could confidently stand up to the reformist forces within the PT and fight for revolutionary politics in the immediate day to day struggles and debates. Indeed it risked disarming and confusing DS members in relation to the serious political problems emerging in the PT. Many DS members got used to thinking that there would never be a conflict between their DS-identity as revolutionary socialists and their PT-identity.

The characterisation of the PT as a “revolutionary party in construction” minimised the qualitative change involved in moving from being a party that defends workers’ immediate interests to being a party organised around the need to fight for a socialist society and to overthrow the capitalist state through a revolution. To have any hope of achieving such an objective, the membership of DS needed a very clear understanding of the limits of bourgeois institutions such as the state and parliament and the struggle within them, the role of the union bureaucracy and so on – something that was never shared by the PT as a whole.

For many years DS was in an alliance with Lula’s tendency – the Articulation – which supposedly gave the left a majority on the PT leadership. This was pretty delusional in terms of the real process that was going on in the PT under Lula’s influence. As one DS leader, João Machado, subsequently noted:

Lula wanted to base the party on a broader multi-class coalition and he was in favour of more conservative programs. He was very shrewd would have others present his ideas and when he lost it did not hurt him. We on the left were often able to defeat him up until the early 2000s.[9]

But these so-called left victories were built on sand. DS, like much of the rest of the far left within the PT, downplayed the PT’s serious weaknesses and had illusions in the PT leadership. And in practice they also downplayed the need for revolutionaries to maintain their independence from both the PT and CUT leaders and to build their own independent forces. Many DS members could not imagine an existence outside the PT. They held to the position that it was possible to turn the PT into a revolutionary party for far too long. The DS also began to have a group in parliament. In the state of Rio Grande do Sul and its capital Porto Alegre where the PT left, including the DS, was particularly strong, it began to be integrated into the structures of the bourgeois state.

In the 1990s the left formally had a majority on the PT leadership, but this was illusory: Lula continued to be the dominant influence in the party. The momentum was clearly with the conservative forces. From about 1988 onwards the PT became more integrated into the institutional structures of the state – first local and then state governments. Consequently the party itself became increasingly statified: more bourgeois, more bureaucratic and far less internally democratic.

The election of Lula as president in 2002 brought the crisis of the left in the PT to a head. Given the generally enthusiastic mood produced by Lula’s election and the problematic history of the relations between DS and the PT, DS was ill prepared to stand up to the enormous pressure for participation in Lula’s neoliberal government. One prominent DS figure, Heloísa Helena, took a principled left wing stand. However the DS majority collapsed in the face of the intense reformist pressures and voted to take part in Lula’s government. A leading DS member, Miguel Rossetto, became the minister for rural development and agrarian reform. The Rubicon had been crossed. DS was no longer in any sense a revolutionary organisation.

Even when Heloísa Helena and other left MPs were expelled from the PT in December 2003 and it was clear that the PT was being turned into a Blairite third way neoliberal party, the DS did not break. Helena and her supporters went on to play a prominent role in the formation of a new left wing party, PSOL (the Party of Socialism and Liberty).

It was not until two years into the PT government that the left wing minority in DS eventually split from the reformist majority and left the PT. Of the 2,000 members DS claimed at the end of 2003, a little over 500 were to break to the left from the PT. But the outcome was even worse, as almost half of those who broke either never joined PSOL or left it soon afterwards. In Rio Grande do Sol, the state that had almost half the DS membership, and where the members were most involved in local government posts, in the structures of the PT, in parliamentary offices and trade union bodies, almost 90 percent of DS members stayed in the PT.[10]

Why did the bulk of DS members, who were supposedly revolutionary socialists, not break from the PT?

Undoubtedly part of the explanation was the general retreat of the class struggle, the impact of the neoliberal offensive, the decline in the level of strikes, the shift to the right and so on. Another key factor was that DS had hundreds of members working full time for the reformist or state structures mentioned earlier, especially in Rio Grande do Sol.

For many DS members a break with the PT was very difficult to imagine. Others simply weren’t prepared to face the difficulties of starting all over again to rebuild the socialist movement in much reduced material circumstances, not to mention what would have been the even more difficult circumstances of their own lives if they had left the posts they held due to their PT membership. Overall there was an excessive identification with the PT and an underestimation of the conflicts to come and of the scale of the reformist pressures. This underestimation continued throughout the second half of the 1990s, when the PT slowly lost the more radical characteristics of its early years.

DS as a whole was also far from clear about the very serious and dangerous political implications of taking part in governments within the framework of a bourgeois state.

Furthermore the formulation that the DS used for a long time – that the PT was a “revolutionary party in construction” – paid insufficient attention to the deepening problems in the PT’s evolution and tended to make DS members forget the inevitability of conflict between their identities as revolutionary socialists on the one hand and as PT members on the other.

When these two identities did come into sharp conflict with the formation of the Lula government in 2002 and its subsequent neoliberal course, the PT-identity had in its favour a social and material force that could only be counteracted by a much stronger revolutionary commitment and clarity that unfortunately had not been inculcated over the previous two decades.

To conclude

The formation of the PT on the back of the enormous working class struggles that swept Brazil in the late 1970s and 1980s was undoubtedly a major advance for the working class movement. It opened the road towards independent working class politics.

However nothing is ever guaranteed in politics. The capitalist system, its state apparatus and its myriad of institutions have an enormous capacity to absorb and co-opt even the most insurgent working class forces, both unions and parties – indeed to turn them into their opposites: institutions that, rather than galvanising workers to fight to overthrow capitalism, become instruments to impose the rule of capital over them. That is precisely what happened with the PT. It was transformed from being a radical working class party into an instrument of austerity.

It is not totally surprising that the leading PT members of parliament and their allies in the trade union and party bureaucracy should play this role. We have seen that trajectory play out innumerable times over the last 100 years or more of working class history – the formerly Marxist German Social Democratic Party and the British and Australian Labor parties being prize examples. More recently we have seen the terrible degeneration and betrayal by the leadership of Syriza in Greece, which went from being a strident opponent of austerity to once in government imposing on its working class supporters the most severe austerity package Greece has ever seen.[11]

There has been a similar pattern in the trade union movement. What started out as basic organisations of workers’ self-defence have been turned into giant bureaucratic apparatuses totally out of rank and file control, whose primary task is often to discipline the masses to accept the imperatives of the capitalist market and the profit system.

The tragedy in Brazil was that the left of the PT, which proclaimed its commitment to revolutionary class struggle politics and had a significant weight in the party, did not measure up to the task of leading a principled opposition to the degeneration of the PT. Because of its lack of revolutionary clarity and a mistaken hope in the possibility of turning the PT into a genuinely revolutionary organisation, most of the PT left tragically became part of the problem.

Many of the PT left abandoned their revolutionary principles, including for many even a basic commitment to the defence of core working class interests, and crossed over to the side of the class enemy. It is a sorry lesson but nonetheless an important one for revolutionaries internationally to learn from.

The political degeneration of the PT left did not happen overnight. It was a process that occurred over a long period of years. This underlines the importance of training a revolutionary cadre in all the day to day struggles and debates of the here and now. Revolutionary politics are not merely something of relevance for the great days when the barricades go up. They have to be part of the lived experience and practice of socialist activists as we attempt to push all the partial struggles of today to their very limits.

Crises and ruptures are built into the very nature of capitalism. And we never know when mass rebellion will turn what seems a hopeless situation into new opportunities for the left. What revolutionaries and militants have cohered and trained in previous years of defensive struggles will prove critical to their ability to intervene positively in any such radical upsurge.

We are seeing today a revival on the left internationally of left reformist ideas associated with Kautsky and Poulantzas: using parliament and the bourgeois state apparatus to supposedly advance towards socialism. The experience of the PT sharply underscores the need for revolutionaries to make absolutely no concessions, either politically or organisationally, to such approaches. The divide between reformist and revolutionary politics remains as wide and significant as ever. Time and time again such reformist politics have led to catastrophic defeats, and they will continue to do so in the future if we don’t build a principled revolutionary alternative with a genuine weight in the working class.

Of course it is far from guaranteed that if the left of the PT had held fast to its principles and fought relentlessly against the party leadership around Lula that it would have triumphed. But what is definitely true is that if the socialist left in the PT had waged such a fight then the working class of Brazil would be in a much better place and be much more politically cohered than it is today. This would have put workers in a better position to help lead the inspiring resistance that has already begun to emerge to the Bolsonaro government, while also building a revolutionary left alternative to the failed PT.


Armstrong, Mick, 2016, “The broad left party question after Syriza”, Marxist Left Review, 11, Summer.

Beecham, David and Ann Eidenham 1987, “Beyond the mass strike: Class, party and trade union struggle in Brazil”, International Socialism, 36, Autumn.

Carvalhaes, Ana C. and José Correa Leite, 2017 “On the nature of the Brazilian crisis and the issues, from the point of view of socialists”, International Viewpoint, http://internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?page=imprimir_articulo&id_article=5080.

Hunter, Wendy 2010, The Transformation of the Workers’ Party in Brazil, 1989-2009, Cambridge University Press.

Keck, Margaret 1992, The Workers’ Party and Democratization in Brazil, Yale University Press.

La Botz, Dan 2014, “Brazil’s Party of Socialism and Freedom, PSOL: Another Way of Doing Politics”, New Politics, https://newpol.org/brazils-party-socialism-and-freedom-psol-another-way-doing-politics/.

La Botz, Dan 2015, “The Brazilian Left, Lula, Rousseff and the PT Establishment in Power”, New Politics, https://newpol.org/issue_post/brazil-lula-rousseff-and-workers-party-establishment-power/.

Machado, João 2003, “The two souls of Lula’s government”, International Viewpoint, http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article246.

Machado, João 2012, “The experience of building DS and the PT, from 1979 to the first Lula government”, International Viewpoint, http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article2630.

Petras, James 2013, “Brazil: Extractive Capitalism and the Great Leap Backward”, World Review of Political Economy, Vol. 4, 4 Winter.

Webber, Jeffrey R., interviewed by Phil Gasper, 2018, “The retreat of the pink tide in Latin America”, International Socialist Review, 110.

[1] Beecham and Eidenham 1987, p16. I draw substantially on their account of this formative period. See also Keck 1992.

[2] Beecham and Eidenham 1987, pp18-19.

[3] ibid., pp19-21.

[4] For a detailed overview see Hunter 2010.

[5] La Botz 2015.

[6] See Machado 2003.

[7] See Webber 2018, Petras 2013 and Carvalhaes and Leite 2017.

[8] Machado 2012.

[9] La Botz 2014.

[10] Machado 2012.

[11] On the capitulation of Syriza see Armstrong 2016.