Parties and Movements

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

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva at a meeting with members of the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) in March 2022 (Ricardo Chicarelli/AFP via Getty Images)

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. 

Mampilly: One question that I’ve been thinking about a lot is, why do we valorize political parties? What role do they play in democracies? The push for multi-party democracy in Africa came out of the idea that peoples’ voices have been denied by authoritarianism, and nurturing political parties will provide people with a democratic choice. But the idea that more political parties equates to more democracy has been a farce for several decades now. Especially in parts of the Global South, political parties are a tool or a preference of the international community, with no direct relationship to the popular will. This wasn’t always the case: if we look at the anti-colonial movements in many parts of Africa, political parties emerged out of social movements. But today parties are vehicles of elite enrichment. They are a tool for elites to gain or hold power, and they are often deeply disconnected from the interests of the broader population.

Social movements, like LUCHA in the Democratic Republic of Congo, are responding to that reality. They refuse to align with any political party, even though they’ve been asked for their endorsement. Across Africa, social movements are by and large rejecting electoral politics. That’s something that we all have to reckon with. Maybe we shouldn’t be so obsessed with the decline of political parties and we should pay more attention to the new formations that are emerging, and the kinds of institutional and non-institutional politics that they’re trying to articulate, even if they’re not always as successful as we would like. 

Berman: That parties can be clientelistic and corrupt, that they can be vehicles for individuals without any ties to or desire to represent the grassroots—those criticisms are valid, and they hold in Europe as well, which has a longer history of parties and electoral democracy. But the question is: do we want to throw the baby out with the bath water? It’s true that parties can have a negative impact on democracy, but can we imagine well-functioning democracy without something resembling political parties? That question does not have a clear answer to me. Parties have historically provided the link between citizens and the government; they aggregate interests, mobilize voters, provide information flows back and forth, and come up with multifaceted political agendas. Social movements—which tend to focus on a single interest or single group—don’t have the same structure or function.

Pagliarini: In Brazil, Latin America’s largest nation and one of the biggest democracies in the world, parties really matter, but there are so many of them that their relative importance diminishes. Lula was elected with the PT, a party with a robust, social democratic vision. But there are something like thirty parties in Congress. To execute anything Lula spoke of during the campaign, he needs the support of many of those parties. The way presidents of Brazil have traditionally gone about that is to create dozens of ministries—there are over twenty-five cabinet positions—and to dole them out proportionally, according to representation in Congress. So Lula has a cabinet filled with center-right people who used to support Bolsonaro. The incentive is to create a small party totally divorced from any kind of natural constituency, because in a very split country, five votes in Congress matters, and you have the president coming to you and saying, “What would you like? What do you need?” Dilma was abandoned by this fickle base when the economy turned sour, and she was cast out from power. 

Mampilly: Sheri has provided a strong defense of the role that political parties play in democracies, and I am enamored of this golden era in Europe that she describes. In the parts of the world that I pay attention to, South Asia and Africa, there are some examples of political parties that might meet that standard: the Communist Party of India is a party that you can join as a young person and grow old with. The Economic Freedom Fighters in South Africa are similarly trying to build a party structure that provides people with various services while also trying to articulate viewpoints in the legislature that represent their constituency. But beyond that, it’s hard to think of examples.

That raises a question for me: from where do we generalize? Should we privilege this golden era of political parties in Europe, and suggest that’s what democracy should look like? Or should we look to the activists that I speak to in the Democratic Republic of Congo? Across the Global South, at least, it’s clear that Congo is no exception. We might dismiss these forms of democracy; we might say that African democracy is not fully matured. But ultimately, the type of democracy that has prevailed in many of these places has been a very cynical process in which the political party makes no pretense of representing the public will.

The next question is whether there is some trajectory through which the superficial electoralism that prevails in most African democracies can be transformed into a more substantive form, in which political parties play the roles that we would like them to play. At this point, it is so far from being imaginable in a place like the Democratic Republic of Congo, where neither the political parties nor the electoral system are even close to allowing for those kinds of parties to exist and function.

LUCHA emerged from people trying to hold the president from running for a third term. Their origin was an attempt to make democracy stronger. And then the president decided to stay on for another term. When he finally agreed to step down from power, he banned several opposition candidates from running, and then when the election occurred, he simply pushed aside the figure who won the most votes, and put the second-most-voted-for candidate into office. And he did that with the full approval of the U.S. government and the larger international community, which almost immediately expressed support for a peaceful democratic transition. So why should these activists continue to believe that this form of democracy that has been imposed upon them is superior to the somewhat poorly defined version of movement-led democracy that they are trying to champion? I, for one, would have a hard time telling them that they are getting it wrong; that they should, like the State Department argues, channel their efforts into supporting the existing political process and have faith in the electoral system. 

Berman: Democracy is not only free and fair elections. It means much more than that. A well-functioning democracy requires social movements, because people have a right to organize to try to achieve whatever collective goals they want that are not directly related to accessing political power or winning elections. But democracy can’t exist without free and fair elections. I’m not suggesting that the forms of democracy that exist in many other parts of the world, including Europe and the United States, are ideal. But if you want a political system that is democratic—that allows people to choose their own leaders and governments, to participate in the political process, to organize as they want, to speak freely—it’s very hard for me to imagine how that happens without political parties.

Anyone who would deny that the forms of democracy that exist in many parts of the world are corrupt, clientelistic, incomplete, and poorly functioning is blind. And democratic rating indexes classify Congo as a democracy in name only, despite the fact that governments and international organizations pretend otherwise. There’s not even a well-functioning state there, so how could you have a functioning democracy?

Pagliarini: The sweet spot is a political culture in which you have a sufficiently responsive and developed party system and robust social movements. One of the things that characterized the Pink Tide was this arrival in power through democratic social movements. Coca growers in Bolivia were behind Evo Morales; Lula and the PT came out of the auto industry; grassroots organizing in Venezuela brought Hugo Chávez to power. But a healthy, productive party system and a civil society that produces responsive social movements are both historically contingent. There’s no guarantee that when you have one, you have the other. In Brazil, you have strong, stable, vibrant social movements, like the MST, the Landless Workers’ Movement. The movement is most active, and most combative, under a left-wing government, because the assumption is that the government will respond. Whereas, in the Bolsonaro years, MST leaders hunkered down and held onto what they had, lest they lose gains made over decades.

The best moments for the material progress of the majority of Brazilians have come when you have a party in power that is responsive to social movements and feels that it won’t hurt them politically. In this respect, Lula’s third term is very different from his first two terms. The MST, for example, is dissatisfied with the pace of agrarian reform. In part that’s because the MST pushes left-wing governments hard. But in this context of democracy being called into question, and Lula being elected as a coalition figure, there’s much more hesitancy to be seen as giving into a left-wing social movement. We might see a breakdown of that virtuous cycle that defined the previous era, where you had an alignment between social movements and parties in power. 

Mampilly: The question for me is, which way are we moving? The decline of political parties is a concern for a particular vision of democracy, but it has also been accompanied by an explosion of social movements. I think the trajectory is clear right now: there is an increasing loss of faith in the role that political parties can play, and more faith, at least at the street level, that social movements are a better vehicle to bring about change. Whether or not that’s empirically true is still to be determined. But I do think that we should be paying a lot more attention to social movements not as something meant to feed into the political party, but for the kinds of democratic practices and forms that they may develop on their own.

What do you do when the state no longer understands its role as ensuring good governance for its citizens—a condition that prevails in much of the world today? I work with a movement in Atlanta called Project South, which is experimenting with the concept of movement governance. Social movements take the relationship between states and governance as a serious concern. Not necessarily as a long-term play to strengthen democracy, but as a more immediate response to the state’s abdication of its role as a good governor.

LUCHA emerged in eastern Congo, an area where the state has failed for at least twenty-five years to provide anything like governance to its citizens. Instead of putting their faith in the idea that the state will suddenly start to assume this role, LUCHA has started to engage in direct governance, in the form of what we might refer to as mutual aid societies. They are providing services, for example, to displaced peoples who are fleeing fighting in other parts of the country. I visited camps where they’re providing this population with basic food and some limited healthcare. Obviously, this is not sufficient. This is minimalist governance. But it is, perhaps, more than what the state is doing, and in some cases, more than what the international community is doing.

Serpe: Given these trends, where do you think the politics of democracy and egalitarianism that are traditionally associated with the left are heading?

Mampilly: Last week, I was with a group of Chinese intellectuals whose vision of the state is also different from the classical social democratic vision that comes out of the West. China’s experiments in rethinking the nature of capitalism, governance, and so on are really important. Some of the things that China has done domestically are impressive, but at the global level it’s not as clear-cut to me. Both China and the West seem to be competing for the attention and interests of the political elites in many countries across Africa and South Asia, which is making it much more difficult overall for popular movements. I’ve always been a critic of Western intervention in Africa, but I’m not somebody who views the rise of China as necessarily leading to improvements, either in terms of support for democracy or economic development. The West is less and less relevant to many of these countries, and we need to start reckoning with the role that China and other Asian countries will play going forward. 

Berman: At its best, the left is an international movement, and internationalism means not only supporting the left and struggles for freedom all over the world, but learning from the innovations that other peoples and other parties have come up with. On one level, the main challenge for the left is the same challenge it has always been: dealing with capitalism. While having some upsides, like producing incredible growth and innovation, capitalism can also be incredibly destructive. Not just economically, in creating vast inequalities and poverty, but also socially and politically. It has been the left’s job to figure out how to maximize the upsides and minimize the downsides.

We are, of course, living in a very different world than Marx lived in, so the specifics of that challenge have changed. But the left, whether it is in Africa, Latin America, Europe, or the United States, needs to come up with a program to create societies where people have the ability to live productive, respectful, equal, and at least semi-prosperous lives. Everything else is secondary. It’s very hard for me to imagine how you can have diverse societies without that. It’s very hard for me to imagine how you can have successful democracies without that kind of economic foundation. If you want social stability and political democracy, nobody can feel like they are permanently left behind, permanently disadvantaged, or don’t have the ability to create secure and prosperous lives for themselves.

That is the historic mission of the left. I’m not suggesting that it’s easy, but it remains the same. I’m somewhat more optimistic than I was ten years ago. Despite the financial crisis and other failings, the neoliberal world order remained remarkably hegemonic at the intellectual level. That is much less true today. There are signs of people trying to push toward an alternative. 

Pagliarini: In Latin America, the link between material conditions and support for democracy has never been more crucial. If Lula is enjoying high approval ratings, this is because economic growth is surpassing expectations, inflation is coming down, joblessness is coming down. One can easily imagine a situation where these trends reverse—a new economic crisis, a new pandemic—and all of a sudden, because of the emergence of a robust, anti-democratic movement in recent years, someone like Bolsonaro comes back to power. 

We need new leaders to emerge out of the new struggles that will occur. But the leaders who are genuinely new in Latin America in recent years—Gabriel Boric in Chile, Gustavo Petro in Colombia—are deeply unpopular. Boric essentially beat a neo-Nazi in his election, and it wasn’t by all that much. One could see a situation where the far right prevails in the next election. Comparisons can be made to France, where the victory of Marine Le Pen is not only thinkable, it’s perhaps likely. I’m torn between the hope that new leaders and new types of social organization that fit the historical moment will arise—there are all kinds of movements doing that work—and the recognition that this is a really dark moment, where new leaders who do emerge might not be up to the task.  Lula had to run for president three times and build up the PT over almost two decades before he prevailed. In a lot of ways, we don’t have that kind of time. We need answers and solutions fast.


Sheri Berman is a professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University. Her latest book is Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien Régime to the Present Day.

Zachariah Mampilly is the Marxe Endowed Chair of International Affairs at CUNY and the cofounder of the Program on African Social Research.

Andre Pagliarini is Elliott Assistant Professor of History at Hampden-Sydney College in central Virginia, a faculty fellow at the Washington Brazil Office, and non-resident expert at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. In addition to writing a monthly column for the Brazilian Report, he is finalizing a book on the politics of nationalism in twentieth-century Brazil.

Nick Serpe is senior editor of Dissent.

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