Right-wing extremism is rising around the world, and knowing that each country has its own approach to fascism, I thus present Brazil’s path and its particularities in this direction. To do so, I will analyze the development of the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT), as well as recent events and the current status of left-wing movements in Brazil in light of some of Luxemburg’s ideas.
Rosa Rosa Gomes finished her Master’s at the University of Sao Paulo in 2018 with a thesis on “Rosa Luxemburg: Crisis and Revolution”. She is a member of GMARX, a group at the University of Sao Paulo coordinated by professor Lincoln Secco, and an editor of the group’s weekly journal, Maria Antonia. She also takes part in a project to build a Heritage Centre for the workers of the Sao Paulo district Perus, the Centro de Memorias Queixadas. This article is based on her presentation at “Rosa Luxemburg at 150: Revisiting Her Radical Life and Legacy”, a conference hosted by the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung and the International Rosa Luxemburg Society on 4–5 March 2021.
First, I would like to stress Brazil’s place in the international division of labour following Luxemburg’s accumulation theory. The area which today is known as Brazil has been through all the phases of capital accumulation mentioned by Luxemburg: the struggle against natural economy, the introduction of commodity economy, the struggle against peasant economy, and imperialism with all its methods of exploitation. The original inhabitants of Brazil’s territory have been suffering and dying at the hands of the European colonizers from the time of colonization to this day. The colonial economy served as an initial accumulation so that Europe could start the Industrial Revolution, and Brazil has kept its subdued position in international affairs, responding to other countries’ and peoples’ interests even after its political independence in 1822. Therefore, it is to this day a country prone to opening frontiers to capital accumulation, not only as a commodity producer, but in the sense that the accumulation process described by Luxemburg has been happening even up to the present day. It is not only accumulation by dispossession, as described by David Harvey, but also so-called “primitive accumulation”.
During the twentieth century, a lot of debate has happened around Brazil’s position in the global economy, and some political groups defended greater independence as well as a sort of nationalization of Brazil's economy. The ruling class gathered and defeated this project with a military coup on 1 April 1964 with the support of the United States.
The dictatorship that began in 1964 destroyed the organized Left, comprised of political parties, movements, and unions. It persecuted and killed all of those who had a different opinion. In the economic sector, by the end of the 1970s the situation was dreadful for workers. Salaries had gone down by 40 percent from 1960–80, inflation went up, and there was no political freedom. Brazilian workers began to organize in community centres, church centres (Comunidades Eclesiais de Base, CEBs), and unions. The formal workers tried to take back the unions from the pelegos, workers who boycotted movements and strikes, and who instead defended their employers’ interests. This created a great national mobilization that led to the founding of the Workers’ Party (PT) in 1980.
Therefore, the PT was founded as a mass party, something like the one Luxemburg defends in her debate with Lenin, where she argues:
The fact is that the Social Democracy is not joined to the organization of the proletariat. It is itself the proletariat. And because of this, Social Democratic centralism is essentially different from Blanquist centralism. It can only be the concentrated will of the individuals and groups representative of the working class. It is, so to speak, the “self-centralism” of the advanced sectors of the proletariat. It is the rule of the majority within its own party.
Brazil’s PT was an assembly of different movements spread all over the country’s territory that nevertheless found themselves united as workers fighting for better living and working conditions. As Lincoln Secco says, “trade unionism and Lula’s leadership were certainly vital and made a centripetal force. But that only happened because there was social energy spread all over the country, organizing itself autonomously”. Thus, the PT was founded as a result of this self-consciousness and was at first organized bottom-up as a federation of small groups. The base structures had more power in the beginning. As a result of its development and the class struggles in Brazil from the 1980s to 2000, the PT underwent many changes.
The PT grew inside institutionalized politics, gaining more representation in parliament and in the executive power, electing mayors and governors. This was reflected in its internal structure, which became more centralized in the process, though they started internal direct elections (processo de eleição direta, PED) in 2001. It was a form of controlling access to the party’s direction, and as Lincoln Secco said: “two problems grew out of that. The first is that the election started preceding the debate; the second is that miming the capitalist representative democracy, the PED is more susceptible to abuse of economic power.”
Advances and Setbacks
By the time the PT finally won the presidential elections in Brazil in 2002, 22 years after its foundation, it was a completely different party, a centralized one. The organization had chosen the conciliation strategy and made lots of agreements with the conservative sector of Brazilian politics. It ruled from 2003 until 2016, winning four elections before losing control of government following the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff. It had been a period of growth for the Brazilian economy, with the minimum wage increasing 120 percent from 2000 to January 2016. That was surely related to the rise of commodities prices in the international market, but it is also true that any other government would have kept this extra money and distributed it among the upper classes. The debates around the reduction of social inequality are still going on in Brazil, but a perceptible improvement in the lives of the poorest during the PT’s presidential terms is undeniable, and so is the shaking-up of the Brazilian social structure.
The global crisis of 2008 also had an impact on Brazil, but at first PT governments took some countercyclical measures such as reducing taxes on industrialized products to improve demand, creating a programme to finance housing for low-income families, maintaining cash transfer programmes such as Bolsa Família, and trying to reduce the interest rate. Yet these policies were limited, the average monthly income started to decrease in 2014, and the deindustrialization process went on.During that year, there were presidential elections, the hosting of football’s World Cup, and lots of protests still ongoing in Brazil.
In 2013, riots which began because of the increase in bus fares were months later manipulated by the media and transformed into a nonsensical matter, awakening the worst in the middle and upper classes. The presidential elections of 2014 were ideological, maybe the most ideological since 1989. Dilma Rousseff from the PT was re-elected with a programme of countercyclical economic policies. People elected the PT so that the country would face the economic crisis by taxing employers and extreme wealth, and redistributing money to people to keep the economy running. Well, Rousseff applied the opposite programme, the one that had lost in the ballots. The media kept up its inflammatory and sensationalist narratives, and as a result of all the reactionary forces and PT’s political decisions, Rousseff's impeachment happened.
The unemployment rate started going up in the beginning of 2015, during Rousseff's second presidential term. It was a result of the global crisis, but also her political decisions. Instead of applying countercyclical policies, she applied fiscal adjustment, joining forces with more conservative sectors in the agribusiness and orthodox economists. In a way, it seems that the PT tried to apply a bourgeois programme, but as Luxemburg said in her text “House of Cards” in 1919, “these elements support the ‘socialist’ government only so long as they believe that they can keep a tight rein on the proletarian masses by waving the false banner of socialism, and can strangle the revolution and socialism by means of their ‘moral’ influence.” The bourgeoisie only supports social-democratic governments in a situation of crisis if they believe that those governments can control the masses; if they do not fulfil this role, or if they are no longer needed to enact the programme of exploitation or indeed the dictatorship itself, the bourgeoisie prefers one of their own.
It is true that the PT was persecuted by the media and the judiciary, and that all the bourgeois apparatus was mobilized to destroy the party and its ability to fight back. But it is also true that after many lost chances of going back to its origins—to the people they represented—the popular support for the party had shrunk until there was no more will to do something and no organization to unite people. That is also why there were not so many people when Lula was arrested in 2018, and also why it was possible for the upper classes to arrest the only leader that could defeat the blatant fascist, Bolsonaro.
During its years in power, the PT disrupted workers’ organizations, it became a bureaucratic party, and called on its followers only during elections—and even that was not done effectively. As an example, an anecdote from the elections of 2018: the party organized a campaign event during a weekend in a neighbourhood in Sao Paulo, but they decided not to bring any campaign materials to be offered to potential voters; there were only a few pamphlets that people had brought themselves, and others started campaigning for the PT with materials from the candidate of another party. The people responsible for the event were disorganized and seemed lost, as though they had no idea what to do, so much so that it seemed they did not expect, or even want, anyone to show up.
Learning from Luxemburg
Luxemburg expressed in her 1911 text “Again Masses and Leaders” that the party base and local organizations should act despite their leaders; when those leaders are not doing enough, they should push them further. But it is also true that, in her lifetime, those masses were educated by German social-democratic organizations over the course of decades, whereas Brazilian workers, in turn, were educated by the PT, which had been the leading party in social struggles for many decades. This educational aspect is something Luxemburg pointed out in another text, “Tactical Questions”, in 1913, saying that the party had learned its tactics through parliamentary politics, but in the imperialist moment it was necessary to go further and guide mass actions, and therefore that the German social-democratic movement should not avoid the struggles, because they were informative for the working class and should pave the way towards socialism. This also applies to the PT. In 2013 and 2014, the opportunity arose for its leaders to slightly radicalize its programme in face of the bourgeois offensive. Instead, the leaders chose to go further to the right. And when they were trapped, they called upon their followers to support them. However by that time, many had changed sides, others were disappointed, and the significant number that appeared in many demonstrations were being told to wait and hope for bourgeois justice, the same “justice” that removed Dilma Rousseff from government.
If we compare the PT in Brazil with the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) during Luxemburg’s lifetime, it is necessary to point out some differences. The PT was a popular party, formed by the gathering of lots of popular movements, in a huge territory with enormous social and economic differences, in a peripheral country. The German SPD was formed by the merging of two other organizations with different schools of thought, from Marx and Lassalle, and despite that it had a declared socialist goal. Germany was not as big as Brazil, though it was bigger than it is today, and most importantly, it was an imperialist country at the top of the global economy, engaging in disputes with Britain and the United States. Despite these differences, both social democracies have some proximity in their histories. Eric Hobsbawm says that the PT in Brazil in 2002 was a phenomenon of global importance for the “red hearts” and compares it to the mass parties that emerged in Europe by the turn of the twentieth century. The Brazilian historian Lincoln Secco also analyzed the similarities and differences between both organizations. One way or another, it is important to state that the PT did not kill its major leaders, but it led them to be imprisoned and destroyed as public figures by the Operação Lava Jato (“Operation Car Wash”), a political process that used unproven accusations to persecute the PT and which has been exposed by The Intercept Brasil, uncovering a major scandal in the Brazilian justice system.
As a result of this process, the bourgeoisie finally succeeded in forcing the PT out of government, and to do so made every necessary effort, allying itself with the most spurious layers of Brazilian politics to the point that it is now barely in control, if it has not already surrendered this position.
Historically, fascism can only flourish when left-wing movements have been defeated for a lot of reasons and in different ways. This process of destroying the workers’ organization in Brazil has been ongoing since the first presidential terms of the party, but at that point, the economy was doing well and the PT was more engaged with political outreach to the masses, thus achieving broad support. In 2016, this strategy was withdrawn, as the party itself implemented fiscal adjustments, and diminished access to unemployment insurance, for example when the rates of unemployment started going up. After so much frustration and negative press, how was it possible to defend the organization, gather the masses, and fight back? The party itself did not want it. It was still looking for legal mechanisms to stop the impeachment process and reverse the political damage. But the entire legal system had been mobilized to overthrow them. How could they expect a favourable decision without popular support? As long as the PT represents a threat to the ruling classes, the party will be persecuted and virtually prohibited since its strongest candidate, Lula, is not allowed to run in elections and the media has largely ignored this matter. Of course, the world is living through a pandemic, but it is astonishing that the media refuses to mention the PT and that the party, in turn, does not seem to want to be heard. There is no noise, only debates about the next elections. History has taught us that it is not possible to defeat fascism only with elections, and so far the opposite has been the case.
Continuing with comparisons, there has been no global war quite like the First World War. But in Brazil, genocide is the rule not the exception. In 2017, 65,602 people were murdered and so far, more than 250,000 have died from COVID-19, but it is not possible to tell from walking the streets—it seems like nothing is happening. So, in a certain way, there is a catastrophe happening, or in another sense Brazil’s daily life is a catastrophe generated by the expansion of capital. What has been happening in the last several years is also connected to that, since all laws and regulations are being broken so that capital can expand, trampling over forest reserves, indigenous lands, and workers’ rights. A level of exploitation never seen before is happening all over the world, and left-wing movements in Brazil seem to be paralyzed watching the destruction.
Rosa Luxemburg, when analyzing thoroughly the mistakes of the German social democrats in “The Crisis of German Social Democracy”, says that “what the social democracy as the advance guard of the class-conscious proletariat should have been able to give was not ridiculous precepts and technical recipes, but a political slogan, clearness concerning the political problems and interests of the proletariat in times of war”. Instead, they used their influence to diffuse the outrage and make the workers go to war. She continues to say that questioning whether the masses would have followed is not a valid question, because nobody gets into a fight knowing what the result is going to be. This kind of discussion happened also between the PT’s supporters: many say that they cannot go on the offensive in their political action, otherwise the upper and middle classes would strike back against them in alliance with the working-class people who are intrinsically more conservative and reformist. This is a lousy excuse for not doing anything that threatens their own particular political position. While these discussions go on, the party is being neutralized and the population is paying the price of the global crisis and the need to accumulate capital. This reveals that to this day the PT still has not formulated a clear understanding of how to govern Brazil nor about how to approach the Brazilian middle classes. Even worse, it does not seem to have an understanding about class struggle at all.
The middle classes in capitalist societies are always looking up to the class above them, even though their material life and social relations are much more like that of the working class. As for the ruling class, its only goal is to enlarge its own profit no matter what it takes. Putting these abstract characterizations of both classes into the context of a country that has not come to terms with its history of slavery is the best way to understand the specific contours of Brazilian class struggle, which means that the upper classes still consider the poorest as lesser humans. In this context, in spite of any agreements made, the ruling class will do anything to hang on to power, to keep all the profits to itself, and to avoid sharing. It will even make agreements with fascists.
Where to Now?
But it is not only the PT that still believes in the normalization of capitalist democracy in Brazil: many leftists also do. Left-wing parties, movements, and individuals believe that salvation lies in the next presidential elections, as if the only thing to be done was electoral campaigning. But, as Luxemburg said in 1913 and as has been mentioned here before, “the new Era of Imperialism put us each day more in front of new tasks that can’t be confronted only with parliamentarianism, with the old apparatus and old routine. Our party needs to learn how to proceed with mass actions in correspondent situations and guide them”. Capitalism does not allow workers to believe that parliamentary politics will give them social rights; studying history from a global perspective shows that only the struggle is able to change situations in favour of the working class.
Another debate that often appears is whether the PT is still a party of the working class. The PT has made many mistakes, or rather its leaders have, but that does not erase its history and its concrete relation to the working class in Brazil. According to Lincoln Secco, “it is necessary to say that the old PT has a lot to teach”. The party is one of the largest in Brazil with over 1.5 million affiliated members. In 2020 it achieved 183 elected mayors from a total of 5,568, and it has 52 federal representatives out of the overall 513. Its members are spread all over the country and across different social strata. The PT is still is a great force among people. A significant part of the Brazilian working class identifies the PT as its representative organization; the class as a whole has to bring the party towards a more radical form. A group of people cannot do that themselves, this would only create an assemblage of small groups that together do not represent much. Following in Luxemburg’s footsteps again, in a text of 1917, she said, “one can ‘leave’ from small sects and convents when they don’t fit anymore to sink into new sects and convents. It is pure immature fantasy to want to free the proletarian mass of the heavy and dangerous domination of the bourgeoisie by simply getting out [of the party]”.
Are we stuck with the PT? Communists and workers are stuck with the working class. Rosa Luxemburg’s life expresses that. She dedicated her life to fight reformism inside the SPD and to spread the revolution throughout the working masses. She wrote texts on the danger of immobility and of bureaucratization, and on the necessity of walking side-by-side with the radicalization of the masses towards social revolution. She stressed the role of the party as the vanguard of the working class, but she did not undermine the self-organized movements that appeared in her lifetime.
Luxemburg fiercely criticized the opportunists in her party who were concerned only with elections, political positions, and political influence inside the boundaries of bourgeois society. For years, she had warned about the risks of making alliances with the bourgeoisie and conciliation politics. She had warned over and over again about the necessity of the party as an organization of the working class to achieve a precise idea of imperialism, as well as the role of militarism and the capitalist state in accumulation. For Luxemburg, the German social democrats started believing in the bourgeois discourse based on a false idea of nationalism. Later, when the German revolution was in progress, SPD leaders believed they had made a deal and would share power with the bourgeoisie. Luxemburg had also warned the SPD leaders that they would be kept in power only for as long as the bourgeoisie thought it was necessary. What happened decades later was the rise of fascist movements all over the world, and what is happening today resembles those years.
Looking to the Brazilian experience with the PT through this lens, some points stand out: above all the naivety of the party leadership regarding the conciliation strategy. In Brazil, the reformism applied by the PT was enough to infuriate the ruling and middle classes, particularly when the crisis arrived here. To improve the lives of workers is the basic duty of a workers’ party, but it is lacking class consciousness to believe that this is the way to assure a more equal society, or a “fair” one. This becomes more evident with the weakening of workers’ organizations that were caught off guard and could not react properly when the media and its supporters started attacking all the social victories achieved in the 13 years of PT administration and rolling back social rights.
Today, fascism is in the ascendant, and the way to keep it from becoming a regime, and to escape the barbarism that engulfs us daily, is to emphasize class struggle, as Alain Badiou recently wrote. He did not necessarily use this term, but rather questioned the exploitation, and the private appropriation of social product, escaping naive arguments and easy paths. It is time to look closely at many things Luxemburg wrote about: land-grabbing, capital accumulation, militarism, the state, and proletarian organization, and not to lose sight of her quote from 1915/1916: “we are not lost, and we will be victorious if we have not unlearned how to learn. And if the present leaders of the proletariat, the Social Democrats, do not understand how to learn, then they will go under to make room for people capable of dealing with a new world”.
Bernardo, João, Labirintos do Fascismo, Porto: Edições Afrontamento, 2003. Available online at http://www.bresserpereira.org.br/terceiros/2015/junho/15.05.Labirintos-do-fascismo.pdf. Last accessed on 24 March 2021.
Einhorn, C., M. Arréllaga, B. Migliozzi, and S. Reinhard, “The World’s Largest Tropical Wetland Has Become an Inferno”, New York Times, 13 October 2020, available at https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/10/13/climate/pantanal-brazil-fires.html. Last accessed on 24 March 2021.
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Hobsbawm, Eric, The Age of Empire: 1875–1914, New York: First Vintage Books Edition, 1989.
---------- Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life, London: Time Warner, 2002.
IBGE, “Síntese de Indicadores Sociais: uma análise das condições de vida da população brasileira”, Rio de Janeiro: Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística, 2016, available at https://biblioteca.ibge.gov.br/visualizacao/livros/liv98965.pdf. Last accessed on 28 February 2021.
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---------- Gesammelte Werke, vol. 3, Berlin: Dietz, 1980.
---------- Gesammelte Werke, vol. 5, Berlin: Dietz, 1985.
---------- The Accumulation of Capital, London and New York: Routledge, 2003.
Martello, Alexandre, “Dilma sanciona lei que altera regras do seguro-desemprego com vetos”, G1, 16 June 2015, available at http://g1.globo.com/economia/noticia/2015/06/dilma-sanciona-lei-que-altera-regras-do-seguro-desemprego-com-vetos.html. Last accessed on 28 February 2021.
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Paxton, Robert, A Anatomia do Fascismo, trans. Patricia Zimbres e Paula Zimbres, São Paulo: Paz e Terra, 2007.
Schorske, Carl E., German Social Democracy, 1905–1917: The Development of the Great Schism, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.
Secco, Lincoln, História do PT, Cotia: Ateliê, 2011. [There is also a French translation: Histoire du Parti des Travailleurs au Brèsil, Paris: Éditions du Sextant, 2016].
---------- “O que aconteceu com aquele PT?”, A Terra é Redonda, 27 February 2021, available at https://aterraeredonda.com.br/o-que-aconteceu-com-aquele-pt/. Last accessed on 24 March 2021.
Secco, Lincoln (ed.), A Ideia: Lula e o Sentido do Brasil Contemporâneo, São Paulo: Revista Mouro, 2018.
 David Harvey intends to update Marx’s, and actually Luxemburg’s, concept of accumulation with another concept: accumulation by dispossession, which includes the capital advance at the expense of social rights and privatization, and is the form of accumulation in the neoliberal era. The so-called primitive accumulation is about the capital advance over non-capitalist societies and spaces, absorbing them into the capitalist system.
 Rosa Luxemburg, “Organizational Questions of the Russian Social Democracy”, Marxists Internet Archive.
 Lincoln Secco, História do PT, Cotia: Ateliê Editorial, 2011, p. 195.
 “Salário mínimo real”, Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada.
 “Síntese de Indicadores Sociais: uma análise das condições de vida da população brasileira”, Rio de Janeiro: Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística, 2016.
 See: Lincoln Secco, “O Sentido da Recolonização: liderança operária, ciclos econômicos e democracia racionada no Brasil”, 2018; A Ideia: Lula e o sentido do Brasil contemporâneo, São Paulo: Revista Mouro, 2018, pp. 61–91.
 “Pesquisa Nacional por Amostra de Domicílio Contínua”, Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística.
 Rosa Luxemburg, “House of Cards”, Die Rote Fahne, 13 January 1919, trans. W. D. Graf, Marxists Internet Archive.
< Eric Hobsbawm, Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life, London: Time Warner, 2002.
 Lincoln Secco, História do PT.
 Alexandre Martello, “Dilma sanciona lei que altera regras do seguro-desemprego com vetos”, G1, 16 June 2015.
 “Secret Brazil Archive”, The Intercept.
 This article was written before Lula’s exoneration on 8 March 2021, but since little has changed in Brazil’s political game. The Left is still out of commission. Therefore, the following analysis is still accurate.
 C. Einhorn, M. Arréllaga, B. Migliozzi, and S. Reinhard, “The World’s Largest Tropical Wetland Has Become an Inferno”, New York Times, 13 October 2020.
 Rosa Luxemburg, “Taktische Frage”, Gesammelte Werke, vol. 3, Berlin: Dietz, 1980, p. 256.
 Secco, “O que aconteceu com aquele PT?”
 L. Mazza, P. Lopes, and R. Buono, “PT despenca em número de filiados, PSOL e Rede crescem”, Revista Piauí, 29 September 2020.
 Source: Tribunal Superior Eleitoral.
 Source: Câmara Legislativa. The PT is today the second-largest party in terms of federal representatives, the largest being the PSL, the former party of Jair Bolsonaro.
 Rosa Luxemburg, “Offene Briefe an Gesinnungsfreunde”, Gesammelte Werke, vol. 4, Berlin: Dietz, 1974, p. 235.