Our First Role Is to Organize

With Bolsonaro in office, Brazil’s left needs more than ever to build mass resistance to the Right. We spoke to two socialist congresswomen about how they’re using their positions in the state to rebuild the country’s socialist movement.

Demonstrators protest against Jair Bolsonaro and in favor of presidential candidate Fernando Haddad of the Workers' Party on October 20, 2018 in Brasilia, Brazil. (Victor Moriyama / Getty Images)

Interview by
Keith Brower Brown

In the same election that brought Jair Bolsonaro into the Brazilian presidency, the Party of Socialism and Liberation (PSOL) doubled its delegation to ten seats in the federal legislature. This includes the victories of Fernanda Melchionna and Sâmia de Souza Bomfim, both leaders in Brazil’s movements for feminism and public education.

At a moment when socialists in the United States are winning office in numbers not seen for a century, Brazilian socialists can offer strategic lessons based on decades of hard-fought experience in and outside the state. These two elected leaders offer a clear-sighted strategy, with concrete examples, for using positions in the state to build militant movements outside the state. 

On August 13, tens of thousands of students and teachers across Brazil launched strikes and protests against the Bolsonaro government’s public education cuts. This marks an escalation of prior national demonstrations on May 15 and 30. 

Public universities have long been the best in Brazil. In a country of extreme inequality, universities have been a bedrock of cross-class mobility, militancy, and critical thinking. Bolsonaro now openly aims to impose tuition fees at public universities for the first time, and to levy austerity on this source of opposition. Coupled with his recent firing of the head of the national research agency, the new president is unabashedly signaling that dissent in public institutions will not be tolerated. 

Yet Bomfim and Melchionna hope that by building PSOL, the Left can offer a way out of the far right’s oppression and austerity. The congresswomen refer to their elected offices as a “collective mandate”; a tool built through mass struggle, made for creating new militancy among the working class. Jacobin contributor Keith Brower Brown sat down with Bomfim and Melchionna to discuss Brazil’s feminist, education, and youth movements, and what lessons they have for US socialists hoping to use elected office to build the Left.

Keith Brower Brown

How were you involved in movements when you entered into office?

Sâmia de Souza Bomfim

I became a candidate in 2016 for city council and afterward for federal congress, out of the relationships I had in the women’s movement. The feminist movement has grown quickly in Brazil, especially since 2015. Our current has been committed to helping build the feminist movement. In these years, I helped organize protests and much else. I was twenty-five years old at the time, working on staff for a university, and so I was taking part in the student movement and my union as well. My most organic connections with movements were all based in this work before my electoral campaign.

In São Paulo, we created a general political council for our campaign. The idea was to unite the leaders of diverse fronts of struggle — the front of the environment, of human rights, public safety, unions, education, etc. They helped us, first, to form our political program. We need to speak out, with our electoral campaigns, for the causes and ideas that come from the movements. We developed proposals and videos that advanced those ideas. Also, we took part in their actions, debates, canvassing at the entries to the subway. Members of these movements became militants of our campaigns. But this was a process that began earlier, when we were working together before the elections.

Now, this group has become the political advisory board of our office (mandato). We meet every semester, often every two months, for discussions with student movements. We try to have a permanent process of dialogue with leaders and members of these movements. Not just for discussion, but to create new tasks and roles this way.

Fernanda Melchionna

I have a trajectory that’s similar, though with some differences. I’m a bit older than Sâmia. I was a militant in the student movement at my public university in Rio Grande do Sul. I was also searching for a new political perspective.

This was in the first year of Lula’s government. I was a part of his Workers’ Party (PT) at that time. But I saw Lula include many neoliberals in his cabinet, and then carry out bourgeois reforms of the pension system. We had to struggle with the government to expand the university and open it with affirmative action. I think all those struggles were necessary to build a new, radical left pole of politics that wouldn’t get reduced to the traditional way of doing politics.

Then I took part in the formation of PSOL. We formed both through formal congresses, and through a movement at the base of society — youth, activists, public workers. We felt the necessity of a new party, because the other left parties had joined with the PT. We needed a political pole that was anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist, to allow for a permanent mobilization. At the same time, within PSOL, we needed a current committed to clarifying strategy, with cadre who knew the importance of studying class struggle and Marxism. This became MES [Socialist Left Movement, an internal tendency in PSOL].

For three more years, I organized in the youth movement. Then in 2008, Luciana Genro ran as the first PSOL candidate for mayor in Porto Alegre. After that election, we held a meeting of social movements in the city, and there was broad demand for a young candidate who could bring together the student movement and the new party, PSOL. We held a meeting of the student movement to select a candidate for city council, and I was the first choice. I didn’t want to; I preferred to stay organizing as a militant! It took three rounds of being asked until I was convinced.

My first term was 2008–2012. I barely won. In 2012, I was the councilor who received the most votes in the city. In 2018, I was elected a federal deputy.

Keith Brower Brown

How do you attempt to use your elected office to build movement struggles outside the state?

Fernanda Melchionna

The struggles that already exist in parliament aren’t the struggles that change things. The class struggle changes things. But that struggle usually doesn’t come into parliament.

We’re socialists elected on a mandate from diverse movements. That doesn’t mean we simply wait for them to bring us demands, then we take them up in parliament. Our office helps construct the struggle from below.

We had a group of workers from a small state-owned company come to us for help to fight privatization. They didn’t have experience organizing a union struggle. We said, “Let’s plan an assembly, a picket, a rally.” We helped them do all of this.

We see all of us, including staff and comrades, as having the role to build political struggle from the base. In our work here we see major capitalists up close as they try to take the resources of the people. We can assess where class struggles exist and use our office to build more struggles.

One major example was in Porto Alegre, when I was on city council. The bus fare collectors and youth were outraged about a huge fare increase. Their marches were growing quickly. Then, the city government and police criminalized marches.

We were already a part of these movements, within them. We used the city office to build the mobilizations, and to strategize to win the support of the majority in the city. We were able to win over other councilors and craft a juridical and political solution.

We won! Youth in São Paulo saw that and said, “Let’s do it here like Porto Alegre.” Members of the MES youth movement helped share the strategy between cities. This started the June 2013 protests in São Paulo. After police repression, they spread to the whole country, until 5 million people were in the streets.

In the federal congress now, we’re always aiming for that strategy, to help organize popular struggles. Just this week, we’re working with movements around the country fighting Bolsonaro’s cuts to the pension system, with rural and indigenous women’s movements, and with the public education movement. We’re helping strategize the next round of education protests in August. Now, the space of parliament is also a space to call mobilizations.

Keith Brower Brown

Do you have any structures for holding yourselves accountable to movements?

Sâmia de Souza Bomfim

We aim to have a close, organic relationship with unions and movements against race and gender oppression. We have comrades and staff each dedicate themselves to working in different, specific movements.

In São Paulo, years ago, most members of MES were in the student movement. We made a turn to get jobs in specific sectors, like education and public transport. Those are some of our strongest links today with unions.

Nationally, one of the principal programs of MES is Emancipa (Emancipate), which provides free classes for youth in the poor, working-class suburbs of big cities, where most people are black. The classes are principally to help students gain entry to university, but also include open political discussions.

This program has helped these students form a base for action against oppression and neglect of their communities, and has brought them into the broader movement for public education.

Fernanda Melchionna

Since the start, our current has been working to have a deeper base in these movements. Now our members have a driving role in unions of teachers, bus drivers, and public workers. We have a nucleus of members in other unions, and a major part in youth and student movements.

That said, it’s not enough to have social movements, each one focused on one cause. This can become a focus on defense, without a political strategy. These movements are very important. But a party is very necessary. It has to exist, not to be defensive, but to develop structural thinking, to build a program and a political strategy, to connect . . .

Sâmia de Souza Bomfim

As we’re trying to connect between feminism and anti-capitalism.

Fernanda Melchionna

Exactly. We’re using the visibility of parliament to publish pamphlets about theory and strategy, to bring together activists, and to hold debates to clarify, “What is our feminism?” Because our feminism isn’t one where women exploit women. It’s not women running the bourgeois state. It’s where women struggle together to liberate the working class of women.

Keith Brower Brown

What use do you see in introducing legislation, even when it might not pass?

Sâmia de Souza Bomfim

When we plan legislation, we’re thinking about how it will play out in the streets, in the movements. Our first role is to organize. Legislation should be based in movement demands and become a tool for the leading activists to mobilize new people into struggle. In the process, we want the legislation to help raise consciousness at all these levels and bring them into closer relationship with us and our party.

We were speaking yesterday with a young person facing immense student debt, in an economy with awful prospects for stable employment. Now we’re going to introduce legislation to have the state renegotiate and lower student debt. The idea is to introduce this proposal, have the youth consider organizing around it, and maybe it will become part of the upcoming education actions. We want this legislation to help students open a political debate about the responsibility of the state, and the role of a bourgeoisie that can feed attacks on pensions, but won’t allow refinancing of student debt or offer decent jobs when you graduate. Opening conversations like these is critical to raising consciousness.

Fernanda Melchionna

Another example is a law we drafted in 2014, when I was on city council in Porto Alegre. There were twenty-five thousand families occupying land and buildings without paying rent. They constantly faced repression and eviction. They didn’t have a single organization, they were fragmented in different groups.

A comrade had been organizing in these movements of occupations for some time, and developed an idea for a law that would juridically defend their right to remain. With support from the occupation groups, I introduced the law. We helped build a huge mobilization in the city. The law passed the city council. Then the mayor vetoed it. We needed five more votes to overturn that, which made our targets very concrete. With the mass mobilizations and the supporting councilors together, we built even more pressure to get those five votes. In the end, we won — it was a huge victory.

Keith Brower Brown

What are the 8/13 education actions, and what is the importance of this front against Bolsonaro?

Sâmia de Souza Bomfim

The Bolsonaro government is an ultra-liberal government on economic policy, willing to end any custom. Bolsonaro’s victory is a major defeat for the more progressive and left sectors of Brazilian society. It’s also an upheaval for the traditional democratic parties and professionals of the center and center-right. Especially since the July launch of the attack on the pension system, the government has begun a growing persecution of professionals, journalists, and politicians who get in their way. Alongside Bolsonaro’s official approval of torture, this is bringing back a situation we haven’t had since the military dictatorship.

Despite this authoritarian climate, the government’s cuts to public education have created a flood of outrage across Brazil this year. This seems to have become a real struggle of the majority. Students, teachers, and their communities united on May 15 and May 30 for national strikes and protests. Some spoke to having voted for Bolsonaro but being outraged at schools without light or water. And now they’re organizing alongside unions and socialists.

Fernanda Melchionna

This political process looks incredibly different than the one that brought us Bolsonaro and his ultra-liberalism, machismo, racism, and anti-LGBT hatred. We have to structurally understand what brought us Bolsonaro — a massive crisis of capitalism, beginning globally in 2008 and hitting Brazil worst in 2014. Now this has become a huge social crisis, with 13 million unemployed, and five billionaires who have more than millions of Brazilians.

We had a Left who took part in power, and an experience of mass politics. But the Lula and Dilma governments ended up operating largely like the regimes before them, trying to negotiate with the great business owners. This is always where the extreme right grows worst — where there were mass politics, but the Left betrayed them.

The capitalist crisis is global, and so is the failure of representation in bourgeois politics — the lack of a real alternative. That’s the absence that you all in DSA (Democratic Socialists of America), and us in PSOL, are working to fill. And the defeat of Trump would be a victory that strengthens our struggle against Bolsonaro here.

Student movements have long been an important force of resistance in Brazil, both in electoral politics and in ending the dictatorship. Why is the government targeting public education? Because it’s a center of critical thinking, of culture. It’s an attack on conscience itself.

But students and working-class families know deeply that education is critical to building a better life. And public universities are the best in Brazil. Especially in a society with extreme inequality, this fight for public education is the fight of the majority. The fight for education is the key to building the movement that will beat Bolsonaro.

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Fernanda Melchionna worked as a public librarian and student movement leader, before winning election to Porto Alegre city council in 2008 and federal legislature in 2018.

Sâmia de Souza Bomfim rose to prominence as a feminist movement organizer in São Paulo, before winning election to city council in 2016, and then to Brazil’s federal legislature in 2018.

Keith Brower Brown is co-chair of the East Bay chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, and a PhD student in geography at UC Berkeley.

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