The severity of Lula’s sentence in comparison to the banality of his alleged crime is all the more remarkable in a country where the current president of Brazil and his party have escaped prosecution for far more serious charges, backed by ample evidence. This political execution was demanded by a broad section of the ruling class as reflected in the media owned by its handful of leading families, and, under their baton, a significant section of the traditional middle classes. Whatever the various political agendas behind it, this step opens the way for the advance of naked fascism and has awakened frightful memories of the way a military junta ruled the country from 1964 to 1985.
Lula (Luiz Ignacio da Silva), the Brazilian ex-head of state US President Obama once called “the most popular politician on Earth”, is now in prison serving a 12-year sentence for accepting the renovation of an ocean-front apartment placed at his disposal by a contractor.
The federal facility where Lula is now entombed bears a plaque commemorating the day when, as president from 2003 to 2011, he inaugurated it. Like any inmate, his access will be limited to family visits on Thursdays and consultations with his lawyers. Lula had generally been expected to easily win the upcoming October presidential elections on the ticket of the Workers Party (PT), which identifies itself as “democratic socialist”. Now it is considered very unlikely that he will even be allowed to run.
This is far from the first time a Brazilian politician has been jailed for corruption. But it is not just more of the same of the country’s usual rough-and-tumble political manoeuvring. For Lula is not just the country’s most popular politician by far, especially among the lower classes, but also a symbol of their hopes for change – and his imprisonment is bound up with aggressive attempts by an amalgam of rising fascist forces to crush these hopes and usher in a much more reactionary order.
Two crucial lessons can be drawn from this episode: first, Lula and the PT he represents were arguably the leading showcase of what militant social democracy can achieve when it forms a government in today’s world. The humiliating turn of events with Lula’s imprisonment following 13 years of PT governance during which, despite some limited and temporary success with the redistribution of income, overall saw a continuation of intolerable conditions of life for the great majority of Brazil’s marginalised, not least in its notorious urban shantytowns, the favelas, where police murder people with unrivalled impunity.
In 2016, 4224 people (according to the 11th Annual Brazilian Yearbook of Public Security) were murdered. This is more than four times the number killed by police in the US, even though Brazil’s population is one-third smaller. A generation of reactionary governance by social democracy was one of the key ingredients in the rise of the fascist forces that have increasingly set the terms in the country’s political life.
Second, anyone who holds out hope that mainstream social democrats will lead a fight to stop the rise of fascists in their own country needs to take a long, hard look at this episode. If Lula and the PT, despite substantial continuing popularity, accepted his imprisonment like this, do you really think social democrats anywhere else will do any better?! The problem lies not in any personal flaws in Lula, but in the character of social democracy itself. This article will examine these two points in more depth.
The severity of Lula’s sentence in comparison to the banality of his alleged crime is all the more remarkable in a country where the current president and his party have escaped prosecution for far more serious charges, backed by ample evidence. This political execution was demanded by a broad section of the ruling class as reflected in the media owned by its handful of leading families, and, under their baton, a significant section of the traditional middle classes. Whatever the various political agendas behind it, this step opens the way for the advance of naked fascism and has awakened frightful memories of the way a military junta ruled the country from 1964 to 1985.
After keeping a low profile in the decades since the junta, the generals have stepped up their public interventions recently. The commander of the army reserves warned that the army would move in if Lula were allowed to remain free and win the elections. This stepped-up intervention by the military is linked to the rise of broader fascist forces in the country. One of the most prominent of their political representatives is Jair Bolsonaro, a former army officer who considers himself the junta’s political heir, recently baptised in the Jordan River and now born again in alliance with Brazil’s Evangelicals. Pentecostals and other Christian fundamentalists who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible have captured a quarter of Brazil’s 210 million population. Their proselytism and emphasis on personal conversion have made them abler to politically mobilise millions of people at the grassroots levels than the equally reactionary Catholic Church, which until a few decades ago, claimed hegemony over Brazilian minds.
Bolsonaro, called “the Tropical Trump” by The Guardian, is far from the only prominent politician in this mould. But with Lula out of the way, he is touted as a frontrunner in the upcoming elections. He embodies the extremely dangerous intersection of generals and preachers with an organised mass following eager for war against what they consider the permissiveness that has taken hold of Brazil over the last decades. Even if he doesn’t win the elections still six months in the future, his sudden and unexpected advance, winning respectability and far more broad support than other, more traditional reactionary politicians these days, signals an upheaval in the political landscape.
Bolsonaro brags that after decades in the political wilderness he has restored the respectability of right-wing views unspoken for many years because of their association with the hated junta. He flagrantly proclaims his admiration for the general considered the most bloodthirsty of all the members of the junta that murdered hundreds of people, drove many thousands into exile and extinguished the cultural and intellectual scene that was Brazil’s gift to the world.
What Bolsonaro advocates goes beyond the replacement of parliamentary democracy by a form of political rule based on open terrorism against the people. He wants this political “revolution”, as he calls it, to bring about an equally radical imposition of the traditional values that have lost some of their hold since the days of the junta. This has happened, in large part, because of the changes in the economic and social structure of Brazilian society brought about by the country’s development since then as part of developments in the world as a whole. Bolsonaro represents a qualitative racketing up of the traditional ideological values that have held together Brazil’s exploitative and oppressive society and are a key part of what gives the ruling classes anywhere the legitimacy and authority that no form of rule can long survive without.
Above all, this means, what Bolsonaro calls “family values” – the enforcement of the oppression of women and other forms of oppression associated with that, especially what reactionaries everywhere call “gender ideology” (the idea that traditional male and female social roles are not inherent in biology). Much of his violent discourse is aimed at LGBT people – he infamously said that he would prefer to see any son of his dead rather than “come home with some guy with a moustache.” This extends, however, to women as a whole. In parliament, he opposed the passage of more serious penalties against rape. When a fellow parliamentarian accused him of encouraging rape, he replied that she was “too ugly” to “deserve” being raped by him.
The prohibition of abortion is central to Bolsonaro's platform. This issue came to the centre in Brazilian politics a few years ago, when the Catholic Church excommunicated medical personnel for performing an abortion on a nine-year-old Brazilian girl pregnant with twins after being raped by her stepfather. (Her mother was also excommunicated for complicity in the abortion. The stepfather, while jailed, was deemed to have committed a lesser sin and allowed to remain in the Church.)
Current Brazilian law allows abortion only in cases of rape, incest and danger to the life of the mother. Until recently, many people expected those restrictions would soon be removed. Christian fundamentalists like Bolsonaro consider even these limited exemptions a threat to a social order based on God’s will that must be restored.
Bolsonaro also attacks the political stirrings among formerly totally marginalised people in the favelas and the countryside. In reaction to new demands to end colour-based discrimination, he said people in black communities – mostly in the favelas – were too lazy to “do anything, even bother to procreate”. Like Bolsonaro’s views of women, these rantings have a political programme. Earlier this year, the military was sent in to take over “security” in Sao Paulo. Military police and soldiers have conducted operations to take over one after another of the mountainside favelas that ring the city. In January alone, they killed at least 154 people, many of them black. Military officials have complained that they can’t do their job without guarantees they won’t be subject to civilian justice in future, as happened after the end of the junta. Bolsonaro proposes to legalise the murder and torture at the hands of the security forces that are already extremely widespread – to go from covering them up to making them the official order of the day.
How have Lula and his party reacted?
A judge ordered Lula to surrender to the authorities immediately, even though the process of appealing his conviction is far from exhausted. Instead, he took refuge in the Sao Paulo union headquarters where he began his career as an organiser before the founding of PT that eventually came to power under his leadership.
Although tens of thousands of supporters gathered to protect Lula from the authorities, they found themselves playing a different role, begging him not to give himself up and even twice blocking his car to prevent him from leaving. Finally, he walked through their lines and boarded another car, beginning a journey to the city of Curitaba, where police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse still more protesters lining the streets and in front of the prison. As many as 1,500 people every day joined vigil in the surrounding streets. Many planned to camp out there indefinitely.
Why did Lula and his party decide on this course of action, rather than defy the fascist forces, call out their illegitimacy even under the rules of Brazilian law, expose their horrific goals and unleash his supporters who were eager to stage massive resistance in the streets and force all the sections of the ruling class to soberly consider the consequences of an explosive political situation?
Lula explained that he wanted to show that no one, even him, is above the rule of law. But the rule of law the PT considers sacred has never been neutral. It reflects and perpetuates an inherently exploitative and oppressive economic and social system. In surrendering, Lula led people away from doing what is most urgently needed: to stand up and defeat fascist moves to take over the state apparatus and wield it to bring about a catastrophic change – the replacement of today’s form of rule by an undisguised, terror-based, unbridled fascism.
Lula’s defenders, critical and otherwise, argue that by refusing to give the armed forces an excuse to stage a coup, he acted to save electoral democracy in Brazil. Yet the workings of the courts and parliament served to bring down Lula’s successor from the PT, Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s president from 2011 to 2016, who was impeached, and now, by jailing Lula, thwart the PT’s hopes for a comeback through an electoral process that is instead providing a platform for the views of Bolsonaro and his ilk and allowing them to claim they represent the will of the people. The terrible irony is that the PT’s reactionary opponents have not flinched at defying judicial rulings when it suits them, while also using the courts and the electoral system as fronts on which to fight for their fascist goals.
The PT and its defenders use the term “soft” coup to describe the sequence of events that began with the impeachment of President Rousseff and led to the jailing of Lula. If that is true, why hasn’t the PT more seriously resisted it? The state’s repressive power cannot be the only reason, since the ruling class must consider the political consequences that the unrestrained use of that power could bring. Further, while a considerable section of Brazil’s ruling classes has turned against the PT and many support Bolsonaro, the PT was able to win acceptance from broad sections of ruling class forces in the past.
The starting point for the PT project is to work within the electoral system of bourgeois democracy, in reality a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, the ruling class representing a capitalist system whose workings define what is possible for the lives of the people and even the exploiters themselves. This requires that the PT confine themselves to what that system defines as acceptable politics even when major parts of that ruling class are moving toward an open dictatorship based on undisguised terror, abolishing established rights, openly labelling sections of the people undesirable and unleashing soldiers and religious fanatics against them. This is fascism, with all its Brazilian specificities, but fascism just the same.
Lula’s surrender to the authorities encapsulates the role he and his party have played since the beginning as loyal participants in the country’s political system. His supporters’ slogan, “Elections without Lula are a fraud”, has some truth to it, insofar as removing the only truly popular candidate risks revealing to many millions of people a truth that is usually hidden: that the ruling class sets the terms for and manipulates the electoral process and decides what is permissible. But what about the elections that Lula and the PT took part in, drawing people into the system’s machinery by raising hopes that were never anything but an illusion?
By channelling popular discontent into elections, the PT played an important role in shoring up the legitimacy of the Brazilian state following decades of rule by the hated military junta. The party’s supporters grew to include sections of the urban middle classes and people in the favelas around Rio, Sao Paulo and other cities. Many of these people, like Lula, were immigrants from the country’s extremely impoverished, deeply marginalised backlands whose cheap labour has been at the heart of the Brazilian “miracle” from which they have been largely excluded. The explosion of wealth produced by environmentally disastrous enormous soy farms and cane fields, cattle ranches often built on stolen land, manufacturing in foreign-owned firms and construction are all a result of this labour.
As one Brazilian economics professor has explained, when Lula ran for president for the first time in 1989, he made a promise – one that he was to keep – to maintain “the main economic guidelines of his predecessor: a primary fiscal surplus goal, a low inflation target and a flexible exchange rate”. However, Lula significantly expanded spending on fiscal transfers to the relatively poor, and extended previous social programmes, broadening their coverage. The Bolsa Familia programme [under which families were given cash in return for keeping children in school and attending preventive health care visits] was held up as a global example, touted by the World Bank as a “quiet revolution” that “significantly reduced poverty.”[] These welfare payments were made possible by a booming international market for the exports on which Brazil’s economy depends, especially oil and agricultural commodities.
But the country’s economic independence, a precondition for the people’s ability to liberate themselves as part of emancipating all humanity from the global imperialist system and all forms of oppression, is impossible without the revolutionary transformation of every aspect of life in Brazil. Instead, the PT policies made the country more dependent on the global market and international investment. That made it even more vulnerable to the 2008 global financial crisis and subsequent downturn in commodity prices. In 2013 the PT government was hit by widespread protests against public transport prices so high that they often kept people imprisoned in favelas and other neighbourhoods, and found itself unleashing harsh repression.
Lula’s surrender is consistent with what he and his party have represented all along. Whatever their initial apparent successes, this appeasement of the military and far right, and their insistence on keeping the struggle within the limits of what the ruling class will allow, along with the disillusionment in electoral politics that their broken promises, brokered politics and corruption helped produce, have greatly aided the rise of fascists who promise to put an end to “politics as usual” by replacing it with openly violence-based rule.
What is happening in Brazil will have huge repercussions on the continent and beyond. The 1964 military coup was aimed at a government that Washington feared would lessen Brazil’s economic dependency and seek more political independence from Washington encouraged and financed the coup plotters and eventually stationed warships off the country’s coast in case the coup forces needed assistance. Then Washington used the Brazilian junta to help install US dominated military regimes in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay, and wage horrendous wars to save US domination of Central America. But this is not a matter of history repeating itself. Events are being driven by global developments in the imperialist system and their dynamic interaction with the particularities of Brazil’s place in that system and its national and historical specificities.
Imperialism, rather than spreading enlightenment and progress as its apologists once claimed, today is giving rise to different kinds of fascism in different ways, along with new varieties of religious obscurantism. Crises in the old structures of political rule, and in the ideological glue holding together exploitative and oppressive societies, are major factors at work in many countries. One common feature in the rise of fascism in different countries is a move toward resolving the contradiction between the reality and false appearance of freedom for the people under bourgeois democracy by instituting openly dictatorial rule. Bolsonaro has openly proclaimed, “I am in favour of a dictatorship”.
This applies to what is happening in Brazil. People like Lula and the PT, not just in Brazil but everywhere, are stubbornly – and maybe fatally – holding on to preconceptions that do not stand the test of reality (such as the belief that the capitalist system can be made tolerable for the broad masses of people by using its own political structures). Everywhere classes and people whose interests are rooted in the global workings of the imperialist system are, by that very fact, doing their best not to endanger those interests and the stability of the imperialist order by confronting these fascists.
Confronting these trends requires the most thoroughly scientific theory and method to identify the real dynamics driving developments and determine an adequate course of action, not only to defeat the rise of these fascist forces but to take humanity to a world free of oppression and exploitation where monsters like Bolsonaro can only be read about in courses on ancient history. The framework for this has been established by the work of Bob Avakian. In particular, see The Fascists and the Weimar Republic … And What Will Replace It and Away With All Gods, Why Religious Fundamentalism is Growing in Today’s World, Insight Press, 2008, especially pp. 102-105, and, more generally, “The New Communism: The science, the strategy, the leadership for an actual revolution, and a radically new society on the road to real emancipation”, Insight Press, 2016. This is available in PDF format from some retailers. An updated prepublication (PDF) is downloadable at revcom.us.
* Juan Sui writes for A World to Win News Service
 Vernego, Matias (2018) “Goodbye Lula?” nacla.org, 30 March.