On the IG’s 2016 Capitulation in Brazil:
At this year’s Lutte Ouvrière fête outside Paris, the Internationalist Group (IG) held a forum to address recent developments in Brazil—in particular the reactionary anti-working class politics of newly-elected President Jair Bolsonaro. One focus for discussion at the forum was provided by supporters of the International Communist League (affiliated with the Spartacist League/U.S.) who were sharply critical of the IG’s 2016 defense of reformist Workers Party (PT) president Dilma Rousseff against impeachment charges. The campaign against Rousseff on essentially bogus allegations of “corruption” was driven by rightist politicos well known for being genuinely corrupt. The core of the PT’s base, including many of the more militant sections of the working class, feared that if Rousseff lost the presidency, a rightist successor would make life even worse. At the same time many PT supporters were disaffected by the tendency of Rousseff (and her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, aka “Lula”) to put the interests of Brazil’s corporations ahead of trade unionists and poor people.
Most of Brazil’s leftist groups routinely called for votes to PT candidates and, while critical of Rousseff’s record in office, opposed her impeachment. The IG, and its Brazilian affiliate (Liga Quarta-Internacionalista do Brasil [LQB]) had a record of steadfastly refusing any electoral support to the PT on the grounds that it was operating as the leading component in a cross-class lash-up (aka “popular front”) with various capitalist formations rather than as a genuine workers’ party. In 2016 the IG/LQB broke with this approach to join the chorus of leftist organizations defending Rousseff against impeachment.
Clearly uneasy with its new posture, the IG sought to cover its shift with plenty of leftist rhetoric. In a special May 2016 Internationalist supplement on the impeachment issue, the IG denounced the rightist campaign while also harshly criticizing the numerous betrayals of working people by Rousseff’s government. Considerable emphasis was placed on how, for a dozen years, the IG/LQB had refused to offer PT candidates any electoral support. What was not addressed was the awkward fact that in opposing rightist parliamentary attempts to impeach Rousseff, the IG was in fact politically supporting the movement to keep her in office.
An essentially similar issue arose in Venezuela when, two years after the aborted 2002 coup against left-populist Hugo Chavez, rightist forces initiated a referendum to demand new presidential elections. Marxists would never extend any sort of political support to left-talking bourgeois populists like Chavez, but this does not necessarily mean supporting any and all oppositional initiatives, as we explained in commenting on the Venezuelan referendum:
“Given a choice, Marxists would generally vote ‘yes’ to removing a bourgeois government. But in the case of Venezuela today, the role of U.S. imperialism somewhat complicates the equation. There have been analogous situations in the past, when revolutionaries have not been eager to see similar attempts succeed, notably the Nazi-initiated ‘Red Referendum’ against the Social Democratic government of Prussia…., which failed when the combined efforts of the Stalinists and Nazis failed to obtain the support of the majority of the electorate.”
We recalled Trotsky’s observation that:
“To come out into the streets with the slogan ‘Down with the Bruening-Braun government’ at a time when, according to the relationship of forces, it can only be replaced by a government of Hitler-Hugenberg, is the sheerest adventurism. The same slogan, however, assumes an altogether different meaning if it becomes an introduction to the direct struggle of the proletariat itself for power.”
The 2016 impeachment drive in Brazil, like the 2004 recall campaign in Venezuela, was driven by domestic rightist forces acting in collusion with Washington. For many leftists such low-intensity imperialist support for indigenous rightist “lawfare” is sufficient reason to side with the target regimes. But doing so means giving political support to a bourgeois government.
Revolutionaries make a qualitative distinction between parliamentary/legalist maneuvers (e.g., impeachment, no-confidence motions, recall petitions, etc.) and extra-legal military interventions like those against the Spanish and Chilean popular fronts in 1936 and 1973 or Chavez in 2002. Marxists militarily defended all these regimes against rightist attacks without giving any of them political support. The model for this was the Bolshevik Party’s defense of Alexander Kerensky’s Provisional Government in 1917 against a military coup led by General Lavr Kornilov. Sometimes sinister extra-parliamentary reaction can assume a parliamentary guise (for example Hitler’s appointment as German chancellor in 1933) but, as we observed in relation to Venezuela, in such cases there is no effective response within a legal/electoral framework:
“While we would never vote for a Christian Democrat or Gaullist to keep a Nazi out of office, we would certainly favour vigorous mass action to negate a fascist electoral victory. We do not want Le Pen as president of France, but we are not prepared to vote for Chirac—not only out of principle, but also because we recognize that if society is that close to a National Front takeover, the idea of electoral resistance can only be a debilitating illusion. In such situations, or in case of another attempted rightist coup in Venezuela, the urgent duty of revolutionaries is to mobilize the working class for battle.”
In Brazil, the IG/LQB’s appetite to engage with the PT base led them to defend Rousseff and raise the slogan “No to Impeachment!” In an attempt to disguise the uncomfortable fact that this amounted to political support, the IG added another slogan stating the exact opposite: “No Political Support to the Bourgeois Popular Front Government.” Does the IG leadership consider that the legal/parliamentary proceedings to impeach a president are somehow qualitatively different than those used to put them into office in the first place? The loud declarations about “no political support” while simultaneously defending Rousseff against impeachment recalls Oscar Wilde’s quip about hypocrisy being the homage vice pays to virtue.
The IG is quite right that “Operation Carwash,” the judicial investigation of Rousseff, was a stitch-up. But opposing the cynical legal maneuvers of right-wingers does not require politically backing their popular-frontist targets. As the IG’s Brazil supplement acknowledged, Rousseff’s problems arose because many workers who had previously voted for the PT were alienated by the government’s record of catering to big capital, which the IG described as follows:
“In order to secure its position in government, the PT made a bloc with the top companies including Odebrecht, OAS, Cmargo [sic] Correia, Andrade Gutierrez and other construction contractors which were founded or gorged themselves during the military dictatorship. We have here one more proof that the popular-front governments not only allied themselves with imperialism, but also with big capital nationally….”
Even in the midst of the campaign against Rousseff, the PT was still proposing new incursions on workers’ rights:
“the government has already sent to Congress a series of bills which will undo decades of gains by the Brazilian working class. Even amid the tumult of recent days, on March 17  Dilma signed the anti-terrorism law to inhibit social protests, above all by the working class, which will be used to prohibit demonstrations….”
The consequences of this behavior were predictable:
“Today in Brazil Lula and Dilma have heavily attacked the interests of the working people in defense of the bourgeoisie, which their popular-front government represents. There is utterly justified rejection of the PT among important layers of the youth and proletarian sectors. Thousands feel that Lula betrayed those who voted for him.”
The popular front’s betrayals helped open the door for reaction:
“In the name of fighting corruption, ‘Operação Lava Jato’ (Operation Car Wash) has given the green light to the repressive apparatus. The judicial power and the police have slipped the leash of civilian control, ignoring laws, placing themselves above any body elected by popular vote. Today they are attacking Dilma and Lula, tomorrow their targets will be the pensions, wages and jobs of working people—and the organizations of the workers movement. Make no mistake, democratic and labor rights are under attack. To defeat this sinister bonapartist offensive, we need a powerful revolutionary mobilization of the working class.”
The call for a “powerful revolutionary mobilization” to defend Rousseff sounded more militant than the banal “unite against the right” propaganda of the rest of the left, but, as the IG/LQB acknowledged, the PT president’s agenda was essentially similar to that of her rightist opponents:
“the coup against working people – the deadly ‘fiscal adjustment’ (budget cuts), the pension and labor ‘reforms’—are plowing ahead with the wind in their sails, whether under the command of the PT or the right, or of a ‘technical’ government. Therefore, at the same time that it’s necessary to mobilize the power of the workers movement to block the road of the bonapartist offensive, we must use this power against the anti-worker policies which unite the bourgeois forces in conflict, both the right-wing opposition and the popular front which is still in office.”
—Ibid., emphasis added
The IG/LQB accurately described the conflict as “a clash between two factions of the bourgeoisie, the traditional right wing and the popular front,” yet expressed concern that the workers’ movement would be weakened if the PT was “shattered”:
“Forget about the alleged ‘crimes’ (of ‘responsibility,’ i.e., the president is not accused of personally doing anything), at bottom this is on the one hand an act of political revenge, a clash between two factions of the bourgeoisie, the traditional right wing and the popular front. On the other hand, it offers the chance to shatter the PT, a reformist workers party—or as Lenin described the British Labour Party, a ‘bourgeois workers’ party—and thereby weaken worker resistance to the economic reforms seeking to jack up the profit rate. As a banner in front of the FIESP duck said during the right-wing occupation of the Avenida Paulista, ‘Exterminating the PT: Priceless.’”
The IG/LQB acknowledged a) that the legalistic wrangle over impeachment was essentially an intra-bourgeois dispute in which both sides pursued “anti-worker policies” and b) that the popular front had so demobilized the workers’ movement and discredited the PT that it might be facing “extermination” at the polls. The obvious conclusion should have been to call for a radical break with the PT traitors and the construction of a new mass workers’ party committed to resolutely pursuing the class struggle. But instead, the IG/LQB fretted about keeping Rousseff in office and the survival of the PT.
The IG/LQB’s attempt to have their cake while also eating it resulted in political incoherence. While siding with the PT in the “parliamentary finagling” over impeachment, they also declared: “We politically oppose both of the squabbling camps because there are capitalist forces carrying out anti-worker policies.” While ostensibly opposing both camps, they in fact supported Rousseff on the grounds that her opponents posed a serious threat to “democratic and trade union rights”:
“This is an inter-bourgeois dispute between the right-wing opposition and the governing popular front. We politically oppose both of the squabbling camps because there are capitalist forces carrying out anti-worker policies. The question of political corruption has always been a battle cry of ultra-rightist and fascist forces…. We are against the impeachment of Dilma not because the president and her coalition are supposedly more progressive, but instead because it is above all a settling of accounts and political vengeance being pushed by reactionary forces whose victory would aggravate the attacks on democratic and trade-union rights of workers and the oppressed.”
This line of argument will be familiar to anyone who has ever discussed electoral tactics with Stalinist proponents of “unite against the right” lesser-evilism. Ostensible Trotskyists pushing this policy typically begin by proclaiming their principled opposition to voting for bourgeois candidates and then move on to explain how, in the current conjuncture, special circumstances compel them to make an exception. This is roughly what the IG’s argument boils down to: Rousseff should be propped up to avoid “political vengeance being pushed by reactionary forces whose victory would aggravate the attacks on democratic and trade-union rights of workers and the oppressed.”
The contradiction in the IG’s policy was starkly evident in the three slogans on the front page of the May 2016 supplement:
“No to Impeachment!
“For Workers Mobilization Against the Bourgeois Rightist Offensive
“No Political Support to the Bourgeois Popular Front Government”
An intelligent reader might well wonder why opposing impeachment of the head of a “bourgeois popular front government” would not qualify as a form of political support. Or why, given the IG’s vivid descriptions of the “heavy attacks” launched by the popular front to “undo decades of gains by the Brazilian working class,” leftists should want to keep such people in office anyway. After all, a serious mobilization against the rightist offensive, such as the IG proposed, would have had to target both the anti-worker measures implemented by the popular front and the new ones projected by the more traditional bosses’ parties.
Revolutionaries who refused to politically support Rousseff could have intersected militants involved in the anti-impeachment mobilizations by clearly demonstrating their commitment to combatting bourgeois reaction, and actively participating in every form of resistance to the sinister designs of the agencies of capitalist repression. In fighting the agenda of the PT’s rightist opponents, a revolutionary organization would have had many opportunities to propose actions to reverse the anti-working class measures implemented under Rousseff. A proletarian counter-offensive could not only have mobilized workers who opposed Rousseff’s impeachment because they feared a right-wing takeover, but also those who had been angered and demoralized by the betrayals of the PT. A Trotskyist leadership would have aggressively sought to unite militants from both camps in a common struggle to derail the bourgeois attacks. A successful push back could have laid the basis for launching a genuine workers’ party with a revolutionary program. If, instead of putting forward a demand that amounted to keeping Rousseff in office, the IG had prioritized the fight to break with the class-collaborationism of the PT, it would only have needed to change one of its three mass slogans. In that case the headline on its May 2016 Supplement might have read:
“For Workers Mobilization Against the Bourgeois Rightist Offensive
“No Political Support to the Bourgeois Popular Front Government
“Break with the PT—Build a Fighting Workers’ Party”
In an attempt to square the circle created by the absurdity of taking Rousseff’s side in “an inter-bourgeois dispute” while also claiming to “politically oppose both of the squabbling camps,” the IG disingenuously asserted that “the lessons of the Kerensky-Kornilov clash in Russia in 1917 are relevant” in Brazil circa 2016, and cited Trotsky’s observation that: “Not for an instant did it [the Bolshevik Party] hesitate to conclude a practical alliance [with Kerensky et al] to fight against Kornilov….”
The problem is that the situation in Brazil 2016 was entirely different from that in Russia a century earlier. The target of Kornilov’s coup was not Kerensky’s discredited popular-front government but Petrograd’s insurgent workers’ movement and its Bolshevik leadership. The Internationalist acknowledged that the analogy with 1917 was imperfect because in Brazil there were neither soviets nor “a revolutionary Marxist party.” The other huge difference was that there was never any real danger of a military coup, as the IG admitted:
“Most likely there will be no coup, since with impeachment the right wing will have obtained its primary goal. But meanwhile we are faced with a dangerous offensive by the judicial and police powers, and the offensive by the entire bourgeoisie against the working people is proceeding at top speed.”
—Internationalist, Special Supplement, May 2016
Falsely equating the parliamentary squabbling in Brazil with the actual coup in Petrograd, the IG drew “the fundamental lesson” that “in the face of a mortal threat, one can make a military bloc, in action, without giving any political support to the bloc partner….” But if there was no prospect of a coup then there was obviously no basis for any sort of “military bloc, in action.” The Bolsheviks were responding to a rightist coup, not a parliamentary no-confidence maneuver. The IG’s attempt to present its political support to Rousseff as somehow equivalent to a “military bloc” against rightist terror is therefore entirely illegitimate.
The IG acknowledged that Rousseff’s government did not present an obstacle to the pending “offensive by the entire bourgeoisie against the working people,” observing:
“[It] is fundamental to understand that there is no solution under capitalism to the deep economic crisis which gave rise to the Brazilian political crisis. Only by fighting for workers mobilization leading to socialist revolution can we defeat the attempts to shield capital against the resistance of the workers….”
But any attempt to build such mobilizations could only have been sidetracked by getting involved in the penny-ante maneuvering over impeachment. As the Internationalist observed:
“The real coup that has to be resisted is the anti-worker offensive of capital—the budget cuts, privatizations and pension and labor ‘reforms’ being pushed both by the bourgeois right and by the capitalist popular-front government led by the Workers Party of Lula and Dilma.”
The IG’s confusionist double-talk notwithstanding, the issue is not so very complicated. Popular fronts, whether in or out of office, deserve no political/parliamentary support from revolutionaries—we neither want to help them into office nor keep them there once elected. This was Lenin’s attitude toward Kerensky’s Provisional Government—the Bolsheviks defended it against an extra-parliamentary coup without ever giving it any political support.
The IG’s attempt to muddle things by invoking Kornilov’s military revolt was simply a smokescreen, but the 2002 French presidential election provides an apt analogue. When Jacques Chirac, the candidate of the traditional right, faced off against Jean-Marie Le Pen, the country’s leading fascist, in the second round, virtually the entire French “far left” called for voting “against Le Pen” (i.e., for Chirac) to avert a fascist electoral triumph. Most groups on the harder end of the spectrum of those who identify as Trotskyist (including both ourselves and the IG) refused to give any political support to Chirac, and instead called for mass workers’ mobilizations to suppress the extra-parliamentary thugs of Le Pen’s National Front.
The IG, observing that, “Chirac will implement much of the reactionary program of Le Pen” (Internationalist, April 2002) argued that the necessity to crush the “racist killers” at the core of Le Pen’s movement did not imply an obligation to vote political confidence in the candidate of the class enemy. The May 2002 Internationalist aptly recalled Trotsky’s April 1933 observation about how the German social democrats’ pursuit of the “lesser evil” helped open the door for Hitler:
“Descending from one step to the other in pursuit of the ‘lesser evil,’ the Social Democracy ended by voting for the reactionary field marshal, Hindenburg, who in his turn summoned Hitler to power. Demoralizing the proletariat by illusions of democracy in decaying capitalism, the Social Democracy deprived the proletariat of all its powers of resistance.”
The IG correctly equated Hindenburg and Chirac:
“Today, calls on the workers to vote for Chirac against Le Pen in the name of ‘lesser-evil’ politics will likewise undermine their power of resistance against the onslaught of capital. Parliamentary finagling with bourgeois ‘democrats’ is no barrier to the fascists, for they ultimately represent the same class interests. To stop the likes of Le Pen’s National Front and Hitler’s National Socialists it is necessary to mobilize the power of workers in united class action to sweep the fascist vermin off the streets, opening the way to proletarian revolution.”
—Ibid., emphasis in original
The French left was stunned when Le Pen edged out Lionel Jospin, the sitting prime minister who ran as the Socialist Party candidate. As the IG observed, this unexpected result reflected widespread working-class dissatisfaction with the record of the popular front:
“The popular-front government of the ‘plural left’ headed by [Socialist prime minister] Lionel Jospin was brought in to divert and dissipate that combativity [of the 1995 mass strike wave which rattled the ruling class]. Now that its job is done, the popular front is tossed aside ‘like a squeezed lemon’.”
In both Brazil and France the popular-front government’s pro-capitalist policies “demoralized the proletariat” and provided their rightist opponents with the opportunity to displace them through legal, constitutional means. The two situations were fundamentally similar, yet the IG’s responses were very different. In Brazil (where the IG has a group of co-thinkers) they pandered to popular illusions about the “lesser evil” bourgeois politician, whereas in France, where the IG had nothing and so risked nothing, they adhered to Trotskyist principle and refused to back Chirac against Le Pen.
All the complicated double-talk about Brazil’s impeachment crisis—an example of what Trotsky described as “crystalized confusion”—was motivated by a desire to conceal the opportunist impulse behind the defense of Rousseff. Despite years of insisting on total and absolute opposition to popular-frontism, the price of “swimming against the stream” was just too high. But, having opted to go with the flow, the IG hoped to conceal its capitulation with bluster and pseudo-sophisticated rationalizations.
The IG is an organization composed of serious people who have energetically pursued the task of constructing a viable revolutionary organization for several decades and who, it must be said, have often produced valuable analysis and carried out useful political interventions. But this episode casts the IG in an unflattering light and undercuts its claim to consistently and unflinchingly champion an authentically revolutionary program.
As Trotsky observed, in revolutionary politics scratches can sometimes lead to gangrene. In theory it should be a relatively simple thing for the IG to go back, critically examine its record on Brazil, and retrospectively correct its mistake. We would welcome such a move as evidence of revolutionary health. But unfortunately, to date, the IG leadership has shown a pronounced incapacity to identify its mistakes, take responsibility for them and publicly correct them. Defensive and brittle responses to legitimate criticism is a serious deficiency for a group of would-be revolutionaries. This tendency must be corrected if the comrades of the IG are to play a positive role in the struggle to forge a viable, authentically Trotskyist leadership for the international working class.