Parties and Movements

A roundtable discussion on the challenges that left-wing political formations face around the world.

Sheri Berman, Andre Pagliarini, Zachariah Mampilly and Nick Serpe in Dissent: For many socialists, the classic political model comes from the left-wing parties grounded in workers’ movements that formed in Europe over a hundred years ago. Today, many of the left’s broadest goals, and its primary antagonists, remain the same. But the conditions under which socialists pursue those goals have changed drastically. And the social and political climate varies greatly across our unequal planet.

This conversation, held in October, brings together scholars who focus on different regions in order to help us understand the challenges that left political formations and popular movements face around the world. What do they hold in common? Where do their perspectives diverge? What brought them to this point—and where are they headed?

Nick Serpe: Let’s start with one story about what’s going on with the left, particularly in the Global North: the development of what Thomas Piketty calls a Brahmin left, against a populist right, in a moment of class dealignment. Sheri, is this story a good framework for thinking about current challenges in Europe?

Sheri Berman: There clearly is a story to tell about how the groups that vote for the left have shifted over the past few decades. People are concerned about right-wing populist parties not only because they are a potential threat to democracy, but also because they have captured a significant share of working-class voters. Piketty has written a lot about how the left these days is often more associated with folks like those who read Dissent— highly educated, middle-class people who are socially liberal and perhaps also economically liberal, but are defined primarily by the former rather than the latter.

It’s important to note that the postwar left in Europe and in the United States never received its votes entirely from the working class, because the working class never became a majority of the voters as Marx and others had predicted. Putting together a cross-class coalition has always been part of the democratic left’s strategy. The concern is that the balance of that coalition has shifted, and the leadership, the activists, and a significant part of the electorate has become more educated and more middle class. This has changed what the left means in ways that are important not only for understanding the left, but also for understanding why right-wing populist parties have managed to gain traction.

Serpe: Andre, Brazil offers a case of a signficant cross-class coalition on the left. Has this coalition changed since Lula was first elected twenty years ago?

Andre Pagliarini: One of the major issues in the last election was the deindustrialization that’s been happening in Brazil for decades. Lula argued that he was particularly attuned to that trend, and the fact that Brazil’s economy depends increasingly on agribusiness, which was part of Jair Bolsonaro’s electoral coalition—the kinds of economic forces that are decimating the rainforest in the Amazon for more grazing land. There was a stark dispute between these different visions.

Brazil is a country with over two dozen political parties. The vast majority of them have little ideological clarity. The Workers’ Party (PT) is one of the few exceptions. The party Bolsonaro contested the presidency with, the Liberal Party, was a nonentity until he joined. Now, it is the largest party in Congress, and the PT is second. These two figures polarized the electorate to an extent that had not really been the case in the past in Brazil.

Serpe: Zachariah, you wrote a piece for Dissent on the tenth anniversary of Occupy about why the Western left had ignored Occupy Nigeria, and more generally gives little attention to African popular movements. To what extent does this conversation about the left map onto the dynamics of these movements, which might not even identify with the left?

Zachariah Mampilly: Many of the dynamics that Piketty identified are even more visible in the African context, and in South Asia, where there’s been a massive spike in inequality, in contrast to the 1970s and ’80s, when these places were very poor but much more equal. In the United States, we often conflate the left position and the liberal position; the language of the left is applied to things that, historically, the left might have been uncomfortable with, such as the rise of a type of identity politics that has very little interest in class issues. Those contradictions are perhaps more visible in parts of the Global South than they are in the West.

What do I mean by that? If you look at the landscape of African popular movements, many of them are articulating positions that are very tied to material conditions—the reality of the tremendous amount of growth that has unfolded across the Global South being concentrated in the hands of very narrow minorities. One of the challenges that we have is trying to make legible what, exactly, their politics are. They don’t use the language that we have historically associated with the left in the United States. They articulate a much more amorphous set of demands around fundamental transformations of the system. What they lack is any sort of institutional base to manifest these politics. You see this increasing disconnect not only in the growing class divide, but in terms of the lack of an alliance between, say, the forces of Occupy and any political party that is trying to capture that energy and make it a reality within Nigerian politics. The problem is not right-wing populism, but left-wing populism without a leader or an institutional channel.

Serpe: What accounts for the disconnect between movements for democracy and equality and political parties?

Mampilly: We have to go back to the 1990s and look at the disciplining of African opposition parties. South Africa is the most prominent example. The Communist Party and other left parties played a central role in the dismantling of the apartheid regime, and yet when the new dispensation came to power with the Communist Party as a part of that coalition, almost all of the economic policies that were put forth were neoliberal. Across the African landscape, throughout the 1980s and ’90s, there was a robust set of communist parties. Many of them were banned by the regimes in power, but they were still very vibrant intellectual and political spaces. Today, the absence of left parties across Africa is striking.

Serpe: We’ve experienced over a decade of large protest movements around the world. It seems that the story in Latin America has been somewhat different, because there are left-wing parties of various stripes that have captured popular momentum. The Pink Tide began long before this moment.

Pagliarini: One recent episode in Brazil is related to what Zachariah mentioned—how identity politics interact with governing strategies. Lula had the opportunity to name a new Supreme Court justice, and there was a strong grassroots movement pressuring him to appoint a Black woman. Various Afro-Brazilian organizations drafted a manifesto asking Lula to consider it. The amount of backlash that received on social media and from some members of the PT, who claimed to speak for its more traditional working-class base, was shocking to many. They called this kind of identity politics an imperialist imposition of the Global North, and argued that there’s no guarantee that a Black justice would be a progressive, so the president should choose who he personally believes would be the best person for the job. His first Supreme Court pick, earlier this year, was a white, blonde man—his personal attorney when he was facing corruption charges. And now, it doesn’t look like he’s going to name a Black woman to the court.

This is a very different moment than the Pink Tide. When the PT emerged in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it  was a kind of vanguard party. There was an LGBT strain within the party. There was an Afro-identity strain. At the time, these were causes that had gone unaddressed by the Brazilian left for decades. Today, while these forces still exist within the PT, it’s the Party of Socialism and Liberty (PSOL)—the party of Marielle Franco, the city councilwoman in Rio who was assassinated in 2018—that has embraced these issues much more visibly. It has trans women in its ranks elected to Congress. And you have figures like Guilherme Boulos, who is looking like the PSOL candidate for the mayorship of São Paulo next year, the largest city in Latin America. He is of the urban social movements for whom occupying abandoned housing is strategically imperative.

The PT is a robust, experienced party. But one thing we’ve been seeing since Lula was inaugurated last January is its caution about the precariousness of Brazilian democracy after Bolsonaro—the idea that the PT needs to be careful not to press too hard on certain issues. Not to push its luck, for example, on abortion, which is illegal in Brazil except under extreme circumstances. This cautiousness was absent in the original Pink Tide, which was defined by bold, progressive action in policy terms. I don’t want to diminish it, because it’s a big deal, but the most we’ve seen from Lula so far is a revival of that earlier agenda. We’re not seeing a spurt of creative new thinking. That speaks to new constraints in this moment.

Serpe: Sheri, in Europe, there’s been a pretty universal decline in party membership, regardless of ideology. How much does that affect the prospects for the left, which traditionally has been rooted in mass politics, and an organized base?

Berman: Up through the postwar decades, political parties in Europe were very strong, in the sense of having mass memberships. Parties had extensive ties to a whole variety of civil society organizations, including unions, and they were all-encompassing organizations. During the heyday of the German SPD, the saying was that you could live in it from cradle to grave. You could be born in a hospital and be treated by a nurse who was affiliated with the party, and then your funeral would be partially funded by the socialist movement’s burial association. Those days are long gone. And the decline of that kind of party influenced the kind of policies that the parties offer. And then those policies pushed people further away from that close identification with the party.

We use the term “partisanship” pejoratively in the United States, because if it’s too strong, it can lead to the kinds of polarization and division that can be very problematic for democracy. But that’s exactly what you had in Europe up through the initial postwar decades, and it strengthened democracy. It really depends on the kinds of issues that people polarize around, and the kinds of parties that they are partisans of.

Another important role played by democratic left parties in Europe was stabilizing democracy after 1945, not only because they were committed to the system, but because they integrated the underprivileged—low-educated, low-income voters—into democracy. So the decline of these parties is tied up with larger questions about democratic decay.

Serpe: Democracy is a good place to turn next. Andre, the experience of the Bolsonaro presidency raised major questions about the fragility of Brazilian democracy. Has this changed the approach of the left to governing, or to campaigning? Has democracy become a primary issue?

Pagliarini: In recent years, global politics has called into question things that, for better or for worse, many assumed to be settled. In the case of Brazil, since the return of democracy in the 1980s, we had never seen a candidate running for office explicitly celebrating the 1964 coup and the dictatorship that followed—until Bolsonaro.

Brazil’s very different than, say, Chile, where there were legal cases brought against dictators and torturers. Brazil signed an amnesty law in 1979 that basically covered the military’s ass as it prepared to leave the stage. That had historical consequences. It helped perpetuate a narrative that what the military did in those years was justified given broader political conditions.

Bolsonaro came along at an important moment in the country’s history. Economic disaster, political crisis. Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s successor, had lost the ability to govern. Yet there had been a succession of centrist or center-right candidates that the PT had defeated at the polls. So between 2016 and 2018, conservative voters looked around for the most extreme anti-PT voice. It’s similar to the United States, where Donald Trump comes along after Mitt Romney and John McCain had lost.

Bolsonaro had spent his career as a congressional backbencher, a gadfly, who said the problem with the dictatorship was that it didn’t go far enough—it didn’t kill enough people. In 2018, many warned that to elevate this person was a real danger for Brazilian democracy. He brought the country to the edge of several constitutional crises.

If Trump had been in power when Brazil had its election last year, we might have seen a very different story play out. To its credit, the Biden administration made it very clear that if the Bolsonaro government tried something, the United States would not support the Brazilian military, and sanctions would follow. So when Bolsonaro attempted to sound out the military brass for a potential coup, there was no support, except for—reportedly—the head of the navy. That was a close call for Brazil, and it divided people on the left. Some important people in the PT were very mad the CIA said anything at all about Brazil’s election. Other people on the left said, “Isn’t it better to have them say the elections should be respected?” 

Bolsonaro’s gambit in 2018 was that if democracy produces political and economic crisis, we should try something different. Lula argued no—that democracy in Brazil is, as elsewhere, messy, often unsatisfying, but through incremental means we can improve the lives of millions of people, as we’ve done before. Last year, that argument prevailed. My concern is, once Lula leaves the stage, is there anyone capable of credibly making that argument in a context of multiple overlapping crises? This is not a new Pink Tide moment. Someone like Lula was able to win, but I’m not sure anybody else could hold that coalition together.

More here.