Contradictions of the August 11 Pro-Democracy Demonstration in São Paulo

Rodrigo Maiolini Rebello Pinho

On the class basis of liberal democracy in Brazil, rooted in super-exploitation, and, at the same time, the need to defend it in the face of authoritarianism — Editors

It is well known that history can repeat itself as tragedy, comedy, or farce. However, on this August 11th, 2022, it was repeated as a letter. So, let’s put the letters on the table, the one from 1977 and the one from 2022.

In 1977, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the founding of Brazil’s Law Schools, a professor at one of the oldest of them, Faculdade de Direito do Largo de São Francisco, where almost twenty Brazilian presidents graduated, elaborated and read the Carta aos Brasileiros (Letter to the Brazilians), a manifesto calling for “the rule of law now!”  In calling for a direct vote and free elections, the overall aspects of the Brazilian situation that it responded to were not only the lack of political freedom of organization, but also the use of political murders and torture against those who opposed the dictatorship imposed by the military since 1964. However, the aspect that the Letter absolutely ignored was the super-exploitation of labor, which, in connection with pervasive political violence, was the foundation of that regime. Put better, it was the foundation of all the entire history of the Brazilian Republic until now. The words of this Letter constitute the spirit of the past whose name (Letter to the Brazilians), whose battle cry (rule of law), and also the location where it was read out (Faculdade de Direito do Largo de São Francisco), were borrowed in the Letter of August 11, 2022, which called for “the rule of law forever.”

August 11, 1827 is the date when the law that created the first two Brazilian Law Schools, one in São Paulo and the other in Olinda, was promulgated. Until then the sons of Brazilian capitalists, bureaucrats, landowners, and slavetraders, had to go to Coimbra, Portugal, to study the law. Independence from Portugal in 1822 brought about the need for national law schools. Both Letters, from 1977 and 2022, were publicly read out in the law school that was originally founded in São Paulo (Faculdade de Direito Largo São Francisco).  Recall also that the Republic in Brazil was proclaimed in 1889.

Thus, in order to understand better the 2022 Letter, we should take a brief look at the 1977 one.

First, who wrote the 1977 Letter? It was a man whose name was Goffredo da Silva Telles Junior. He was then a professor at that law school. In the 1930s, he was a dedicated member of a far-right, violently anti-communist organization called Ação Integralista Brasileira. After the first Getulio Vargas government (1930-1945), he was a congressman representing a political party founded by the prominent leader of that organization. At the National Constituent Assembly of 1946, he spoke against the right to strike, in addition to making sure the preamble to the constitution stated that it was promulgated in the name of God [1]. A federal congressman in 1947, he was the author of the bill requiring a crucifix to be placed in the Federal Chamber, then based in Rio de Janeiro. In 1964, he opposed the progressive government of João Goulart. In a manifesto (another one!) that he signed with other professors at the same law school (including two other future Justice Ministers under the dictatorship), he defended the banning of the Brazilian Communist Party, also opposing land and urban reforms as a manifestation of communism, and advocated that the armed forces should protect “order” (i.e., the military coup of 1964). Thus, not surprisingly, he publicly supported the coup that ousted João Goulart from the Presidency soon after, inaugurating the military dictatorship. He even wrote a book making proposals for what he called a “revolution”. After, he changed sides and became a part of the liberal opposition. This man, now resuscitated as an idol, is the one who, in 1977, wrote the famous Letter defending the rule of law…

What does the 1977 letter actually say? The key to the 1977 Letter is in one word: legitimacy. It postulates the legitimacy of the state and its attributes (notably power and force). And what is the legitimate State? It is the constitutional State, the State with a legitimate Constitution. And what is a legitimate Constitution? It is the one that expresses the fundamental political decision of a people and results from a National Constituent Assembly or immediately from a revolution (let’s remember that professor Goffredo called the military coup of 1964 a revolution, and that shortly after the coup he unsuccessfully proposed a Constitution to the dictatorship). Fundamental political decision is, by the way, how the Nazi philosopher Carl Schmitt conceptualized Constitution. However, in a theoretical mixture, the professor’s proposals refer to a type of constitution criticized by Schmitt, a constitution that is defined not as the result of a decision, but due to a certain content of its own: the liberal constitution of a state based on the rule of law. For the Brazilian professor, therefore, the State and its attributes would be legitimate to the extent that they obey certain constitutional contents, namely: political representation through free, direct elections, alternation of governments, separation of power, right to due legal process, etc. Such are the Letter’s proposals.

Recalling the first Letter could absolve us from talking about the second one, because if they differ in size (14 pages in the first, one and a half in the second), their content is almost the same: An abstract defense of democracy, of the state, popular sovereignty through the vote, and the separation of powers. A curious slight difference is that the first Letter ends proclaiming “the rule of law now,” while the second goes beyond this and ends with “the rule of law forever.”

The two Letters ignore the same things: we have a complete obliteration of the super-exploitation of labor. If the foundations of modern Brazilian society, which included the colonial-slavery path to capital [2], abolition of slavery but without land reform, the super-exploitation of labor, the submissive character of the internal bourgeoisie, state violence against the working class, especially Black working people, if all this is ignored and at the same time the battle cry is to defend democracy, it is easy to perceive what kind of democracy is being supported.

Nevertheless, it must be recognized that the political situation to which the letter and the demonstration of 2022 responded is different. In 2016, after almost thirty years when the alternation of Governments had been possible, a former far-right judge commanded, with a giant apparatus and also with the help of the US state, an attack against the elected government of President Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party (PT), which was facing an economic crisis. Dilma was actually adopting neoliberal measures in the face of an economic crisis resulting from the end of the commodities boom sustained by China (which had a big impact on all the governments of the so called Pink Tide in Latin America). Representing the interests of a power bloc formed by financial capital, landowners, commercial capital, and foreign capital (especially from the US) against the government and the internal bourgeoisie (especially the big contractors like Odebrecht), the operation that rightwing judge directed deliberately created the political conditions for the parliamentary coup of 2016, that ousted Dilma. As we all know, it is the same judge who then ordered the attack against former PT President Luis Inácio da Silva — aka Lula — resulting in his politically-motivated arrest (which, it is important to recall, the working class, against Lula’s will, tried to prevent) and prohibition against running in the 2018 elections.

(Before being arrested, Lula took refuge in the union of which he emerged as a leader by the end of the 1970s (Sindicato dos Metalúrgicos de São Bernardo). A vast crowd assembled outside the union headquarters, willing to do whatever it took to prevent his arrest. He then decided to turn himself to Judge Sergio Moro, but the crowd tried to shut the door. He got out with his own security hitting the crowd to open space so that he could leave in a car and take an airplane to go to Curitiba, where he did his time.)

The political result of this process was the election of Jair Bolsonaro, a former military officer from the dictatorship, from the most politically extremist part of the army, which, as reported widely, even made plans to blow up the Rio de Janeiro water supply system. It is well known, and he does not hide it, that he supports state violence against Blacks and the poor, expresses nostalgia for the dictatorship and its torturers, totally supports the free market against labor (which is the most crucial aspect for the bourgeoisie), and is anti-communist, racist, misogynistic, and against LGBTQIA+ people. In the winter of our discontent, we have our stupid Richard III, who dresses with fragments of the Sacred Scriptures as he acts like an evil spirit. Even with this lack of intelligence, and an incapacity for the slightest abstract reasoning, he is clever, though, and, acting as if he were crazy, he is the one who decides the agenda and the limits of the criticisms that the mainstream media and the political opposition will make. So, to stick with Shakespeare, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t” (Polonius in Hamlet). And the method is, to put it in just a few words, destroying the two sources of all wealth: the working people and nature for capital accumulation.

But is it against the destruction of the Brazilian working people and nature that our Letter reacts? No. In the context of the elections approaching on October 2, with Lula running far in front in the polls, it reacts, it’s true, against the real and explicit threat of a coup, an announced coup attempt, because the President contests (in a post-truth manner) the voting machines and had already said: “I will only leave the Presidency dead or arrested, and I won’t be arrested.”

Actually, the essential meaning of the Letter of August 11th, 2022, is hidden in its democratic phraseology, and is better revealed by another letter issued on the same day. What a day for correspondence! We will not bore the reader by talking about the content of this second one because it is very close to the other. The importance of the previous one resides in its signers, especially two of them: FIESP (the political organ that represents the industrial capitalists of São Paulo) and FEBRABAN (the political organ that represents the Brazilian bankers) and some from agrobusiness, which shows some fissures in the power bloc of the capitalist state. Thus, we’re currently seeing some political realignment of fractions of the bourgeoisie, especially of those parts of the internal industrial bourgeoisie that want to go back to power with Lula, while the more reactionary commercial capital is very tied to Bolsonaro (recently it was reported and proved that the most important of them are discussing the possibility of a coup if Lula wins).

Despite all the above analysis, rooted in the Marxist critique of capitalist democracy, one must never forget that, as very limited as it is, and as it has always been in the periods that existed, the slightest democratic rights (right to vote, direct elections, alternation of Governments, the right to form unions) must be supported. We shouldn’t need to say it, but for the political development of the working class, for the education of the working class, for the conditions of life of the working class, it is better to fight with these small spaces opened, not closed. The current correlation of forces, it is needless to say, unfortunately, does not present the revolutionary and communist left that is aligned against capital and the State, as a possible political alternative at this juncture. But it does not mean that, being forced to defend bourgeois democracy, we should be subsumed under this immediate need, as it is occurring with the liberal left of Lula’s Workers’ Party. We also note the failure to engage in genuinely critical support, rather than popular frontism, on the part of the leftwing Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL).

It is important to show that the democracy that interests the working class is not the same that that interests the liberal left and some fractions of the bourgeoisie. The working class do need to support this limited political bourgeoisie democracy in order to create the conditions for a democracy in daily life, in order to refuse the autocracy of capital in the workspace, which means defending a democracy that implies social control of the production and circulation of use values. Not putting democracy in this framework, as neither of the Letters did, weakens the struggle including that for the immediate maintenance of the small degree democratic rights existing at present.

The revolutionary left also does not have the right to ignore (and, more, has the duty to say it) that rule of law forever is the State forever, that the State forever is capital forever, because what is the State if not a moment of the reproduction of capital, a body that lives off, and violently protects, the surplus value extracted immediately by capital?


[2] “Colonial path of objectivation of capital” is a concept elaborated by J. Chasin, for the purpose of making a differentiation between the revolutionary “American path” (which includes the USA, France, and England) and the Prussian path (in Germany and countries like Japan and Italy).


The Letter of 1977:

The letters of 2022:


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