Jair Bolsonaro’s presidential election victory in Brazil has sent shock waves across the world.
An extreme right winger is in the driving seat of a country with 210 million people and the world’s eighth largest economy. He is a threat to women, LGBT+ and black people, and every other oppressed group. He must be stopped.
The election has sent commentators scrambling for words to categorise Bolsonaro and his politics.
In Foreign Policy magazine Federico Finchelstein argues, “Bolsonaro’s populism harks back to Hitler’s time”.
His article is under the headline, “Jair Bolsonaro’s model isn’t Berlusconi. It’s Goebbels.”
During the election the Labour-type Workers’ Party (PT) ran campaign videos comparing Bolsonaro to Hitler and the Nazis.
And some on the revolutionary left have also called him a fascist or semi-fascist. The debate about whether Bolsonaro is a fascist matters because it determines how the left and others should respond to the new government.
It’s a question about what the balance of class forces is in Brazil, what it means internationally—and what the potential is for resistance.
Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky identified fascism as a mass movement of the petty bourgeoisie—a section of the middle classes, such as farmers, shop keepers and small-time capitalists.
Historically it drew behind it large sections of the peasantry and smaller sections of workers.
Fascism’s aim is to smash the power of the working class and its organisation.
That’s why it represents a unique threat to ordinary people and needs to be crushed.
Fascism comes to power in societies in deep social crisis.
When capitalists are no longer capable of ruling through the normal parliamentary means, they can gamble on fascist rule.
Often the fascists will then move against sections of the old ruling class.
The main context for the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany was the Russian Revolution of 1917.
The ruling class internationally was terrified of the spirit of workers’ revolt spreading and fascism was the poison used to kill it off.
Today “Bolshevik revolution poses not even a ghost of a threat,” writes Robert Paxton in his book The Anatomy of Fascism. He goes on to argue that nothing close to “classical fascism” exists today. The specific form fascism takes differs from country to country.
Fascism in 1920s and 1930s Italy was different to that in Germany.
And fascism today is different from in the past.
But none of that should hide that Bolsonaro—however he is defined—is a dangerous enemy that must be confronted.
It is easy to see why people argue that Bolsonaro is a fascist.
Some of the features of his campaign could be described as fascistic. He has mass rallies designed to whip up hatred and mobilise against the left.
At one rally before the election he pledged to purge Brazil of “left wing criminals”.
There is no doubt fascists have been emboldened by Bolsonaro’s deeply racist speeches.
He’s also made clear his absolute contempt for democracy.
He criticised the dictatorship of 1964 to 1985 for not going far enough. And he has said he would do “the job that the military regime didn’t do, killing 30,000 people.”
He has appealed to the middle classes by playing to their sense of being attacked by former PT president Dilma Rousseff.
But these characteristics don’t mean fascism has triumphed.
And Brazilian capitalism is not yet in such a dire crisis that it must look to the forces of fascism.
So far the movement on the streets behind Bolsonaro has been complementary to his electoral strategy.
Now he can call on state forces.
Bolsonaro sees his power in this existing repressive apparatus, not a mass movement.
One of his election pledges was to unleash the police and give them virtually unlimited power against those he defines as opponents.
Bolsonaro is a career politician and former army captain.
Far from rising from the fascist movement, such as Benito Mussolini in Italy, he views the movement as subsidiary to his political ambitions.
This is different to how fascists traditionally take power.
Trotsky described fascism coming to power through a mass movement of the “petty bourgeoisie and the bands of declassed and demoralised lumpenproletariat”.
There is a danger of dismissing out of hand Bolsonaro and his supporters because he doesn’t appear to fit Trotsky’s outline. Their political trajectory is important.
There is a potential for a genuinely fascist movement to develop out of Bolsonaro’s administration. And there are also a number of other possibilities, such as the installation of a military regime.
Bolsonaro hypocritically positioned himself at the head of a middle class-led movement against PT corruption.
“The far-right movement in Brazil mobilised the middle class more than anything, especially around impeachment of Dilma Rousseff,” University of Brasilia researcher Sabrina Fernandes points out.
Bolsonaro has elevated Judge Sergio Moro, who jailed former PT president Lula, to the minister of justice.
This is a clear message to his support base that he is not letting up the fight—and that he wants to keep it mobilised.
It is not inconceivable that Bolsonaro would have to mobilise his supporters in an increasingly fascistic manner.
If he wants to push through the 147 privatisations of state-owned industry his economic advisers want he will meet with working class resistance. If this happens, Bolsonaro is likely to mobilise the army to break strikes and attack demonstrations. His new finance minister Paulo Guedes has said the government will follow the economic policies of Augusto Pinochet’s regime. He came to power in Chile in 1973 through a brutal military coup.
Pushing through these policies will mean clashes. During these clashes Bolsonaro could be defeated, or mobilise state violence, or move in a fascist direction.
Despite his resounding victory in the presidential election, Bolsonaro is isolated in parliament.
His Social Liberal Party (PSL) went from one to 52 seats in the lower house of parliament. But the PT remains the largest party with 56 seats.
There will be 30 parties fighting for their own agendas in the new parliament, the highest number ever. That means any coalition Bolsonaro is able to stitch together is likely to be highly unstable.
In this context Bolsonaro could use the military to push through his agenda, not a mass fascist movement of the petty bourgeoisie.
So far he has surrounded himself with generals. His defence minister will be Augusto Heleno, the first time a non-civilian has held the post since the military dictatorship.
His vice president will be another general—Hamilton Mourao.
On top of this, many of the PSL candidates that won in the parliamentary elections are military figures.
In the Bolsonaro stronghold of Sao Paulo, the party won 15 seats. Of these, nine were officers.
On the eve of the election the military raided universities, arresting people and breaking up an anti-fascist meeting. The military were already a hugely powerful institution in Brazilian society.
It was made more powerful by the PT during its time in office. The party increased spending on the military dramatically.
It also sent the Brazilian Army to Haiti to help the UN forces mop up after US special forces removed the democratically elected president Jean Bertrand Aristide. Both Heleno and Mourao were leading officers in that expedition.
They were responsible for the deaths of dozens of people when they launched a raid into the slums of the capital Port au Prince. These are now the people at the heart of Bolsonaro’s government.
Brazil isn’t a fascist state, but its government is a threat to ordinary people in Brazil and across the world.
If Bolsonaro is set on bringing the military back to power, it’s worth remembering that it was brought down last time by mass strikes.
The unions remain powerful and capable of delivering a blow to Bolsonaro and the rest of the right.