Is there fascism in Brazil? Bolsonarism as terror and ideology
Jair Bolsonaro looks to be on the brink of victory in today's presidential election in Brazil. But, how do we define his authoritarianism, and is he a fascist? Gabriel Landi Fazzio looks to the history of fascism to analyse the resurgent far right.
In recent decades, the term "fascist" has been increasingly used in a very imprecise way on the left – hurled almost indiscriminately at almost any conservative or authoritarian idea. Now, with a resurgent far right globally when having a strong working definition of fascism would be a huge advantage, many doubts and confusions are evident. What, after all, is fascism? And is what we are now witnessing in Brazil, with the likely victory of the far right Jair Bolsonaro in the presidential election, fascism?
Is there fascism in Brazil?
In order for us to explain what the fascist danger means, we must first of all have a clear understanding of what this danger is. Often, it takes little more than giving a conservative or right wing opinion for someone to be labeled a fascist. In exactly the opposite way, there are those who maintain that Bolsonaro and his PSL (“Social-Liberal Party”) are not fascist organizations, for instance, because their speeches do not contain all of the essential features of a fascist radical nationalism.
In both these cases, excessive importance is attached to the ideological components of fascism to the detriment of its concrete, organic social existence as a political force. It is in this more precise sense that a materialist perspective of history must grasp the nature of fascism.
Fascism is not every set of conservative ideas in terms of customs or identities. Fascism is not even every form that the political defense of authoritarianism can take. Fascism is an organized expression of the political violence of all the most reactionary elements in society (financed, of course, by the most reactionary businessmen).
There are a great number of reactionary political regimes that, in times of crisis, use the most ferocious repression to crush the resistance of the exploited and oppressed masses; the most obvious example here is military dictatorship. But fascism differs from this precisely because it is not a repression based purely on state violence. Fascism uses methods of civil war and terrorism to apply its reactionary domination even before it seizes power.
We can point out many ideological and historical differences between the fascist danger today and classical fascism. Classical fascism had, in many cases, a more markedly corporatist, nationalist and secular discourse. These distinctions may even justify the use of terms such as "neo-fascism" or "fascistization" to deal with current phenomena. The still embryonic degree of organization and concentration of these reactionary forces may also explain the use of the term "proto-fascism" – although as these groups gain coherence and unity, it seems less and less “proto”.
In any case, this characterization allows us to understand the insufficiency of terms such as "right-wing populism" to explain the specificity of contemporary phenomena. Is not classical fascism also a kind of right-wing populism? And would this type be different from another purely rhetorical right-wing populism that does not combine itself with the violence of organized groups? It seems that such terminology only spreads confusion.
There is a huge mass of politically inactive people clinging to conservative ideas that gives them some sort of "security" – especially among the ranks of small proprietors, but also among the working class. This mass of people is a potential moral reserve of political support for fascism. But if this section of people with conservative values does not organize itself for political and physical struggle (because the fascist never separates these two moments of social struggle), fascism cannot exist in its proper sense. Only during the longest social crises can this phenomenon reach a mass scale, for the crises increasingly widen the ranks of these fighting bodies and their ties to this conservative mass base.
But, generally speaking, it is quite common for most of these people who are conservative in customs, to be reasonably liberal in politics. They may even be deeply authoritarian and oppressive in their home environments and advocate firm obedience to traditional customs; but they will hardly lend their support to open and public violence. It is therefore an unforgivable mistake not to attract even the most backward sections of the people to the anti-fascist struggle; people who still share conservative ideals without, however, supporting reactionary violence.
While conservatism must be ideologically fought at all times, to combat fascism this ideological struggle is not enough. To do so, our first task must be to expose the fascist violence. From the broad denunciation campaigns it is necessary, on the one hand, to prepare effective resistance against reactionary violence; and, on the other hand, to attract the most hesitant sectors of the people into the political mass struggle against fascism.
We must patiently explain the relationship between fascism and the longstanding systemic crisis of capitalism, which leads to new and more intense clashes between social classes and national states. It is necessary to explain how this crisis pushes the great capitalists towards renewed attacks on the majority of the working people (wage earners and small proprietors). In dependent capitalist countries, such as Brazil, the bourgeoisie, associated with imperialism, mobilizes all its forces to attack labor and social security rights, reduce wages, cut public investments and social programs, increase exploitation, privatize and denationalize state-owned enterprises and plunder natural resources. The bourgeois parliamentarian coup of 2016 sought to accelerate these attacks by any means.
To widely disseminate the understanding of the economic and social interests of the ruling classes of monopoly groups, bankers, landowners, and so on, is no easy task. But it is clear that without this it is impossible to show the vast majority of people that fascism (in spite of its popular "anti-systemic" rhetoric) ultimately means only a violent imposition of the common economic program of the great capitalists in the face of the crisis.
From the point of view of its content, fascism is a reactionary movement that may well be defined as "the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary elements of financial capital", in the terms of the classical formula proposed by the Bulgarian communist Dimitrov. But this ultimate meaning of fascism does not capture its specificity, which is in its form as a reactionary movement. In this regard, fascism was well represented in the resolutions of the 4th Congress of the Communist International:
“The characteristic feature of Italian fascism – the ‘classical’ fascism that for now has got the entire country in its grip – is that the fascists do not merely form narrow counter- revolutionary fighting organizations, armed to the teeth, but also attempt through social demagoguery to achieve a base among the masses – in the peasantry, the petty bourgeoisie, and even certain sectors of the working class. To achieve this, they cleverly utilize the masses’ inevitable disappointment with so-called democracy for their reactionary purposes.”
In these terms, a clear process of "fascistization" of bourgeois politics, of strengthening of the fascist groups, is under way in Brazil. It is necessary to stop at all costs the reactionaries from strengthening their positions in the struggle against the working class and the oppressed strata of the people - and this means, in some cases, electoral support for liberals. But it takes much more than that.
It should be borne in mind that the election of Bolsonaro would not only imply the intensification of state violence against the masses, but also the intensification of all kinds of reactionary violence. All kinds of reactionary militiamen, right-wing shooting clubs, armed bands of landowners and urban gangs (the neo-Nazi in the strict sense) would be encouraged, rising up emboldened against the organized working class, black people, women, LGBT community, the whole precarious mass of immigrant workers, rural settlers, indigenous people, etc.
Today, the "fascist menace" still needs to mature in order to be fully enforced. It still lacks more political organization and centralized troops (although these troops are already much more prepared than the forces of left-wing revolutionaries and even of popular self-defense organizations in general). However, the election of Bolsonaro offers the most favorable conditions to accelerate this maturation.
Was fascism born from the middle class in June 2013?
In discussions of the growth of fascism in Brazil, there is often a return to a deeply misleading and reformist formulation of the PT (Workers’ Party). It is the so-called theory of the "serpent egg" of Marilena Chauí, Jessé de Souza among others. This theory states that the mass demonstrations of June 2013 should be blamed for having provoked the “reactionary wave” in Brazil; and that these would have been manifestations merely driven by the "fascist middle class" against the PT government.
Yet, this interpretation is itself extremely reactionary in the most scientific sense of the word, since it measures the present with the yardstick of an idealized past. That is how the reformists reason: since the spontaneous explosion of the masses precipitated the crisis of the class collaboration policy without the working class being able to overcome this crisis in a progressive way; then it would have been better if the masses had stayed at home, without mobilizing, without putting at risk the "happy Brazil" governed by the PT.
It is a reactionary interpretation because it does not recognize the historical inevitability of the crisis of this half-hearted weak reformism, and wishes to return to this "idyllic age," in which the masses patiently awaited the slow and gradual social reform, and in which the ruling classes did not seek to obstruct the PT reformism by all sorts of maneuvers. Instead of moving to the left, confronted with the lessons of June and Dilma's subsequent impeachment (historical lessons on the instability of reformist politics on the capitalist periphery), the PT intellectuals embraces this reactionary "lesson" about the evil that the spontaneous struggle of the masses means, for it "provokes" the reaction.
Arguments such as these are the ultimate proof that the PT intelligentsia and political leaders are incapable of understanding the new stage of class struggle in Brazil. In this way, they offer less and less to orient their rank and file, and they increasingly confuse them with the hatred of the "middle class" and idealizations of the PT period. They fail to understand the social crisis that has unfolded under the feet of left-wing reformism; what is the relationship between this crisis and the right-wing extremism and what are the open historical possibilities?
But it should not be new to any leftist intelligentsia that every spontaneous outburst of popular dissatisfaction brings up contradictory elements; elements both reactionary and progressive. Commenting on the 1905 Russian Revolution, Lenin already noted that:
“The Russian Revolution of 1905 was a bourgeois-democratic revolution. It consisted of a series of battles in which all the discontented classes, groups and elements of the population participated. Among these there were masses imbued with the crudest prejudices, with the vaguest slid most fantastic aims of struggle; there were small groups which accepted Japanese money, there were speculators and adventurers, etc. […] The socialist revolution in Europe cannot be anything other than an outburst of mass struggle on the part of all and sundry oppressed and discontented elements. Inevitably, sections of tile petty bourgeoisie and of the backward workers will participate in it—without such participation, mass struggle is impossible, without it no revolution is possible—and just as inevitably will they bring into the movement their prejudices, their reactionary fantasies, their weaknesses and errors. But objectively they will attack capital, and the class-conscious vanguard of the revolution, the advanced proletariat, expressing this objective truth of a variegated and discordant, motley and outwardly fragmented, mass struggle, will he able to unite and direct it, capture power, seize the banks, expropriate the trusts which all hate (though for difficult reasons!), and introduce other dictatorial measures which in their totality will amount to the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the victory of socialism, which, however, will by no means immediately “purge” itself of petty-bourgeois slag.”
Reasoning in a similar way, Antonio Gramsci emphasizes the responsibility of the politically organized forces of the working class to pointing directions to the movements that emerge spontaneously. He warns of the grave consequence of neglecting this historical responsibility:
“Neglecting, or worse still, despising, so-called ‘spontaneous’ movements, i.e. failing to give them a conscious leadership or to raise them to a higher plane by inserting them into politics, may often have extremely serious consequences. It is almost always the case that a ‘spontaneous’ movement of the subaltern classes is accompanied by a reactionary movement of the right-wing of the dominant class, for concomitant reasons. An economic crisis, for instance, engenders on the one hand discontent among the subaltern classes and spontaneous mass movements, and on the other conspiracies among the reactionary groups, who take advantage of the objective weakening of the government in order to attempt coups d’etat. Among the effective causes of the coups must be included the failure of the responsible groups to give any conscious leadership to the spontaneous revolts or to make them into a positive political factor. […] The spontaneous movements of the broader popular strata make possible the coming to power of the subaltern class more advanced by the objective debilitation of the State. This is a progressive example, but in the modern world regressive examples are more frequent.”
It should not be difficult, therefore, to reach the same conclusion that Walter Benjamin reached: that "every resurgence of fascism bears witness to a failed revolution." That is, every rise of fascism is the result of the failure of the left-wing parties and, simultaneously, proof that there is a revolutionary potential; a radical dissatisfaction under the crisis; a violent conflict between social classes that the left-wing parties are unable to mobilize in a revolutionary sense, thus allowing significant portions of the masses to be maneuvered by the reactionary movement of the ruling classes.
June 2013 brought to the fore numerous elements hitherto quiet in the social struggle – hence the idea that the "giant woke up." What emerged then are elements that today are aligned under Bolsonaro, that could later develop under the sign of the right-wing movement "Vem Pra Rua".
Yet, it also set in motion a whole new generation of fighters of the proletarian and popular ranks. A new generation whose organization still lacks maturity, but who have been expressing themselves in all subsequent mass struggles; in the strikes that increase year after year, the struggle for housing, in school and university occupations, in the mass movements of women, in indigenous struggles, and so on.
The explanation for the much greater strengthening of fascism in comparison to the mass movement organizations is not only explained by the existence of a mass outburst like June 2013. On the contrary, the explanation is precisely the difficulty of the small revolutionary parties in reaching these masses and the conscious renunciation of the great reformist parties, which refuse to advance in the direction in which these radicalized masses demand, breaking their old agreements to liberal bourgeois politics.
No wonder, then, that all the media frenzy against "corruption" (this norm of capitalism) has rooted deeply in the masses day after day and has thrown them into the arms of fascism. This at the same time that reformism hesitates, without breaking its old ties to all the corrupt scourge of bourgeois politics. In a similar way, according to the German communist Clara Zetkin, in 1923: "Fascism has become a sort of refuge for the politically shelterless”, for all the social strata that "were disappointed in their hopes" in "reformation of society along democratic lines”.
“They can now see that the reformist leaders are in benevolent accord with the bourgeoisie, and the worst of it is that these masses have now lost their faith not only in the reformist leaders, but in socialism as a whole. These masses of disappointed socialist sympathizers are joined by large circles of the proletariat, of workers who have given up their faith not only in socialism, but also in their own class.”
The ideological aspects of fascism that matures around Bolsonaro
From the guts of the economic and social crisis, arising as a combination of both a popular revulsion against the discredited political system and the needs of big capital, a radicalized alternative of the extreme right has arisen: Bolsonarism. Taking advantage of the most widespread prejudices amongst the people, this political force seeks to organize the masses of small owners and workers under the banner of big capital
What are the main features of Brazilian proto-fascism?
In the first place, the hard core of the movement around these “captains of industry”, consist of the most reactionary and violent gangs in addition to the support of a significant portion of high military officers. Bolsonaro unites the neo-Nazi groups to the armed bands used by big landowners, plus reactionary shooting clubs and all sorts of militia and extermination groups, all under the banner of a political party which, in a surprising turnaround, became the second largest party in the House of Representatives. Against the risk of an impeachment, Bolsonaro chose his weapon wisely: a military vice president.
Secondly, if Bolsonaro does not have, as the fascists of the last century had, large fascist trade unions that allow the ideological connection of these "fighting bodies" to the masses, he does at least have the support of numerous religious organizations which ideologically legitimize his "traditionalist" discourse in support of reactionary violence. No one doubts the role played by charlatan pastors in regimenting the PSL votes. Here, it is also worth remembering a much bolder rehearsal of the Universal Church in this direction: its troops of "Gladiators of the Altar".
Marching in the midst of this carnival of barbarism, the Brazilian royal family offered Bolsonaro, a prince congressman, and the integralist movement lends, much more importantly, its slogan: "God, Fatherland and Family."
Instead of the corporatist national-social demagogy, Bolsonaro mixes conservative religious quackery and anti-corruption rhetoric, which serves only as a vehicle for popularizing a liberal economic agenda. Perhaps this is one of the arguments against Bolsonaro's fascist character: fascism would be statist, while Bolsonaro is an ultra-liberal.
This argument is doubly wrong. First, while it is true that classical fascism has, in essence, served the specific interests of monopoly financial capital through a statist policy, this does not mean that the same statist politics would correspond to the general interests of imperialism or even to the monopolistic capitals that operate in Brazil. On the contrary, today, in the face of the systemic crisis of capitalism, the slogan of these groups is precisely anti-statism under which the private appropriation of public funds is justified (through austerity policies that safeguard the benefits to the creditors of the public debts) and accumulation through the expropriation of public assets and social rights.
But even if this hypothesis were not pertinent, Bolsonaro's "anti-statism" should not be taken too seriously. Not only because his economic liberalism is combined with a call for greater policing, tougher sentencing, and increased state repression. But also because, as professor Mauro Iasi reminds us:
"Programmatically he points to what has been called 'ultra-liberalism', but, parodying Lenin, we could call it an 'ultra-foolishness' that even the most neo-liberal people who still have some capacity for thought don’t think is viable. That is to say, things such as carrying out the total privatization of the services offered by the State; implementing a gross simplification of income tax with equal percentages in face of a reality of profound inequality of incomes of the population; dismantling federal universities and their free public education; endowing the notorious "Party-Free School” movement with legal rearguard to operate a crusade of political persecution and obscurantism in the educational system; eliminating all "activism" (we know what that means) and ending the 13º salary and the vacation additional remuneration, among other insanities. [...]
[But] history teaches us that true plans appear only after the solution of force. [...] We can see this process even in the classic cases of European Nazi-fascism, when nationalist rhetoric and criticism of big capital became the practical alliance of financial and monopoly capital with Nazism and fascism.
How to fight fascism?
The history of anti-fascist struggle presents several examples, old and recent, of how to confront fascism. That is why, for revolutionary militancy, the slogan that best sums up our permanent, and increasingly urgent, task is "Organize, study, agitate."
Only by tightening the practical, everyday ties between all the anti-fascist popular forces will it be possible to organize a defensive and collective struggle against this growing threat.
It is necessary to study and disseminate the historical experience of struggle of the oppressed classes. As we develop our agitation by alerting people to the threat posed by Bolsonaro's election, let us prepare ourselves to fight fascism beyond the elections - since, even if defeated in the presidential ballot box, fascism will continue to act and attack.
The offensive of the reactionary forces will mark the next decade of the political struggle in Brazil. It will take firmness and willingness not only to avoid giving in to their violence, but also to mobilize against this reactionary terror the vast majority of the exploited and oppressed people.
When the crisis becomes inescapable, the left must be able to go to the root of the problems to be solved - in other words, to be radical. It takes patience and serenity to fight not only in the coming days, under the banner of despair, but for the next few years, under the banner of hope.
No reaction is so strong that it cannot be overcome by the mass struggle of the working class and the oppressed sections of the people.
Gabriel Landi Fazzio is a member of the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB) and editor of the blog LavraPalavra.