Ecosocialism, internationalism and fighting the far-right in Brazil: 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 second part of this wide-ranging interview with Mariana Riscali, a MES national leader and PSOL national executive member, she discusses 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.

In the first part of the interview (available here), Riscali talks about PSOL’s relationship with the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party, PT) government and the tensions this has caused within the party. 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.

Bolsonaro and the radical right

I would like to get MES’ views on a series of important issues, starting with the threat posed by the radical right in Brazil and internationally. Bolsonaro is part of a broader international trend of rising radical and far-right parties. How does MES view this broader phenomenon? What commonalities and differences exist between Bolsonarism and the broader international trend?

As MES, we saw that something was happening internationally in terms of the far right when [Donald] Trump was elected [in 2016]. Bolsonaro is definitely part of this broader movement, as is Argentina’s new president, Javier Milei. We will likely see something similar in Argentina to what happened to Brazil.

One of the most important issues globally right now — Israel’s genocide against the Palestinian people — is also the result of the strengthening of the far right, given [Israeli prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is part of this international far right trend. This is combined with the weakness of international resistance in terms of stopping the killings.

In Europe, we also have seen the growth of radical right organisations such as Alternative für Deutschland [Alternative for Germany, AfD], Fratelli d'Italia [Brothers of Italy, FdI] and Chega! [Enough!] in Portugal. These parties have won support on the basis of combining liberal economic ideas with authoritarian and fascist politics, such as against human rights and immigrants, to give just a few examples.

In terms of possible differences — at least between Brazil and Argentina — one is that, here, we did not see large street mobilisations against Bolsonaro. The united front against Bolsonaro was built from above by parties that united at election time to defend democracy; it was not a united front based on left demands and struggles from below. In Brazil, the struggle against Bolsonaro was predominantly waged at the ballot box, not on the streets. Hopefully in Argentina, which has a history of struggle and where the working class is more organised, the left will be able to mobilise people on the streets against Milei.

Bolsonaro is no longer in power, but Bolsonarism remains strong and has consolidated itself as the main force on the Brazilian right. How did Bolsonaro achieve this?

Bolsonaro managed this by successfully tapping into an existing anti-system sentiment. He did not just base himself on traditional far-right ideas, such as family values, religion, anti-LGBTIQ+, even if these are very present in his discourse. Bolsonaro presented himself as standing against the old way of doing politics. He consistently said “we are different, we are not like traditional politicians”, even though he governed just like traditional politicians and was just as corrupt. He said: “We are against the system”. It used to be the left that said “we are against the system”, but now it is the far right that uses this discourse to push their conservative alternative. By combining this discourse with clever use of social media to enable him to reach the maximum number of people, Bolsonaro was able to engage with sectors who feel everything is bad. He used this to expand his support base beyond the traditional right.

What you have outlined is similar to what the radical left faces in other countries where the far right is strong. In this situation, the radical left has often made alliances with parties of the political establishment to defeat the far right. Is there not an inherent weakness in such an approach, as it cedes the anti-system sentiment to the right?

This is a difficult issue. Generally speaking, the left faces a tough situation internationally. It has found it difficult to grow. This has allowed the far right to build itself. The right has also managed to grow where the left has won elections, because the left has generally not managed to govern for the working class. Here, for example, Lula’s first government started badly and Dilma [Rousseff]’s was worse — she openly governed for the rich and upper classes. As a result, people started to turn against Dilma and lose faith in the PT. Something similar happened in Argentina. So, the left has helped open up space for the far right to grow. We need to break this cycle if we want to build alternatives that can grow and challenge for power.

But in terms of Brazil, I think we made the correct decision with the presidential election. We had to support Lula, even if this meant accepting Alckmin as Lula’s vice president, because there was no other way of defeating Bolsonaro. As a tactic, at that specific moment, we needed to be part of a united front to defend democracy. We knew that if Bolsonaro won we faced the danger of a profoundly anti-democratic process, one that could have led to the closure of parliament and attacks on institutions such as the Supreme Court. So, we had to participate in that united front. But now that Lula is in government, we see no need to enter into government with these same sectors. We are now in a different moment, which requires different tactics.

Didn’t MES argue PSOL should run its own candidate against Lula?

Early in the campaign we defended this idea. But it is important to understand the context in which we raised it. When we launched Glauber Braga as a pre-candidate, the coalition around Lula was still being formed. We believed this was the right time to put forward PSOL’s program and demands to the PT. We believed it was the right time to explain our program to the left and the broader population, and talk with them about alternatives.

But we also explained in our statements that if it looked like Lula’s only chance of winning in the first round was if everyone united behind his candidature, then PSOL should withdraw its candidate. In fact, that is what some of the candidates from the centre did: they participated in the televised debates, as an opportunity to raise their profile, but then withdrew to support Lula. That is a tactic we could have used. Instead, PSOL was too quick to give its support to Lula. It was correct to support Lula in the elections, but we could have done things differently.

Why do you think PSOL was not able to better tap into the anti-system discontent?

Although PSOL is seen as an important public voice by young people and sections of the working-class, such as public employees, teachers and health professionals, we still have a long way to go in building deep roots among rank-and-file working class sectors. PSOL, unfortunately, is still not viewed as an alternative by the mass of the working class. This is in large part a result of the world situation, which is very different to that in the ’80s when the PT was formed. Then, the workers’ movement and unions were very strong and there were lots of strikes. Today, conditions are more difficult for leftist parties. But that is why it is important to not only have a vision for how to grow electorally, but also for how to sink roots among the working class. That requires defending working-class demands and raising a working-class program.

Social movements and the state of class struggle

Given what you have said about the difficult conditions for the left, could you give us a sense of the current state of struggle in Brazil?

We are not in a period where social struggles are on the ascendancy — I think this is true not just for Brazil but internationally. On top of this, given the PT’s hold over trade unions and important social movements, there has been a constant debate throughout the first year of the Lula government. An important part of the social movements argue we should not be mobilising to demand more from the government because “it’s our government” and we need to give Lula more time to govern. Even if we look at the issue of Palestine, the street mobilisations were not that big. So, we have not seen many struggles on the streets.

Another common trend internationally is declining trade union membership. Is this the case in Brazil?

Yes, that has been the case here too: as a general phenomenon, you can say that unions in Brazil, like the rest of the world, have been getting weaker. But it is also important to note some important examples in recent years of gig economy or app workers, such as delivery drivers, starting to self-organise. They represent examples of new ways of organising workers who currently have no rights or unions. They are not formally organised as unions; instead, they are developing new forms of worker organisations that we have to pay attention to. Those organisations are still at an embryonic stage, but they have organised some very interesting mobilisations. For example, they organised a one-day country-wide strike, where workers stopped working and held demonstrations across the country, riding their motorcycles through the streets. We saw the emergence of new leaders among these workers, similar to what we saw with Amazon workers in the US.

One of Brazil’s most well-known movements is the Landless Workers Movement (MST). What is the situation of the MST today and its relationship with the Lula government?

The MST — which is turning 40 this year — is one of Brazil’s most important social movements. During Lula’s first year back in government, it played a crucial role in raising the issue of land reform. For this, the MST has become a target of the right, which initiated a Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry (CPI) into the movement in an attempt to criminalise the MST over its land occupations. While the PT has stood by the MST, PSOL has been its strongest defender in CPI, with Sâmia Bomfim [MES/PSOL MP for São Paulo] having won a lot of recognition for her role in this battle.

The PT’s policy of governing with agribusiness interests will inevitably lead to more contradictions between Lula and MST, just as occurred during his first two terms in governments. But one issue is that the MST leadership is very close to the PT, and tends to avoid key debates in the name of maintaining support for the government. This has led to some more radical sectors of the MST leaving to build other organisations that are more loyal to the MST’s original principles and more inline with what the organisation was like at the time of its foundation four decades ago. Nowadays, there are other important radical landless workers movements organising to occupy land and pressure the government.

The struggle for Black rights, as well as the feminist struggle, have gained strength in recent years. Was this largely a reaction to Bolsonaro or do other factors explain their rise?

Bolsonaro is part of explaining this, but we have also seen similar movements arise globally, for example with Black Lives Matter in the US. You could say the womens’ movement in particular grew in response to Bolsonaro — there was a strong reaction by women who were the first to mobilise against Bolsonaro through the #EleNao (#NotHim) movement. But again, I think this fits in with what we have seen internationally in terms of the rise of womens’ movements. For sure, Bolsonaro motivated these movements due to his positions against women, the LGBTI community and Blacks. But these new movements are not simply a reaction to Bolsonaro.

What is the relationship between these new movements and the PT?

These movements are definitely more independent from the PT than, for example, the traditional trade union movement, given the PT’s strong history and tradition within the trade unions. I would go as far as to say that, in some cases, PSOL has more influence within these movements than the PT.

Parliament and movement work

PSOL’s presence in parliament has steadily grown since it was formed in 2004. However, it has not yet managed a qualitative leap in its national vote. How much of this is due to the unfair nature of the electoral system, and how much is due to PSOL’s own weaknesses?

Even though we now have a system of public funding for election campaigns, there are still inequalities in our electoral system. Previously, the private sector could donate to election campaigns; now, businesses cannot donate directly, although a business owner can still donate as an individual. That is one way in which inequality continues.

There is also inequality in the funds each party receives, as it depends on the party’s vote and number of parliamentarians. Although all parties receive a lot of money — PSOL believes it should be a lot less — there is a huge gap between what the big parties and small parties receive. There is also inequality in the amount of TV time each party gets. During the election campaign, each party gets allocated time on TV depending on its size. This means that PSOL gets something like two minutes, but the biggest parties get 15-20 minutes. This unequal distribution of money and TV coverage reproduces the existing system, benefiting the bigger parties. That is why we defend a much fairer system of public funding of election campaigns.

In terms of PSOL’s overall vote, it is also fair to say that PSOL’s insertion into society differs from state to state. For example, PSOL is strong in São Paulo, Rio Grande do Sul, Rio de Janeiro and Pará, but in some states it is still a small party

Is this largely due to the demographics of certain states or are there other reasons why PSOL is stronger in certain places?

This is partly to do with the characteristics of particular states. But it also has to do with tradition and history. For example, there are states where the groups that formed PSOL were strong even before PSOL, such as Rio Grande do Sul where there is a tradition of a strong left and this carried over into PSOL. A different example is Rio de Janeiro: there the PT was never particularly strong and had no real tradition. This allowed PSOL to grow by filling a vacuum on the left the PT would have normally filled. So, PSOL has different characteristics depending on the state.

How does PSOL deal with issues arising from state funding? Does it have plans for raising funds independently from the state?

PSOL defends the public funding of election campaigns, but, as I mentioned, we believe these should be more equally distributed and the overall amounts reduced. Within PSOL, there is general agreement on this though, of course, there are differences when it comes to working out how to divide the money we receive. Everyone tries to argue their candidate should get more. But in general, I do not think there are many differences on this issue.

As for independent funding, elected representatives donate a part of their salary to the party, as a way of demonstrating their commitment and support. We also try to encourage our supporters to donate to our election campaigns, but there is not much of a culture of this in Brazil. We continue to insist on this at each election and have started to see a bit of change, particularly because social media makes it easier to donate. But the amount we raise via such donations is still very small compared with what we receive from the state.   

Is there a consciousness of the dangers that exist with being so dependent on state funding?

Yes. As you start growing and become more electorally viable, and you start receiving a lot more money from the public funding system, you start attracting people who are not always interested in PSOL because of its program but rather as a means to get elected. That is a risk that comes with growth. Moreover, when we formed PSOL, there was no public money to maintain the party and contest elections, so we had to rely on grassroots activism. It is not like that anymore. We still have volunteers, but because of public funding, we have people who get involved in our campaigns for financial gain. This has impacted the profile of our activists.

So yes, there are risks. That is something that we, as MES, are constantly paying attention to. We are constantly discussing how we must not get dragged in that direction and must remain strong as an activist organisation. That is also why we believe PSOL needs leaders who will defend the party’s program rather than seeking to grow by diluting it. These are issues that we have been discussing given PSOL’s growth and the weight that reformist currents now have within the party.   

How does MES view the relationship between its elected representatives and social struggles? Could you give some examples of how this works in practice?

We believe our parliamentarians, at the federal, state and local level, must be the voice of those in struggle — on the streets and in the workplaces. They need to combine work in parliament with connecting up with social movements that are mobilising or striking. We seek to connect with struggles because we believe parliament will not change things for itself. It is not enough to simply introduce changes in parliament. Of course, in parliament, we fight to pass reforms, present projects, defend struggles, but this is not enough. Our elected representatives must always be connected to the struggles — that is a principle for us. We refuse to see our parliamentarians as simply members of the political system; they must also be members of the struggles, of the social movements, of the workers movements. That is very important.

Here in São Paulo, we have an example of this right now. We had a recent strike of public sector workers against privatisation. Our elected representatives, when not opposing the privatisation in parliament, were on the picket line with the workers. In Porto Alegre, our city councillors were also very involved in the train workers’ struggle: when they had a mobilisation, our representatives went to the picket lines.

Ecosocialism and the climate movement

MES identifies as ecosocialist. Why?

We definitely identify as ecosocialists. We believe it is more and more important for the left to talk about ecosocialism and embrace the ecological struggle. In fact, this is becoming inevitable given we have suffered a lot due to climate change in Brazil. In 2023 alone we had some places where the heat was unbearable, while in others people lost their homes due to flooding, and in other regions rivers were drying out, impacting fishing and agriculture. We are clearly seeing a huge imbalance in nature. This has made it even harder for climate deniers to say nothing is happening.

We, as socialists, need to explain that it is in capitalism’s nature to destroy the environment. Climate change is not the result of the actions of individuals or a natural phenomenon; it is the result of the way capitalism interacts with nature. That means there is no answer to the climate problem if we do not discuss capitalism — we need to raise the issue of the environment within the context of capitalism and defend ecosocialism.

What is the state of the climate movement in Brazil?

There is still a lot of climate denialism in Brazil, which Bolsonaro promoted. But the movement is growing, just as it is around the world. Here, the main focus of environmental organisations has been the Amazon, given its strategic nature and the great responsibility we have for this forest area. As PSOL, we have also focused on this.

There is also a growing intersection between the issues of the environment and protection of indigenous lands, especially up north. As PSOL, we have been pushing to protect the Amazon rainforest and indigenous lands, which are preserved regions protected in our constitution. There is an attempt underway to weaken laws that protect indigenous lands so that they can be sold off. This is a struggle that PSOL is really engaged in. We are trying to address this important issue and convert PSOL into a representative of this struggle.

It is worth adding that PSOL was the first party to elect a representative of the indigenous peoples’ struggle to parliament [Guajajara]. As MES, we also elected Viviana Reis to the state parliament in Para as a representative of the struggle of indigenous peoples in the north and the environment.

Is there a general consensus on ecosocialism and environmental issues within PSOL?

I would say that, generally speaking, everybody within PSOL identifies as ecosocialists: ecosocialism is in PSOL’s program and there is a consensus that PSOL is an ecosocialist party. However, when it comes to certain specific issues, such as the government’s proposal for Petrobras to explore for oil in the Amazon basin, there have been differences. In these cases, the sector that wants to move closer to the Lula government sometimes fails to take a clear position because they view supporting government initiatives as their priority. This has led to some differences, even on the issue of the environment.

Are these differences simply based on their views regarding the PT or does it reflect more fundamental differences on issues of development and the environment?

It is both. There are some reformist sectors that tend to be more pro-development. They argue that Brazil needs to develop, so we have to support industries and sometimes be more flexible on environmental issues.

How much thought has MES given to what an ecosocialist transition would look like in Brazil?

I think we still have some work to do on this. But we have discussed some issues, such as clean energy and preserving rainforests. These are issues that governments could be dealing with now, but they are not — not even Lula’s. It is evident that the environment ministry does not have as much power as agribusiness does in Lula’s government. In Congress right now, there is a lot of pressure to approve projects that destroy rainforests and promote illegal extractivism. These practices should be banned. There is pressure to approve the project that I mentioned in the Amazon basin. This is something that even the government’s own environmental agencies say should not go ahead. Despite this, the government is seeking approval. There are a lot of things that we could be doing right now, but extractivist industries and soya and cattle producers still have a lot of influence over Brazilian politics and the government. These might not exactly be ecosocialist issues, but they are important environmental issues.

Internationalism and international solidarity

MES plays a lot of attention to solidarity with struggles internationally, in particular the struggles of the Palestinian and Ukrainian people? Why is this the case?

MES is an internationalist organisation. This has been a central issue for us since our foundation. We are always looking at what is happening internationally and trying to connect with international struggles and organisations. For us, internationalism is something non-negotiable. We always seek to support the left and struggles around the world. That is also why we invited international organisations to our conference. For us, such exchanges of ideas are important opportunities to develop an internationalist conception of socialism.

In terms of the specific struggles you mention, I think this is because they are perhaps the more urgent ones right now. That is why, when the Ukraine war started, we sent representatives to Poland — as close as we could get to Ukraine — to get in touch with comrades from socialist organisations in those countries and talk to people involved in those struggles. We also brought a representative from the Ukrainian socialist organisation Social Movement to Brazil and toured him around different cities to talk to MES and PSOL activists about what was happening in Ukraine. With Palestine, we had representatives of the Palestinian community in Brazil at our conference opening. They came because they have seen how we have completely thrown ourselves into the organising committees and street rallies for Palestine.

MES is an observer member of the Fourth International. At the same time, it maintains relations with parties outside the FI. How does MES view party-to-party relations?   

We see this as part of our politics of regroupment. We believe that in the current conjuncture — where the left is not on the ascendancy — the left needs to be as united as possible. That is why, when we founded PSOL, we formed the party with the idea that it should bring together different tendencies in an attempt to build an alternative on the left in Brazil. We believe the same is necessary internationally — organisations need to unite on the issues we agree on and, as much as possible, build alliances across the globe in order to be as strong as possible.

We participate in the Fourth International, but we think it is also important to build relations with organisations outside the FI. Even if we do not all think exactly the same, we can collectively grow stronger by building such relationships.

You said MES seeks to find particular points of unity. What does MES see as a potential basis of unity for regroupment today?

For now, the main issue is combating the rise of the far right. The right has been gaining strength all over the world. In response, the anti-fascist struggle is gaining more importance. We have been thinking about projects — internationally and nationally — that could help build a common anti-fascist struggle. That is why we are considering PSOL’s foundation hosting an international anti-fascist meeting to help build a movement united around anti-fascism and fighting the growth of the far right.