Jones Manoel
Original publication:
Translation: Diogo B., Roderic Day

Reformists, Revolutionaries, and Social Liberals (2023)

14 minutes | English Português | Latin America

This is a transcript of a video from Professor Jones Manoel, a communist militant with the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB). The original transcript had only minor alterations made (conjugation, some terminology), and the English translation made a few additional ones for the sake of readability.

Throughout history we observe that people use political language in the way accorded to them by tradition, even when that political language — that conceptual language — no longer corresponds to reality. I think this is happening today among Communists and Marxists in Brazil. Why?

The First World War and the Russian Revolution produced a split in the European labour movement, out of which emerged two major factions: the Communists (supportive of the Russian Bolsheviks) and the Social Democrats. The Communists defined themselves as a revolutionary political force, and aimed to end capitalism through socialist revolution, whereas the Social Democrats did not want to end capitalism through revolution, but instead sought to make deep but meaningful reforms.

This division between revolutionaries and reformists was a political fixture all over the world from 1917 until the 1980s. In almost every country three major political forces were identifiable: the pro-capitalist liberal/conservative camp (rallying in some countries under banners such as “Christian Democracy”), the Communist revolutionaries (who sometimes championed reform, but retained “maximalist” aspirations), and the Social Democrats (often just “Socialists”). Italy, for example, is a classic example: they had a large communist party, a socialist party, and a Christian-Democratic party — all clearly defined. Christian Democrats were liberal and opposed reform, the other two represented degrees of challenge to the status quo, and so on.

From the 1980s onwards — the era known as “neoliberal” — this division ceased to make sense in many countries. Their Communist parties either died or became Communist in name only. Social-Democratic and Socialist parties become outright neoliberal. (We can recall here Margaret Thatcher’s famous declaration that her greatest victory was turning the Labour Party into a neoliberal party.) [1] The French Socialist Party, for example, is liberal to its core. The Portuguese Socialist Party is the same way. The Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB) of Tabata Amaral and João Campos is the same way. [2] Therefore, from the 1980s onwards, the old tripartite division rarely makes sense.

The way this process played out varies from country to country, however. Though we see symptoms of encroaching neoliberalism in Brazil as early as 1986 — the Communists of PCB, PCdoB and MR8 allied with the infamous PMDB to support Moreira Franco against Darcy Ribero for the governorship of Rio de Janeiro — the tripartite division, broadly speaking, still made sense all throughout the 80s. We can still speak of reformism, we can still speak of socialist forces and communist forces. The Workers’ Party (PT) was coming into being, and even featured under its umbrella the underground Revolutionary Communist Party (PRC) of Chico Mendes and José Genoino. The Socialist Party under Miguel Arraes was still reformist. Most interestingly, one of the most advanced wings was Leonel Brizola’s Democratic Workers’ Party (PDT). In 1994, however, Fernando Henrique Cardoso came into power, and his immiserating privatization drive provoked a radical reordering of the political-ideological forces in Brazil. The working class coming under siege led to the death of Brizolism and the right-wing turn of the PT, and the ideological degeneration of the PCdoB and PSB, already underway, accelerated. By the year 2000 PT’s Lula da Silva is in power, but his famous letter addressed to the Brazilian people backtracking on his campaign promises [3] is an admission that reformist forces in Brazil are no longer, in the precise sense that what we call the “reformist left” is reformist in name only.

To briefly revisit a past discussion: What was Lula’s reform? [4] And when I ask about reform, I’m asking about reform, not public policy. The Lula and Dilma governments implemented many important public policies, but what reform did they carry out? PCdoB, PSB and PDT governed Pernambuco, Maranhão, and Rio Grande do Norte. What reform did they carry out? The PSB was in power for 16 years in Pernambuco, with PCdoB in the vice-governorship. PDT was part of the PT government for much of its duration. Where is the reform? Take note: we use language that no longer makes sense! The term doesn’t make sense anymore because we don’t have a divide between revolutionaries on the one side and reformists on the other; what we have is a broad “leftist” camp which is liberal in essence, which promotes no reform nor any mobilization or politicization of the working class. We can speak about their public policies, which are important, or about their defending the participation of the masses in the political process. However, they champion human rights and democracy in a legal and abstract sense; there is no specific advocacy of the decision-making capacity of the working class, nor of the concrete exercise of popular power. In other words: what we call reformist is not reformist.

Although we use the term reformist too loosely, reformist entities still exist. The Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), formed in 2004 by PT dissidents in response to Lula’s economic U-turn, is home to some firm advocates of reform. Without getting too specific, there are movements in the orbit of the PT which are genuinely reformist, who defend the democratization of the media and agrarian reform in a serious way, not merely as rhetoric or electoral discourse. However, the mere existence of these entities does not justify that we continue to describe the “Brazilian left” as reformist.

Some people rely on caricature to defend this status quo. They argue as follows: “What did you expect? Lula and the PT never said they were revolutionary!” The truth is, however, that nobody is expecting or demanding revolution from Lula, from the PT, or from the political forces that make up that camp. Our problem is that is that it doesn’t even deliver reform!

What constitutes reformism? Let’s illustrate by way of an example. During the Bolsonaro/Temer government, Petrobras, Brazil’s state-owned oil company, had its production negatively impacted by privatization drives. What would a reformist government do? Consider here Cristina Kirchner’s government in Argentina, López Obrador’s government in Mexico, Evo Morales’s government in Bolivia, or Hugo Chávez’s government in Venezuela. Their governments would carry out an audit in order to identify all illegal transactions. They would summon people to the streets, hold a public debate, and they would reverse the privatization of Petrobras. This is how it was done in Argentina, this is how it was done in Bolivia, and this is how it was done in Venezuela. López Obrador is actually quite moderate in this regard. We could even speak in his case of right-wing reformism. A nationalization process has just taken place in Mexico. The nationalization of lithium resources has been partial, it is true, but they have been nationalized nonetheless.

When last did something like this happen in Brazil? When last was a privatized company re-nationalized? When did the Lula administrations stand up against the fundamental interests of the bourgeoisie? On the contrary, Lula has taken pride in the fact that under his government the number of strikes, protests, and occupations decreased. Lula’s discourse, up until Bolsonaro came into power, boasted about his ability to deliver “social peace,” to defuse class struggle, and to cool down conflicts. It is mistaken to refer to him as a reformist. There is no “Reformist Left majority” in Brazil.

My thesis is that, just as revolutionary forces are a minority within the Brazilian left, so with the reformist forces. Reformists and revolutionaries are both a minority within the Brazilian left. What is the majority? The social liberal camp. Social liberals say that we must defend the public policies of the working class, that we must fight hunger; they speak about how important the minimum wage is and about how important human rights are; they speak about how racism is bad, how misogyny is bad, how LGBTphobia is bad; they say that we must defend indigenous peoples and the Amazon and the environment for the sake of staving off global warming, etc. However, all this talk is absent any serious gesture towards reform, so there’s no prospect of mobilizing the popular masses to confront the bourgeoisie. In other words, as I’ve said several times in the past: the reformist was Hugo Chávez! There we can speak of a reformist project. Reformist is the project in Bolivia — the cultural and democratic revolution led by Evo Morales. Reformist was Brizola in the ’80s. Reformist was Miguel Arraes before the coup in 1964. What we have today in Brazil is, for the most part, not reformism.

The Communist camp in Brazil also makes this error, and also needs to self-correct. Too often reformism is derided on the basis of the actions of people who are in fact not reformist. Reformism is a flawed project because it is constitutively incapable of solving the problems affecting the working class, but it has one important virtue: political struggle is instructive for the working class. We have a good idea of how to begin a mobilization of the working class, but we cannot predict how any mobilization will end. Therefore, even when it comes to a mobilization that starts with a very limited demand — for example, the re-nationalization of the privatized Petrobras refineries — nobody knows where it could end up. It may end up calling for the nationalization of Vale! [5]

The dynamic of mass movements is in many ways unpredictable. A mass movement might start progressive, but then could be co-opted by the right-wing — this happened in June 2013. Alternatively, a mass movement might start timid and limited, but radicalize over time. Therefore, the existence of a reformist force in some ways facilitates the work of Marxists, because from the moment that the masses are in motion — the working masses that reformism mobilizes and tries to politicize, even in a limited, bureaucratic, and restrictive way — the discovery of a radical political consciousness becomes possible, especially in contrast to the immobilism of social liberalism, which reduces politics to cabinet dealing. The 20th century offers us many examples of revolutionary forces arising from reformist movements. The Montoneros emerged from Peronism in Argentina, and similarly with the Tupamaros in Uruguay. In Brazil, Brizolism emerged from Vargasism. Brizolism before the coup spearheaded a revolutionary national current. In short: The history of reformism furnishes several examples of mass movements being activated in a controlled way, only for them to eventually lead to the radicalization of the people.

I often joke that if what is understood as the “majority left” in Brazil was reformist, that would be a good thing! If that were the case, we’d be discussing fundamental questions and contradictions. But we are not. Therefore, a fundamental task for those trying to understand and communicate about the political crisis in Brazil is to adapt our political language. We have to stop calling those who are social liberals reformists. The correct understanding of the Brazilian left today is that Marxists and reformists are a minority, and face together a very large social liberal camp.

Glauber Braga, a radicalized reformist, is in the minority. [6] He is a minority in his own party, he is a minority in the Brazilian parliament, and he is a minority in the Brazilian progressive camp. He is a serious reformer, consistent, honest and so on. It would be great if we had 30 or 40 Glauber Bragas in the Chamber of Deputies! But we don’t. This is why I put forward this subject for debate. We have to sharpen our language and our political analysis. What we face is a left dominated by social liberals. [7] Against this majority, reformists, like revolutionaries, remain a minority.

[1] As reported by Conor Burns, British MP for Bournemouth West, in 2008: “Margaret Thatcher’s greatest achievement: New Labour.” [web] 

[2] These Brazilian politicians, educated at Harvard, are known for their American-style liberal politics — talk of “meritocracy” and free markets, etc. 

[3] Lula da Silva, 2010-02, Carta ao povo brasileiro. [web] 

[4] Jones has produced many videos on this subject. [web] [web] 

[5] Vale do Rio Doce is the biggest mining company in Brazil. It used to be state owned. After its privatization it became infamous the world over for, among other crimes, destroying two entire cities (Brumadinho e Mariana) and for neglecting the maintenance of its dams. 

[6] Glauber Braga is an important radical politician from PSOL. He became a national sensation after calling the leader of the chamber of deputies who allowed Dilma Rouseff to be impeached a gangster on national television. Said gangster would be jailed a few months later. 

[7] For more on social liberalism, see Jones Manoel’s video on Carlos Nelson Coutinho and the Americanization of Brazilian politics. [web]