My familiarity with Brazilian working-class history remains limited. To the degree that I have any at all, it comes through three decades of interactions with John French and some of his familiar associates in Brazilian and Latin American labor history, especially Paulo Fontes, Alexandre Fortes, and my colleagues Daniel James and Jeff Gould at Indiana University. Lula and His Politics of Cunning, as French would be the first to admit, is an expression of decades of collective endeavor with these scholars and many others (not for nothing do his acknowledgments run over six pages of fine print). For me, however, French's biographical approach to the social history of the modern Brazilian working class proved thrilling not only because of its accessibility to non-Brazilianists like myself but also for its powerful resonance with my recent research on the awakening of South African workers under an authoritarian dictatorship during the 1970s and 1980s.1
I want, then, to focus my remarks on several aspects of this resonance that stand out, not so much for purposes of direct comparison as to highlight some key features of the complex story of Lula's “apprenticeship” (a crucial concept for French) in Brazilian politics prior to his election as president in 2000 and his role as, in President Barack Obama's words, “the most popular politician on earth.” As a trained metalworker, in the early 1960s Lula entered what French calls “a self-conscious, collaborative working-class intelligentsia” (68). This experience of artisanal apprenticeship, French maintains, can also be understood as the key to Lula's transformation from a semi-literate son of rural migrants to a charismatic labor and political leader. Lula recapitulated his privileged role as journeyman when he entered trade union politics, closely watching the skilled maneuvering of his predecessor in the metalworkers’ union presidency, the wily Paulo Vidal. As French observes, “Like the profession of skilled machinist, the role of union militant brought new challenges daily” (77). It also provided a potent “political apprenticeship” (114) for the previously apolitical and aloof Lula.
French cleverly—cunningly—deploys the biographical method to unsettle the idea that Lula had always been a “charismatic” figure bent on fulfilling his destiny. Instead, he describes an ongoing dialectic between Lula and others—his family, fellow workers, other trade union leaders, leftist intellectuals, and, especially, the Brazilian povo (the people). Lula's success was, above all, relational and dialogic, not as a “man on horseback” (to use the nineteenth-century phrase about charismatic Bonapartist leadership). This method rests on an extraordinarily rich account of the daily lives of the so-called popular classes of São Paulo as they made their way in an industrializing and hierarchical social order and, after 1964, were subjected to the power of an authoritarian state. Moreover, French's portrait of working-class São Paulo benefits from his finely attuned ear for the vernacular Portuguese spoken in the streets, homes, and factories of the world Lula inhabited and represented.
The parallels between this world and that experienced by the Black South African working class at the same moment are quite compelling. The crucial moment in Lula's political trajectory came with the strike wave of 1978–80, led by metalworkers. This upheaval occurred just as French began his graduate studies with the incomparable Brazilian intellectual Emília Viotti da Costa, then teaching in exile at Yale.2 In the first part of Lula, French seeks to explain the improbable mass strikes in the industrial suburbs near São Paulo—the area known as “ABC,” and the subject of his first book—that shook both Brazilian industrial relations and the dictatorship to their core in the late 1970s.3 The ABC region (which French calls a “Latin American Detroit”), squeezed between São Paulo's urban core and the sea forty miles to the southeast, was “ground zero for Brazil's extraordinary industrial, demographic, and urban boom” (38) of the postwar years—similar, I would say, to the Pretoria-Witwatersrand-Vaal (PWV) manufacturing triangle surrounding Johannesburg that underlay apartheid South Africa's industrial might in the same period. The principal industry in both regions was metalworking, a sector that brought thousands of unskilled workers into common endeavor with a layer of skilled and yet still highly subordinated artisans on the shop floor. In his brilliant early chapters, French vividly describes this milieu that nurtured Lula as “a world in flux, continuously changing in condition, composition, and substance” where the heterodox population of Brazil “came to know one another” (41). Without overdoing the comparison, this strikes me as a fair description of Black working-class life on the Rand during the heyday of apartheid's economic growth period after 1960.
As French notes, a mass uprising of this newly born industrial working class seemed unlikely, because it required mobilization not of classic proletarians but of “worker-migrants from rural Brazil who experienced both upward mobility and high labor turnover” (5). This, combined with a fearfully repressive state apparatus and unions fully embedded in a corporatist structure designed to tame any labor militancy, meant that workers faced “formidable obstacles to mobilization” (5). With the exception, perhaps, of the “upward mobility” (104) available to the semiskilled (though this could be debated), the conditions that underlay mass strikes in South Africa's industrial sector—metalworking, especially—during the 1970s appear quite similar. In both cases, a newly mobilized industrial working class, buffeted by inflationary economic policies, became a central component in the movement to overturn dictatorships. In both instances, however, the strikes themselves did not result in clear-cut victories. Instead, as French emphasizes, in Brazil the initial labor upheaval served as a learning experience in citizenship, for both Lula and the workers he led. In South Africa, I would contend, the embryonic democracy that formed in the unions of the 1970s prepared South African workers for a democratic struggle and the eventual overthrow of apartheid. In Brazil, French argues, the worker insurgencies of 1978–80 taught Lula how to connect with his followers and showed them that indeed “another world is possible,” a World Social Forum slogan adopted both by Lula and the party he came to lead, the Workers’ Party (PT).
Another important parallel is the ability of these workers to operate within an existing labor relations regime compromised by authoritarian corporatism. To be sure, Black workers under apartheid had far fewer labor rights than Brazilian workers under the 1964–85 dictatorship; yet, like their Brazilian counterparts, they used whatever cracks they could find in existing labor law to widen a space for building more autonomous trade union structures.4 As French points out, organized Brazilian workers faced “a government-controlled and heavily policed trade union movement” (95), making it possible only to be either a pelego (a sellout) or a leftist rebel vulnerable to political repression (a fate suffered by Lula's brother, a communist). But French argues that an alternate path to leadership beckoned, one that built on the “internal dynamics and the informal social processes” (95) of shop floor, union hall, and local watering hole (yes, this was a male world). As French puts it, in these spaces “the necessary public performance of compliance coexisted with collaboration and resistance.” It was within this context that the “cunning” Lula built his union base, forced the bosses to the bargaining table, prompted reform from above, and eventually came to political prominence. And it is in the fine-grained descriptions of this dynamic that French's book soars, as he “treats working-class life on its own terms” (364) and the “trade union as the preeminent working-class public sphere.”
By “cunning” (astúcia in Portuguese, implying a kind of combined guile and astuteness) French means nothing pejorative—rather, this is his way of drawing on James C. Scott, Michel de Certeau, and other theorists of the “weapons of the weak” to indicate that Lula's politics of the everyday are recognizable as practices engaged in by the disadvantaged against adversaries who, at first glance, wield more social and cultural power than they do—Br'er Rabbit and other folkloric tricksters come to mind. The other “theorist” who proves indispensable for French in this regard is the longtime Brazilian communist militant and metalworker Marcos Andreotti (1910–84). French draws on the accumulated wisdom of this organic intellectual based on fifty-four hours of interviews he conducted with Andreotti in the early 1980s as French began his own apprenticeship as a scholar of Brazil's rich working-class history.5
Cunning aside, in Marxist-Leninist terms, as an organizer Lula hewed to trade union “economism,” that is, he put material gains for his working-class constituency ahead of making workers’ mobilization a battering ram designed to collapse the established ruling order with proper guidance from a vanguard party. South African communists threw this charge at the “workerist” union movement that emerged there in the wake of the 1973 mass strikes, but in contrast to Lula, much of the leadership of the new unions imagined that their activism charted a path to socialism, even if they rejected subordination to a vanguard party for tactical reasons. Ultimately, the African National Congress and South African Communist Party absorbed (some would say hijacked) the working-class insurgencies of the 1970s. By contrast, in the Brazilian case, as French masterfully demonstrates, Lula and his allies initially founded the PT as a vehicle for advancing the sectoral interests of the working class, not to overthrow the dictatorship on behalf of a broader front. As Lula puts it with characteristic bluntness, “The working class should never be an instrument” (243)—a lesson many labor militants in South Africa failed to heed, to their regret. Nevertheless, Lula's determination to keep his distance from the organized and clandestine revolutionary left while building shop-floor power was a conscious and cunning maneuver, shielding his power base from the political repression suffered by his brother, who was tortured by the secret police. Ultimately, the PT emerged as “a multiclass alliance of the generation of 1968” (282), much like the United Democratic Front (UDF) in South Africa. But in contrast to the UDF, the PT accorded the working class a primary and directive role in the remaking of Brazilian democracy.
While I admire this book enormously, I do want to raise some questions, again derived as much from my knowledge of South Africa as of Brazil. The first is the ambiguous relationship between shop-floor workers and politicized intellectuals who presumed, at times, to lead them in struggle even while separated by enormous cultural, linguistic, class, and (in the case of South Africa) racial gulfs. In South Africa, this dynamic arose as the so-called white left based in the leading universities engaged with the struggle of Black workers in the early 1970s.6 In Brazil, as French shows, the relationship between the Paulista metalworkers Lula helped organize and the radical intellectuals grouped at the University of São Paulo (USP) proved instrumental in Lula's rise to influence and, eventually, power.
Yet French seems excessively dismissive of the role played by USP intellectuals and ’68ers (especially those committed to armed struggle), regarded by Lula and his cohort of labor leaders as little more than dangerous adventurists. The opening parts of the book suggest that the transformation of a strong union movement into a larger political project under the umbrella of the PT entailed fruitful collaboration between “manual intellectuals” like Lula and the more bookish Marxist technocrats who emerged in the fields of sociology, law, and economics. Interestingly, many of the best Portuguese-language sources French relies on to explore the hidden lives of ABC's working class are the ethnographies and social surveys done at USP in the late 1960s and 1970s by radical students who spent time in workers’ communities and factories. Here the parallel to the collaboration between radicalized students and Black workers in South Africa during the early 1970s is quite direct, in my view. Yet, for the most part, when tracking the “fraught dialogue between the intelligentsia and São Paulo's popular classes” (340), French privileges the dismissive attitude of Lula and the povo he spoke for, who regarded intellectuals as hopelessly elitist and out of touch with the masses. “Even enlightened thinkers’ reaction” to a working class in the making, associated as it was with Brazilian rural backwardness, was “marked by social distance” (32), French insists.
This is especially ironic, given that one of Lula's most impressive achievements while in office (2003–10) was a vast expansion of access to higher education. As French himself notes, the growth of higher education under the PT created a new educated generation akin to “Lula's generation of young skilled workers and [trade school] graduates” (351), who today represent the left's future in Brazil (as illustrated on the cover, where Lula dances with students). French rightly rejects stereotypical accounts of the Brazilian poor as ill-informed and easily manipulated, a sharp break (he claims) with mainstream Brazilian social science, even (or especially?) of the left. Instead, he draws effectively on Brazilian political anthropology, describing popular consciousness as “a reflection of lessons learned from their own political experience” (345). But he embraces no such subtlety in his characterization of the worldview of Brazilian intellectuals, reducing them to the caricatured figure of Lula's ersatz left-wing and hyperelitist predecessor as president of Brazil, FHC (Fernando Henrique Cardoso).
Another important lacuna, in my view, is the role played by employers, whether multinational or domestic, a topic treated at length by Gay Seidman in her comparative history of Brazilian and South African labor.7 As French notes, the mass strikes of 1978–80 were “analogous to the militant mass strikes in the 1930s United States that finally broke employer and government opposition to the unionization of basic industry” (297). Much the same analogy can be drawn to the South African strikes of the 1970s. In the latter case, employers slowly abandoned their commitment to apartheid labor relations and pursued a “reformist” path that they hoped would co-opt Black workers while keeping the power of white capital intact. But employers and their motives play almost no part in French's dramatic account of the ABC strikes and their outcome.
Finally, there is the vexing matter of race. It is unclear to me, given my limited knowledge, whether the absence of “race” as a category of analysis in this book stems from the actual social landscape of working-class São Paulo, inattention on the part of the postwar Brazilian social scientific studies French draws on, or French's own design. Of course, he is well aware of the resonance of race within Brazil's class politics and its historic centrality to the country's long-standing hierarchical social order. On occasion he observes how Lula's identity was “blackened” by such politics, even while he is careful to acknowledge that within the complex topography of Brazil's racial categorizations, Lula was definitively not “Black.” Nevertheless, given that by French's own account a state-sponsored apprenticeship program vaulted Lula into the ranks of the skilled in the factory and the status of a bom de vida (guy on the make) in his community, I couldn't help but wonder if such opportunities were available to Afro-Brazilians at the time. In the South African context, for example, it was precisely the absence of such avenues for mobility, explicitly restricted to whites, that prevented Black workers from any social advance, continued to privilege whites in the workplace, and, not incidentally, ultimately hampered industrial growth because of a critical shortage of skilled workers and the absence of mass consumption among the working class. Paradoxically, however, this roadblock led many South African employers to conclude that reform was imperative if they were to stay in business.
As I read Lula and His Politics of Cunning, I kept ransacking my knowledge of recent South African labor and political history to find a comparable figure to Lula. Current president Cyril Ramaphosa, who began his political career as the leader of the mineworkers’ union?8 Unlike Lula, Cyril never actually worked among those he represented so ably at the bargaining table. Perhaps someone from the shop floor, particularly in the metalworkers’ union that proved so instrumental to Black trade unionism during the 1970s? Despite a cohort of capable and militant unionists who eventually moved into midlevel political positions in the ANC's postapartheid government, no single figure from this milieu achieved Lula's visibility or mass political popularity. Perhaps, I realized, despite his lack of proletarian credentials, the most comparable figure from South African history was in fact Nelson Mandela—“Madiba.” In his capacity for leadership, his authenticity, his openness to dialogue across cultural, racial, ideological, and class lines, and, yes, his cunning (“a master of being everything to everyone,” as French says of Lula), Madiba, like Lula, ultimately demonstrated his ability to achieve and wield power while retaining his basic humility and humanity in a country deeply rent by a lasting inequality.
I am certainly not the first to make this direct comparison. See especially Seidman, Manufacturing Militance.
See French, “Emília Viotti da Costa (1928–2017),” for an appreciation of his former adviser.
See, for instance, Moss, The New Radicals; and Lichtenstein, “Rick Turner and South Africa's ‘Sixties.’ ”
Seidman, Manufacturing Militance, chap. 3.