Brazil’s anti-capitalist left debates path forward under Lula: An interview with Mariana Riscali (MES/PSOL)

The Movimento Esquerda Socialista (Socialist Left Movement, MES) is a revolutionary socialist tendency inside Brazil’s largest radical left party, the Partido Socialismo e Liberdade (Socialism and Freedom Party, PSOL). In the first part of this wide-ranging interview with Mariana Riscali, a MES national leader and PSOL national executive member, she discusses PSOL’s relationship with the new Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party, PT) government and the tensions this has caused within the party. 

In the second part of the interview (available here), Riscali talks about the state of Brazil’s far right, as well as the country’s trade unions and social movements; and outlines MES’ views on parliamentary work, ecosocialism and internationalism. The interview was conducted by Federico Fuentes for LINKS International Journal of Socialist Renewal at the MES national conference held in December 8-10 in São Paulo.

PSOL and the new Lula government

PSOL is having an important discussion on its relationship with President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and his PT government. Before turning to this, could you briefly outline what the current Lula government (elected in 2022) looks like and how it compares to the first Lula governments (2004-08 and 2008-12)?

Before the first Lula government, and even during it, some on the left — not us, but others — held out hope that his government would be more progressive. They saw it as the first chance for the left to govern for the people and the working class.

This time, however, Lula clearly ran as the candidate of a wider democratic front. His vice presidential candidate was Geraldo Alckmin, who was originally from a centre-right party [the Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira or Brazilian Social Democracy Party, PSDB] that the PT had always opposed. Lula presented himself as a democratic candidate who could unite the forces required to defeat far right president Jair Bolsonaro, rather than some kind of left alternative.

One of Lula’s first economic initiatives was a plan — presented by his finance minister Fernando Haddad — that imposed a fiscal framework of “responsibility”. It prioritises paying Brazil’s debt over public investment. This was a clear sign of his priorities.

Given this context, how does PSOL officially define its relationship with the Lula government?

This was the most important issue discussed at the recent PSOL congress [held September 29-October 1]. The congress revealed two distinct positions within PSOL: those who want to move PSOL closer to the government and those opposing this.

Supporters of the first stance — a majority within PSOL — argue the far right is still very strong. This is true: we cannot say that Bolsonaro was defeated at the elections. Bolsonarism is a broader movement with elected representatives at the federal, state and municipal level, and remains strong. Bolsonarism poses a real threat. But they use this to argue that we need to lower our expectations and demand less of the Lula government; they say that we should not publicly criticise Lula, as this will only help the far right.

In contrast, we believe that if we do not criticise what needs to be criticised, if we do not point to alternatives, if we do not point out that most of Lula’s policies benefit financial sectors and the upper classes, then, when people become disappointed with Lula’s government for not resolving their problems, they will again see the far right as the only alternative. We need to be an alternative that remains true to its left program. We have to criticise Lula when he is not following a program for the working classes and social movements.

So, there is a division within PSOL. Officially, the PSOL is not part of the government. PSOL member Sônia Guajajara is the minister for indigenous peoples, but she is there as a representative of the indigenous peoples [Guajajara is president of the Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil or Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil, APIB].

Would PSOL allow other members to assume ministerial posts, or is Guajajara’s case an exception?

Guajajara is a special case. PSOL has said that if another member wants to assume a post in the government, they must resign from all positions within PSOL. They can still be a member of PSOL, but they cannot be part of the party’s leadership.

How does PSOL relate to the government in Congress?

In Congress, our elected federal representatives form part of the government’s caucus. This, unfortunately, was an argument that we lost within PSOL. We argued PSOL should not be part of the government’s base in Congress. It is important to add, however, that PSOL representatives have the freedom to vote against government proposals they disagree with.

How does this work in practice?

For example, PSOL voted against one of the government’s most important economic policies — its new fiscal framework. This vote was important; it represented a victory for the left within PSOL, because we insisted PSOL vote against it. The framework was a signal that the government would prioritise the economic establishment over public investment and social policies that could help reverse the rise in unemployment and fall in incomes under Bolsonaro.

More recently, PSOL deputies split over the government’s proposed tax reform: those aligned with the left voted against, while those from the majority voted in favour. The government argued its tax reform would reduce inequality. But in reality, the main parts of the reform dealing with inequality were removed by Congress. The executive presented its proposal and Congress amended it. This meant by the time of the final vote, key aspects of the original project were left out. In the end, it was not a reform that would reduce inequality and there was not enough to justify voting for it. Despite this, some PSOL deputies voted in favour. There was a tense discussion within the party over this. But PSOL deputies have the freedom to vote the way they want, hence the divided vote.

What argument did the majority use to justify its vote? Did they see it as a positive reform?

In public, they argued the reform was good and that we should celebrate that Lula had done something positive for the people. But internally, they argued PSOL had to vote for the reform to demonstrate that PSOL supports the government and stands with the PT in the fight against the far right. Internally, the argument was more about the balance of forces than the nature of the reform.

MES and the PSOL Congress

I would like to delve more into the debates at the recent PSOL congress, but before that: could you tell us how you define PSOL — is it a party in its own right with its own organic structures, or a coalition of publicly-organised tendencies, or something in between?

I would say something in between. We formed PSOL with the idea of allowing freedom of organisation for tendencies to help bring together organisations from different political traditions. But today, PSOL is not simply a coalition of different organisations. I think we can say — 20 years on — that PSOL has become a left reference point for the population. If you ask someone on the street about PSOL, they will tell you: “Oh, it’s [São Paulo federal deputy Guilherme] Boulos’ party”, “Oh, that’s [PSOL founder and former Rio Grande do Sul federal deputy] Luciana [Genro]’s party”. They are not aware that there are a lot of different organisations inside PSOL. They see PSOL as a party with left ideas, that struggles against corruption, that organises feminists, etc.

We, as MES, see PSOL as part of our politics of regroupment. Both internationally and nationally, we believe that now is the time for left organisations to unite as much as possible to increase our strength. We believe the world situation demands broader unity on the left — we want to dialogue with broader movements. We helped form PSOL with that in mind. When we founded PSOL, it was based on the experience of broader parties established elsewhere. Some of those experiences did not go so well, for example Podemos [in the Spanish state]. But Podemos was an example of a broad party that gathered together the radical left and parts of the moderate left, the same with the Left Bloc in Portugal, Syriza in Greece and DSA [Democratic Socialists of America] in the United States. PSOL is an attempt to regroup the radical and moderate left: while MES is a revolutionary organisation, PSOL has both reformists and revolutionaries within it.

In terms of internal structures, PSOL has its own elected national and regional leaderships. PSOL members also vote on the party’s main guidelines and, most of the time, the party’s tendencies unite in public behind the policies adopted by the party as a whole. Of course, PSOL’s public figures and tendencies maintain their freedom of speech — if they do not agree with something, they are allowed to explain in public that while PSOL has a certain position, they do not agree with it.

Could you give us an overview of the recent congress and what it indicated about PSOL’s current state?

This congress was very important, especially in terms of defining our relationship with Lula’s government. At the congress, MES put forward our position that PSOL should not be part of the government. PSOL was formed as a left opposition to the PT. Even though the situation is different today and demands more unity on the left, we believe PSOL should maintain its independence. Instead, PSOL seems to be going backwards, with the party moving closer to the PT. At the congress, we saw a regression in terms of PSOL’s nature, its politics and its relationship with the PT.

This congress also reflected an important change in the balance of forces within PSOL. Previously, the left was stronger, but at this congress the left lost ground. For example, the left did not hold onto the position of treasurer, the second most important party position [after president]. Instead, the PSOL majority consolidated its hold on the party [taking both president and treasurer] and will now have more power to determine PSOL’s direction.

How do you explain this change in the balance of forces?

This change was a result of the majority organisations growing since the last congress [in 2021], in particular Boulos’ organisation [Revolução Solidária or Solidarian Revolution, which joined PSOL in 2018], and the broader movement around him.

It is also a consequence of the fact that PSOL members now occupy more institutional positions. For example, the mayor of Belem [Edmilson Rodrigues], the biggest capital in Brazil’s north, is a PSOL member. His ability to recruit people into the party is related more to his political influence than any prior process of convincing them of our ideas. Of course, that is not healthy for our party, but unfortunately it happens a lot and has helped the majority grow.

Could you tell us who Guilherme Boulos is and how he came to join the PSOL?

Boulos is the leader of the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Teto (Homeless Workers Movement, MTST), an important movement of mostly urban homeless people in São Paulo. The MTST is a young movement. It was not part of the movements that emerged in the ’80s [against the dictatorship and laid the groundwork for the emergence of the PT]. The MTST came much later.

Boulos started as a young leader who, through his activism in support of the rights of homeless people, became very well known. Unfortunately, since then, Boulos’ trajectory has been one of adaptation and moving closer to the centre and the PT. I think this has to do with his personal trajectory, but also the fact that his organisation does not come from a solid Marxist tradition. We can also add to this all the pressures that come from running in elections. The biggest pressure Boulos faces right now is the possibility of becoming mayor of São Paulo. Overall, Boulos’ politics have shifted away from a project for power based on the people, to a project based on winning elections.

If that is his project, why did he not join the PT?

I think this has to do with PSOL’s image and the space it occupies in Brazilian politics. PSOL is not seen as part of the old politics. PSOL is much more associated with young people, with the LGBTIQ community, with indigenous people, and as a party that struggles against political corruption, which is very strong in Brazil. People see PSOL as an alternative. So, it suits Boulos to be associated with PSOL rather than the PT, which is seen as a traditional party nowadays.

Why do you think the PSOL majority want to move closer to the PT? Is their position driven by a desire to obtain positions in the PT government and elect local mayors as a means to demonstrate that PSOL can be trusted to govern? Or is there another explanation?

I think that this idea you mention is growing. There is this idea of wanting to participate in government, but the majority do not always say that openly. Instead, the reason they give for not criticising the government is the need to maintain a united front against the far right.

But, beyond that, I think the majority’s position reflects a difference between revolutionaries and reformists inside PSOL. More than a debate over whether to join the government or not, the reformist sectors inside PSOL believe that by implementing certain structural reforms we can transform society into one that is less unequal. In the end, they agree with Lula’s project and the PT government, because they too are reformists.   

At the PSOL congress, MES was the largest current within the Left Bloc. What can you tell us about MES and the Left Bloc?

MES has been around for 24 years. Some of our members were originally part of the PT but were expelled from the party. This includes Luciana Genro, a PT national deputy in the first Lula government who, along with some others, opposed Lula’s pension system reform. They were expelled from the PT for voting against the reform in parliament.

At the time, there was already a sense that the PT was turning its back on the lower classes. So MES believed it was time to start building a new alternative. Along with some other left organisations, we formed PSOL. Since then, we have become the largest organisation on the left within PSOL. At the last PSOL congress, the Left Bloc, which includes four organisations, obtained about 30-35% of the delegates at the congress. MES delegates made up about 60% of the Left Bloc.

We have two federal deputies, as well as elected representatives in several state parliaments and local councils. We intervene in the trade union movement through our trade union current, Trabalhadoras e Trabalhadores na Luta Socialista (Workers in Socialist Struggle, TLS), and have a strong presence on universities and in youth movements through our youth organisation, Juntos! (Together!). We also strongly believe our organisation must be internationalist. That is why we constantly seek to build relations with other organisations internationally and are part of the Fourth International.

The issue of electoral alliances for the October municipal elections was an important debate at the congress. Can you explain what this debate was about? My understanding is that São Paulo is where this will play out the most. What can you tell us about the situation in São Paulo and its importance for PSOL’s future?

São Paulo is the most important city in Brazil, not only economically, but culturally and politically. At the moment, two candidates are leading in the polls: Ricardo Nunes, the current mayor supported by Bolsonaro; and Boulos, supported by Lula. In some ways this dispute reproduces the 2022 presidential contest and will have a big impact on the 2026 presidential campaign.

Discussions for the mayoral race in São Paulo are well advanced because in previous elections, the majority voted for PSOL not running against the PT candidate in exchange for the PT not running against Boulos. Where this might get more complicated is that we still do not know which other parties will join this alliance. MES is proposing we do not make alliances with centre and centre-right parties.

The other key issue is the electoral program. Unfortunately, we are not optimistic in regards to the program. The most probable scenario is that Boulos will let the PT set the agenda, which means missing out on the huge opportunity the campaign presents for PSOL in terms of engaging with electors and present itself as an alternative that wants to govern with the people from below.    

PSOL is also involved in an alliance with the PT in Porto Alegre, where the MES is strong and PSOL is not running against the PT. How do the two alliances differ?

There are two important differences between Porto Alegre and São Paulo. One has to do with the parties we will accept in the alliance: in Porto Alegre, we will not accept an alliance with parties that are not on the PSOL’s list of acceptable partners. But the more important issue has to do with the electoral program. In Porto Alegre, we have set clear limits in terms of the program and the negotiations have been done on this basis. There are some very important issues — not just national but local issues —  that we refuse to drop for the sake of forming an electoral alliance. This includes defence of essential public services such as transport and water, which must remain under public control.

To clarify, we are not opposed to forming electoral alliances with the PT for these elections. But where we do form alliances, we believe PSOL has to preserve certain important points from our program and maintain our independence. This is important because, if we win in Porto Alegre, the PT will have the mayor and PSOL the vice mayor — which is the opposite of São Paulo, where PSOL will have the mayor and PT the vice mayor. But in Porto Alegre, PSOL will have more influence inside the alliance because of the alliance’s electoral program — that is central. Unfortunately, what we are seeing in some other places is that the majority are diluting PSOL’s program and independence in order to form alliances. In this sense, I think a lot of the differences that we have been talking about will play out in next years’ municipal elections.

The political debates appear to have spilled over into an organisational dispute over elected officer bearers at the congress. What occurred?

At the congress, the majority tried to change the rules in the middle of the game. Up until this congress, PSOL had operated on the basis of proportionality, ensuring that elected office bearers were shared among the largest tendencies. But once the majority knew the results of the delegate elections, they tried to change the rules to ensure MES — the third largest force at the congress — would miss out on an elected position. They tried to use their numbers to not only hand the positions of party president and treasurer to the majority, but also ensure MES did not get the third position, the presidency of the Fundação Lauro Campos e Marielle Franco (Lauro Campos and Marielle Franco Foundation). This is PSOL’s foundation dedicated to research and education. This was something that almost split the congress. In the end, they withdrew this proposal and MES has the foundation’s presidency.