The meteoric rise of the Brazilian right and the terrifying prospects of a Bolsonaro presidency have once more put Brazil and the Brazilian left under the spotlight. While the present moment is a consequence of the long term strategic failures and compromises of the PT, it is also the product of the failure of any significant force to emerge to the left of the PT and offer an alternative. PSOL, the broad left organization under which most international currents of the far left have worked, has not succeeded in stepping out from under the shadow cast by the PT.
Whether or not Bolsonaro wins this election, on the Left we know that the only real escape from the crisis must come from a Left alternative. Seriously evaluating our strategy and tactics in this conjuncture is essential to rearming ourselves and preparing our class to counter-attack.
One of the currents which has historically had some of the most interesting and militant positions within the Brazilian left is the MRT, the Movement of Revolutionary Workers - linked to the Trotskyist Fraction and Left Voice in the United States.
The Trotskyist Fraction more than other international current today has applied itself to the serious theoretical development of the relationship between military strategy and the Left. They’ve produced valuable texts linking the ideas of Clausewitz, Lenin and Trotsky with the aim of rearming revolutionaries and the revolutionary leadership for the conquest of power.
This polemic written by two Brazilian ex-members of the MRT (members who were expelled in a bureaucratic process for these kinds of criticisms) is therefore all the more valuable. The MRT in the lead up to the election focused their political efforts on defending the democratic demand for Lula to run as a candidate, and in advocating for a “Constituent Assembly”. In this text we find a sharp criticism of these tactics, as well as a valuable theoretical and historical discussion around the challenges facing revolutionaries in Democratic regimes.
It represents a return to the sharp, critical form of polemics which helped to shape the revolutionary left and defined the Leninist tradition. Beyond helping to understand current debates in Brazil, it is a useful guide as we we seek to think through how to rebuild a global left within the shell of ever more degraded democratic regimes.
Revolutionaries and Bourgeois Democracy: A Debate From the Brazilian Left
Andre Boff and Santiago Marimbondo
"It follows from this that all struggles within the State, the struggle between democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy, the struggle for the franchise, etc., etc., are merely the illusory forms in which the real struggles of the different classes are fought out among one another." -Karl Marx, The German Ideology
The relation between the revolutionary left and the PT as well as it's candidate for the elections, Lula de Silva, continues to be the topic of fierce polemics. Should we or should we not defend the democratic right of the ex-president to be a candidate? If the answer to the first question is affirmative, should we or should we not make this the central focus of our organizations during the electoral period?
In truth the debate around whether or not to defend Lula's right to be a candidate avoids the real debate: what is the relationship between revolutionaries and bourgeois democracy in relation to suffrage? More particularly, what is the relationship with the institutional and organizational forms through which the capitalists legitimate their domination within this regime?
The question becomes more complex to the extent to which we cannot find direct support within the classical texts of Marxism to respond to it.
Although it is clear that Marx like Engels, Lenin and Rosa studied bourgeois domination as it was organized through a "democratic" regime, these reflections are limited by the comparatively underdeveloped character of this form of domination in their epochs.
Marx for example, analyzing the forms of expression of the class struggle in France between 1848 and 1851, shows the fragility and frictions within a French Bourgeoisie when this attempts to co-ordinate its common actions within a bourgeois-democratic regime. This process ultimately led to the need for a coup by Napoleon III.
Even the classical Marxists who studied in more detail the development of the class struggle under the "theater of operations” of bourgeois-democratic regimes, such as Trotsky and Gramsci in their writings during the 20's and 30s, had their reflections limited by the objectively partial development of this regime of domination.
In that moment bourgeois democracy was still a form of organization and configuration of bourgeois domination in very limited parts of the capitalist world. It existed in only a few imperialist countries of Europe and in the United States.
The fall of the Berlin wall and the capacity of the capitalists, from this point on, of imposing a deep objective and subjective defeat against the working class has allowed the ruling class to expand this form of domination to the greater part of the globe. A process which has unfolded from the end of the last century until today. This brings new problems for those who aim to think through the necessities of the struggle of the working class against this form of ruling class domination.
While it is evident we should support ourselves with many of the insights laid out by the classics of Marxist thought, the possibility of using them as a guide is limited by the far more developed character of the phenomenon which we must confront today.
There is an additional difficulty for those who are part of the class struggle in "fronts" where the development of this democratic regime is in such a degraded form as it is in the periphery of the capitalist world, in semi-colonial countries like Brazil.
In semi-colonial countries the capitalist discourse around progress through democracy is more seductive. For this reason it is more dangerous since it is better capable of absorbing the radicalism of struggle and criticism within its own institutions. The defense of every minimum conquest and democratic “trench” becomes even more essential for us.
This tension between these contradictions however, if its is not reflected upon and projected theoretically and strategically, can lead to major deviations in the practical actions of revolutionaries.
The debate over such a fundamental question today is part of a debate with the Trotskyist Fraction (FT, the world organization of the MRT in Brazil, the PTS in Argentina and Left Voice in the United States). In the opinion of the authors of this article this debate is important not just because we were both militants of this group and so need to reflect theoretically about the deviations and degeneration of our old organization; it is important principally because of the theoretical force which this group has put behind thinking through the new forms of development of the class struggle and the "Theater of Operations" in which this struggle is unfolding.
Recognizing the merits of the FT in studying the new forms of expression of class struggle in the current epoch of world-spanning bourgeois democracy does not foreclose the necessity of a deep criticism of the deviations and revisions that this group has expressed in these formulations: the dialectic of the development of organizations which claim to be revolutionary is complex and contradictory.
On August 23rd Emilio Albamonte and Christian Castillo, two of the major Argentine leaders of the FT, published a text in Portuguese which defended the necessity of revolutionaries having the defense of Lula's right to be a candidate as the central focus of activity in the electoral period.
For those of us who were militants for years within this group, this text expressed the level of revisionism to which our old organization has arrived at. Not merely for their total adaptation to the PT but also for the extent to which it accepts the development of the class struggle as taking place within the boundaries established by the bourgeoisie: within the "democratic" regime itself.
The turn to the right by the Brazilian MRT is so drastic that in place of centering the struggle around a real, concrete struggle against this undemocratic restriction of the bourgeois politician Lula, they openly defended a struggle "through the TV and the courts" to force adherence to a decision of the UN, the principal organ of imperialist intervention in international politics.
How they went from a serious reflection on the need to think through the strategic forms of the class struggle in democratic "fronts" to this level of deviation is what we will attempt to explain and respond to in this brief article.
The Center of Gravity of the Class Struggle
Reflection around the specificity of the class struggle in "theaters of operation" where there is a "democratic" bourgeois regime is not new. There were at least two major debates within German social-democracy around the balance to be taken from the revolutionary Russian experience of 1905 and this discussion would continue to be developed in the first four congresses of the Third International. There it took place around the discussion of differences in the development of the class struggle in western and eastern "Fronts."
A synthesis you could arrive at through these debates it that in the western "Theaters of Operation" the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat tended to develop itself in less direct and immediate forms. It tended to pass through greater levels of mediation and new configurations.
This is because within the democratic regimes the capitalists were able to construct a series of trenches and fortified positions of their own within civil society. These were capable of absorbing and derailing discontent and criticism from the subaltern sectors within the institutions of the regime.
In this form, it is essential for the proletariat in its struggle for emancipation to conquer positions and trenches within civil society to construct its own fortifications. Which is to say, to take up a strategy of exhaustion which through a war of positions will allow it to be better positioned for future, decisive moments. In these moments the organic crisis of capitalist domination would allow for a break from the old partial movements towards a decisive assault on bourgeois power.
Which is to say, in the "western" forms of bourgeois power, the struggle for the construction of a prior proletarian hegemony over the subaltern sectors (which is always limited and partial while it remains under capitalist power) is a greater necessity for the proletariat than in the eastern forms of class domination. In these less developed eastern civil societies there were fewer ways to mediate conflict and fewer "trenches" to evade more open confrontations between the classes. This allowed for more direct, decisive movements.
However upon recognizing this there emerges a new strategic problem for those who want to think through their orientation in the proletarian struggle:
In these "western" social-economic formations, with their more developed civil societies, trenches and forms of mediation, does the center of gravity of the class struggle change? In "eastern" societies it is clear that the center of capitalist power to be attacked is the economic structure of domination and the exploitation of work, private property and the means of production and the extraction of surplus-value. In the "west does this center of gravity change and pass on to the political-ideological superstructure?
The question is fundamental because an entire revisionist current linked to a deformed reading of Gramsci's thought will respond affirmatively to this question: for them (Euro-communists and the disciples of Ernesto Laclau for example) the struggle ceases to be a struggle against the exploitation of work in the foundational structure of capitalist society. It passes on to an ideological struggle for wider political spaces, for the broadening of democracy (understood even in a way which does not have a class foundation).
A comparable maneuver has been taken by the Trotskyist Fraction currently; their initial, legitimate reflections on the specific forms of the class struggle in societies which have developed a degraded bourgeois democracy (like the semi-colonial countries) has led the group to in practice having changed the focus of the class struggle to a new center of gravity for capitalist power: that of the political superstructure, the political regime of domination. One which is to be attacked through the path of a radical democratic program.
This change in what is considered the center of gravity of bourgeois power is what leads the FT's group in Brazil, the MRT, under the direct command of the Argentinian leaders, to center their electoral campaign around the attacks on the political superstructure: the greater effective restrictions on and the further degradation of "democracy" since the impeachment of Dilma Roussef (and of which the exclusion of Lula as a candidate is a part). They do this rather than focus on structural attacks suffered by the working class such as the labor reforms, the growth of unemployment and sub-employment and the expansion of unrestricted privatization and outsourcing.
For us (and we think for all revolutionary marxists) the center of gravity of capitalist power even in "western" societies continues to be the economic structure of the exploitation of work. This is obviously not to say that revolutionaries should only struggle in the camp of the direct exploitation of workers by capitalists, as this would be a vulgar economist deformation. Rather we maintain that the core of the struggle, which does not exclude other partial struggles, continues to be this.
This perspective does not even exclude that in particular conjunctures of the class struggle it may be necessary to tactically change the central axis of the struggle, nor does it deny that the conflicts on the fields of the superstructure have significant impacts on the conflicts within the infrastructure. What we want to combat here is this vision which transforms this tactical flexibility (which is essential as part of the conflict) into a "new" strategy. In this new strategy the fundamental struggle between classes turns into a conflict between an abstract more radical democracy versus a degraded democracy; this is what it has been in the latest formulations and principally in the practical actions of the FT.
"Popular Sovereignty" and the New Stagism of the MRT/FT
As a consequence of this change in the center of gravity of their analysis, the leaders of the MRT cite and expand on a historical critique against the division of the three powers. Against this they advance what they call the “principle of popular sovereignty”. They defend that the most revolutionary form to defend this supposed “popular sovereignty” is with the unconditional defense of Lula’s candidacy against the constituted powers which impede this. They denounce the fact that it is the judges and the senators who choose who will have political or civil rights.
This points out correctly that the division of the Legislative, Executive and Judicial powers is and was thought of with the objective of separating the “administration of power” from the working masses, allowing for powers to be conceded to distinct oligarchies, elites and economic groups. However in following this line the leaders of the MRT seem to forget the very direction in which class society and the regimes of class society express the domination of a class.
This abstract “principal of popular soverignty” is inexistent in even the most democratic and participative democracies precisely because these democracies remain a form of domination of the bourgeoise over the workers. Even if this principle were the main force behind one’s political orientation, there are abundant cases of the oppression and attacks on democratic rights of workers before and during Temer’s government.
The selectivity of the process against Lula and the bizarre growth of the authoritarian and uncontrolled social powers of the Judiciary should obviously be denounced. However, even were the driving force behind our action to be for a “broadened democracy” against the attacks on democratic liberties, why would the proscription of Lula be more serious than the regimen of searches and detention in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro (A complete, collective and daily suspension of the civil rights of an entire sector of the population)?
Or the offensive of attacks, prohibitions and repression against protests, strikes and the liberty of expression of workers? Or this military intervention which has made the Brazilian Military into the “tutor” of Brazilian “democracy”? Or even, the far more grave and serious act, which passed without a serious conjunctural response from the left, of the assassination of Marielle Franco? An act which brought the pistol-wielding methods of the countryside to the city. A clear attempt to shut out any voice or organization of the oppressed.
Within its own terms the political orientation of the MRT is unsustainable and shows a notable confusion and adaption to the PT and the political regime. Ignoring these examples and focusing on a shameless defense of the candidature of Lula does not even manage to defend democratic liberties in a consequential manner.
As an attempt to give a coherent appearance to this revisionist and right-wing turn and on the basis of their defense of Lula’s candidacy the leaders of the MRT/FT complete their formula with a call to defend what remains of democracy through campaigning for a “Constituent Assembly”.
It is here that the strategy begins to cost significantly more in practice. They declare that
“As it is known, our struggle is for a workers government which breaks with capitalism, “expropriating the expropriators”. This is the only way to ensure the crisis is truly paid for by the capitalist. However understanding that we are still a minority and the majority of working people believe in the vote, we propose something which is still incorporated in constitutions like the Brazilian (or the Argentinian), which is the right to convoke a Constituent Assembly, to debate and vote an EMERGENCY PROGRAM”.
They conclude that such an assembly would be to impose a program defined in the follow way:
“This program would include the non-payment of the public debt and the nationalization of the banks, of exterior commerce and of strategic economic resources in order to end the fall in salaries and the growth of poverty and unemployment; the expropriation of the major latifundarios; the abolition of the aristocratic Senate; the end of the corrupt judicial caste and the imposition of elected judges at all levels; establish that all public functionaries earn the same as a teacher and that this is irrevocable; the right to legal, secure and free abortion and the demands of the womens movements; among other fundamental demands”.
For someone who was a militant within and participated in debates within these organizations, you can’t help but be shocked by this level of stagism! Here in its final form is the discontinuity, the separation of time between the public agitation of revolutionary ideas and the socialist program, with the defense of what they call an “Emergency Plan” implemented by a Constituent Assembly within the bourgeois capitalist regime.
First off, since the revolutionaries are a minority, we can’t agitate for the “expropriation of the expropriators”. We can’t, on the foundations of capitalist infrastructure and the exploitation of labor, march with a socialist program which translated in a simple and clear manner to working people talks of striking against private property. Which would defend expropriating the monopolies, taking on unemployment through the reduction of the work day and a sliding scale of hours that incorporates all the unemployed. Which talks of the importance of nationalizing the banks and major companies and the monopoly on foreign commerce to prevent capital flight.
At the moment, since consciousness “still isn’t advanced” and is prisoner to a “trench” of universal suffrage, we have to propose an “emergency plan” and a measure which is bourgeois. A measure which is achieved through the current constitution, that of a Constituent Assembly.
In all of the logic behind the Theory of Permanent Revolution and of its theoretician, Trotsky, in all Lenin’s What is to be one?, even in the article of Trotsky which is cited, “A Program for Action for France”, never have these revolutionaries in their historic experiences advocated the idea that revolutionaries, as a criteria for agitation of ideas and demands, should consider the “level of consciousness” of the workers and so reduce, hide or throw out the socialist program and its fight against the exploitation of work, casting it off to an indefinite future time.
On the contrary Lenin and Trotsky affirm that the role of revolutionaries, professionally dedicated to reflect on the problems of the class struggle and the revolution, is to explain patiently and firmly the source of capitalist exploitation. We should denounce the mechanisms of domination and exploitation of the capitalist state. We should raise up the socialist program which is capable of achieving the transition from capitalism to socialism through the practice of organized action (in the parties, in partial struggles, in political general strikes) and through the class conscious workers of the party.
The defense of democratic liberties and of civil rights was always and inseparably linked to the socialist program as a method of strengthening socialist consciousness among the workers. Showing that this democratic regime is a class dictatorship and that as such, it could only be transformed through the revolutionary class action of the workers.
Here however, is precisely where we must stop for a bit and observe with more detail the grave error of the leadership of the MRT/FT.
Through defending the Constituent Assembly as the main axis of agitation in their group (something which they have been doing with no impact for more than 2 years, something which should make them rethink it), demonstrating their stagism, the leadership attempts to pain this idea “red”.
In a confusing form, they point out that defending a Constituent Assembly with this “Emergency Plan” is nothing more than a mix without cohesion of socialist and “radical democratic” banners. The end of the Senate is mixed with the expropriation of the latifundiarios; that each deputy should receive the same as a teacher is mixed with the expropriation of the banks; the popular election of judges with the monopoly on foreign commerce.
All of these demands, correct in their own specific time and space, are mixed together without hierarchies within agitation taking place through a bourgeois structure, which they themselves admit is to be achieved through a supposed decree of this Constituent Assembly. It is an attempt to twist concrete reality so that it fits into a supposedly innovative form.
That a Constituent Assembly in Brazil or in any other part of the world, as a bourgeois, policlassist organization, never would be able to realize such socialist demands by decree and expropriate the expropriators is obvious! Never, in any part of the world has such a thing been achieved or aimed for by serious revolutionary. A revolution cannot be achieved by an Assembly which is organized so as to impede the revolution, to absorb social contradictions and social tensions.
We are in the midst of one of the worst crisis of bourgeois domination in recent history - a crisis which combines a social crisis, a crisis of the political regime, a crisis of representation -, at the doorsteps of a new economic crisis. There is a unique opportunity to unmask the democratic web and give energy to the direct action of the class and a soviet strategy. The most serious problem of the tactical implementation of this strategy turn by the MRT/FT is that in the midst of this serious crisis, these revolutionaries advocate for something which would just be an opportunity to legitimate the bourgeois democratic political regime, as well as the “social and economic pact”, in a much more reactionary constitution which crushes the rights of workers. On the contrary to unmasking the regime as should be the role of radical democratic demands, this strategic formulation of the MRT/FT would lead to the legitimization of a new political regime.
Or does the leadership of the MRT/FT consider that a constituent assembly today, in conditions in which the left the “Left of the PT” is absolutely marginal, with the socialist program divorced from the majority of the working class, in which the country remains dominated by oligarchs and generals, in which the cities are filled with neoliberal or social-liberal (like the PT) politicians of Brazilian ‘realpolitik”, in which the weight of religious obscurantism, the weight of demoralization and betrayal of the unions, the impact of a reality of precarity for workers, in this scenario a Constituent Assembly would approve such measures? The revolutionaries will win a majority for it to be approved? Or would it rather be far more likely that this produces another chance for the regime to recompose itself, reorganize its powers, clean up the image of this democracy of the rich and allowing it to impose more, harder attacks against workers rights, social rights and retirement rights in a far more reactionary constitution?
Advocating the demand for a Constituent Assembly is done by separating it from the socialist program, separating it in practice from the fierce search to construct bastions of revolutionary presence in neighborhoods, workplaces, factories, among the most exploited sections of the class, separating it from a Soviet Strategy of direct democracy and deep links with the working class, jumping all the necessary steps of accumulation needed by revolutionaries As well as being idealist propagandism, it is raising up a demand for an option which could be a useful escape for the non-democratic, plutocratic interests at the front of bourgeois power.
The Abandonment of the Soviet Strategy
Both of the authors of this article were forged in great measure within the internal and external debates during our years of militancy in this organization; we consolidated a deep understanding of the role of a Soviet Strategy, of Direct Democracy and self-organization as the central tools for the revolutionary struggle of our class.
For this we also consider it essential to understand the current betrayal the workers face at the hands of the PT and CUT bureaucracies, which lead the way for the rest of the unions (with the exception of CSP-CONLUTAS, although they don’t denounce the other bureaucracies with the priority they should) have been completely comitted to ensuring a union truce with the government of Temer.
This truce, disguised behind the inoffensive speeches of PT and PCdoB parliamentarians, is part of the strategy of the PT to find and relocate itself within the bourgeois “game” as the “loyal opposition”. The PT will be an opposition which won’t cause a stir, one which will be permitted to maintain their positions and mandates. On which hopes to taper the offensive of the right slightly through a strategy of conciliation with the bosses and capitalists who are driving the country into the Abyss.
This truce is what allowed Temer to approve the savage labor reforms, the spending freeze in health and education, the threat of pensions cuts and the total private outsourcing of work. Historic and barbaric attacks on the workers.
The tool against these measures would be and still remains the General Strike.
This is a struggle against them which would decisively unmask the political regime, the structure of bourgeois domination in the country and which would raise up a new project of a nation, of power, of the working class!
For us revolutionaries, this would be the moment in which the class would unify its interests despites its divisions among categories, as a class, with great political objectives. It would launch forward with its greatest tools (pickets, solidarity committees, strike funds, committees for distribution of food, committees or militias of self-defense and security), effectively politicizing itself as never before and having a real chance to defeat the ongoing attacks.
In these moments of the unification of working class interests, politicization reaches stratospheric levels. The workers know they need to unite in the face of the enemy, that they need to have a program and concrete, firm, practice, that there cannot be indiscipline or vacillation.
It is in these moments that the seeds of a soviet strategy can and should emerge. Factory committees, committees which unite factories across regions, meetings of delegates from striking factories, all these tools of the workers united front against the bourgeois enemy - against the state and the capitalist organizations - these are the seeds of the new future society which is possible.
One person, one vote! Direct democracy, revocable representatives at every meeting, administration of all aspects of life through the methods of the workers themselves. These political strikes can not only teach the workers that they can manage all aspects of everyday life, but also how they can convert themselves into a united front against attacks and how these organizations can transform themselves into organizations which struggle for power, rivaling the state and transforming into a “dual power” in relation to it.
The only obstacles to this path - albeit powerful ones - are the union bureaucracies, the illusions in the democracy of the rich (which will diminish significantly in the face of a struggle like this) and the contrary strategies of the existing workers organizations and of the left.
Here we see another consequence of the sharp turn by the FT towards focus on the superstructure, on the broadening of democracy as a previous step before agitation for socialist demands and struggle for power.
For these revolutionaries, the current priority is not a decisive battle to fuse ourselves with the working class in workplaces, fight the union bureaucracy and open up the path to organizations of direct democracy which would be the base of an insurrectional general strike against the bosses attacks and unemployment - a strategy which would put the seizure of power and the reorganization of society in the minds of every worker in struggle.
For them a general strike an impossible demand today as is any self-organization. Rather than immediate needs which must be pushed for as soon as possible, they are conceived of as accessories to a strategy based on agitation first in favor of the “Constituent Assembly”.
After its idealist approval, which is to say, in the magical world of their heads, this mixture of socialist and radical-democratic demands will be approved by the Assembly. In the case in which the “existing powers” (Army, Police, Judiciary) rise up and stop this “popular conquest” at that point yes, finally, it will make sense to call for committees of self defense, soviets, councils, etc. All of this remains and is developed at the end of their text to make it seem like they haven’t abandoned this perspective.
Ending the “circus of the political and business caste” through this Assembly which with “decrees” will end the capitalist corruption of this system; dividing in space and time this democratic tactic and and undefined moment for the defense of socialist demands (which would attack capitalist exploitation at its foundation); casting off to a potential future the formation of committees and the self-organization of workers and having this essential aspect exist as an accessory to this confusing tactic. Finally, affirming that in the end the Soviets - or workers councils- are the best form to attend to the needs of workers.
A finished example of revisionism of the soviet and socialist strategy. One in which, in practice and in agitation the socialist program is hidden and in which, however, in the longer texts it is reaffirmed. They state that this is to be a conscious move, that it is only being done because the masses still believe in democracy, but that ultimately the best form of economic and social organization remains the soviets. They only forget to mention, or to think through, that the paths and final objectives that they propose are not only contradictory but many times opposed, as we have attempted to demonstrate throughout this text.
We arrive at last at the end of this exposition.
It is sad to confirm that the centrist deformation that the leadership of the MRT has passed through, shown first off in the authoritarian methods of its bureaucratic layer which expelled the critical but loyal voices within, has now encountered a theoretical and practical expression.
We hope that this debate will serve the revolutionary cadre who still certainly exist within all of the FT to correct the course and eventually propose changes which would allow a return to a revolutionary line, one which is desperately need in Brazil, Argentina and the around the world today.
Equally as serious revolutionaries we call upon the leadership of the MRT/FT, which is naturally neither homogeneous nor monolithic, to debate and criticism around our arguments.
Original published at: https://quilombospartacus.wordpress.com/2018/09/10/debate-com-mrt-ft-os-revolucionarios-e-a-democracia-burguesa/