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There’s a Place for All Kinds of Socialists at Brazil’s Power Table

Brazilian president Lula and aides

In 2006 Lula created a stir by announcing that he is not a “socialist” but a
“social democrat.” He attributed this to his maturity, stating that “things
evolve in proportion to the number of white hairs and the responsibilities that
one has,” and that “if you meet someone very old who is still a leftist, he must
have problems.”(1)

Actually, Lula never claimed to be a socialist even when he was a youth, and as president he has followed the social democratic model established by his predecessor.

The Workers Party disagrees. At its Third National Congress, in August 2007, the Workers Party reaffirmed its commitment to “socialism” as its guiding principle.(2) How can a party differ from its charismatic leader, perpetual candidate and most powerful office holder on such a key question?

The difference is primarily one of terminology, not substance. The word “socialism” has a wide range of meanings in today’s world, from the socialism of the British Labour Party and the Spanish and Portuguese Socialist Parties to that of the Cuban and North Korean Communist Parties, not to mention the Bolivian Socialist Falange Party.

The Workers Party resolution defines “socialism” as a system with competitive multiparty elections and a mixture of private, cooperative and state ownership of the means of production.

Lula is correct that “social democracy” is the best descriptive term for the society the Workers Party advocates. But the opposition Party of the Brazilian Social Democracy has staked out that term, so the Workers Party is left with the more generic “socialism”.

In March, 2006, the Workers Party commissioned a public opinion survey to find out if the term “socialism” was still viable with the public. They found that 49% of Brazilians thought that “socialism continues to be an alternative to resolve social problems,” while 24% thought that “socialism was a good solution but it no longer has a future,” 16% thought that “socialism never was a good solution for social problems,” and 13% did not know.(3) Support for “socialism” was not consistently related to income or educational level; it was equally strong in all social classes.

The term “socialism” was not defined in the survey, but the respondents seem to have had some kind of democratic socialism in mind since 59% agreed that “democracy is always better than any other form of government, with only 17% saying that “under certain circumstances a dictatorship is better than a democracy,” 16% saying that it makes no difference and 7% saying they don’t know.

Workers Party propaganda emphasizes that democracy comes first. In a slick You Tube video – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m-twIyVbSBQ -, the Party hammers away at the thesis that “there is no socialism without democracy and no democracy without socialism.”

Although the largest faction in the Workers Party, the Constructing a New Brazil tendency to which most of the Party’s elected officials belong, is social democratic, other tendencies adhere to a more traditionally Marxist view of “socialism.”

Valter Pomar, of the Left Articulation tendency argues that “socialism means placing under social control the wealth produced collectively by society, which today is appropriated by a small minority.”(4) Pomar expects the capitalist class to resist socialism with violence, and wants the working class to prepare to resist.

Many Brazilian intellectuals may agree with this argument as a matter of theory, but few expect such a struggle to emerge in the foreseeable future. Even Heloísa Helena, who broke away from the Workers Party to lead the Party of Socialism and Liberty, accepts that “today we must first consolidate democracy in the country before we can think of socialism.”(5)

César Benjamin, the PSOL’s chief theorist, supports a “national project” that would not do away with the market economy, which he concedes is needed for efficiency. But it would impose controls and subsidies to limit the market for luxury goods, make food and housing cheaper, guarantee large wage increases to make up for past losses, and invest more heavily in infrastructure, technology and other necessary things.(6)

At its Third National Congress, the Workers Party adopted similar goals, proposing to increase taxes on finance capital so as to obtain resources to develop the country’s productive forces. Subsequently, however, the Lula government was unable to get Congress to continue the Financial Transactions Tax that had been passed as a temporary measure by the Fernando Henrique Cardoso government.

If social democracy means anything, it means taxing the rich to redistribute income to the poor and fund social programs. Brazil is already doing some of that, and Lula’s Family Allowances program has been hugely popular. But the country may have reached the limits of taxation acceptable to the middle and upper classes that are well represented in its democratic system.

All the survey data show that economic growth is the first priority of the Brazilian electorate.(7) Brazilian business and political leaders have been greatly impressed by rapid economic growth in China, India, South Korea, Mexico, Chile and many other capitalist countries.

There is almost no support for the Cuban, Venezuelan or North Korean models. In Brazil, “socialism” is the left’s term for “social democracy.” The more difficult question is whether the country can maintain the economic growth needed to expand social democratic programs.

(1) La Jornada, “Lula genera malestar tras afirmar que a cierta edad ya no se es de izquierda,” December 14, 2006. http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2006/12/14/index.php?section=mundo&article=037n1mun.

(2) “O Socialismo Petista,” http://www.pt.org.br/congresso/conteudo.php?tipo=1&codigo=98. O Globo, “PT aprova tese socialista de crescimento com distribuição de renda,” August 31, 2007. http://oglobo.globo.com/pais/mat/2007/08/31/297536964.asp.

(3) Núcleo de Opinião Pública da Fundação Perseu Abramo. 2006. Imagem Partidária e Cultura Política. Available from: http://www2.fpa.org.br/portal/modules/wfdownloads/viewcat.php?cid=51

(4) Renato Godoy de Toledo, “O Socialismo Petista em Questão,” Brasil de Fato, August 30, 2007. http://www.brasildefato.com.br/v01/impresso/anteriores/jornal.2007-08-22.9150447477/editoria.2007-08-29.3316037886/materia.2007-09-07.0100192977.
(5) José Maschio, “Heloísa Helena diz que vai assentar 1 milhão de famílias,” Folha de S. Paulo, August 20, 2006.

(6) César Benjamin, “Para governar e mudar o Brasil,” http://www.contrapontoeditora.com.br/docs/Para%20governar%20e%20mudar%20o%20Brasil.pdf.

(7) For an overview of public opinion in Brazil, see Ted Goertzel, “Brazilian Social Attitudes in Comparative Perspective,” paper presented at the International Conference of the Brazilian Studies Association, 2006. http://sitemason.vanderbilt.edu/files/hIVpAI/Goertzel.doc.

Ted Goertzel, Ph.D. is Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey. He is the author of a biography of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, available in English and in Portuguese. He can be contacted at goertzel@camden.rutgers.edu and his WEB page can be found at http://goertzel.org/ted.


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