(This article was originally written in march 2021)
*The failure of reforms – The lessons from Brazil*
Participation of left parties in bourgeoisie elections to bring about change in the lives of working class and poor people throughout the world is one of the most contested issues. It has been since the times of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels during the first International in the 1800s. Socialists and Social Democratic Parties in the Second International debated this issue as well, including the Bolshevik Party debating whether to participate in the Duma or not in 1906 and in 1910-1912. It has split national and international working class organisations as both sides articulated their position arguing how it can advance and or destroy the working class struggle. This debate boils down to the most important and fundamental question of either reform or revolution and what tactics and strategies can be employed to achieve the said objective by socialist parties.
Left-wing parties, which included Social Democratic Parties have initially participated in parliamentary elections with an aim of trying to push for legislative reforms that could be baised towards the working class and the poor. After a lengthy period of time in their participation in bourgeoisie parliament, they then concluded that socialism could be achieved through parliament and they started working within the system to reform it.
In instances where the left parties have succeeded in get parliamentary seats and fight for reforms, in most if not all cases, these parties have not been successful in winning the desired reforms for the working class and the poor. For instance, here in South Africa, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) won 30 parliamentary seats in 2014 and in the last elections won 44 seats in the national elections and it has not been successful in fighting for reforms that could benefit the workers and the working class in general including the poor.
In May 2018, the EFF failed to block the National Minimum Wage Bill from being passed into law. This Bill was passed simultaneously with two other important Bills that eroded past gained made by Trade Unions and their Trade Union Federations, i.e, the Labour Relations Amendment Bill and Basic Conditions of Employment Amendment Bill. The EFF spokesperson in the National Assembly could only say “the EFF rejects the R 3 500 proposal with the contempt if deserves”. No attempt to mobilise its members and supporters and call for a national day of protest nor stage a walk out in the National Assembly as they normally do when they are protesting a serious issue. These Bills were passed as if nothing serious has happened. Today the EFF is drinking tea with Jacob Zuma. Yet they disrupted Parliament several times to force Zuma’s removal as President.
In instances where left parties have been able to win parliamentary majority and form government, they have been unable to introduce reforms that mattered to the working class and the poor. The Workers Party of Brazil (PT) is the most important example we can cite as an example here. When the working class and the poor overwhelmingly voted for the Workers Party (PT) in 2002 with over 62% of the National votes, the industrial workers (employed and unemployed), public servants, farmworkers and landless majority and the poor wanted the PT to halt wholesale privatisation of State Enterprises, reduce unemployment figures and stop the growing income inequalities.
Twenty years of World Bank and IMF-imposed structural adjustment programmes together with policies of neoliberal Federal governments have created social and economic apartheid in Brazil with 20 Million unemployed out of 63 million economically active population. As a Workers Party, after receiving a resounding 62% of votes, Lula’s government was expected to nationalise the industries and financial institutions, implement radical agrarian reforms by redistributing the land to the landless population, take IMF debt agreement with the previously government into dustbin. *None of that happened.*
There is a view that for most of his two terms in office, from 2003 to 2010, Lula followed the same economic policy imperatives that were established by his neoliberal predecessors. He worked within and maintained the status quo, i.e, capitalist mode of production. He and the rest of his Party did not want to challenge the very foundation of the neoliberal system. By working within the neoliberal setup, he was appeasing the national and international bourgeoisie, the IMF and World Bank. Doing something completely contrary to the mandate he got from the masses that voted for him, who voted for change.
The lessons that we can draw from Lula and the Brazillian Workers Party and from other struggles in other parts of the world, including Syriza of Greece, is that fundamental change in society cannot come through parliament or from a silver platter. Nor can we achieve socialism through parliament. The ruling class can only give very limited reform if they are put under constant pressure by the working class through mass struggles which may involve general strikes and other forms of struggle. Even if the Party of workers is in power managing the affairs of the bourgeoisie, very little would be achieved, if not nothing by the working class in terms of reforms as it is the case with Brazil. Reformers claim that they want to change things in Parliament or Municipal Councils. The reality is that they work to save capitalist relations of production, not destroy them. They have the support of NGOs who seek to channel movements into the dead end of reform whilst corrupting its leaders.
Revolutionaries have always urged that the institutions of capitalist society can only serve capitalism and capitalist interests. Institutions of capitalism such as capitalist state and its parliament can never be used to benefit workers and working class in general. For fundamental change to take place in society where the economy will benefit everyone, we need to, firstly socialise the means of production, including financial institutions, where they would all be under the ownership and control of the working class. Secondly, we need to smash the capitalist state and replaced it with workers state. This is what the Allende’s government in Chile failed to do in 1970 and this is what Lula’s government failed to do in 2002 when they were overwhelmingly voted into power. From what we have said, it is very clear that left parties including reformist and revolutionary parties would not be able to bring changes under capitalism. The only few reforms that capitalists can allow, it will only be minor reforms that do not threaten their interest as capitalists.
For fundamental change to happen and not these cosmetic changes, we need a revolution. A revolution that would bring change in power relations and usher in scientific socialism from below.