The birth of the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadorespt) has been a singular event of the eighties, not just in Brazil or even in Latin America as a whole. For it is a striking fact that very few new working-class parties have been founded anywhere in the world since the thirties. Yet in Brazil a vigorous formation of the Left has indeed emerged that has successfully appealed to labour, rapidly winning a popular following in the principal industrial strongholds of the country. At a time when working-class politics is widely held to be in crisis, if not terminal decline, in the First World, the experience of the pt is of more than national or even Third World interest alone. What kind of a party is the pt sociologically and ideologically? Where has it come from? Above all, perhaps, where is it going as Brazilian capitalism lurches uncertainly towards the end of the decade? The Party was founded in 1980, at a time when the Brazilian military dictatorship was already in crisis, and brought together a number of different forces that had emerged in the resistance of the seventies to it. These included base organizations of the Catholic Church—pastoral workers in the countryside, the factories and among minors; human rights activists; radicalized intellectuals; onetime militants of small Trotskyist and Maoist groups of the sixties; some former Communists. What gave a common focus to these heterogeneous elements, however, was the pole of attraction constituted by a nucleus of young trade-union leaders who had won authority from below in a series of industrial struggles in the major manufacturing conurbation of Brazil—the so-called abc zone of the periphery of São Paulo, where the country’s main auto plants are located. Within two years the Party had won over three per cent of the national vote, in the elections of November 1982: or an electorate of about one and a half million. Two-thirds of this poll was concentrated in the state of São Paulo alone, where the pt elected six out of its eight federal deputies, as well as its only mayor. Its (other two seats were also won in the industrialized Centre–South of the country, in Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro. Outside this zone, the Party scored over five per cent only in the remote Amazonian corner of Acre.

In 1985 mayoral elections were held in all state capitals. In these purely urban contests the pt now registered much higher levels of support, with a national average of 11 per cent of the poll and a combined vote of nearly 1,500,000, or virtually equivalent to its total score in the whole country three years earlier. In São Paulo it won 20 per cent of the vote, and in Fortaleza—now Brazil’s fifth largest city, the worst sum of misery in the whole North-East—came top of the poll, electing a woman as its mayor. In 1986 the Brazilian population voted country-wide for a Constituent Assembly, and this time the pt gathered some 3,300,000 ballots or 5.7 per cent of the electorate. It thereby doubled its represention in Congress to sixteen deputies, half of them from São Paulo, and the rest distributed between Minas (3), Rio (2), Espirito Santo (1), and in the far south Rio Grande do Sul (2). In fact, its success was regionally more widespread than these seats suggest, since it won over 5 per cent of the vote in eleven states—four from the North, two from the Centre, two from the Centre–South, and two from the South. If the electoral laws had not been biased against it, the Party would have won a further eight deputies from at least another six states. At the state level itself it elected 39 representatives, trebling its previous total, and increasing the number of assemblies in which it had deputies from three to thirteen.

Today the pt claims some 200,000 members across Brazil, of whom about 120,000 are to be found in the state of São Paulo. It can boast of the Federal Deputy with the highest personal poll in the nation (652,000 votes), its Chairman Lula, a former car-worker. He is flanked in Congress by five other national trade-union leaders, a black woman from the Rio slums linked to the Church, intellectuals, feminists and community organizers. At state level, the pt lists elected ten agricultural workers, ten teachers, five lawyers, four metal-workers, two journalists, two bank-clerks, two doctors, and one architect, photographer, civil servant and environmentalist apiece. But the social reach of the Party is much wider than its institutional presence, rooted as it is in base-organizations in working-class and peasant life, neighbourhood communities, student and cultural minorities, which give it a national political influence well beyond its strict voting strength. Part of that influence is exercised through networks directly tied to the Church, like the pastoral missions on the land, among youth, to the workers; and part derives from associations organically bound to the party itself. The most important of the latter is, of course, the trade-union federation linked with the Party—the cut (Central Unica dos Trabalhadores). It is estimated that if the total Brazilian labour-force numbers about 56 million persons, no more than 22 million of these are legally documented workers with jobbooks, and a mere 12 million, about a fifth of the employed population, are unionized. Two major federations contend for their allegiance. The older cgt (Confederacão Geral dos Trabalhadores) is the more moderate, and is based mainly in the more traditional branches of industry: lowtech engineering, textiles, food-processing, printing. The cut is both more militant and predominant in the more dynamic sectors of the economy—automobiles, chemicals, banks, petro-chemicals. The two federations are roughly equal in size, but the cut is growing and the cgt is not.

The pt has thus in many ways made impressive progress within a relatively short space of time. But quantitative indices give little sense of the actual quality and novelty of the Party as a poitical phenomenon. To grasp the latter, it is first of all necessary to stress the long Brazilian tradition of Bismarckian transformations of the country and its organizational life from above—fruits of transactions among the elites, rather than initiatives by the masses. The chain of such processes extends in unbroken succession from the proclamation of Independence to the Abolition of Slavery, from the advent of the First Republic to its overthrow in 1930, from the declaration of Vargas’s Labour Code to the inauguration of today’s ‘New Republic’ by an Electoral College confected by the military dictatorship. In this panorama the emergence of a wholly independent political force from below, based on practical, popular experience of resistance to the regime of the generals, marks a radical break with the past—including that of the Left itself. Historically Brazil has had three main traditions of left politics. The first and far the most pervasive has been the populism engendered by Vargas during his decades of power—initially launched in the closing phase of the semi-fascist Estado Novo itself, with the promulgation of a new Labour Code in 1943, and later consolidated in Vargas’s ill-starred Presidency of the fifties. The institutional relay of this populism was the ‘Labour Party’ or ptb (Partido Trabalhista Brasileira) created by the dictator out of the machinery of his Labour Ministry. After Vargas’s suicide in 1954, this legacy of Getulismo passed to the incumbent of the Ministry at the time, João Goulart—under whom it fitfully radicalized, leading to the chaotic and contradictory atmosphere of Goulart’s Presidency in the early sixties, judged sufficiently threatening by the possessing classes to set off the military coup of 1964. This populism is far from dead in Brazil twenty years later—it is incarnated today by former ptb leader Leonel Brizola, bête noire of the generals, who was elected Governor of the state of Rio in 1982. But created from above, as an adjunct of the state apparatus, it has not recovered organizationally from its excision from the state by the military regime—no national party any longer represents it. The pt above all set itself against this tradition, in every aspect—the party’s very name defiantly repudiating the all-purpose invocations of the ‘people’ by the older ideology, and its outlook being consciously and vehemently anti-statist from the outset.

Second in importance in the history of popular politics in Brazil has been the Communist movement. The Brazilian Communist Party has known episodes of heroic, if ill-timed insurgency—an attempted national insurrection in 1935; and of prosaic, but substantial electoral popularity—a share of the poll nearly twice the size of the current level of the pt in 1946. But by the early sixties the pcb had become deeply compromised by the dominant populism, acting as a broker or outrider under the Goulart Presidency, and went down to defeat and discredit with it. Under the military dictatorship it was unable to regain any moral ground—repudiating those of its militants like Carlos Marighella who opted for armed struggle against the regime, without formulating any viable alternative to it, before eventually foundering in disputes between Eurocommunist and Soviet models. Today it musters a mere 0.5 per cent of the electorate, half that of the miniature rival that split from it in the sixties, and looks to Albania instead. The pt represents a complete break with this past too. In its case, this rupture was much influenced by the coincidence of its birth with that of Solidarity in Poland—whose working-class composition and religious affiliation made it seem like a Second World cousin. Hostility and suspicion towards the Communist tradition were thus marked in the pt from the start, fortified by the influence on many of its intellectuals of French ideologies of post-Marxism, often assimilated during years of exile in Paris itself.

The disorientation and pasivity of the pcb after the putsch of 1964 had led, meanwhile, to the emergence of a third kind of left in Brazil—the revolutionary organizations which took up arms against the regime from 1968 onwards. Strongly marked by the Cuban example, these sought to develop—effectively for the first time since the war—a strategy for the conquest of popular power that would combine political and military forms of struggle. But in conditions of brutal repression, combined with a rapid economic boom, their actions were perhaps inevitably pushed towards too unilateral an emphasis on armed attacks on the established order, at the expense of participation in mass movements of resistance to it. They paid for this ‘militarist’ error with a defeat in the field that virtually erased them from the scene by the early seventies, their militants scattered in prison, death, exile or demoralization.

The historical background to the appearance of the pt in 1980 was thus the prior exhaustion of the populist dynamic of 1930–1964, the failure of the traditional Communist movement, and the defeat of the politico–military organizations of the late sixties. There was no continuity between any of these and the new formation. Rather, the grip of the military dictatorship started to weaken towards the mid seventies under the impact of the more difficult economic conditions brought by the world recession and oil price rise, and the rise of increasingly broad and self-confident social movements against it in the expanded civil society created by industrialization itself. The pt was thus the product of this new conjuncture, growing directly out of abc trade-union struggles against the draconian wage policies of the regime in the later seventies. By this time, as political forces throughout the country started to reorganize themselves the previous decade seemed a remote pre-history. The typical attitude of the younger generation of activists towards it was often a strange mixture of ignorance or rejection of the experience it represented and exaltation of the personalities who symbolized it, now returned from exile or reappearing on the political scene to appreciative audiences. From its inception the pt represented itself as a force that had radically separated itself from the past of the Brazilian Left. But this break was not based on any real balance-sheet of the accumulated experience, negative and positive, of the preceding period. It was conceived instead as virtually a foundation ex novo, consigning all that went before to irrelevance.