Bolsonaro: Fascism or Bonapartism?
It is impossible to understand the rise of the social and political phenomenon known as “Bolsonarismo”—the movement around presidential hopeful Jair Bolsonaro—without understanding the huge protests that hit Brazil in June 2013.
October 23, 2018
Image From Juan Chirioca
It is no accident that the first political killing of “Bolsonarismo” was that of Moa do Katendê, a capoeira master best known for fighting racism. Bolsonaro is polling at 58%—compared with 42% for his rival, Fernando Haddad from the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT—Workers’ Party). Although many cases of violence occurred, he does not want the social and political polarization to turn into political-social violence, at least not until the elections are over.
When the hatred encouraged by Bolsonaro came to a head, it did not collide with the PT’s docile trade union and political bureaucracy, but with a symbol of resistance to slavery. This “conflict” was resolved with 12 stab wounds. Although Bolsonaro has made some attempts to contain the euphoria of his base, the last few weeks have seen “Bolsonarista” fanatics commit dozens of hate crimes. Over 70 political attacksof all kinds have now taken place, although only one has ended in a fatality.
For more on Bolsonaro and his first-round victory, see “Pro-Torture, Pro-Dictatorship Misogynist Wins First Round of Brazilian Elections”.
The radical forces unleashed by Bolsonarismo have caused more than a few people to define it as “fascism.” In the context of the economic collapse of the 1920s and 1930s, the consequences of World War I and preparations for World War II, this concept was used to characterize a specific means of mobilizing and organizing the petit bourgeoisie (or in broader terms, the “middle classes”), which was ruined by the economic crisis, and pitting them against the workers’ parties and trade unions, all in the interests of finance capital.
While the Bolsonarista phenomenon is far removed in both context and degree from the organization and radicalization of the fascist forces of earlier times, this category does help explain some of the incipient trends that can be identified in sectors of its social base. But this kind of phenomenon does differ markedly between imperialist countries and underdeveloped countries. As Trotsky points out, “In Germany, Italy, and Japan, fascism and militarism are the weapons of a greedy, hungry, and therefore aggressive imperialism. In the Latin-American countries fascism is the expression of the most slavish dependence on foreign imperialism. We must be able to discover under the political form the economic and social content.”
Bolsonarismo: An Unwanted Son of ‘Golpismo’
It is impossible to understand the rise of Bolsonarismo without understanding the huge protests that hit Brazil in June 2013. These protests expressed the clash between, on the one hand, rising social aspirations caused by the years of economic growth that marked the second term of former PT President Lula da Silva, and on the other, the structural limits for realizing those aspirations in a country subordinated to the plunder of international finance capital. There was an explosion of indignation in which people demanded better public services in a São Paulo, where commuting on public transport in many cases took three to four hours. Overcrowded buses and trains often ground to a halt and transport costs were at least four times those in Buenos Aires. This indignation also led to multiple demands for better education and health, which despite all the economic growth under “Lulismo” continued to be among the most expensive and precarious in South America.
The street protests carried out by the youth were accompanied by a rising wave of economic struggles not seen since the end of the dictatorship. Wildcat strikes of some of the poorest sectors of the working class occurred in the very areas where Lulismo had created huge numbers of new and precariously employed workers. There were simultaneous, though uncoordinated, strikes of over 200,000 civil construction workers dispersed in the huge hydroelectric works in the north (part of the PT’s “Growth Acceleration Program”) and the construction works for the World Cup stadiums in the south and southeast. Others strikes hit the expansion works of the Petrobras petrochemical conglomerate.
The PT, both as a party and through the country’s most important union federation, the United Workers’ Central (CUT), did its best to divide, isolate, contain and divert these enormous struggles, and even went so far as to absurdly characterize them as reactionary because they opposed their “own” government. Insofar as no social-political force emerged to channel this process of mobilization to the left, it was the right-wing currents that sought to capitalize on it by separating out the progressive social demands from a rejection of the political system as a whole. The right thus directed this discontent toward the PT in particular, opposing the PT’s “statism” to their own liberal values. A new sociopolitical actor emerged in Brazil, composed of youth movements financed and influenced by the Koch brothers, oil and gas multinationals and the Atlas Network, an ultra-neoliberal think tank well known for its relations with the U.S. State Department. This think tank has 465 partner institutions in 95 countries (11 of them in Brazil) and claims that it has “donated” $5 million to its members in 2016 alone.  The institute has the [Fundación Pensar, linked to Argentine President Mauricio Macri’s PRO party, as a member.
These youth movements of the liberal right, which could eventually count on millions of followers brought together through internet social networks, gained their own capacity to mobilize on the streets against the government of former President Dilma Rousseff and the PT. These movements were driven by the “anticorruption” campaign unleashed by the Globo Network media conglomerate, and used statements filtered through the legal system by some of those caught out in the so-called “Lava Jato” (Car Wash) operation. This operation was inspired by the Italian “Mani Pulite” (Clean Hands) investigation of the 1990s, and was orchestrated through a network of prosecutors from the Public Prosecutor’s Office, judges from the city of Curitiba, the Federal Police as its “military wing,” the U.S. State Department and big oil multinationals.
The particularly corrupt structure of the Brazilian political system, known as “coalition presidentialism,” is based on a mechanism of permanent and “legalized” extortion and bribery between the executive branch and Congress in order to form parliamentary majorities that are subservient to the interests of finance capital and the big monopolies.
In one of the most unequal countries in the world—where more than 40% of the federal budget goes to paying off public debt to finance capital, and where the capacity of various Brazilian states to enter into debt is constitutionally subordinated to the central government—a parliamentarian’s “eligibility” is linked to what budget items the national executive can grant in exchange for local support for its own national measures. It’s like a permanent business meeting that is lubricated by the financing of electoral campaigns for politicians and parties that respond to the interests of big capital. This is the so-called physiology, the particular form that lobbying takes in Brazil.
In the 1990s, this scheme was used to benefit big capital, both foreign and Brazilian (major media players such as the Globo Network among them). It led to a huge corruption scandal known as the Banestado case, in which the State Bank of Paraná in southern Brazil used its “facilities” to help illegally launder over $500 billion in the “triple frontier” region (Paraná borders both Argentina and Paraguay). The judicial process was conducted by Judge Sérgio Moro, who closed the case without investigating any of the evidence that some of the main national leaders of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) of Fernando Henrique Cardoso were involved. This is the same Judge Moro who years later, with the help of the Globo Network, became a “popular hero” in the “fight against corruption.”
When Lula came to power in 2003, a Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry was established to investigate the Banestado case. But the PT used its influence in the executive to close down the investigation in exchange for political support for its reforms from the parties involved in the negotiations. This ended with the integration to his government coalition of some of those who benefited the most, thus sealing the PT’s assimilation into the same system that it would be a victim of years later.
Before the PT’s first corruption scandal in 2005, the vote-buying scandal known as “mensalão” (from “mensal”—monthly), the PSDB and the powerful Federation of Industries of the State of São Paulo (FIESP) tried to cool everything down and called all those involved to be “responsible” so as not to create a climate for political dismissals. There were countless other corruption scandals like this one that ended without action being taken. It was only after the beginning of the world economic crisis and its first repercussions in Brazil that the mensalão trial was resumed, in order to concentrate on the Lava Jato investigations into the PT. Why were these attacks concentrated on the PT, which in government had guaranteed both union passivity and unprecedented profits for big capital?
While Brazil was experiencing rapid economic growth, with both international finance capital and local capital favored by the state Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) and the Petrobras conglomerate making huge profits, everyone was happy with the negotiated “scheme” then led by the PT. This even reached the point where the country was being praised by the imperialist press as the rising “star” among the BRICS economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).
After the worldwide Great Recession of 2008, however, the judiciary and the “fight against corruption” were used by imperialist capital to change the relationship of forces in its favor. In this context, the PT was chosen as the prime target for the “lowering” of the aspirations of the big Brazilian construction, petrochemical and meatpacking companies that had become international competitors, as well as the opening up to imperialist capital of the gigantic sources of wealth concentrated in the Pre Salt oil reserves in the south and southeast and the huge oil extraction and refining conglomerate led by Petrobras. To this was added the necessity of forcing the ranks of the PT to accept lower living standards and a decline in social and labor rights, in order to preserve capitalist profits and guarantee the fiscal austerity needed to religiously pay the public debt.
The Proto-Fascist Tendencies in Bolsonaro’s Ranks
In this way, the rejection of the “political caste” that emerged from the 2013 protests, combined with the “fight against corruption” promoted by “Lava Jato” and the Globo Network, created the climate in which the PT government could be ousted. These two tendencies, the “anticaste” sentiment that emerged in June 2013 and the Lava Jato campaign, gained a social base by riding on the falling living conditions caused by the 7% drop in GDP from 2015 to 2016, which then opened the way for the massive mobilizations that established the relationship of forces required for Rousseff’s impeachment.
Bolsonarismo was still a small minority within these anti-Dilma marches. The aim of the institutional coup was to put the traditional right in power, embodied by the PSDB and the Democrats (DEM), with support from the “caciques” (chiefs) of the Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB). Bolsonarismo rose as a great mass tendency because the traditional right—especially the PSDB, associated with the failure of Michel Temer government and the corruption of the political system—lost its ability to channel the “antipetista” (anti-PT) sentiment encouraged by Lava Jato, which left that vacant space to be occupied by a populist figure who managed to sell himself as an “outsider.” Given that the left has failed to provide a radical solution to the rotten political system, so worn out and under question, Bolsonaro emerged with his radical right-wing proposals, appealing to the strong arm of the law to respond to the deep crisis of social violence, seen especially in states such as Rio de Janeiro, which the economic crisis has sunken the country into.
With the unleashing of Bolsonaro, the military and civilian police—the most fascist-like nucleus from the guts of Bolsonarismo’s original social base—as well as the armed forces, have been emboldened and gone on the offensive. According to the latest data, there are 425,000 state military police, 118,000 civil police, 13,000 federal police and 327,000 members of the army, navy and air force. Counting retirees and families, this reactionary social “core” contains no less than 3 million people.
The projection of this social nucleus, idealized by Bolsonaro as a “victim” of human rights so as to inspire the iron fist of the law, is inseparable from the far-right political attacks that have escalated throughout the country in recent weeks.
The last fascist-like component of Bolsonaro’s base entered the field in the last two weeks of the election campaign: the evangelical churches, which have influence over an estimated third of the population.
This layer has become a decisive factor in the ideological molding of this polarization. Through social media (especially WhatsApp), they have spread fake news that depicts the PT as perverts who trample on religious values and as “communists” who will impose a supposed “red terror.” Given that the PT in its 13 years of government denied the right to abortion, greased the state’s relations with the churches and guaranteed record profits for the not-very-communist forces of international finance capital, these claims against the PT are completely unjust.
Based on these definitions of the origin and development of the Bolsonaro phenomenon, we can give a precise answer to the initial question about the protofascist component within it. This phenomenon was until very recently only a small and extremely radical minority within the political-social bloc that undertook the institutional coup. But with the attrition of the traditional right-wing parties associated with the Temer government, Bolsonaro rose to a solid 20% of the vote in the polls, which has remained firm since then.
Once Bolsonaro was consolidated as the preferred candidate of the antipetista electorate, having stolen this position from the collapsing PSDB (with the help of the judiciary, the Globo network and the military, who openly manipulated the elections against Lula and the PT), Bolsonarismo advanced to 35% of the vote on the first round. After ramping up his demagogy and receiving an image boost after he was attacked and stabbed, which allowed him to play the role of victim and avoid public debates, Bolsonaro was able to drag himself to the final stretch of the first round.
In this he was helped by a section of more conservative “Lulista” voters who ignored the ultra-neoliberal program of prospective Bolsonaro minister and economist Paulo Guedes. Thus, Bolsonaro reached 46% of the vote in the first-round election. Now he is ranked as the easy favorite, with polls suggesting he will win 58% of the vote in the second round, having captured the antipetista vote from the center and center-right candidates who have been left by the wayside. Needless to say, this electoral majority includes not only bourgeois and petit bourgeois sectors of the middle class that characterize its original social base, but also sectors of the working class.
While the proto-fascist tendencies present in Bolsonaro’s social base are a minor and poorly organized portion that barely surpasses 20% of its “original” vote, they nevertheless constitute the most active and dynamic pole within the relationship of social forces, and will push the regime arising from the elections toward further authoritarianism and qualitatively harsher attacks than those of the first stage of the institutional coup under Temer.
Tendencies Toward Bonapartism and a Possible Bolsonaro Government
To analyze what a potential Bolsonaro government would look like, a good place to start is Trotsky’s characterization of the first governments after the Wall Street crash of 1929. Although some of these governments had fascist tendencies, they still wore more or less “democratic” masks. More generally, Trotsky defined them as “Bonapartist,” a form of government that seeks to rise above the various struggling camps by leaning more directly on the armed forces, to the detriment of parliament, in order to preserve capitalist property and impose order. In the case of a Bolsonaro government, however, it would not yet seem to need to dispense with parliament, instead counting on the possibility of resorting to an increase of authoritarianism via the judiciary with the support of the armed forces. For this type of government, which corresponds rather to an incubation period for Bonapartism, Trotsky’s category of “pre-Bonapartism” is useful.
The proto-fascist tendencies of the Bolsonarista base are only in their early and incipient stages. This is because the economic crisis in Brazil (and around the world) is much less intense than that of the Depression in the 1930s, and because the situation is not framed by immediate tendencies to war, as it was in Europe at that time. Along with all this, the politics of the PT have demoralized its own social base—first by implementing harsh austerity measures during the Dilma government’s second term and then, in opposition, by channeling mass discontent with the Temer’s “golpista” government onto the electoral terrain.
The PT went so far as to divert the enormous energy deployed by the working class in two general strikes that stopped the pension reform in early 2017, and then prevent that energy from opposing the labor reform that was adopted not long after. It is this politics that is primarily responsible for dissolving the weight of the working class within the national relationship of forces.
Trotsky said Bonapartism relied on fascism to rise to power, but only to the extent necessary to defeat the workers’ movement. It is in this context that we must understand the recent movements of native and foreign “factors of power” to “discipline” the fascist tendencies unleashed by Bolsonarismo. The Globo Network is creating the illusion of a progressive “wonderland,” using its soap operas and news broadcasts to portray Brazil as full of feminist, antiracist and antihomophobic “struggles,” while the “institutions of civil society” are supposedly so entrenched that a Bolsonaro government could not possibly roll them back. The subliminal message is “don’t be scared, you can vote for Bolsonaro and everything will be fine.”
The president of the Federal Supreme Court, together with the military high command, along with intellectuals, jurists and journalists from the main universities and the mass media, are all trying to pressure Bolsonaro to swear by the Constitution and reprimand the excessively pro-coup vice presidential candidate, General Hamilton Mourão. In the words of Army Chief General Villas Boas just two days after the first round of the elections, “In a consolidated democracy such as ours, coups will not occur, because the Brazilian people will not allow the Constitution to be disrespected and its institutions to be attacked. Brazil today has strong institutions that do not allow its evolution to go beyond the limits of democratic precepts.”
Added to this is the speech broadcast by some of the main organs of the imperialist press—perhaps as part of the election campaign of the Democratic Party for the U.S. midterm elections in November—in which Bolsonaro is criticized for his more authoritarian tendencies. The comparisons this media make between Trump and Bolsonaro, dubbed the “Trump of the Tropics,” hide the fact that while the Bonapartist features of the U.S. president are at the service of a protectionist policy for imperialism, those of Bolsonarismo serve a liberal policy of opening up the economy to the interests of the northern master.
This work of “containing” Bolsonarismo responds to a relationship of social forces in which the working class is predominantly passive and allows the attacks, austerity and privatizations that the institutional coup aimed to implement to pass with little resistance. We are facing a regime—now legitimized by the elections—that attacks the most basic rights of legal defense and tramples on universal suffrage, preventing the population from voting for who they want. All this aims to impose a relationship of forces that has moved further to the right, qualitatively lowering the living standards of the masses, privatizing strategic resources on a greater scale, rolling back social rights, and increasing the country’s subordination to imperialism.
If this change in the relationship of forces can continue to be implemented in a predominantly democratic fashion, without the use of physical force, that is of course much better for the interests of capital, which prefers to dominate with a more or less democratic mask, which is always more effective for deception.
The dynamic pole within the social relationship of forces now lies with golpismo and its far-right core in particular. It acts against an immobile proletariat that at its head has leaders that hand over their positions without a fight, which demonstrates that the PT’s electoral-parliamentary strategy and trust in the judiciary does not involve any serious combat and has failed all along the line. All this means that there is no “draw” or “standoff” of social forces on which an arbiter (Bonaparte) can arise to lean on the military apparatus and resolve the dispute in favor of capital. In other words, neither the need nor the conditions for a Bonapartist regime, in the strict sense, exist in Brazil, at least for now. But the extreme right-wing forces unleashed by Bolsonaro, in the very likely case that he wins the elections, would seem to anticipate a sort of pre-Bonapartist judicial-military government that is qualitatively more authoritarian and reactionary than that of the Temer government.
The Contradictions That a Potential Bolsonaro Government Will Face
A Bolsonaro government will face big problems, which have already been expressed in the elections themselves, and which could still benefit Haddad.
As far as its own social base goes, it has three central contradictions. First, it will have to deal with the evaporation of all its “antisystemic” and “anticorruption” demagogy as it forms its parliamentary base with the band of Mafiosos who supported the Temer government, and then establish negotiations with Congress—the same process that they previously criticized the PT for. Second, an important part of Bolsonaro’s electoral majority is unaware that a Bolsonaro government will be far worse than that of Temer in terms of attacks, the destruction of rights and the worsening of living standards.
This contradiction will worsen as Bolsonaro escalates his demagogy in the second round to hold onto the voters he won in the first, and he is now talking about increasing the “Bolsa Familia” (Family Allowance) assistance program and not increasing taxes on the poorest. Third, the twists and turns of Bolsonaro, who has shifted from talking about privatizing all public companies to acknowledging a need for the maintenance of some of the strategic national sectors in hands of the state, only anticipate the conflicts that will arise between the ultra-neoliberal program of Paulo Guedes and the strategic interests of sections of the military and the Brazilian bourgeoisie.
With respect to Haddad voters, the national strikes that stopped Temer’s pension reform demonstrate that the working class is not strategically defeated. The PT’s own vote—even though Lula was barred from running and despite all the antidemocratic brutalities the regime used to isolate the party—is a very distorted expression within the relationship of forces among the sectors that oppose the coup. Lula was polling at around 40% and stood out as a possible first-round winner in the event that he was allowed to stand. He managed to transfer a good part of these votes to Haddad, whose voting percentage was not far from what pollsters said represented direct support for the PT as a party. Along with the anti-coup votes Haddad managed to pull in, his 42% in the polls would indicate that Bolsonaro has attracted only about 8% of traditionally Lulista votes, which were always wider than the votes for the PT alone.
Despite all the support from financial capital and the big bourgeoisie, it is unlikely that the economy will grow rapidly enough so that an improvement in living conditions will be felt by the masses.
In this context, a Bolsonaro government will be born weak and will likely be met with multiple kinds of class struggle. As a result of these attacks, the Bonapartist tendencies that today are expressed predominantly through the judiciary could give rise—with or without the figure of Bolsonaro—to a regime more directly supported by the military apparatus. This is suggested in a report published October 11 by the British weekly The Economist: “Most senior officers are moderates who don’t want to take unconstitutional action,” according to Alfredo Valladão, a defence specialist. “The army will take its own decisions,” not bow to Mr. Bolsonaro, he says. Indeed, if Mr. Bolsonaro wins, its resistance to complete civilian control may prove to be a restraint on him. The army would feel forced to intervene, Mr. Valladão adds, only if Brazil slid into large-scale political violence” (our emphasis).
Program and Strategy to Confront the Far Right and ‘Golpismo’
Together with the Movimento Revolucionário de Trabalhadores (MRT—Revolutionary Workers’ Movement) of Brazil, the sister organization of the PTS, we stand with the workers and young people who will cast a critical vote for Haddad to defeat Bolsonaro at the polls. But we need to transform this just hatred of authoritarianism and Bolsonaro’s ultra-neoliberal program into a great movement of millions in the streets to combat all that it represents.
In opposition to this perspective, the PT began its electoral campaign with propaganda that conflicted with the hatred of Bolsonaro’s authoritarianism and put forward a policy aimed at attracting supposed “allies” from the traditional neoliberal and “golpista” parties that were defeated in the elections. This policy goes in the opposite direction of responding to the real needs of the 25 million unemployed and underemployed workers and the other tens of millions whose living standards have only worsened and whose rights have disappeared since the coup started to advance across the country.
To seriously fight the advance of the coup and the far right, we need to fight to get rid of all the reactionary reforms of the Temer government; we need to build a large movement for the nonpayment of public debt, so that there are resources allocated to public works, health and education; and we must demand that the unions, the trade union federations, the student and popular organizations promote rank and file committees to organize the resistance and prepare a great national strike with street demonstrations across the country.
Golpismo and the far right cannot be fought with generic talk about “peace and love” and general, vacuous proposals. We can seriously fight Bolsonaro only with a program that radically responds to the real anguish of the country’s exploited and oppressed majority. The only radically realistic response is one that defends the mobilization of the unions and social movements to roll back the advance of authoritarianism and ensures that the capitalists pay for the crisis.
[For more on the position of the MRT, see “The Rise of Bolsonaro and the Position of Brazilian Revolutionaries”.
 A prime example of this process is the meteoric rise of the so-called Free Brazil Movement (MBL), which after 2013 gained millions of social media followers. The MBL was one of the main organizers of the great marches for the impeachment to Dilma, and in the 2018 elections managed to have its main leader elected as one of the most voted for federal deputies in the State of São Paulo.
 The Brazilian PT emerged as what the Marxists call a “bourgeois workers’ party,” not a bourgeois or petit bourgeois party, but a reformist party based on the trade unions. Hence, it has an organic relationship with workers’ organizations, and the CUT in particular. See “El PT, el neoliberalism y el regimen brasileño” (The PT, neoliberalism and the Brazilian regime).
This article was first published at Ideias de Esquerda (Ideas of the Left) in Brazilian Portuguese. and also publishedat Ideas de Izquierda (Ideas of the Left) in Spanish on October 14, 2018. This translation is based on the Spanish version.
Translation: Sean Robertson