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“THE ECOLOGICAL QUESTION CHANGES OUR UNDERSTANDING OF WHAT SOCIALISM IS” – Interview with Michael Löwy

On November 15, 2019, in São Paulo, the Socialist Left Movement (MES) celebrated its 20-year history of struggle, gathering more than 1300 militants and friends of our current in the court of the Bankers Union in São Paulo. Among the many comrades from international organizations that welcomed the event was Michael Löwy, leader of the IV International, a sociologist and a Brazilian revolutionary militant who has lived in France for decades.

In his speech at the meeting, Löwy valued the incorporation of MES to the IV International and highlighted the seriousness of the ecological crisis around the world, in addition to the importance of incorporating ecosocialism as a strategic perspective of revolutionaries. Recalling the battle of Praça da Sé in 1934, Löwy recalled the lessons of the Unique Anti-Fascist Front and the history of the Brazilian working class struggle.

The Movimento Magazine met Michael Löwy at the end of the event, in a typical pub in downtown São Paulo, meters from where more than eight decades ago the “flock of green chickens” had taken place. In our agenda, Löwy’s trajectory of struggle and his assessments of the international situation and the Bolsonaro government. In particular, we talk about the ecosocialist perspective and the challenges of the PSOL and the IV International. Follow on below.

Movement – Michael, thank you so much for talking to us. We are here in the center of São Paulo, in this event that celebrates 20 years of the Socialist Left Movement. How do you see the city today, comparing it to the one where you graduated in the 1950s and 1960s?

Michael Löwy – Look, it’s completely different, but it’s still the same: the poor are still poor, the ruling class continues to dominate and capitalism continues to ruin people’s lives. On the other hand, of course, São Paulo has changed into a monster, a city of inhuman proportions. It is not only the city that has changed, but our understanding of the problems.

M – Let’s talk about these differences…

ML – The main thing that has changed in relation to what we thought about Marxism, communism, capitalism and the class struggle in the 1960s and 1970s is the ecological issue. As Naomi Klein says, it changes everything, especially the issue of climate change. It changes our understanding of capitalism – which remains not only exploitative, responsible for monstrous social injustices and inequalities – but also a system that destroys nature, the environment, and therefore ultimately human life itself. So, the reasons for fighting capitalism have multiplied: the need to seek an alternative is even more decisive and, more than ever, the only alternative is anti-capitalist. The ecological question reinforces our commitment to fight against capitalism and puts it in a different way: that’s why we talk about ecosocialism, since the ecological question also changes our understanding of what socialism is, which is obviously a change in the form of property, without which we cannot advance, but it is much more than that: it is a change in the productive apparatus, in the sources of energy, in the pattern of consumption, in the mode of transportation. In short, it is the whole modern industrial capitalist civilization that is questioned. Our conception of socialism has been enriched and radicalized: it demands a much more radical reading of the bourgeois civilization pattern, placing the question of the relationship with the environment, with nature, with Mother Earth at the center of reflection, at the center of what we understand as revolution and at the center of what we understand as socialist alternative. So this is the great change that has occurred since the years of my youth until what we think of today. When I speak of us, I speak of the IV International, but not only so, since the notion of ecosocialism already has a more general impact.

M – Somehow, then, we began our conversation at the end, since today we are debating the reunion between the MES and the IV International, in addition to the new strategic and programmatic discussions for the revolutionaries. Before we move forward, we would like you to talk about your history of militancy. We have been debating the fight against the Bolsonaro government and its authoritarianism. You were part of a generation marked by the experience of the military coup of 1964. This year, for example, marks 50 years since the execution of Carlos Marighella, which has reminded us of the resistance to the dictatorship. How did you experience this period?

ML – I was in Europe since the beginning of the 1960s, since 1961. I didn’t experience the coup or the resistance, but I followed all that from afar. I went to study, to do my doctoral thesis with Lucien Goldmanm. Then came the coup and I didn’t come back. I stayed in Europe, several countries. Finally, I stayed in France, where I have lived since 1969. I did not return to Brazil after the coup. I was stateless for a while because the dictatorship confiscated my Brazilian passport. I participated, naturally, in the campaigns of solidarity with the resistance against the dictatorship. I remember going to talk to Jean-Paul Sartre in 1970 to help him make a petition denouncing torture in Brazil. Anyway, I experienced all this from afar. I only returned to Brazil in the 1980s after the amnesty. In 1979, it was my first visit to Brazil, already participating in the process of founding the PT, in the ranks of the IV International.

You mentioned Marighella and I would like to say a word about him. At the time, I had a great admiration for Marighella, not only for him, but for all those who assumed this commitment of resistance against the dictatorship. Already at the IV International, I tried to make contact with people who were representing the ALN[1] in France. Well, I always had this admiration. Whenever I am in Brazil, every year, with my partner, we go to the Alameda Casa Branca[2] where that stone is in honor of Marighella. Of course, we can discuss our differences with his strategy and tactics, whether they were right or wrong. All criticism is legitimate, but one cannot deny the moral stature of those figures like Marighella, like Toledo, like Lamarca, who rose up against the dictatorship, took up arms against the dictatorship, so I think one should recognize that moral greatness, which is also political, of course, beyond all the criticism that can be made. I always insist on that point.

M – When will you join the IV International?

ML – It was in 1969. I was one of the founders of POLOP[3] in Brazil. When the POLOP broke down, my closest friends committed themselves to a small group called the Communist Workers Party. These people decided to join IV International and I agreed with them that it was a fair option. So some of us went to the IX Congress of the IV International in 1969 and from there we joined the IV International. Since I was living in France, I joined the French section of the IV International. Well, this was my personal journey. Curiously, through Brazil I integrated myself in the IV International although I was living in France. Let me tell you a joke: when I was a student at USP[4], one of my professors, who was reactionary, gave me a very low grade for a Political Theory exam, something that interested me a lot, and he told me the following: Mr. Michael, maybe one day you will become a revolutionary leader, a kind of Brazilian Lenin, but an academic career is not for you [laughs]. Unfortunately, this prophecy has not come true, and I have made no more than a modest career as a Marxist intellectual, and I have never become the great revolutionary leader of Brazil [laughs].

M – In this respect, it might be interesting to ask how you reconciled both activities, which does not always seem to be very easy, since they demand different characteristics from the individual.

ML – Undoubtedly. Well, actually I started my interest in social theories as a socialist militant, Marxist, Luxemburgist actually, in the 1950s. I only went to study Social Sciences because I thought, a bit by illusion, that it was something related to socialism. So, for me, the interest in theory always came from political commitment. Always, for me, the two were inseparable. That’s what’s in Marx, in the Theses on Feuerbach: the philosophy of praxis. Philosophy cannot be separated from practice, the two are interconnected. And my experience, in all these years, is that theory only has value when it is dialectically linked to practice and practice itself cannot occur if it is not illuminated by theory. So, far from the two contradicting or opposing each other, the two reinforce each other. That is, theory only really has a transformative force if it is linked to a practice and practice only has a revolutionary capacity if it is related to a theory. The two things are for me not only dialectically inseparable, connected, but they reinforce each other. This is my experience. Well, of course, at some times you privilege one front or another. You have to seek a balance in the way you organize your personal life, but, let’s say, the principle is this: as Lenin said, without revolutionary theory, there is no revolutionary practice, and – I would say – vice versa: without revolutionary practice, there is no revolutionary theory. This is the moral of history.

M – You told us about your return to Brazil in 1979, almost 20 years after leaving the country, at a time of political effervescence, with the creation of the PT. You were linked to this process, then to Socialist Democracy, and you followed the future development of the PT. How do you assess this experience?

ML – Well, from the beginning I joined the project of the PT – not alone, but with my Brazilian colleagues in a revolutionary Marxist organization, Socialist Democracy, which joined the PT. I, of course, followed the process with a lot of enthusiasm and, for me – who almost in my whole life, especially in Brazil, but even in France, I’ve always been part of small, somewhat marginal organizations – the fact of participating in an organization with hundreds of thousands of members, with implantation in the working class and in the factories was a formidable thing, a really very exciting experience. So we threw ourselves into it entirely, hoping that this party would be, if not a revolutionary party, a class struggle party – which it was in the beginning. We can discuss up to when, but I think it was a class struggle party and even, I would say, an anti-capitalist party because, in the 1990 congress, a document was approved, which I find very interesting, called The Petist Socialism, which is a document that clearly says: “We are anti-capitalists and capitalism is contrary to democracy. So, our socialism is anti-capitalist and that is why we dissociate ourselves from social democracy”. It is a very interesting document, with some aspects that we can criticise, but it was very interesting. I think that we, who left the PT a long time ago, should claim this document and this anti-capitalist inheritance of the PT, which was gradually diluted, to the extent that the party began to assume positions in the apparatus of the bourgeois state, but I think that at least until the beginning of the 2000s, until the moment of the turn, with the election of Lula – and even before that, with the famous “Letter to Brazilians”? Well, that is the moment of the turnaround when the PT, in an explicit manner, assumes the commitment to the bourgeois state. From then on, an itinerary of commitment with the dominant classes begins, which will assert itself quite quickly and which we of the IV International always accompany with greater concerns until in 2003, if I’m not mistaken, we sent a letter from the IV International to our comrades of Socialist Democracy, saying: well, the time has come for you to leave this government because it does not correspond to our conception of the socialist struggle. Unfortunately, the majority of our comrades did not accept this and, from then on, our paths were separated. Since then, we have supported and participated in this new adventure that is the PSOL, with the hope that it will be the vanguard of the struggle against capitalism in Brazil.

M – Tell us, then, about your assessment of the challenges of building the PSOL.

ML – I think there is an expression, I don’t know from whom, that democracy is not good, but the other regimes are worse [laughs], neither is the PSOL far from being the ideal, which we would like, in terms of a class and revolutionary party, but it is by far the most interesting political formation that we have in Brazil today. So we need to focus on building the PSOL, helping it to take a class orientation, anti-capitalist, to put down roots in social movements, in the working class, and to develop a radical program, an ecosocialist program, which I think is very important. All of these challenges are there, but our bet is that through the PSOL we can move forward on this agenda. Now, of course the PSOL has many limits and internal issues, lack of social insertion, but there have been great advances. The parliamentary representation of the PSOL has not only increased in numbers, but it has gained a new quality with this generation of young women, many of them black. I find this formidable and an element of great hope. So I think there are many positive aspects and the work that you have been doing with the youth and with Emancipa[5] is one of those very encouraging experiences that are taking place within the PSOL.

M – Despite the differences between Bolsonaro and previous Brazilian governments, perhaps we could point out, as a common aspect, the bet on extractivism and agribusiness as a model of development for Brazil. How would it be possible to discuss issues sensitive to ecosocialism while dialoguing with concrete elements such as the need for economic development in the country?

ML – I think it is not only about extractivism, but in a more general way than we could call developmental ideology. The idea that developing the capitalist productive forces is the way to progress, that it would be necessary to produce more import goods, more raw materials, cars etc. There is a productivist and developmentalist notion, from which it is believed that by developing the productive forces of the capitalism we are moving towards progress and even socialism. It is this scheme that we need to break and try to explain that yes, Brazil and the countries of the South need development, but not this capitalist development that destroys the environment and nature. We need another development model, based on the satisfaction of social needs. We need to produce, in the first place, not-poisoned food for the majority of the Brazilian people and not commodities for the world market. This is the fundamental breakthrough from which we can rethink what the economy is for. The goal is not to produce more and more commodities, but to produce ultra essential goods of social need for the majority of the population. This naturally means a rupture with capitalism. There must be a process of transition to ecosocialism with democratic and ecological planning. This would be, say, the strategy. Now we have to start from here and now, don’t we? So the most important thing is what Naomi Klein called blockadia, to block the most harmful projects of capital, of the dominant class and the oligarchy and, nowadays, of the neo-fascism that is in power.

You are right in pointing out the continuity in this extractivist and developmental ideology. But I would insist that, with the Bolsonaro, there is a qualitative leap. It is a project that explicitly destroys the environment and the Amazon. It is an attitude of total contempt for the indigenous communities. There is a willingness to give the Amazon completely to agribusiness. Now they have authorized sugar cane there, which until then was forbidden, for example. In fact, there is a herbicide project represented by the neo-fascism of Bolsonaro. So, I think this is our enemy now and we need to try to build a relationship of forces to block this criminal policy in all its aspects, starting with the Amazon. The battle for Amazonia is fundamental for Brazil. It is in the interest not only of the indigenous communities, obviously, who are in the forefront and need our solidarity, but also of all the Brazilian people. If it puts an end to Amazonia, it will put an end to rain and southern Brazil will turn into a desert. So it is a fundamental struggle of the peoples of the Amazon, of the Brazilian people and of humanity, since it is fundamental for the global climate balance. The cause of the Amazon is a popular-campesino cause of all the Brazilian people and of all humanity. As Marxists and ecosocialists, we have to take up this struggle to try to block the neo-fascist capitalist offensive of the Amazon. But of course we have to take up the struggle for ecosocialism on all fronts starting with concrete things like this.

It is not enough to advertise ecosocialism: it is also necessary to be part of the struggles, such as the free pass. This is also a very important social and ecological struggle. We know that on the day that public transport is free, the number of cars will decrease and this will improve the health of the population in the cities and reduce gas emissions, so this kind of fight is also fundamental. Another example is the MST’s fight against pesticides and poisons for an agroecology. It was good that they took that ecological turn. We must also support this struggle of the MST[6].

There are several fronts with which we must contribute, help the PSOL to participate and bring to these struggles our anti-capitalist message, explaining that the concrete struggle is obviously fundamental, but that ultimately, to solve the country’s economic, social and ecological problems, it is necessary to break with capitalism. It is necessary to carry an anti-capitalist and ecosocialist message. But there is not much point in remaining only in abstract propaganda: it is necessary to take this into the struggles of the concrete movements that are today resisting the ecocidal offensive of capitalism.

M – We have already talked about the disastrous environmental policy of Bolsonaro, which has been one of the main targets of criticism of the government for the Brazilian and also international public. But Bolsonaro doesn’t seem to be an isolated case. How do you and IV International evaluate the rise of neo-fascist platforms in the world?

ML – Obviously the neo-fascist phenomenon is international. There is Trump in the USA, Bolsonaro in Brazil, in several European countries there are similar manifestations, Modi in India, Shinzo Abe in Japan, it is a very long list. So, obviously it is an international confrontation. And, for the time being, there is not yet a single international antifascist front. The confrontations are still at the national, regional level. Pedro Fuentes recently sent me a funny document: it was a bulletin from a right-wing extremist staff linked to Trump. In the document, they complain that there is a conspiracy of the US DSA with the PSOL and the IV International to overthrow Trump and Bolsonaro. A little over the top, right? But it shows how important it is to sew relations between the radical left, socialist and anti-capitalist forces that are fighting against these neo-fascist movements. So the relationship between the PSOL and the DSA is very important and the IV International, modestly, is contributing to this.

It is necessary to advance step by step. We are now trying to organize in Brazil, with some fellow intellectuals and militants, something that will be called the “Meeting in Defense of Culture against Neofascism”. We will bring artists and intellectuals from various countries to hold a meeting to discuss what neo-fascism is and how to fight it. They are small steps, modest, to try to sew a network of struggle against the assent of neo-fascism.

M – Will this be an initiative of the IV International?

ML – No. We will participate in it, of course, but the idea is that it is not something restricted only to the IV International but something broader. There was also a meeting in Paris in 1935 in defense of culture against fascism, but at that time the Stalinists were hegemonic. This time, in São Paulo, the hegemony will be that of the revolutionary Marxists. If Stalinism participates, it will be more marginal. Something has changed in this respect…

M – It calls the attention, in the bolsonarismo, the articulation of different conservative movements, among which are certain Brazilian neo-Pentecostal leaderships. You have already written that it is a mistake to understand the Marxist approach to religion as that idea that it would simply be the opium of the people. How do you think Marxists should treat religious phenomena like these?

ML – It’s true that certain religious movements, like these neo-Pentecostal churches, look a lot like the opium of the people. However, we cannot generalize, it would be a mistake on the part of Marxists and revolutionaries to conduct a battle in the name of atheism against religion. We have to start from the idea that we respect the religious convictions of all people, be they Evangelical, Catholic or Candomblé. What we denounce is the use of religion in the service of reactionary political ends, capitalism and neo-fascism. We do not denounce religion, faith and the gospel. That we respect.

Rosa Luxemburg has a very interesting article – she was Jewish and atheistic – about the Church and socialism. She asks herself: What are the values that come from Christianity? The community, equality, sharing. They were communists in the broad sense of the word. And who are the heirs of the first Christians? It’s us, the socialists of today! Those who are betraying these values are the churches allied with the bourgeoisie and the capital. I think that’s the kind of argument we should use. We must seek the alliance with those religious currents, of people who have faith, who are in the field of the left, the struggle of the oppressed and socialism. We must seek alliance with them, which are an important component of the left in Brazil. Our struggle is not in the name of atheistic materialism and science against religion, but a struggle against capitalism. Friar Beto, who is a person for whom I have a lot of appreciation and respect, when he was arrested, at the time of the dictatorship, was questioned by a policeman who asked him: how do you, who is a friar of the Catholic Church, collaborate with these atheistic communists? He answered: for me, humanity is not defined among atheists or believers, but it is defined among oppressors and oppressed. This lesson applies to us too.

M – That is, there is a whole dialogue to be established…

ML – Exactly. More than a dialogue, a convergence in the fight against our enemies, which are neo-fascism and capitalism.

M – Today, in the 20th anniversary event of the MES, you spoke about the process of rapprochement and regrouping between the MES and our tradition of Trotskyism and the IV International and its tradition of Trotskyism. As a way of closing this interview, we would like you to talk a little more about how the IV International has seen this approach.

ML – I think we have to see this as a process, which has been taking place in recent years, of rapprochement and mutual knowledge that has led to this first act, very important, of the adhesion of the members of the IV International, in a first moment, with the status of a sympathetic group. We think that the IV International has the vocation to regroup several currents that come from Trotskyism, but also that are not from Trotskyism. We have today, in the IV International, for example, parties that came from Maoism. We do not have a narrow view that the IV International is only those who have been with us since the beginning because of what would be an orthodoxy. We think that it has this vocation to attract revolutionary forces that come from distinct political origins, from other currents of Trotskyism and other currents of revolutionary thought that see the IV International today, despite all its problems and limits, as the only international organization with a presence in various countries and with participation in the struggles.

I think that’s what happened with MES. As I said, it is a process that will continue with other developments. We are seeing and following the political development of the MES, whether in relation to its work with youth or its programmatic evolution with the inclusion of ecosocialism, for example. These are things that are bringing us closer together. I imagine that the tendency is in fact to reach a fusion in the full sense of the word. Of course, this will pass through other mediations: there are other groups that claim the IV International in Brazil and the relations are sometimes a little complicated, but I am relatively optimistic. I believe that this process will advance and we will reach the day when there will be a large section of the IV International in Brazil with members from various backgrounds and experiences.

M – Is there any last message that you would like to leave to the militants of the MES and to the other readers of the Movement Magazine at this time of celebration of the 20th anniversary of our current?

ML – As I said in my speech: it is a great satisfaction for us to be able to join the twentieth anniversary of the MES and to have the MES in the ranks of the IV International is the way of the future.

[1] National Liberation Alliance, the Mariguella´s political organization.
[2] Casa Branca Avenue, the street where Mariguella was executed by the dictatorship secret police.
[3] Workers Policy, a revolutionary left-wing organization during the Brazilian dictatorship.
[4] São Paulo University.
[5] Rede Emancipa is a popular education movement boosted mostly by PSOL militants.
[6] Landless Workers Movement.

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