Ultras, intractable and sectarian

Valerio Arcary

Retired Professor at the Federal Institute of São Paulo. PhD in History from the University of São Paulo. Studied at the University of Lisbon (1975-78). Participated in Portugal’s ‘Carnation Revolution’ as a Trotskyist militant. Returned to Brazil in 1978 and joined Convergência Socialista. Took part in the reconstruction of the National Union of Students (UNE) in 1979, the foundation of the Workers’ Party (PT) in 1980, and the formation of the United Workers’ Central (CUT) in 1983. PT National Executive member (1989-92). PSTU National President (1994-98). Current member of the National Coordination of Resistência/PSOL. Author of several books including ‘O Martelo da História’ (The Hammer of History).

“Anarchism was not infrequently a kind of penalty for the opportunist sins of the working-class movement.” [1]

To be radical in the face of tyranny, to be bold, impetuous, and daring against injustice, and to be politically enraged by the regime are good qualities. They are attitudes that deserve admiration. There are many good reasons to be hasty, to be angry, and to want an anti-capitalist way out of the present crisis. But you don’t need to be intractable, sectarian, and ultra-leftist to embrace a revolutionary strategy.

Two recent articles from this camp, one from the Cabana Anarchist Federation (FACA), [2] and the other from the Revolutionary Workers’ Movement (MRT), [3] fall back on calling those who do not agree with their theses reformists. This is not a good method. There are different tendencies within the camp of those who defend the need for revolution. We are very fragmented, for various reasons. But the assumption or calculation that only one organization is revolutionary is divisive and even irritating. Self-proclamation is a form of boasting, haughtiness, and arrogance.

Even though the authors have different theoretical reference points, their arguments are the same. The political influence that the various ultra-left currents in Brazil, anarchist or Marxist, have on the working masses is very small. Those who stand candidates in elections are invisible. In the big unions, still the most important organizations of the organized sectors of the working class, they have little influence. They are peripheral to the theoretical-programmatic debate of the left.

But that should not diminish respect for them. Many are sincere, honest, selfless activists, and there is an audience for them in the vanguard circles of the most combative student youth and the bubbles of social media networks. They also exert some indirect influence in certain anti-capitalist circles, especially those that are more ‘anti-petista’ (anti-PT). Therefore, their ideas are worth considering.

In short, they put forward five main arguments: (a) Lula and the PT are incorrigible reformists who do not deserve our confidence; (b) advocating the Frente Única de Esquerda (United Left Front) is to ‘passar pano’  (clean up the mess), that is, defend the errors of the PT and promote electoralism; (c) unity in action with dissidents from the liberal opposition is a capitulation; (d) arguing for a left government with an anti-capitalist program is “peddling illusions”; (e) that the only way out of the crisis is the general strike.

In the five arguments there is a grain of truth, but no more than a grain, because one must consider the mediations. First, yes, Brazil does need a revolution, and Lula’s project is reformist. But that didn’t stop the Brazilian bourgeoisie from overthrowing the PT government in 2016 and supporting Lula’s arrest in 2018. Yet even after thirteen years of PT-led governments, does anyone have any doubt that Lula remains the country’s most popular leader? Is what the immense majority of the class thinks of no importance? The overcoming of popular illusions in reformist change, and the leaders they recognize, is not possible without the experience of the class struggle. It is useless to denounce reformists as reformists to the masses with their reformist expectations.

Second, it is true that we must criticize Lula’s ‘quietista’ (passive) strategy of waiting for Bolsonaro to become steadily weaker as the 2022 elections approach, and that we must defend the need for impeachment now. But it is a far-right government that is in power. It is not possible to defeat Bolsonaro without the mobilization of the most advanced sectors of workers and youth, sectors that still maintain confidence in the PT. Shouldn’t that be our central task? That is why the tactic of the ‘Frente Única Operária’ (Workers’ United Front), or in its popularized form the ‘Frente de Esquerda’ (Left Front), through mobilization that is driven by the main movements and unions is the most effective. To defend this is not to “clean up the mess” for the PT or to be complacent or lenient towards anyone. It is to have a minimum sense of proportion and responsibility in trying to open up the road before the 2022 elections.

Third, advocating unity in action with the liberal opposition is not a capitulation to class enemies. In the face of a government as dangerous as Bolsonaro’s, exploiting the gaps, fissures, and divisions between different bourgeois factions is a tactic complementary to the United Left Front. If the Senate’s COVID Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry (CPI), high court judges, and commercial media networks place themselves in opposition to Bolsonaro, that is a positive thing. But we do not renounce the contest for leadership of the opposition, nor do we accept waiting for the 2022 elections.

Fourth, it is true that, when Bolsonaro is defeated and if Lula is elected, any potential and hypothetical government led by the PT will not take up an anti-capitalist program. But we know this. To speak only to ourselves is of no use. Shouldn’t the place of revolutionaries be in the front line of the struggle to overthrow Bolsonaro? Is there any future for revolutionary forces if, after the last five years, they are perceived by the masses as an obstacle in the way of the majority of the left and Lula? The defense of a left government that breaks with the bourgeoisie is not support for the reformists, it is placing a demand on them. The struggle for a program of structural change, and the demand that the reformists take up the defense of radical measures, is the only way to win influence for revolutionary ideas.

Fifth, it is also true that the general strike would be the most powerful form of struggle for backing the Bolsonaro government into a corner, displacing it, preventing the inauguration of current Vice President Mourão, and bringing the elections forward. But unfortunately, conditions have not matured enough for this. Even the “mineral world” knows that it would fail if it were called because the majority of the class would not adhere to it. And strictly speaking, not even a minority. Unfortunately, at the moment there is not a single sector of the working class that is in a condition to carry out one day of a general strike. And such a hasty and rushed action would have demoralizing consequences. An attempt to move faster than the class is willing to would facilitate a reactionary counter-attack and repression. The idealization of a permanent willingness for revolutionary struggle among the popular layers is naïve.

In short, two and a half years after the election of Bolsonaro, ultra-leftism has still not resigned itself to the significance of the defeats that have accumulated since 2015-16, and thus the opening up of a reactionary situation in which defensive tactics must prevail. They do not bother to assess the social and political relationship of forces. They despise what the popular masses think and idealize an imaginary mood of struggle.

After five years of the loss of rights, a fanciful interpretation prevails in the “ultra” groups which disregard the weight of everything that has happened in the consciousness of workers. As if the labor and pension reforms, among so many defeats, were not enough, there is also the health, socio-economic, political, and cultural cataclysm that has been devastating.

They underestimate the danger of a neo-fascist that heads a far-right government and is tempted to carry out a coup. Even more serious is the tendency of the “ultras” to ignore the fact that Lula retains his authority, and that the PT remains the country’s principal left party. Without the masses influenced by the PT and Lula, it is clear that it is impossible to defeat Bolsonaro. And nothing is more important.


[1]. Vladimir Lenin, “Left-Wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder (1920), https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/lwc/ch04.htm.

[2] Brazilian Anarchist Coordination (CAB), “Quatro polêmicas com o reformismo” (Four polemics with reformism), 16 July 2021, http://cabanarquista.org/2021/07/16/quatro-polemicas-com-o-reformismo/.

[3] Edison Urbano, “Descaminhos de uma (R)esistência sem estratégia” (Deviation of (R)esistance without strategy), Esquerda Diário website, 23 July 2021, https://www.esquerdadiario.com.br/Descaminhos-de-uma-R-esistencia-sem-estrategia.

This article is an English translation of “Ultras, intratáveis e sectários”, [https://esquerdaonline.com.br/2021/08/03/ultras-intrataveis-e-sectarios/], Esquerda Online (EOL), 03/08/2021.

Translation: Bobby Sparks