The 2011 firefighters’ strike in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro, carried out to demand better wages and working conditions, tested to a great extent the positions of the organizations that claim to be revolutionary. The article we reproduce here was published in the magazine Correo Internacional – Tercera Época No. 6 of that year, and we believe that it reflects this controversy well.

By: RLN    09/11/2020

Translation: Blas (Corriente Obrera Lit-ci U.S.)

It is known that this struggle was combined, on the one hand, with an impressive popular support and that of other organized sectors of the mass movement, such as teachers, health care and subway workers, public officials, students, and even some local sectors of the military and civil police, who united in mobilizations of up to 50,000 people. On the other hand, the governor of Rio de Janeiro, Sergio Cabral (of the ruling PMDB), strongly repressed the firefighters, reaching the point of arresting more than 400 strikers.

In Brazil, the firefighters are an exception to many other countries, since they are incorporated into the police structure. Although they do not fulfill a function of direct repression of the mass movement, they are subject to the hierarchy of that repressive apparatus. That is where the controversy begins. Since the fire department is part of the repressive forces of the Brazilian bourgeois state, is it politically correct for revolutionaries to support mobilizations or strikes by this or other sectors of the bourgeois repressive forces for wages and labor issues?

Our position, from the IWL-FI and the PSTU, was one of support and determined encouragement to that strike. Not only did we support the struggle of the firefighters, but we defended them against the repression carried out by their superiors. The LER-QI (Revolutionary Strategy League, linked to the Argentine PTS, now the MRT) took the opposite position and, therefore, accused us of having capitulated to the repressive forces of the capitalist state, since according to this current, it is not correct to support any struggle or strike by sectors coming from the armed forces. Let’s see some of their statements:

“We are against supporting riots and police movements, against treating them like workers. With regard to the repression forces (…) we are for the dissolution of the entire repressive apparatus, therefore we are against supporting and joining the police movements and their reactionary demands. More wages and better conditions for the police means more repression against the workers, the youth and the masses (…)” [1].

The LER-QI maintains that our position is due to the fact that, from the PSTU and the IWL-FI, we let ourselves be carried away by “pressures of ‘common sense’ or the demand for tactical responses”. They, on the contrary, proclaim with their usual grandiloquence that they always act “on the side of the workers, in the strategic sense and not merely tactical (to support or not a complete mobilization)” [2].

A first agreement: the discussion is neither tactical nor conjunctural, it has a strategic sense for the revolutionary struggle in general. Let us start from the beginning. About the capitalist armed forces and their contradictions, one can discuss the role, secondary or not, of the firefighters within the police and repressive structure of the Brazilian capitalist state, but let us clear this up by reaffirming that they are part of that apparatus, period. From there, let’s forget the firefighters for a moment and go further in the discussion: for us, the IWL-FI militants, it would have been correct to support a struggle like this, from the point of view of revolutionary principles, program and policy, even if it was the Military Police, civilian or the BOPE (Special Police Operations Battalion) itself.

This position does not imply any capitulation or lack of clarity about the character of the repressive forces, police or military, within the capitalist state apparatus. As revolutionary socialists, we are fully aware that the military, the police, the intelligence and all the bourgeois Armed Forces are the main institution of the capitalist state, they are its pillar, its support. They are, in Lenin’s words, “detachments of armed men” at the service of maintaining the capitalist order by force, repressing the struggles of the exploited. From this characterization it can be concluded that, as an institution, the bourgeois Armed Forces are unbreakable and unrecoverable.

Now, just as true as this valuable teaching of Marxism-Leninism, is that within the bourgeois Armed Forces there are, as in all of society, class contradictions. Anyone will notice that the military or police high hierarchy, the privileged and well-paid high command, is not the same as the common soldiers, conscripted under the obligatory military service, or the policemen who earn miserable wages and endure the same living conditions as the working class. Although the lower layers of soldiers and police are not an organic part of the proletariat (they are part of a bourgeois superstructure), they have the enormous contradiction of being wage-earners and coming from the working class or poor peasantry.

Having a clear Marxist definition of the bourgeois Armed Forces and their internal contradictions, the problem arises as to what policy to have towards them in the sense of being able to carry out the socialist revolution.

Lenin and Trotsky versus the LER-QI

Lenin always had a position and a policy opposed to that held by the LERQI.

The founder of the Bolshevik Party, speaking of the lessons of the first Russian revolution of 1905, referring specifically to the insurrection, “(…) to the way it is done, to the conditions in which the troops change sides to stand by the people (…) It is obvious that one cannot speak of a serious struggle as long as the revolution does not win over the masses and the army itself. Evidently, the work carried out among the army is indispensable (…)”[3]. That is, for Lenin, one could not even think of a victorious revolution without doing work tending to “win over” a part of the armed forces to the cause of the proletariat.

Against the spontaneity that is functional to the bourgeois order, Lenin always defended that political work, that “spiritual preparation” of the troops, is a previous and preparatory task for the insurrection. He states very clearly: “(…) We must not preach passivity or simple “waiting” for the moment when the troops “pass over” to our side. No! we must beat the drums and proclaim the need for the intrepid offensive, the armed attack, the need to exterminate the top leaders and fight with the greatest energy for the conquest of the indecisive army (…)” [4].

These lessons, drawn from the Russian Revolution of 1905, Lenin will apply with profound determination in 1917, defending the political struggle to win over the “hesitant elements” of the armed forces to “drag them into active struggle” and organize them. History will confirm the correctness of this Leninist insurrection policy, without which it would never have been possible to take power in Russia. Trotsky held the same position, since he was confident that “the insurrection can drag down a part of the armed forces, paralyze the enemy forces and overthrow the old power”[5] and this can only happen through action (that is, by having a policy and intervening actively), by which “(…) the most advanced will drag down the hesitant, isolating those who resist”[6].

But Trotsky is even more categorical in stating that: “(…) The task of the insurrection consists, from its start, in bringing the troops to our side”[7]. Evidently, it is clear that there are sectors of the professional bourgeois armed forces that cannot be disputed politically and against which only physical confrontation is possible. We are talking about the praetorian guards, sectors of the privileged and well-paid high officialdom, like the Somoza National Guard or the elitist guards of Gaddafi, Saddam or Assad. That’s why we talk about having a policy to divide the bourgeois armed forces, disputing the consciousness of the lower layers of the army or the police.

This means maximizing the contradictions within its structure and bringing the class struggle within the repressive apparatus itself. It means exacerbating the class contradictions between the base of the army or the police (generally coming from sectors of the proletariat or peasantry) and the well-off and ideologically pro-bourgeois high officials.

That minority sector, in Trotsky’s words when he refers to the October Revolution, “(…) composed of qualified elements of the Armed Forces: officers, military cadets, shock troops and, perhaps Cossacks. These elements could not be politically conquered: it was necessary to defeat them” [8].

These lessons, which Lenin and Trotsky identified and applied after the triumph of the socialist revolution of 1917, became the heritage of the entire international communist movement. The Third International, among the conditions for admitting revolutionary parties into its ranks, stated: “4º. The duty to propagate communist ideas implies the absolute necessity to carry out systematic and persevering propaganda and agitation among the troops”[9].

It is clear that the position of the LERQI, in the case of the firefighters’ strike in Brazil, is the opposite of that defended by Lenin and Trotsky. With this position, this current would not have been admitted into the ranks of the Third International in its revolutionary times.

Political Constraints

If we consider the insurrection as an art, how can we deny such contradictions in the heart of the Armed Forces? How, based on them, can we not have a policy to accentuate those class contradictions by supporting and intervening with everything in those situations where that army or police base (children of workers or peasants) confront their leadership and make the repressive military hierarchy tremble?

Wasn’t that precisely what happened when the firemen, organically part of the repressive forces, confronted their commanders, demanding better wages and working conditions? Was it progressive or regressive, from the point of view of preparing the revolution, the fact that they questioned the vertical discipline of the police by going on strike?

How can we deny the fact that there was a very strong crisis within the repressive apparatus, when they had to call the BOPE to repress them, because a part of the Military Police itself refused to do so?

But the LER-QI does not take any of this into account. They, with their usual political narrowness, think that all the police strikes are reactionary, since “their general sense is not to weaken the repressive apparatus, but to strengthen it” [10].

We believe that the exact opposite is true. The struggle of the firemen put the entire police hierarchy in crisis, weakened it and brought a sector of them (firemen and a part of the military police) closer to the social and trade union organizations of the mass movement, opening up space to discuss a revolutionary program for the troops, like the right to organize as a form of struggle and the demilitarization of the entire police structure. It not only weakened the police-military hierarchy, but also the state government of Cabral.

The struggle of the firefighters was highly progressive, not only from a “tactical” point of view but from a strategic perspective. The policy of the PSTU was, without doubt, part of that previous work that every revolutionary organization must carry out in the face of the crises of the repressive apparatuses. This assessment, in no way, under any hypothesis, means ignoring the counter-revolutionary role of the bourgeois Armed Forces.

It implies not falling into an opportunist scheme of considering institution as a whole, and refusing to fight for their division: one of the fundamental conditions for the triumph of the socialist revolution. It is necessary to “remind” the LER-QI of Trotsky’s teachings when he stated that: “(…) the army of the possessors carried within them the worm of isolation and disintegration”[11]. But in order to reach that disintegration one must have a policy. To stand idly by only helps the owning classes.

An opportunistic and spontaneous position

One could think that this current, by not supporting such large unitary mobilizations – which were even compared to the struggle for the “Direct Elections Now!” at the end of the Brazilian military dictatorship, or  “Out with Collor!, maintains a “sectarian” position. In truth, although this current acts as a sect within the mass movement, its position is clearly opportunistic. That is because in fact and despite all its pseudo-leftwing rhetoric, the LER-QI capitulates to the armed forces of the bourgeoisie, by refusing to apply a policy to divide them or to generate crises and fissures within them. Not only that, by taking a position of not supporting the firefighters, saying, “No support for the repression of Sergio Cabral or the firefighters’ revolt,” it is objectively placing itself on the side of the governor, since, in the face of such a struggle and repression, the typical “no-no” only strengthens the position of the ruling classes and their repression.

The position of the LER-QI, in content, is spontaneous and pacifist. Spontaneous, since it does not have a previous policy to divide the armed forces, the resolution of the problem of how to confront the repression would be postponed until insurrection” time”; and history has shown that such a position only leads the proletariat towards defeat. Pacifists, because as we saw, they refuse to face the political struggle within the armed forces. If it is shown that without division there is no destruction of the bourgeois Armed Forces, and without the destruction of these there is no revolution, then in fact, the LERQI ends up denying the insurrection itself as posed by the masters of Marxism and as it occurred in history.

Among the revolutionary currents that agree that it is essential to destroy the bourgeois Armed Forces, so that a triumphant revolution can be thought of, there are two fundamental positions: the Leninist position, which proposes having a policy to divide them, and the guerrilla position, which advocates a frontal confrontation between armed forces. If the LER-QI does not defend either one or the other, it is clear that its position is pacifist, contrary to the insurrection itself.

They speak of a revolutionary program that proposes the dissolution of the bourgeois armed forces, with which we fully agree. The problem is that in order to do this, first the working class must take power. The revolutionary party then, must give a political answer to the question of how to confront the armed forces on the road to workers’ power. Up until the dissolution of the bourgeois armed forces, there is a road to travel. How do we go about it, in the meantime?

We repeat: either we confront them unprepared, or we draw up a policy to divide them. If we opt for the second option, as Lenin and Trotsky did, we must have a policy (agitation and propaganda) towards the base of the armed forces and the lower ranks.

That implies having a program that also seeks their union organization, their union and political participation (as was the case of the soviets of deputy soldiers or the Red Guard, during the Russian Revolution), intensifying the class contradictions within that bourgeois superstructure. Otherwise, without this prior work, we will fall into an adventurous and irresponsible spontaneism, which proved catastrophic for the proletariat on countless occasions throughout history.

To oppose the strategy of power struggle that includes political work on the military base is to capitulate to the bourgeois armed forces. To think that power can be seized without dividing the repressive apparatus of the bourgeoisie, is to go towards a certain and bloody defeat when a revolutionary crisis breaks out.


1] Declaration of the LER-QI: Why revolutionaries should not support the “struggle” of the firefighters, published on June 21, 2011 on the website of the Fracción Trotskista.

2] Idem.

3] LENIN, V.I. “The lessons of the December 1905 insurrection in Moscow.

4 Ditto.

5] TROTSKY, Leon. “The art of proletarian-socialist insurrection: Revolution, insurrection, conspiracy.

6 Ditto.

7] Ditto.

8] Ditto.

9] Resolutions of the 2nd Congress of the Third International.

10] A movement in defense of “public security”, published on the website of the LER-QI.

11] TROTSKY, León. “The art of proletarian-socialist insurrection: revolution, insurrection, conspiracy”.

Article originally published in the magazine Correo Internacional – Tercer Época no. 6, September 2001, pp. 41-43.