1964: Yesterday, Today and Always

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By Celso Frederico*

Will the leftist parties be able to leave their comfort zone, their “bubble”, and form a wide range of alliances? Or, on the contrary, will they follow the policy of resentment and self-isolation, repeating the ineffective “bread and bread sandwich” recipe, preaching only to the converted?

Fifty-six years later, the 1964 coup remains an object of study that challenges historians and inflames political discourse. Nothing more natural, considering the importance of the event and its terrible consequences. As time passes, the perspective of the present imposes itself between the historian and his object of study, problematizing the objectivity of interpretation.

Eric Hobsbawn, when turning to the history of the present, observed: “it has been said that all history is contemporary history in disguise”; for “the past cannot be understood exclusively or primarily in its own terms: not only because it is part of a historical process, but also because only that historical process has enabled us to analyze and understand things related to that process and to the past” .

In the case of the 1964 coup, it was initially up to the winners to impose their version of the facts. The writer Érico Veríssimo, coining the expression “rubber operation”, magnificently summarized the attempt to erase the memory of the rich experience lived by the country in the pre-64 period. The “mess”, “anarchy”, “subversion” and “corruption” had finally been overcome with the new order and newly established authority.

The repression associated with the ideological campaign silenced the vanquished. However, its echoes were felt, some time later, by some scholars of the social sciences, especially those at the University of São Paulo. Critics of the dictatorship, which they euphemistically called “authoritarianism”, reserved the vague concept of “populism” for the previous period, thus mixing up the government of João Goulart with Perón, Nasser and all other politicians who did not fit into the picture. of liberal ideology. The absence of theoretical rigor generated a proliferation of theories about “populist politics”, “populist government”, “populist unionism” etc. True universal passport, such a theory included everything to dilute everything in an abusive generalization that brought so much damage to the social sciences.

The good historiographical tradition, on the contrary, keeps its distance from the generalization that dilutes the events into an indistinct whole. But, on the other hand, it is also opposed to the empiricism that isolates the studied phenomenon from its global context. And, here, the important journalistic work of Elio Gaspari is suitable as an example, which shows us in detail the action of the coup leaders, but does not reveal the connections they maintained with national and international economic groups. The unilateral emphasis on singularity seems to be a characteristic of journalism as a form of knowledge of reality, as observed by Adelmo Genro Filho.

Another example of fixation on the singular disconnected from the universal are also those reconstructions of history made from the memory of some participants, central or supporting characters of the great events. History almost always becomes memorialistic or, to be precise, a discourse coexisting alongside other discourses, all of them with the same importance in the reconstitution of the facts. The end result is the relativism that takes us away from verità effetuale delle se se, characteristic of postmodernity.

One of the most cited references in this vein is Walter Benjamin's essay, "On the Concept of History". The author's last text presents a surprising “non-linear” view of the historical process. Benjamin's aphorisms, of extraordinary beauty, form an enigmatic literary piece, open to the most different appropriations.

Benjamin had proposed a new way of studying history: a conception based on memory as a force capable of reestablishing the past. The historian should not “reconstitute” the past as it was, because this, according to him, is a positivist procedure that reifies the past and the lived experience of men. Rather, it is about “remembering” the past, transforming it into a past present. The author's previous texts, however, had already undertaken to diagnose the dissolution of experience in the modern world. Benjamin's thought thus leads us to an impasse, which only further instigates the struggle for the real meaning of his thought.

Benjamin's revolutionary intention, accompanied by a theological and messianic argument, was later abandoned by several authors who, from him, only retained anti-evolutionism, in an irrationalist appropriation that began to guide the so-called "new history" and all of post-modernity. .

The Story of "I"

An intelligent problematization of this tendency was developed by the Argentine essayist Beatriz Sarlo. With democratization, Argentina has known an impressive amount of reports. Initially, it was the testimonies made in court to convict the torturers. From there, a dive into the past began, an effort to recover the memory of the events: everyone was urged to remember the episodes. And this movement was not restricted to the courts – there, they had indisputable validity. An impressive amount of reports, testimonies, depositions, films, books, etc. pointed to another possibility: the reconstitution of the past through first-person testimonies.

What interests the author is to accompany this attempt to place personal testimony as almost a substitute for historiography: a “history of the I” that opposes the “history of us”; the subjective account, based on the experience of individuals, takes the place of the distanced and rigorous study of the historian dealing with social history (which is not to be confused with the plurality of “selves”).

The eyewitness has an unquestionable value in the courts. But to carry this method, and only this method, as the method of reconstituting historical facts is to remain in the uncertainty of a presumptuous certainty. The personal account, as a special type of speech, belongs to the “rhetoric of persuasion”: its objective is to convince the interlocutor. The historian, on the contrary, as Beatriz Sarlo rightly observed, seeks to clarify the facts and not to convince the reader. Narrative, therefore, cannot replace explanation.

The subjective report dispenses with analysis and reflection, as these require a distance between fact and interpretation. And the word “distancing”, since Brecht, expresses the distrust of reason that questions the immediate relationship between experience and its representation.

Finally, individual cases, while individual, are of little interest for the reconstitution of history. Thus, the action of an individual only matters to the story as long as it is a significant element, moved by the general logic of the process, which the action helps to illuminate and is illuminated by it.

As can be seen, the relationships between the present and the past are, therefore, tense relationships: every conception of history positions itself, each in its own way, in the interpretation of the past and its relationship with the present time. Historiography distrusts memory and this calls into question attempts at objective reconstitution that exclude the role of subjectivity.

The reconstruction of history through personal testimony is always problematic. Despite the insistence on offering one's own experience as a criterion, there is an unavoidable ambiguity. The evoked past is not necessarily the past as it was actually experienced, as the present tends, so to speak, to “correct” the past, to imprint it, a posteriori, with meaning. Not to mention that, over time, people can go through profound ideological changes and, thus, reinterpret the events experienced in the light of their new conceptions.

A Brazilian example is the memoir production of Fernando Gabeira, committed to telling what was repressed and censored: the history of the armed left, a story against the grain that opposes the official story. In his words, it is the “slice that touched me to live and tell”.

One of his books, What is this fellow (Sextante), was a public success with the right to several editions. It is a testimony of the history lived by the author. But the disturbing question that gives the title to the work already poses a question – made long after the lived experience – about the very meaning of that experience. One thing, therefore, was the past as it was effectively lived and thought by left-wing militants; another, the remembrance that rescues the past with the eyes and values ​​of the present. And Gabeira, as we know, has changed a lot.

There is a study on Gabeira's work by Davi Arrigucci Jr. Commenting on the difficulties of these testimonies, he asks himself: “in a time when everything is mediated, how to reach the intimate experience of what was lived?”. The total defeat of the movement and its effects on the psychological structure of the author appear in the text, little by little. The identity problems experienced by the author after the facts narrated appear in the book, in several passages in which facts are narrated and, at the same time, it points to the naivety of the purposes and the total impossibility of the action taking place as planned.

Arrigucci, then, makes the following comment: “this is the most delicate point of the testimony as such, because the I who narrates is not the I who lived the facts (...). What matters most, in my view, is to observe the change in the status of the text, which occurs with the passage from the being who simply testifies or tells the story of the fundamental fraction of his life to the being who questions himself about the meaning of what he lived” .

Next, Arrigucci analyzes Gabeira's later books, tickets and flags (Codecri) and The Twilight of the Male (Codecri), to show how the interrogation about the meaning – made a posteriori – overlaps with what was actually experienced which, at the time, had a very different meaning from the moment in which it was narrated.

The dialectical historiography

Against abusive generalization and empiricism, dialectical historiography sets the task of discovering particularity, “the concrete analysis of a concrete situation”; and, against the pretensions of memory to impose meaning on the past, dialectics prefers to speak of the “present as history”: the facts of the past are always better understood in the present, when the historical cycle has already taken place.

If it is capitalism that helps to understand pre-capitalism, if the present reveals the past with better clarity, a prior question arises in the researcher's conscience: What is the present? What is the present that explains the past? It is precisely here that dialectics differs from other procedures. It is always necessary to distinguish between the empirical present, the various circumstantial moments that followed the studied fact, and the result-present, that present that fulfilled the trends and promises contained in the past. The dialectic, of course, works with the second possibility and Benjamin's non-Marxist disciples with the first.

So many years later, the 1964 coup can be seen as a chapter in a historical cycle that has not yet closed. Despite the drastic transformations experienced by Brazilian society, the underlying issues that were present and that led to the coup movement continue to be unpleasantly topical: basic reforms (especially agrarian reforms), the role of the State in conducting the economy, the national question and the anti-imperialist struggle are very current themes placed in a new historical configuration, since they have not yet been equated. It is impossible, therefore, to maintain the passivity of an archaeologist: talking about the 1964 coup necessarily implies taking sides in current quarrels, which will be done at different times.

The Lessons of 1964

The set of social forces that supported Goulart was defeated without showing any significant reaction. Faced with this crushing defeat, the left became involved in a theoretical dispute about the political mistakes made in the pre-64 period. The discussion about the meaning of the coup generated two opposing interpretations that, from now on, guided the opposition to the military regime. The interpretation of history thus began to have immediate practical consequences. Once again, the urgency of the present has forced men to revisit the past and attribute to it a meaning dictated by the urgencies of the present and the desire to find clues in it for a future to be built.

On the one hand, there were those who lamented the failure of the policy of alliances practiced in the pre-64 period, attributing such failure to a political radicalization that did not correctly assess the correlation of forces. The intensification of social conflicts (general strikes, land invasions, sergeants' revolt, etc.) caused sectors of the middle class to withdraw their support for the government, promoting the “Marches of the Family with God for Freedom”. Isolated and weakened, the government fell without a fight. The conclusion drawn pointed to a new policy of alliances to isolate and defeat the dictatorship. Initially, an attempt was made to articulate a “broad front” with all politicians marginalized by the coup; then, participation in the MDB was encouraged.

On the other hand, a current composed of several segments came together that, for the most different strategic reasons, converged in the criticism of the policy of alliances considered by them as a mistake, a mystification that served to distort the class consciousness of the proletariat by placing it it in the wake of a national bourgeoisie already integrated into international capitalism and, therefore, disinterested not only in the national-developmentalist project, but also opposed to basic reforms. For this current, it was not a question of remaking the policy of alliances (the “populism”) to “defeat” the military regime, but to develop a revolutionary strategy to overthrow the dictatorship. For this reason, militants from various leftist associations preached null voting in elections, understood as a “farce” set up to legitimize the regime of force.

This last current ended up gaining hegemony. The policy of “maximum tension” (demonstrations and urban guerrilla warfare) ended in Institutional Act number 5 and in the subsequent repression.

Opposition to the regime, however, would slowly recover from 1973 onwards. The crisis of the “Brazilian miracle” and the resurgence of the labor movement signaled a new situation. Again, disputes over the meaning of the coup were present to divide the opposition forces.

Supporters of the policy of alliances sought to emphasize the “democratic question” in order to isolate the dictatorship politically. Consequently, they supported the legal opposition to the regime (MDB/PMDB) and the struggle, from 1976 onwards, for the convening of a National Constituent Assembly. With regard to the labor movement, they defended the reactivation of unions and the inclusion of the proletariat as an integral part of the antidictatorship front. This was the spirit that animated Unidad Sindical, the movement that sought to bring together all classist organizations, regardless of their ideological options.

Critics of the policy of alliances, on the contrary, began to defend the autonomy of the labor movement. They intended, in this way, to keep the labor movement away from the democratic discourse that was being hegemonized by the liberal sectors. Coherently, in the name of workers' autonomy, they refused to participate in the legal opposition and called the Constituent Assembly a “Prostituent”, considering it a bourgeois claim alien to classist interests. The representation of such interests, in turn, should be built from below, through the creation of autonomous “factory commissions” and not through participation in “state unions” – the “fascist heritage” of the Vargas era.

This division in the opposition forces remained dormant after the fall of the dictatorship and the proclamation of the Citizen Constituent. Dictatorship then seemed like a reality that was definitely behind. But, as Millôr Fernandes warned, “Brazil has a huge past ahead of it”…

With the coup against Dilma Roussef and the subsequent election of Jair Bolsonaro, the past has returned to haunt us. The rise of the extreme right to power and the “rehabilitation” of the military regime foreshadowed the threat of a return to a past sweetened by government propaganda. Today we are experiencing the battle between “narratives” – the new expression that has come to replace “discourse” and “language”, all of which are updated in the postmodern context of fake news Nietzsche's maxim: "There are no facts, only interpretations".

Faced with the dramatic political scenario, the question of alliances arises again, demanding a position taken by the progressive forces. Faced with the advance of fascism, a broad democratic front is necessary, uniting all (all!) those dissatisfied with the current government. Will the leftist parties be able to leave their comfort zone, their “bubble”, and form a wide range of alliances? Or, on the contrary, will they follow the policy of resentment and self-isolation, repeating the ineffective “bread and bread sandwich” recipe, preaching only to the converted? It should also be remembered that hegemony is not something given a priori and imposed on any aligned parties, but an achievement obtained in the course of a process.

As can be concluded, we still continue in an “empirical present”, and, what is worse, threatened by the eternal return of the same and the permanence in a present-more-than-imperfect that seems to have no end.

*Celso Frederico is a retired full professor at the School of Communications and Arts at USP.

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