Roderick C reports on a session at Marxism 2013 on the protests against fare increases on public transport in São Paulo and elsewhere.
The meeting “What lies behind the protests in Brazil” on Friday evening was a highlight of Marxism so far for me. It featured two excellent introductions, one by activist Henrique Sanchez and a second by SOAS lecturer Alfredo Saad Filho.
Henrique gave a rounded description of the recent movement, including its genesis as a protest against fare increases on public transport in São Paulo and elsewhere, and its development.
Crucially he discussed attempts by the media and the far right to hijack the movement and divert it towards apolitical issues and warned not to overplay the impact this has had. He stressed that the working class is involved in this movement: the mass strikes and protests organised by trade unions on 11 July testify to that.
Alfredo’s talk was fascinating. He analysed the complex class make-up of the protests, which combined workers (predominantly young workers), students and the urban poor, fighting alongside a decidedly right wing middle class element. Consequently it was making very wide ranging but also contradictory demands.
He set this in the context of a Brazil where, as in much of the world, the working class has seen its traditional modes of organisation and representation undergo decomposition, leading to a new generation socialised under neoliberal norms, and existing in a more atomised sphere of production.
He noted also that during the era of the Workers Party government, there were sharp changes in the make-up of Brazilian society. In the 1990s some 11 million jobs were created, half of them in formal sector. In the decade after, 21 million jobs were created, of which 95 percent were formal sector.
In this context – where the movement is again on the rise but the social base of the left has been undermined – he said the revolutionary left needs to find new ways to connect with workers, their dreams and desires. Much of this is clearly relevant to revolutionaries in Britain and elsewhere.
Alfredo argued that no new formula had been found, and that such a formula could only be found through active experimentation – trying new things until something works. This argument highlights the need for imaginative reformulations of the Marxist movement’s historic mission, reformulations that build on existing traditions while developing them for new times.
Note: This piece was published before rs21 was established as an independent organisation in January 2014. rs21 was founded by a group of people who had been in the opposition within the SWP and who left in response to its persistent mishandling of rape and sexual harassment allegations against a leading member.