This short essay is a study of the politics of Brazil. Brazil is a society where history, politics, economics, and social struggle are always part of social reality. Brazil is clearly the most important country and most important society in Latin America. Its economic development, its social development, and its political development means that Brazil is the major state among the states of Latin America. Its economic growth and its population, as well as its history in the 19th century and in the 20th century, means that Brazil is vital to understanding both politics and society in Latin America. Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo are major cities — and cities with major social movements. Yet Brazil remains one of the most ignored states, among the major states.1 Even the recent election of a Fascist government in Brazil, the government of Bolsonaro, has not shifted major interest towards Brazil or Brazilian politics. The history of Brazil — the First Republic (1889-1930), the Vargas era (1930-1945), the Fourth Republic (1946-1964), the military dictatorship (1964-1985), and the New Republic (1985-present) — has been a history of the struggle for democracy against both a Capitalist system, a Capitalist oligarchy, and the reality of Fascism. Brazil has slipped between democracy and Fascism many times in the last century — while remaining, always, a Capitalist oligarchy and a Capitalist society. Brazil has produced a strong Left, such as the Workers’ Party of Brazil (PT) and the Brazilian Communist Party (PCdoB and PCB), but few Left governments. The PT governments of Lula and Rousseff (2003-2016) marked the only real period of Left government in the history of Brazil, so far. For most of its history Brazil has been dominated by the Right. For most of its history Brazil has achieved real economic development, and real social development, in only slow advances since the 1880s.2 For most of its history, Brazil has been a place of social struggle — and it continues to be a place of social struggle.
The history of Brazil shows the reality of Brazil as a place of social struggle. Prior to 1930, Brazil was a backward colonial economy — one dominated by corrupt landlords and a corrupt oligarchy from 1889.3 The Liberal Revolution of 1820 established independence in Brazil (1822). Brazil was the last state in the Americas to abolish slavery (1888), and the legacy of the Brazilian Empire (1822-1889) held up social development. The Great Depression of 1929 led to the Revolution of 1930, the overthrow of the 1888-1930 order in Brazil, and the victory of Vargas. Brazil, even today, exists in the shadow of two major events — the Vargas era of 1930-1945 and the military dictatorship of 1964-1985. Brazil, a society of intensive labour struggles and economic development, is the product of these two events. To have any real understanding of Brazil — or Brazilian society — we need to understand those two events. The Vargas era re-established the economic dominance of the oligarchy in Brazilian society, despite the struggles of the 1930s. The military dictatorship of 1964-1985 re-established the social basis of the Right in Brazil, despite the struggles of the 1960s and the 1980s. Even with the return to democracy in 1985 and the victory of the Left in 2003 (the PT government of Lula), Brazil remains a society which lives in the shadows of 1930 and 1964, as well as the shadows of a society which is divided along the lines of race, class, gender, and inequality. The rise to power of Bolsonaro, in many ways, is the repeating of Brazil’s history — with even more obvious Fascist politics than the military dictatorship of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, which was among the most brutal dictatorships of Latin America. The legacy of slavery, massacres of trade unionists and labour activists, the heroic struggle of the Brazilian Left, and the reality of a society which has had multiple economic revolutions but no social revolutions, covers the entire history of Brazil. Brazil, today, is one of the most interesting societies in the world — made more interesting by the horrific nature of the social struggle in Brazilian society for most of its history.
Brazil is a society with an intense history of class and class struggle. Indeed, Brazil is a major society with a major history of constant class struggle in both the 19th century and the 20th century.4 The only societies which have had more social struggle than 19th century and 20th century Brazil have been those societies which had open social revolutions, political revolutions, and Socialist revolutions. For most of its history the Brazilian working class has been a strong working class — with powerful trade unions, social movements, Anarchist groups, Social Democratic parties, Socialist parties, Communist parties, and Trotskyist parties. The PT, formed in 1980, is representative of Brazil’s organised working class. Brazil has a rich history of radical working-class politics. Indeed, in the 1930s the Brazilian Communist Party, in the form of the National Liberation Alliance (NLA) and under the leadership of Luis Carlos Prestes, almost made a social revolution in Brazil — before being crushed by Vargas in 1935 after the failure of the November 1935 military uprising by the Left. After the military coup of 1964, the struggle of the Brazilian Left was vital to the struggle to return Brazil to democracy. Brazil, however, has also had a strong Right — a Right which has been able to keep the Left from making revolution in Brazil despite over a century of social struggle. The Vargas era, Brazilian Integralism in the 1930s, the military dictatorship of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, and the reality of the presidency of Bolsonaro shows the historical strength and the political strength of the Brazilian Right to maintain its state and its society. Brazil is a society where the Left and the Right always face each other — and where the Right has always managed to hold out against the social struggle of the Left.5
We need to see the rise of Bolsonaro in the context of Brazil and the history of Brazil.6 The Lula government presided over a period of economic expansion and economic development. It was a period of social development in Brazil — one which provoked reaction from the Right. It was also the period where the Brazilian Left actually advanced in Brazil — overcoming the limits imposed on it since 1964 and 1985. The Lula government and the Rousseff government presided over a period of social advance for the Brazilian labour movement and the struggle for Socialism in Brazil — a period of advance which culminated in the only real social advances in Brazil’s history. Indeed, the Lula government has been the greatest success of the Brazilian Left since the strength of the Communist movement in the 1930s. Yet this advance and this expansion was not enough to hold back the reality of counter-revolution — even despite the limited reality of Brazil’s Social Democracy under Lula and Rousseff. The history of Brazil, full of coups and putsches designed to maintain the old order, came crashing down on the PT government in 2016 — and ultimately resulted in the victory of Bolsonaro. The coup of 2016, and the removal of Rousseff, by the traditional parties of the Brazilian Centre-Right and the Brazilian Right, led to the advance of the Far-Right instead of the Centre-Right — culminating in the victory of Bolsonaro and the possibility of Fascism in Brazil. Brazil has a history of Fascism — the Vargas era of 1930-1945, the Integralist Putsch of 1938, and the military coup of 1964. Bolsonaro is not an exception to the political reality of Brazil — he is a continuation of that political reality. The advance of the PT government, it seems, was the exception. For the Left today, in Brazil, the prospect of 2018-2019 being a return to 1930, 1935, or 1964, is a very real one. Hopefully, the struggle for social progress in Brazil will advance — despite the legacy of 1930, 1935, 1964, and 2018-2019. The Brazilian Left, today, needs to learn from the past – and advance into the future.
1. P. Anderson, Brazil, (1964)
2. P. Anderson, The Dark Side of Brazilian Conviviality, (1994)
3. O. Ianni, Political Progress and Political Development in Brazil — Part I, (1964)
O. Ianni, Political Progress and Political Development in Brazil — Part II, (1964)
4. A. Singer, Rebellion in Brazil, (2014)
5. P. Anderson, Crisis in Brazil, (2016)
6. P. Anderson, Lula’s Brazil, (2011)
P. Anderson, Bolsonaro’s Brazil, (2019)
(2020)Tags: Essays - R.G. Williams
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This post was written by R.G. Williams