15 June 2023
Audio of an abbreviated version of this article from an online meeting on 11 June 2022:
Latin America is in turmoil, buckling under the pressures of imperialist exploitation, the lingering impact of the Covid-19 crisis and rampant inflation fueled in part by the US/NATO-led war in Ukraine. An estimated 267 million people, or 40.6 percent, of the region’s population are “food insecure,” up 9 percent since 2020. Even before the pandemic, the region had the world’s highest level of inequality, which has grown worse as millions have been cast into unemployment. Approximately 200 million people (one-third of the region’s total population) live in poverty, forced to eke out an existence on less than seven dollars a day, while 15 percent live in what the OECD calls “extreme poverty.” With annual inflation for basic consumer goods up almost 15 percent in 2023 and expected to remain at near double-digit levels, millions of Latin Americans are at risk of dying from hunger and treatable disease. Latin America accounts for over a quarter of all Covid-related deaths, 1.76 million people, though the region contains only 8.4 percent of the global population.
While the Covid disaster has made most Latin Americans poorer, less equal and their living conditions more precarious, it has benefited a thin layer of parasitic ruling elites. Since the onset of the pandemic, the number of billionaires in the region has increased by over 40 percent—their total net worth now stands at $480 billion. The “Pandora Papers,” leaked in 2021, revealed the hidden wealth, tax avoidance and money laundering schemes used by a constellation of Latin America’s ultra-rich, celebrities and politicians to line their pockets, including three active heads of state and 11 former presidents.
The polarization of the population into extreme rich and extreme poor is rooted in the class structure and combined and uneven development of Latin American capitalism, which occupies a subordinate position within the imperialist world order. Every state in Latin America and the Caribbean, with the sole exception of the Cuban deformed workers’ state, is an apparatus of capitalist oppression—a weapon in the hands of the local bourgeoisie and, ultimately, the imperialist exploiters to whom that bourgeoisie is subordinated. In the pressure cooker of social discontent, governments claiming to serve the interests of the working class, poor peasantry and Indigenous peoples sometimes come to power within the framework of the capitalist state, but they always lean on, and serve the interests of, some fragment of the national ruling class. It is the duty of Marxists to break the working class away from the so-called “progressive” sections of capital and build an independent proletarian party that links the fight to improve living standards to the struggle for a workers’ government and a Socialist Federation of Latin America and the Caribbean.
The last quarter century has seen two distinct “pink tide” waves of left-leaning governments coming to power on the back of popular support among the oppressed, who are promised much but inevitably end up disappointed. Many parties and groups that claim to be Marxist (and even Trotskyist) have abdicated their revolutionary responsibility by adapting to the backward consciousness of the masses and supporting, to varying degrees, the pink-tide governments, either as a “lesser evil” or as some sort of stage on the path to socialism. They thus helped to set up the working class for defeat with no basis for understanding the lessons of those defeats.
The first wave of the pink tide emerged at the end of the 20th century as left-leaning governments across Latin America came to power claiming to challenge the neoliberal economic model and chart a viable third-way “socialist” alternative to imperialist domination in the post-Soviet era. Most famously this included Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, alongside others such as Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Lula in Brazil. At its height, Pink Tide 1.0 led to the creation of a number of regional intergovernmental organizations that fostered deeper political and economic integration—on a capitalist basis—within Latin America and the Caribbean, while challenging the influence of the United States, e.g., the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America in 2004, the Union of South American Nations in 2008, and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States in 2011. The zeitgeist of the period was captured in the slogan, “Another World is Possible,” embraced by the World Social Forum.
These governments managed to dominate the Latin American political landscape amidst the boom of the 2000s, which coincided with greater demand by China for essential goods to meet its development needs and fuel its growing economy. The surplus generated from rising prices for many key commodities produced in Latin America (chemicals, food, fuel, metals) allowed left-leaning governments to enact moderate redistributive policies while effectively curbing opposition from the domestic ruling class and corporate elites. Social-democratic policies brought modest gains in poverty reduction—delivered within the pink tides’s capitalist framework. At no point was the fundamental class structure of these countries seriously threatened, and in some cases new middle-class layers emerged to enrich themselves through their connections to the capitalist state and its expanded role in economic activity.
Venezuela serves as a case study not only of a failed pink-tide experiment but of the dereliction of duty by much of the supposedly revolutionary left. Chávez was elected president in 1999 promoting what he termed the “Bolivarian Revolution.” His supposed “socialism for the twenty-first century” provoked the immediate hostility of imperialist powers, which orchestrated a series of coup attempts against his government. To this day Western imperialists remain reluctant to seek accommodation with Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’s vice president who succeeded him after his death in 2013 (see “Hands Off Venezuela! Imperialism, ‘Socialism’ & Revolution,” 1917 No.41). We produced two major analyses of the Venezuelan experience at the time: “Venezuela: State & Revolution” (1917 No.28) and “Venezuela & the Left” (1917 No.30). Each of these documents has stood the test of time.
What has not aged well is the orientation of those leftists who attributed some kind of “revolutionary” dynamic to Chávez’s muddled left-wing populism and simply put a plus sign where the imperialists put a minus. Among the most vocal cheerleaders of the “Bolivarian Revolution” was the International Marxist Tendency (IMT), led by Alan Woods. The IMT politically adapted to the non-proletarian forces represented by Chávez and suggested that an amorphous “revolutionary process” was underway in Venezuela. At the height of Chávez’s power, the IMT wrote: “Chavez sees the need to ‘deepen’ the revolution.… He feels that he cannot make this state machine do what he wants. The only road is therefore to break this machine and build a new one based on the workers” (marxist.com, 9 January 2007). The IMT’s notion of “breaking” the capitalist state machine ultimately boiled down to proposing that the president at the head of that state adopt a parliamentary road to socialism:
“It would have been quite possible for the President to have introduced an Enabling Act in the National Assembly to nationalize the land, the banks and the key industries under workers' control and management. This would have broken the power of the Venezuelan oligarchy. Moreover, this could have been done quite legally by the democratically elected parliament, since in a democracy the elected representatives of the people are supposed to be sovereign.”
—Alan Woods, Reformism or Revolution (2008)
The IMT went so far as to give credence to a claim from Chávez that “I am also a Trotskyist! I follow Trotsky's line, that of permanent revolution," positing that this was evidence of “the leftward evolution of his political thinking and his personal growing radicalisation” (marxist.com, 12 January 2007). At one point Woods even served as an informal adviser to “Comrade Chávez” himself.
A quarter century later, with the sheen of the “Venezuelan revolution” worn off, the IMT has toned down its positive coverage of the Bolivarian government. Many younger IMTers are likely unaware of the embarrassing Menshevism of their leader, whose fawning political support for Chávez (the chief obstacle to socialist revolution in Venezuela) was purchased with little more than a photo op and a plug for his writings.
‘Comrade Chávez’ and Alan Woods celebrate as the Bolivarian government destroys the prospect of a Venezuelan socialist revolution
Latin America’s first Pink Tide ebbed under the combined impact of the global financial crisis of 2008 and the end of the commodity boom. With government coffers drying up and many of the social movements that had helped propel leftists into office now demoralized and demobilized, right-wing parties returned to power in most pink-tide countries in the 2010s, often with the support or direct aid of the US, which orchestrated a series of military coups to reassert control in its “backyard.”
In recent years, however, a number of left-wing populists and pseudo-socialists have once again been swept into office. Pink Tide 2.0 began in 2018 with the election of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, followed by leftists taking office in Argentina in 2019, Bolivia in 2020, Peru, Honduras and Chile in 2021, Colombia in 2022, and most recently the return of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to the presidency in Brazil in January. At times employing radical rhetoric and claiming to redress the ills associated with unrestrained “free market” forces—social inequality, climate crisis, Indigenous and gender oppression—the new leftist leaders are, as the previous wave, firmly committed to capitalist rule and seek to administer the bourgeois state on behalf of the ruling class. Although ideologically heterogeneous, these governments share a principal social function in effectively diffusing mass anger at the base of society and channeling discontent into the dead end of bourgeois electoral politics.
The reaction of imperialist planners and the corporate media has been somewhat different this time around. While in some cases condemned by the imperialists, the new pink-tide leaders have also been lauded for their “pragmatism” and praised for eschewing the political polarization and supposed pro-socialist ideological commitment of their predecessors. Although the pro-capitalist commitments of Pink Tide governments remain the same, the geopolitical and global economic context has changed. With weaker global growth, greater financial volatility and China playing a less significant economic role in generating government revenue than in decades past, today’s generation have less room for maneuver to implement reforms. At bottom, their so-called pragmatism is an expression of the inescapable constraints imposed on bourgeois-nationalist and left-reformist governments in dependent capitalist countries attempting to plot an independent course in the imperialist epoch.
While the imperialists may have learned a lesson or two from the first Pink Tide, it is clear that the pseudo-revolutionary left has not. Three countries illustrate the point: Peru, Chile and Brazil. Each has posed, in sometimes complicated ways, the need for a Leninist-Trotskyist vanguard to chart a course of proletarian independence. While there is a close similarity to bourgeois-nationalist movements of the Chávez type in terms of government policy and the nature of their popular support, these countries illustrate a particular form of pink-tide treachery: “critical support” for the reformist social-democratic components of coalitions with outright bourgeois parties (i.e., popular fronts).
In July 2021, José Pedro Castillo assumed the presidency of Peru after being elected on the ticket of the nominally Marxist “Perú Libre” party three months earlier. Castillo’s victory came in the context of acute social pressures stemming from the economic crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic, and he enjoyed mass support among the urban poor and working class, Indigenous peoples, peasants and especially teachers (he had worked as an elementary teacher and gained prominence as a trade-union leader during the education strike of 2017). Perceived as an outsider, Castillo only narrowly defeated his rival Keiko Fujimori, daughter of strongman Alberto Fujimori, who ruled the country throughout the 1990s. Castillo’s platform was not Marxist but instead offered a “left” nationalist and anti-neoliberal vision of using Peru’s lucrative mineral resources to fund social programs for the downtrodden—his campaign slogan was “No more poor people in a rich country.”
Castillo’s economic program, which he watered down between the first and second rounds of the presidential election, was accompanied by reactionary opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage and “gender perspective” in schools. To calm fears that he might try to enact even the sort of reforms Venezuela had seen during the “Bolivarian Revolution,” Castillo assured voters:
“We are not Chavistas, we are not communists, no one has come to destabilize this country.…
“We are workers, we are entrepreneurs and we will guarantee a stable economy, respecting private property, respecting private investment and above all respecting fundamental rights, such as the right to education and health.”
—Reuters, 16 June 2021
Castillo’s finance minister, former World Bank economist Pedro Francke, had a clear message for foreign investors: “We absolutely respect private property and we’re absolutely opposed to any proposal for exchange rate controls and price controls. We have a clear policy of fiscal responsibility.” (Financial Times, 11 August 2021) Francke, who had become Castillo’s main economic advisor shortly before the second round of the election, is a member of the petty-bourgeois Nuevo Perú party. Alongside members of Perú Libre and Nuevo Perú, Castillo’s initial government contained various independents and representatives of smaller left-leaning parties. Francke described the government’s economic orientation as “market-oriented but with pro-poor policies.”
Despite these reassurances to the Peruvian ruling class and its imperialist patrons, Castillo was immediately attacked by the right-wing opposition in control of the Congress, which despised even the tepid reforms on offer and opposed the plan for constitutional reform. The president was subjected to multiple impeachment attempts and became the focus of half a dozen investigations for corruption, including allegedly plagiarizing his masters thesis. The right wing’s strategy was to make it impossible for Castillo to govern, while Castillo’s response was to claim the opposition was attempting a coup d’état and to appeal to the imperialist-backed Organization of American States, which promptly issued a declaration from Washington that expressed “solidarity and support” for Castillo’s government. By this point, in late October 2022, the president had already broken from Perú Libre (whose membership was in revolt over its pro-capitalist policies) and a month later he was on his fifth prime minister.
The stand-off between Castillo and the opposition came to a head on 7 December 2022, when the president tried but failed to dissolve Congress and put in place an “exceptional emergency government.” Castillo’s forces fractured and his vice president, Dina Boluarte, was sworn in as his replacement. Although ousted from power, Castillo refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the new government, while Boluarte secured the support of right-wingers in Congress as well as the country’s armed forces. Dozens of anti-government protesters have been killed since she has come to power.
Marxists view the whole sordid affair between Castillo and the Congress as an inter-ruling class squabble, with each side leaning on dubious though apparently legal mechanisms (mixed, undoubtedly, with illegality) to achieve supremacy. Clearly the working-class majority, including its most organized sectors, was more favorable to Castillo than to the right wing, and revolutionaries had a responsibility to intervene in the trade unions, mass meetings and on demonstrations to advance not only absolute rejection of the Congressional opposition but also a fundamental condemnation of Castillo’s bonapartist government in favor of a program for independent working-class mobilization. The primary task of Marxists was to lay the groundwork for the working class to organize its own representative institutions to replace the bourgeois state—above all, through the development of a political party with a program of socialist revolution.
From the beginning, however, the response of the IMT was to blur the distinction between a bourgeois and a proletarian state and to corral workers and the oppressed into “critical” support of Castillo. After the second round of the presidential election, the IMT claimed that with Castillo’s victory:
“The ruling class has been dealt a massive defeat by the masses, who have rallied behind a militant teacher trade unionist at the head of a party, Perú Libre, which calls itself Marxist, Leninist and Mariateguist (after Mariátegui, the founder of the Peruvian labour and socialist movement).”
—marxist.com, 9 June 2021
While acknowledging that Castillo’s program was capitalist, the IMT nonetheless described his win as a “victory” for the masses, claiming the president of the capitalist state:
“… will now be faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, he can rule for the masses of workers and peasants who have elected him, which would mean a radical break with the capitalists and the multinationals. That can only be done by relying upon extra-parliamentary mass mobilisation. Or he can give in, water down his programme and accommodate to the interests of the ruling class, meaning he will be discredited among those who have voted for him, preparing his own downfall.”
The idea that a bourgeois president could leverage mass extra-parliamentary support to “rule for the masses of workers and peasants” is a reformist fantasy. The second option of accommodation to the “interests of the ruling class” was the only possible outcome—and it was exactly what Castillo had promised. To pretend there was even a remote possibility that Castillo could bring about socialism was to give credence to popular illusions, rather than dispelling them.
Even after Castillo’s succession to the presidency, the IMT was claiming that it was possible for his government to break out of “the narrow limits of bourgeois parliamentarism” and defeat the resistance of the ruling class “by firmly supporting mobilisation and struggle in the streets” (marxist.com, 8 October 2021). Recognizing that “there are many illusions and hopes that this government will carry out a fundamental change for the living conditions of workers and peasants,” the IMT argued that their “task is to accompany our class, supporting all progressive measures taken by the government, but at the same time clearly warning that progress can only be achieved through struggle by the organised working class and the poor peasantry.” On the contrary, the task of revolutionaries is not to “accompany” the masses in their illusions but to break those illusions through the application of flexible tactics within the framework of rigid principles—above all, the principle of working-class independence.
After Castillo’s removal from office, the IMT lectured that “the bourgeois State is the tool of the bourgeoisie to safeguard its interests” (marxist.com, 8 December 2022). Indeed, but then why did the IMT spend the previous year and a half suggesting that Castillo, whom they acknowledged had class-collaborationist and pro-capitalist policies, could somehow lean on the masses to use the capitalist state as a “tool” of the oppressed?
In December 2021, former student leader Gabriel Boric was elected president of Chile, riding the wave of mass upheaval against social inequality that rose up in 2019 under right-wing billionaire president Sebastián Piñera. Feted as a young self-described “moderate socialist” and featured on the cover of Time magazine as a leading member of a “new guard” of Latin American leftists, Boric took office amidst high expectations from the working class and poor. His election platform featured calls to address tax evasion by the ultra-rich, parasitic private pension schemes, ecologically destructive mining projects and crushing student debt as well as promises to overhaul Chile’s state institutions.
Eager to identify with Chile’s popular-front government of the early 1970s, Boric claimed in his inaugural address: “As Salvador Allende predicted almost fifty years ago, we are here once again, compatriots, opening the great avenues through which the free man and the free woman can walk, to build a better society” (Tribune, 16 March 2022). But Allende, too, based his dreams of a “better society” on the poisoned ground of class collaboration and he paid a terrible price for it (discussed further below). Invoking the memory of the compañero presidente only underlines the unforgivable betrayal not only of the “socialists” openly allied with the bourgeoisie but the “revolutionaries” who offer critical support to popular-front candidates. Boric established a popular-front government made up of a complicated patchwork of coalitions and alliances. He ran personally as the candidate of Apruebo Dignidad (Approve Dignity), an electoral coalition centered around the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) and Chile Digno (Worthy Chile), both of which are themselves leftist political blocs. Frente Amplio, dominated by Boric’s own Convergencia Social, is an amalgam of reformist social democrats and anarcho-autonomists scattered throughout various political organizations such as Revolución Democrática, Comunes, and Movimiento UNIR, among others. Chile Digno is the Communist Party of Chile’s cross-class alliance with left-libertarians, radical democrats and “humanists,” along with the Social Green Regionalist Federation (FRVS), a petty-bourgeois environmental organization. While the bulk of Boric’s cabinet is staffed by members of Apruebo Dignidad, along with a handful of independents, a number of posts have gone to capitalist parties such as the Liberal Party (public works) and the Radical Party (mining, a key sector of the Chilean economy).
A number of self-proclaimed Trotskyist groups lined up behind Boric in the December 2021 election run-off against ultra-conservative José Antonio Kast. Among those backing the popular-front candidate were supporters of the Morenoite International Workers’ Unity—Fourth International (IWL–FI), International Socialist Alternative (ISA), previously affiliated to Peter Taaffe’s now-splintered Committee for a Workers’ International, and, of course, Alan Woods’ IMT.
Advising that workers should place “no trust in Boric,” the IWL–FI offered the following rationale for supporting him:
“In the second round, we propose a vote for Boric to prevent Kast becoming president. However, we should have no confidence in Boric's project or Approve Dignity, a strategy that leads directly to the defeat of the huge movement that began in October 2019.”
—litci.org, 27 November 2021 [our translation]
The ISA was more enthusiastic:
“Boric’s victory represents an opportunity for the Chilean masses to restart the dynamic of struggle of recent years and build a genuine alternative for the working class and oppressed.”
—internationalsocialist.net, 20 December 2021
While they tempered their enthusiasm with references to the need for “a government of the workers and oppressed with an anti-capitalist and socialist program,” the perspective put forward overall by the ISA is for the Chilean masses to act as an extra-parliamentary force applying pressure on Boric’s popular-front administration. In a similar vein, the IMT were critical of Boric’s “timorous and conciliatory programme,” but Woods & Co. nonetheless called to vote for him in the second round, blandly asserting: “Part of stopping the reactionary Kast includes voting against him in the runoff” (marxist.com, 30 November 2021).
Having failed to fulfill his campaign promises, Boric’s approval ratings have collapsed to around 28 percent. Among those disappointed with the government has been Chile’s Indigenous peoples (Mapuche, Aymara, Diaguita, Lickanantay and Quechua), who make up approximately 13 percent of the population and have fought a decades-long battle for legal recognition under Chile’s constitution—the only one in Latin America not to acknowledge its Indigenous peoples. Those Indigenous Chileans who backed Boric’s election bid did so in part due to his campaign promises of constitutional reform to legally enshrine Indigenous rights and redefine the country as a “plurinational” state. In the lead-up to the election, he courted the country’s Indigenous leaders, criticized previous governments for resorting to state repression and sought to portray his incoming administration as heralding “a new relation between the government and Indigenous peoples” (Times of India, 13 March 2022).
Instead, Boric has pursued the same heavy-handed approach as his predecessors. In May 2022, when a long-standing dispute between the Chilean state and the Mapuche escalated in the southern Araucanía region, he denounced Indigenous activists as “terrorists,” declared a state of emergency and sent in the army to contain the crisis. This earned him the ire of Indigenous activists in the Arauco Malleco Coordination, one of the main Mapuche groups in the region, who slammed him for “obey[ing] the interests of the oligarchy, the power of economic groups that directly oppose the Mapuche cause” (France 24, 12 November 2022). The Mapuche, by far the country’s most numerous Indigenous group, have been struggling against an array of powerful logging companies and large ranchers, backed by the Chilean state, which rejects Indigenous demands for greater autonomy and the return of their ancestral lands dispossessed during the process of European colonization.
Boric’s key election platform pledge to replace the country’s deeply unpopular constitution, established under the 1973–90 military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, has likewise failed to materialize. Despite overwhelming sentiment (polling at around 78 percent) in favor of constitutional reform, when a national referendum on a new constitution took place on 4 September 2022, it was rejected by 62 percent of voters, with the right wing and Pinochetistas mobilizing heavily for a “no” vote. This was a particularly stinging defeat for Boric who, back in 2019 as a congressional deputy, played a key role in negotiations with the Piñera government that began the process of writing the new “progressive” constitution. Initially conceived as a quid pro quo for sparing the venal Piñera government and defusing the mass demonstrations then gripping the country, the new constitution was to provide guarantees on rights to health care, education and pensions, laying the groundwork for introducing major reforms by the government. While some of its provisions included positive reforms, the constitution guaranteed private property rights and never fundamentally threatened Chilean capitalist social relations.
In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, Boric reshuffled his cabinet in favor of the right-wing in an attempt to placate opposition parties, which hold a majority in Congress and upon whom he relies to pass legislation, including pension reform, another key pledge. In May, this led to a sharp swing to the right in voting to select the Constitutional Council, tasked with drafting a revised constitution. Parties aligned with Boric’s governing coalition were routed, while the right-wing won two thirds of the vote and are now in a good position to gut the constitution of any progressive content. Inflation is running at over 10 percent and Chile’s economy is projected to stagnate in 2023, among the poorest performing in all of Latin America. All of this will likely result in further disillusionment among poor and working-class Chileans. Instead of drawing a hard class line and warning against the role that a supposedly “transformative government” led by Boric would play in propping up Chilean capitalism, much of the Chilean “far left” pandered to mass illusions to avoid isolation.
Lula is once again ruling Brazil after narrowly defeating right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro in the presidential election in October 2022. His social-democratic Workers’ Party (PT) ran an openly class-collaborationist campaign in which Lula called to unite “democrats of all political positions, classes, races and religious beliefs … to overcome our differences and build an alternative path to the incompetence and authoritarianism that governs us” (BBC, 7 May 2022). Lula’s official electoral bloc, Brazil of Hope, was a popular-frontist lash-up centered around the PT and their long-time bloc partners in the Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB), but also including the bourgeois Green Party. His anti-Bolsonaro coalition was then broadened to include a number of social-democratic and bourgeois parties such as the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB), Solidarity, the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) and the environmentalist Sustainability Network (REDE).
Lula’s popular-front government, which assumed office on 1 January, was described by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier as a “return to the international stage” and is viewed by the imperialists as lending stability to Brazil after four years of Bolsonaro. Roughly one-third of Lula’s cabinet positions went to the Workers Party and another third to a handful of independents and the PT’s various electoral bloc partners—the PCdoB and PSOL each got a ministry and the PSB a number of posts, including vice president, industry and trade, justice, ports and airports. The remaining third went to openly capitalist parties that are expected to provide Lula with legislative support in Congress, where his leftist coalition is in the minority. The right-wing União Brasil (Brazil Union), the centrist Social Democratic Party and the center-right Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB)—all bourgeois political parties—were given three cabinet positions each. The right-wing populist Brazilian Labor Party occupies the ministry of defense while the petty-bourgeois REDE takes care of the environment portfolio.
With Lula relying on right-leaning parties in Congress to pass legislation and Brazil’s economy projected to grow by a meager 1 percent in 2023, the PT will undoubtedly disappoint much of their traditional working-class base. Lula’s vice president, Geraldo Alckmin of the PSB, who was specifically chosen to appeal to political moderates and appease international financial markets, has boasted that the new government’s commitment to “fiscal responsibility” is “non-negotiable” (Reuters, 24 October 2022). Lula himself has also sought to pour cold water on expectations that anything fundamental will change under a PT-led government. Shortly before taking power, he bemoaned the fiscal constraints imposed on his administration: “I just want Brazilian society to know that the Brazil we found in December 2022, we received this government in a situation of penury—a situation in which the simplest things were done irresponsibly” (AP News, 22 December 2022).
The PT has a long history of governing in alliance with bourgeois parties to present an image of more fiscally “responsible” management of Brazilian capitalism. From 2003 to 2010, Lula formed popular-front governments with key representatives of the financial bourgeoisie: first with the conservative Liberal Party (now affiliated with Bolsonaro) and then with the right-wing Republicans. Both administrations featured multimillionaire textile manufacturer José Alencar as Lula’s vice president. In 2010, when Lula protégé Dilma Rousseff was elected president on the PT ticket, she broadened the political basis of popular-frontist rule by extending the governing coalition to include then-vice president Michel Temer’s center-right Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (now the MDB), one of the traditional ruling capitalist parties in Brazil. When Rousseff won a second term in 2014, the cross-class bloc was once again enlarged to incorporate the right-wing and socially conservative Progressive Party. Rouseff was impeached and removed from office in 2016, while Lula was sent to prison in 2018 following a corrupt prosecution for corruption. Later that year, Bolsonaro was elected president of Brazil.
In January, a week after Lula took power, far-right supporters of Bolsonaro stormed the government headquarters in Brasília with the apparent sympathy of elements of the police and security establishment. This suggests that a wing of the Brazilian bourgeoisie was prepared to disregard bourgeois-democratic norms and test the waters for pursuing authoritarian rule. Bolsonaro, a former army captain with close ties to the military and police, had stoked tensions by continuing to refuse to concede defeat in the October presidential election, and Bolsonaristas had held rallies calling on the military to overturn the election results.
Lula responded to the riot by purging Bolsonaro loyalists from Brazilian security forces, including sacking the head of the army and removing dozens of officers responsible for presidential security, arresting the former minister of justice, Anderson Torres, for “collusion” with the riotous mob and opening a Supreme Court investigation into whether Bolsonaro incited the far-right throng. At the same time, the government is attempting to shore up support among layers of the military establishment. In January, for instance, Lula met with the command of Brazil’s armed forces “to discuss strengthening the defense industry in this country.… Including using military technology to make a stronger, more modern defense industry.” Lula boasted that the Federation of Industries of the State of São Paulo (FIESP), a big-business lobby group, was invited to participate in the meeting to “streamline” military modernization in order for Brazil to become “a respected country.” “Our armed forces must be prepared,” he added (UOL, 18 January 2023).
At this point, an authoritarian seizure of power by Bolsonaristas is not an immediate threat, but a takeover by Bolsonaro (who returned to Brazil in March from his self-imposed exile in Florida), or another suitable caudillo backed by Brazil’s armed forces, should not be ruled out. Shortly before the final run-off in Brazil’s presidential election, we discussed the revolutionary approach to such a situation:
“Although Lula’s cross-class coalition of all purported ‘democrats’ against ‘authoritarianism’ is yet another obstacle to the formation of a genuine revolutionary workers’ party in Brazil, if Bolsonaro and his supporters were to launch a coup, it would be necessary for the working class to form a military bloc with Lula and the PT, using class-struggle methods such as strikes, mass protests and armed resistance. Rather than trusting that Brazil’s existing political institutions will somehow foil an attempted right-wing seizure of power, revolutionaries instead seek to advance a perspective of working-class independence to defend democratic rights.”
—“Capitalist Necrosis & Right-Wing Populism,” 1917 No.46
Instead of fighting to “advance a perspective of working-class independence,” much of the “far left” in Brazil is helping set the scene for disaster by, one way or another, backing the popular front. The ISA and IMT are both working inside the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), which is now part of Lula’s government. PSOL was founded in 2004 by former members of the PT who were expelled after they voted in Congress against Lula’s proposed pension reform. Since then, PSOL has sought to present itself as the main “left-wing” alternative to the PT and has therefore attracted the interest of a number of ostensibly Trotskyist organizations looking for a host.
Hoping to capitalize on Lula’s comeback bid, PSOL refused to field its own candidate in the presidential election for the first time since its inception and instead threw its support behind Lula. In return, Sônia Guajajara, PSOL’s vice presidential candidate in the 2018 election, was appointed as Minister of Indigenous Peoples in Lula’s cabinet. While the various “Trotskyists” inside the party occupy their own political niches, they were all united in calling to vote for Lula/PT in the election.
The most tortured rationale for electoral support for Lula has to be that of the United Socialist Workers' Party (PSTU), the largest section of the IWL–FI. While they fielded their own candidate in the first round of the presidential elections, the “PSTU called and campaigned for a critical vote for Lula in this second round to defeat Bolsonaro and his authoritarian dictatorship project” (litci.org, 31 October 2022). The PSTU backed Lula despite the fact that it apparently views the PT as a thoroughly “bourgeois party” that “has not been a working class party for a long time.” On this basis, the PSTU claims that Lula’s government is not even a popular front:
“Suffice it to say that the current government is much more a government of national unity than of class collaboration. Much less is it a ‘Popular Front,’ because, in essence, Lula’s government is a normal bourgeois government which, although it was not the favored [sic] by all sectors, is fully accepted by the bourgeoisie and imperialism.”
—litci.org, 4 January 2023
We leave it to the PSTU/IWL–FI to explain this confused mess, including why revolutionaries would ever advocate voting for a bourgeois party. Needless to say, they are wrong on both accounts: first, the PT is not simply a capitalist party, but a bourgeois workers’ party in a popular-front alliance with the ruling class; and second, it is unprincipled to vote for it either way, regardless of how “critical” the support.
The approach of the Brazilian section of the ISA is slightly less muddled, but in the end they also threw in their lot with the popular front. Lamenting the decision by the leadership of PSOL to not run its own presidential candidate, the ISA accurately captured the political character of Lula’s candidacy as one “built on a broad alliance, including sectors of the bourgeoisie and the so-called ‘democratic’ right wing” (internationalsocialist.net, 6 October 2022). In the lead-up to the first round, they attempted to provide themselves with left cover for their inevitable betrayal in the second round:
“though the majority of the party [PSOL] has decided to back Lula and Alckmin, we will not be voting for them in the first round.… Our vote will be for candidates of the socialist left who do not make alliances with the bourgeoisie.”
—internationalsocialist.net, 17 September 2022
A few weeks later, of course, came the punchline:
“Fighting Bolsonaro at the ballot box and in the streets remains the central task. At this moment, this necessarily includes a call to vote for Lula, despite all the differences we have with his policy of class collaboration and alliances with sectors of the right.”
—internationalsocialist.net, 6 October 2022
When Lula and the PT had won the election, the ISA rejoiced: “This represents a victory for the workers and all poor and oppressed people.… The working class and the poor, suffering and oppressed people of this country have the right to celebrate” (internationalsocialist.net, 31 October 2022).
The IMT, known in Brazil as Esquerda Marxista (Marxist Left), have attempted to put an orthodox Leninist-Trotskyist veneer on an ultra-opportunist political orientation, first characterizing Lula’s campaign as unprincipled, only to follow up with political non sequiturs calling to vote for him.
Immediately after the election, they correctly noted:
“from the beginning Lula ran a campaign on the basis of unprincipled alliances with the capitalist establishment, starting with his choice of running mate, the candidate for vice president Gerardo Alckmin.”
—marxist.com, 1 November 2022
Nonetheless, just before the second round run-off, Esquerda Marxista concluded:
“Yet despite all this, the vast majority of the working class and conscious youth are using the visible tool at hand - Lula’s candidacy - to defeat the Bolsonaro government. Despite Alckmin, despite the defence of bourgeois order, despite a political line that does not encourage a militant campaign, and which only in recent weeks made an effort to increase mobilisation in street rallies.
“The Marxist Left has already defended a critical vote for Lula in the first round and reaffirms this position for the second round. Vote for Lula to defeat Bolsonaro and continue the fight for the immediate and historic demands of the working class.”
—marxist.com, 5 October 2022
In November, when PSOL was approached about entering the incoming administration, Esquerda Marxista penned an “open letter” calling on the “National Leadership of PSOL to reject the decision of its National Executive to enter the Lula-Alckmin transition team” (marxist.com, 29 November 2022). They went on to describe “the Lula-Alckmin government [as] one of national unity, at the service of the bourgeoisie and imperialism,” and insisted that “in order to be a point of attraction for the left, the PSOL must maintain its political independence from such a government.” The IMT’s leaders are clearly angling to recruit left-wing elements in the PSOL rank-and-file by positioning themselves as staunch advocates of “political independence” from the ruling class, but this task is irredeemably compromised by their own vote to the head of the government of “national unity.” Lula never concealed his popular-frontist project to govern “at the service of the bourgeoisie and imperialism.”
And what did the IMT do when PSOL, inevitably, joined the capitalist government? They opted not to break from the party and insisted instead on remaining “to correct this mistake”:
“The Esquerda Marxista will continue its fight for the class independence of the party in the run up to the [PSOL] party congress of 2023. The unity of all those who defend a PSOL independent of the bourgeoisie, and the government coalition with the bourgeoisie, is now necessary in the struggle to ensure the party congress does not approve the entrance of PSOL into the Lula-Alckmin government.”
—marxist.com, 5 January 2023
No doubt the brilliant tacticians of the IMT think they can gain a hearing among the Brazilian working class and avoid the fate of “sectarian” obscurity by voting for the popular front while “warning” of the dangers of class collaboration. But what will they say to the masses if they do gain a hearing? “We knew that Lula would bind you to the bourgeoisie, because he never concealed his plan to do so, but we advised you to vote for him anyway so that you would not think we were sectarians.” Class-conscious workers might respond that they would have preferred to hear the truth and receive advice on how to chart a course for proletarian independence rather than be pandered to while they were still under the spell of popular-frontism.
The “pink-tide” popular fronts of the early 21st century are not isolated examples of class collaboration, nor are cross-class governing coalitions a new invention. Indeed, popular-frontism has a long history going back a century, and has always been opposed by genuine Marxists. In the 1930s, James Burnham, then a leading intellectual in the American Trotskyist movement, succinctly identified the fundamental problem of what was then often called the People’s Front:
“For the proletariat, through its parties, to give up its own independent program means to give up its independent functioning as a class. And this is precisely the meaning of the People’s Front. In the People’s Front the proletariat renounces its class independence, gives up its class aims—the only aims, as Marxism teaches, which can serve its interests.… The People’s Front is thus thoroughly and irrevocably non-proletarian, anti-proletarian.
“By its very nature, the People’s Front must be so. The establishment of the People’s Front, by definition, requires agreement on a common program between the working-class and non-working-class parties. But the non-proletarian parties cannot agree to the proletarian program—the program of revolutionary socialism—without ceasing to be what they are.…”
—The People’s Front: The New Betrayal (1937) [emphasis in original]
Within reformist workers’ parties there exists a profound contradiction between, on the one hand, their proletarian organizational base and historical association with the labor movement and, on the other, the fundamentally pro-capitalist program and class-collaborationist aims of their leadership. V.I. Lenin described them as “bourgeois workers’ parties”—“bourgeois” in political program and outlook, yet “workers” in their links to mass organizations of the working class. In order to retain their proletarian base, such parties must at times at least appear to be fighting for workers’ interests against those of the ruling class and, therefore, stand in deformed and partial ways for working-class independence. This contradiction is the political basis upon which revolutionaries may sometimes offer critical support to bourgeois workers’ parties in elections—a means to put the social democrats to the test of office, expose the emptiness of their pretensions to stand for the interests of workers, and thereby advance the struggle to split the base from the top.
However, when these parties appear before the masses as part of a coalition with the open parties of capitalism, they explicitly repudiate any claim to stand for the political independence of the working class. As long as the bloc is in effect, the underlying contradiction embodied in the bourgeois workers’ party is suppressed. In such situations political support of any kind for the “workers” component of a popular front is a vote for the bourgeoisie and a betrayal of the most fundamental principle of class-struggle politics: proletarian independence.
Addressing the rise of popular-front governments in France and Spain that sought to derail revolutionary opportunities in the 1930s, Trotsky wrote:
“The question of questions at present is the People’s Front. The left centrists seek to present this question as a tactical or even as a technical maneuver, so as to be able to peddle their wares in the shadow of the People’s Front. In reality, the People’s Front is the main question of proletarian class strategy for this epoch. It also offers the best criterion for the difference between Bolshevism and Menshevism. For it is often forgotten that the greatest historical example of the People’s Front is the February 1917 revolution. From February to October, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, who represent a very good parallel to the ‘Communists’ and Social Democrats, were in the closest alliance and in a permanent coalition with the bourgeois party of the Cadets, together with whom they formed a series of coalition governments. Under the sign of this People’s Front stood the whole mass of the people, including the workers’, peasants’, and soldiers’ councils. To be sure, the Bolsheviks participated in the councils. But they did not make the slightest concession to the People’s Front. Their demand was to break this People’s Front, to destroy the alliance with the Cadets, and to create a genuine workers’ and peasants’ government.
“All the People’s Fronts in Europe are only a pale copy and often a caricature of the Russian People’s Front of 1917, which could after all lay claim to a much greater justification for its existence, for it was still a question of the struggle against czarism and the remnants of feudalism.”
—“The Dutch Section and the International” (15-16 July 1936), in Writings of Leon Trotsky (1935-36) [emphasis in original]
Similarly, the pink-tide coalitions over the past few decades are a “pale copy and caricature” of the much more significant “Unidad Popular” government of Salvador Allende, itself a pale copy of the 1930s popular fronts. Coming to power in Chile in 1970, amidst an upsurge of working-class militancy, Allende’s classic popular-front pact was an openly cross-class agreement between reformist-labor and liberal-bourgeois parties: his own radical Socialist Party, the pro-Moscow Communist Party, the right-wing Social Democrats, the rump of the bourgeois-liberal Radical Party and fragments of the Christian Democrats. Together, these parties ran on a joint ticket and a common program, standing behind the ultimately successful candidacy of Allende in the September 1970 presidential election. Upon taking power that November, Allende assembled a cabinet in which 8 out of 15 members came from the capitalist parties, despite the fact that they accounted for only a small portion of Unidad Popular’s vote in the election. The remaining positions went to the “workers” component of the popular front: four Socialists and three Communists.
While sprinkled with radical-sounding phraseology, at bottom Unidad Popular’s political program for the presidential election outlined a thoroughly reformist conception of social change premised on a “Chilean road to socialism.” This promulgated the notion of a “peaceful, parliamentary road to socialism” that sought to implement far-reaching social reforms within the confines of capitalism and the framework of bourgeois legality. It was explicitly based on the anti-Marxist notion that the capitalist state—the parliament, the judiciary, the executive and the armed forces and police—could be harnessed to serve the interests of the working class.
Allende spelled this out in his first presidential speech to the Chilean parliament in which he claimed to launch the first “stage of transition to socialism without having recourse to authoritarian forms of government.” The “Chilean road” was specifically contrasted with “the circumstances of Russia in 1917” where “the dictatorship of the proletariat, which is one of the methods of building a socialist society, was established.” Instead, Allende claimed that “today Chile is the first nation on earth to put into practice the second model of transition to a socialist society… built according to a democratic, pluralistic and libertarian model” (20 September 1970, Marxist Internet Archive).
This entailed sweeping legislation in Congress that was supposed to lay the foundation for “overcoming capitalism in Chile … without a violent break in jurisdiction.” In lieu of the need to “smash” the bourgeois state and establish a new state power resting on organs of working-class rule, Allende asserted that the “obsolete institutions” of bourgeois class rule would simply “chang[e] their class basis” and gradually “adapt to new needs in order to give rise, by constitutional means, to the new institutions required by the overthrow of capitalism.”
Responding to his left-wing critics, in the same speech Allende declared (ibid.):
“The sceptics and the prophets of doom will say that it is not possible. They will say that a parliament that has served the ruling classes so well cannot be transformed into the Parliament of the Chilean People.
“Since the National Congress is based on the people’s vote, there is nothing in its nature which prevents it from changing itself in order to become, in fact, the Parliament of the People. The Chilean Armed Forces and the Carabineros [federal police], faithful to their duty and to their tradition of non-intervention in the political process, will support a social organisation which corresponds to the will of the people as expressed in the terms of the established Constitution. It will be a more just, a more humane and generous organisation for everybody, but above all for the workers.…”
Embracing the via pacifica (“peaceful path”) to socialism, Allende claimed “we shall be able to change the basic structures on which the capitalist system rests … without unnecessary physical force” and on this basis saw no need to arm the working class to defend themselves. The “Chilean road to socialism” was possible because “the determined attitude of the Government and the revolutionary energy of the people, the democratic resolution of the Armed Forces and the Carabineros, will see that Chile advances surely along the road to emancipation.”
The first year of the Unidad Popular government saw considerable reforms. Real wages increased, the economy grew, and both chronic inflation and unemployment dropped. By the end of 1971, the government had taken control of over 150 enterprises, among them a dozen of the largest companies in Chile, including the holdings of foreign mining operations (e.g., copper, coal, iron). Allende also moved to nationalize the banking sector and enact agrarian reform to expropriate the latifundia (large land holdings), deepening land redistribution begun under previous administrations. Some 60 percent of agricultural lands were redistributed during the land reform of the 1960s and 1970s, while antiquated institutions like the hacienda and inquilinaje that characterized large parts of Chilean agrarian production were eliminated.
This enraged the large landowners, military establishment and domestic financial and industrial interests, all of whom allied with foreign capital in the imperialist centers. Together they began a coordinated effort to sabotage and destabilize the government. The US, which had been covertly intervening in Chile and opposing Allende since the 1960s, began plotting to topple his government as early as September 1970, immediately after the election. The Nixon administration and the CIA launched “Project FUBELT,” establishing contacts with elements of the Chilean military and other “coup planners” to carry out the “firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup.” The plan cautioned “that these actions be implemented clandestinely and securely so that the USG [United States Government] and American hand be well hidden.”
While CIA operatives stationed in Santiago were busy planning a coup, US diplomats were tasked with a complementary job:
“As [CIA Director Richard] Helms reported in his notes, there were two points of view. The ‘soft line’ was, in Nixon’s words, to ‘make the economy scream.’ The ‘hard line’ was simply to aim for a military coup.
“Our ambassador to Chile, Edward Korry, who was a Kennedy liberal type, was given the job of implementing the ‘soft line.’ Here’s how he described his task: ‘to do all within our power to condemn Chile and the Chileans to utmost deprivation and poverty.’ That was the soft line.”
—Secrets, Lies, and Democracy, Noam Chomsky
It would take another three years of “softening up” by the imperialists, along with the political disarming and disorientation of the Chilean masses by the popular front government, before conditions were ripe for Augusto Pinochet to take power in a military coup.
Shortly after Allende’s election, a de facto international economic blockade against Chile was imposed. The United States, along with financial agencies like the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank, cut off finances and halted loans. In 1972, a “lockout” by employers in the trucking industry was launched as part of a plan to bring the Chilean economy to a standstill. Rationing and a shortage of basic consumer goods followed as shopkeepers removed key items from shelves to sell on the thriving black market. Costly imports, especially of basic food items, rose drastically. This coincided with a significant drop in the price of copper in the early 1970s, a strategic export commodity accounting for nearly half of all Chilean exports. As a result, the Chilean economy contracted by an annual rate of 5.6 percent between 1971 and 1973. The government’s fiscal deficit soared while foreign reserves and economic aid dried up.
Faced with emboldened resistance by international finance capital, domestic right-wing forces and the growing threat of a coup, Allende and the Unidad Popular government responded by suppressing growing working-class militancy. When cordónes industriales (soviet-type bodies of rank-and-file workers in industrial districts) emerged in the summer of 1972, the Communist and Socialist Parties immediately denounced them and ordered their members to boycott them. Allende claimed that creating organs rivaling government power would be an act of “crass irresponsibility” because his government already represented the interests of the Chilean working class.
After an unsuccessful bid to unseat Allende within parliament in March 1973, the Chilean ruling class were increasingly feeling that they did not have full control of the capitalist state. Sentiment within the bourgeoisie and layers of the military swung in favor of overthrowing Allende. In June, commanding officers within the Chilean Armed Forces in league with Patria y Libertad, an anti-government movement composed of fascist shock troops, attempted the abortive right-wing putsch known as El Tanquetazo.
In response, the most militant layers of the Chilean working class were understandably calling for armed workers’ self-defense militias. Allende dismissed their demands and declared: “There will be no armed forces here other than those stipulated by the constitution, that is to say, the Army, the Navy and the Air Force. I shall eliminate any others if they appear” (Financial Times, 12 September 1972). Increasingly at odds with its working-class base, the government tried to rely on the same ruling-class layers and military clique actively plotting its overthrow. In August 1973, Allende brought three top generals into his cabinet, including Pinochet, who was appointed commander-in-chief of the Chilean Army. Meanwhile, the ruling class mounted another campaign in Congress, this time using the legal fig leaf of a “breakdown of Chile’s democracy” to provoke a direct military takeover. They indicted the Unidad Popular government for “violations of the Constitution” with the aim of establishing a totalitarian dictatorship and called upon the armed forces to remove it and re-establish order. On 11 September, the Chilean military, now unified under the leadership of General Pinochet and backed by the US, surrounded the presidential palace and overthrew the government.
The immediate aftermath of the coup included a reign of terror against not only members of the government, but all those sectors of society that had mobilized to support Allende: workers, peasants, shantytown residents, students and leftists of all stripes. Mass arrests and detentions followed, including targeted executions, detentions and the “disappearance” of leftist political militants by the secret police force. An estimated 40,000 Chileans were executed, tortured or imprisoned during the Pinochet years, while some 200,000 fled the country or were forced into exile.
To one extent or another, most of the self-proclaimed Trotskyist left—while “warning” about the dangers of class collaboration—sowed illusions in the possibility of the Unidad Popular government serving the interests of the working class. Decades later, these organizations have learned nothing. In 2006, Lynn Walsh of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) looked back fondly on the position that the Militant Tendency (forerunner to the CWI, the ISA and the IMT) had taken:
“Marxists have to advance a programme that relates concretely to the role of a ‘socialist’ (popular front) government and to the necessary tasks posed before the working class. In Chile between 1970-73, bald calls on the lines of ‘down with the Allende government’, ‘smash the state’ and ‘for a workers’ government’ would have been be [sic] completely inadequate.
“We advocated that Marxists in Chile should call on the Allende government to take decisive control of the economy through nationalisation of the copper mines and basic industries, while supporting the poor peasants in carrying through a radical land reform. We also called for decisive measures against the developing counter-revolution, led by the tops of the military, the big landlords and capitalists. We warned that it was a fatal mistake on the part of Allende to try to buy off the military reaction by promoting the military tops to more powerful positions and increasing the pay of the officer class. While calling on Allende to take bold socialist measures, we advocated the organisation of the workers from below, with the strengthening of factory committees and the ‘cordones’, effectively local soviet-type organisations. We also advocated the democratisation of the armed forces, with the purging of reactionary officers and control of the armed forces being placed in the hands of committees of soldiers, sailors and airmen. When it was clear that the reactionary forces were preparing for a counter-revolutionary coup, we called for the arming of the working class to defend itself against a bloody reaction.”
—“The State: A Marxist Programme and Transitional Demands,” 23 April 2006, reprinted in Marxism vs. ‘Militant’ Reformism
Opposing the demands “down with the Allende government,” “smash the state” and “for a workers’ government,” the so-called Marxists of the Militant Tendency instead called “on Allende to take bold socialist measures” and for the “democratisation of the armed forces,” the “purging of reactionary officers” and for the “control of the armed forces being placed in the hands of committees of soldiers, sailors and airmen.” Far from preparing the Chilean working class to mobilize for revolution, this perspective—an adaptation to the backward consciousness of the masses—politically disarmed the proletariat. So by the time the ancestors of the ISA and IMT got around to calling for the “arming of the working class to defend itself against a bloody reaction” (after it was clear that the reactionary forces were preparing for a counter-revolutionary coup), it was too late.
These organizations may fancy themselves as Trotskyists, but Trotsky’s (and Lenin’s) policy was exactly the opposite to theirs. Indeed, it was Stalin who advanced a perspective of “critical support” to a popular-front government following the February Revolution of 1917. At the March 1917 Bolshevik conference, Stalin delivered a report in which he argued:
“[T]he Provisional Government has in fact taken the role of fortifier of the conquests of the revolutionary people.… It is not to our advantage at present to force events, hastening the process of repelling the bourgeois layers, who will in the future inevitably withdraw from us. It is necessary for us to gain time by putting a brake on the splitting away of the middle-bourgeois layers.… Insofar as the Provisional Government fortifies the steps of the revolution, to that extent we must support it; but insofar as it is counterrevolutionary, support to the Provisional Government is not permissible.”
— “Draft Protocol of the March 1917 All-Russian Conference of Party Workers” [cited in The Stalin School of Falsification Revisited]
By contrast, it was Lenin, returned from exile, who outlined a revolutionary attitude toward the Russian popular-front government in his “April Theses”: “No support for the Provisional Government; the utter falsity of all its promises should be made clear, particularly of those relating to the renunciation of annexations. Exposure in place of the impermissible, illusion-breeding ‘demand’ that this government, a government of capitalists, should cease to be an imperialist government.” It was this perspective of irreconcilable opposition to class collaboration that made the socialist revolution of October 1917 possible.
Leninist-Trotskyists are not afraid of becoming unpopular by telling the truth to the working class. As Trotsky once observed: “The reformists have a good smell for what the audience wants.… But that is not serious revolutionary activity. We must have the courage to be unpopular, to say ‘you are fools,’ ‘you are stupid,’ ‘they betray you,’ and every once in a while with a scandal launch our ideas with a passion” (“On the Transitional Program,” June 1938).
As far as we are aware, only our own forerunners of the then-revolutionary Spartacist League (SL) outlined a Marxist approach to the Chilean popular front at the time and predicted its tragic downfall. When Unidad Popular took power in November 1970, the SL warned:
“It is the most elementary duty for revolutionary Marxists to irreconcilably oppose the Popular Front in the election and to place absolutely no confidence in it in power. Any ‘critical support’ to the Allende coalition is class treason, paving the way for a bloody defeat for the Chilean working people when domestic reaction, abetted by international imperialism, is ready. The U.S. imperialists have been able to temporize for the moment—and not immediately try to mobilize a counter-revolutionary coup on the usual Latin American model—because they have softened the anticipated nationalization losses through massive profit-taking over several years.
“Within reformist workers’ parties there is a profound contradiction between their proletarian base and formal ideology and the class-collaborationist aims and personal appetites of their leaderships. This is why Marxists, when they are not themselves embodied in a mass working-class party, give reformist parties such ‘critical support’—against overt agents of capital—as will tend to regroup the proletarian base around a revolutionary program. But when these parties enter a coalition government with the parties of capitalism, any such ‘critical support’ would be a betrayal because the coalition has suppressed the class contradiction in the bourgeoisie’s favor. It is our job then to re-create the basis for struggle within such parties by demanding they break with the coalition. This break must be the elementary precondition for even the most critical support.”
—“Chilean Popular Front,” Spartacist No. 19, Nov–Dec 1970
The likes of Lula and Boric pose no threat to the established order and ruling-class interests. While occasionally boasting about their “pro-working class” and “leftist” credentials, they have by-and-large dispensed with any pro-socialist pretensions and have openly embraced an entirely mainstream social-democratic perspective of politics as the “art of the possible” (i.e., running the capitalist state). While sounding less radical than their ideological predecessor Allende, their class-collaborationist project of shackling the working class to the bourgeoisie via popular-front governments is no less dangerous. Like Chile under Allende, if they were to stray too far from the confines set by the popular front, or unintentionally radicalize their base leading to widespread social instability, there is no reason to expect that the ruling classes (and their imperialist overloads) would not simply opt for a Pinochet-style “resolution” of the crisis.
The Latin American working class desperately requires a mass revolutionary party with Bolshevik leadership. Such a party would be opposed not only to the capitalist class but also to their accomplices—the reformists of all shades—and it would be capable of articulating a revolutionary program and fighting for a proletarian seizure of power.
A key programmatic task for revolutionaries in Latin America today is to assert their implacable political opposition to all expressions of class collaboration and popular-frontism. In those countries with popular-front governments, like Brazil and Chile, class-struggle militants seek to expose the reformist labor traitors and politically reorient the working class away from supporting the popular front and instead towards seeking to establish organs of workers’ power: councils, or soviet-type formations. Such organizations will form the framework for a new state power, i.e., a workers’ republic.
At the same time, revolutionaries must be prepared to block militarily even with popular-frontists in power against the threat of a coup d’état, not because we have any illusions in them but because we understand that under bourgeois democracy there are better opportunities to organize the working class and promote the Marxist program.
In times of crisis, working people acutely feel the need to overcome the atomization and weakness of a labor movement divided into various trade unions, political parties, action committees, etc. The solution is not political lash-ups and mutual programmatic self-censorship but open, democratic debate in the context of joint struggle against the class enemy. The political representatives of the class enemy within the workers’ movement will serve as an obstacle to revolutionary unity, as their own unity with the ruling class trumps their pretensions to serve the interest of the oppressed. Fundamentally it will be them, and not revolutionary socialists, who refuse joint struggle against the bourgeoisie and its thugs.
A revolutionary program would call to expropriate industry, financial institutions and government coffers, laying the material foundations for the creation of a rationally planned socialist economy. This necessarily includes collectivizing the property of the large landowners, church and foreign imperialist powers. The liberation of Latin America’s working people and oppressed requires a political program that not only addresses their immediate needs such as housing, health care and employment, while fighting poverty and climate change, but does so in a manner that creates a bridge to a workers’ government and the first stages of the transition to socialism. Such demands must therefore be integrated into a revolutionary “transitional program.”
The strategic perspective of workers’ power throughout Latin America, which originated with the Third (Communist) International under Lenin and the Bolsheviks, was alone upheld by Trotsky’s Fourth International. In May 1940, an Emergency Conference of the Fourth International outlined its prospect for “the future of Latin America,” an analysis that retains all its vitality over 80 years later:
“South and Central America will be able to tear themselves out of backwardness and enslavement only by uniting all their states into one powerful federation. But it is not the belated South American bourgeoisie, a thoroughly venal agency of foreign imperialism, who will be called upon to solve this task, but the young South American proletariat, the chosen leader of the oppressed masses. The slogan in the struggle against violence and intrigues of world imperialism and against the bloody work of native comprador cliques is therefore: the Soviet United States of South and Central America.
“Only under its own revolutionary direction is the proletariat of the colonies and the semi-colonies capable of achieving invincible collaboration with the proletariat of the metropolitan centers, and with the world working class as a whole. Only this collaboration can lead the oppressed peoples to complete and final emancipation, through the overthrow of imperialism the world over. A victory of the international proletariat will deliver the colonial countries from the long drawn out travail of capitalist development, by opening up the possibility of arriving at socialism hand in hand with the proletariat of the advanced countries.
“The perspective of the permanent revolution in no case signifies that the backward countries must await the signal from the advanced ones, or that the colonial peoples should patiently wait for the proletariat of the metropolitan centers to free them. Help comes to him who helps himself. Workers must develop the revolutionary struggle in every country, colonial or imperialist, where favorable conditions have been established, and through this set an example for the workers of other countries. Only initiative and activity, resoluteness and boldness can really materialize the slogan ‘Workers of the world, unite!’”
—“Manifesto of the Fourth International on Imperialist War and the Imperialist War,” May 1940
This article was updated on 27 June 2023 to correct some inaccuracies in the section on Brazil.
Marxism & Bourgeois Elections (1917 No.42)
On the ‘Revolutionary Constituent Assembly’ (1917 No.34)
Venezuela & the Left (1917 No.30)
In Defense of the Trotskyist Program (Trotskyist Bulletin No.3)