The face of the Revolution



Comment about of Auguste Blanqui's role in the invasion of the French Assembly by an unarmed mob on 15 May 1848

In February 1848 there was a protest in Paris against the ban on banquets ordered by Minister François Guizot. The traditional banquets for the expansion of suffrage were the opposition's way of circumventing the ban on rallies, but this time everything flowed into a popular wave. Soldiers opened fire and killed dozens of protesters in the Boulevard des Capucines. The riots did not subside, the National Guard sided with the rebels and on February 24th the Orleanist Monarchy (1830-1848) fell (RUDÉ, 1991, p.183).

The Republic that followed had a provisional government with a socialist, Louis Blanc, and a single worker, Albert (Alexandre Martin). State workshops for the unemployed were formed, the ten-hour day, adult male suffrage, and the right to organize were adopted, among other measures.

The Republic did not respond to the popular movement. On March 17, the group to which Auguste Blanqui belonged organized a rally for the postponement of the elections and for the abolition of the “exploitation of man by man”. The fear that the conservative electorate in the provinces would create a conservative assembly was justified, as at the end of the following month an absolute majority of moderate republicans and monarchists and less than 10% of socialists were elected (APRILE, 2000, pp. 79–80). .

On May 15, 14 unemployed people invaded the Assembly, unarmed, to present a petition in defense of Poland, an issue that enjoyed wide sympathy in European socialist circles. Blanqui, Raspail, Barbès and Albert were ahead.

Among the deputies present was Alexis de Tocqueville. In his recollections of 1848, Tocqueville described people of inferior status almost always in a derogatory way: an old street vendor who pushes him; an ambitious maid and domestic servant (incidentally, servants of Adolphe Blanqui, Auguste's brother); a drunk, “socialist” doorman, etc. However, when he describes the proletariat as a class he considers it a “wonderful ensemble” for its fighting courage. It was also a way of appreciating the victory of his class.

It is not surprising, therefore, the portrait he made of a man who became a legend of the French proletariat: “It was then that I saw appear in turn, on the tribune, a man whom I only saw that day, but whose memory I have always remembered. filled with aversion and horror; he had gaunt, withered cheeks, white lips, a sickly, malevolent, filthy air, a dirty pallor, the appearance of a musty body, with no white clothes visible, an old black frock coat, clinging to skinny, skinny limbs; he seemed to have lived in a sewer he had just emerged from; I was told it was Auguste Blanqui. Blanqui says something about Poland; then, focusing on internal affairs, he asks for revenge for what he called 'the massacres of Rouen', menacingly recalls the misery in which the people were left” (TOCQUEVILLE, 2011, p.168).

Of course, he only in passing reveals that that action had demands: an army to liberate Poland, an extraordinary tax on the rich, and the withdrawal of troops from Paris. As for the emaciated appearance, if that was true, not much needs to be said about the fact that Blanqui had spent years in prison.


The dismantling of reports like Tocqueville's can lead us to two paths: the memory dispute; and the claim of a faithful portrayal of the event. They are not exclusive, although XNUMXth century scientism led to the idea that it was possible to reproduce the fact impartially; and presentism argues that objective knowledge is impossible, after all, we only have projections of thought about the past.

We will choose another methodology. We will not consider that the scientist is the reflection of the objective reality that he analyzes. And much less that there is no evidence of the past. We will have no doubt that “May 15th” existed. However, the organization of what happened, the narrative form and the chain of facts, may be loaded with the subjectivity involved in the research.

This organization can feed myths. But this is not the role of History, even if it provides raw material for memory. We could narrate Hitler's dark adventures assuming that he would have survived, recondite, in an Austrian village or on a farm in Chile with the same narrative art as a good historian, but that would not be history because it simply did not happen. Just as a captivating narrative of the battle of Lepanto by Fernand Braudel is not a novel because its subject is an evidence-based past.

This has nothing to do with the veracity of the documents themselves. The fake letters from President Artur Bernardes (1921), the Cohen Plan (1937) and the 2018 election campaign were gross forgeries that became facts to the extent that they influenced real people's actions and decisions. In this case, it is the falsification that is the fact (and not the falsified content) that we must register and not consider that the fake news Fascists are just a narrative like any other. We will also see that if part of May 15, 1848 may have been a trap set up by the police, it was still part of the dynamics of the popular movement at that time.

The fact is one thing in itself and another for knowledge. We always deal with facts that bear the mark of the knowing subject, or rather: we consider the successive layers of interpretation present in the records and bibliography: “all real history also manifests itself as historiography” (KOJÈVE, 2002, p. 472). The historical fact from the point of view of its empirical existence is a fragment of happened history; as an object of historiographic knowledge, it is the product of the relationship between subject and object, as in any science (SCHAFF, 1987). Every fact can become historical to the extent that it integrates a totality that gives it meaning by relating it to other facts. It is the dialectical principle that knowledge of empirical facts is only achieved through their integration into a set (GOLDMANN, 1955, p. 16).


It is necessary to transcend the reports and not take them as if they were equivalent to History. Whether they are discourses of the oppressed or the oppressors, they were constituted to some extent in a relational way and had as reference a mindset common. Even though they may be radically opposed politically. Even more so when we deal with much later reconstitutions, whether oral or written.

When young historians went to record the memories of survivors of a village massacred in 1945 by the Nazis, they discovered that they blamed those who had joined the guerrillas (HOBSBAWM, 1998, p.282), but their memory was not informed by the Italian right-wing conjuncture of the years nineteen ninety?

In the case here at hand, these are obviously texts composed more or less close to the events and restricted to a very specific social group.

An in-depth study, which is far from being the case here (that of an exercise with some sources), would at least require an analysis of the file of the accused of May 1848 in which 266 witnesses for the prosecution testify and 62 witnesses for the defense. And that would lead us to an even greater “concretization” of our object.

Having made these reservations, we can compare Tocqueville's version with others. We know that on May 15, François Raspail read a petition, but he was unable to make himself heard. Barbés went up to the podium. Blanqui was at his feet. Behold, the crowd cries out: “Or is Blanchi? Blanqui à la tribune! Nous voulons blanqui”. V. Bouton says that Blanqui remains motionless; every now and then it appears and causes a violent emotion, a kind of thunder. It remains fixed, with an unknown force (DOMMANGET, 1972).

According to the newspaper The Monitor On May 16, Blanqui spoke at length on the subject: he demanded that Poland recover the 1772 limits and that France not put its sword in its scabbard until that happened. Then he turned the subject to social justice, against repression in Rouen, for the release of political prisoners and the crowd interrupted him shouting “Justice!”. Someone approached Blanqui and said something to him. He went on to speak of the misery of the people. The crowd shouted “Bravo!”. He spoke about the economic crisis and unemployment; and the crowd: Bravo! Angry! Someone said, “We came here to demand all our rights, whatever they may be.” O Comte Rendu du Representant du Peuple, more succinctly in the records of events, adds that someone censured Blanqui, stating that they were there to deal only with Poland and that Blanqui incorporated the reprimand and started again saying that all peoples are brothers (BLANQUI, 1977, p.208). the journal Le Messageur of May 16, 1848, which barely refers to Blanqui, reported that he preferred to deal with the cause of the people and not with the motion on Poland.

Blanqui wanted to resume the speech, but there was a lot of noise, until a man from the people said: "Silence, citizens, in our interest". Blanqui is smart. He justified the social demands because it is a point of similarity between the French and Polish people, but he returned to the specific issue and said that after drawing the attention of the deputies to himself, the people demanded their attention now entirely to resolve the Polish question (AGULLON, 1992, pp.143-144).

As for his face, he does indeed look pale and cold amidst a frightening hubbub, according to Victor Hugo. Another witness, Hippolyte Castille, also accentuates her pale forehead. But both pay more attention to the political effect of his presence. And Castille gives another interpretation to pallor, as if it were an announcement of a new Revolution: Blanqui’s smooth forehead comes from “the shadows of the dungeons” and the “crowd understands that the day is going to take on a new face”. The “representatives of reaction do not leave their bench (…). The calm of a superior energy, which the event does not intoxicate (...) erupts in Mr. Blanqui who, with a few words, invites the Assembly to silence” (DOMMANGET, 1972).

Madame D'Agoult, socially very close to the aristocratic spirit of the Count of Tocqueville, left a different description of Blanqui. The author was the daughter of a French nobleman. emigrated and a German one. With his family he settled in France after the Restoration. She had a troubled life, abandoned her husband to live a violent passion with the composer Lizt, inspired a character by Balzac and left, among many books, a History of the 1848 Revolution. :

“His appearance is strange, his countenance impassive; their black hair cut short, the black coat buttoned up high, the tie and black gloves give them a somber look. Before him, silence settles; the crowd, hitherto agitated, remains motionless, for fear of missing a single word that the mysterious oracle of seditions will pronounce” (DOMMANGET, 1972).


The Congress of Vienna had established from 1814 that it would not accept mainly two ideologies: liberalism and nationalism. In 1848 politicians discovered a greater threat that had penetrated the Parisian masses: socialism. The following events will demonstrate that to defeat him it will be necessary to abandon another objective of that Congress: never to allow a member of the Bonaparte family to return to the command of France. After all, the successive crises that ostracized the most radical sectors of the Revolution made the election of Louis Bonaparte in December 1848 and his coup d'état three years later the only way out for the bourgeoisie. In Marx's language, it was about sacrificing his political representation in the name of saving his economic interests.

Russia and Austria were the architects of the new order of 1814. England was off the continent and had an empire overseas; Prussia was still militarily and economically too fragile to threaten the Austrian empire. And France was readmitted, but isolated.

The Spring of the Peoples of 1848 seriously undermined that agreement because it was the triumph of nationalisms and the promise of constitutional liberalism, even though in most cases the Revolution was a short-lived political failure. And in France a Bonaparte came to power. The Chancelleries of Austria and Prussia had to accept the situation as a matter of fact.

Austria was an imperial organization, stemming from the old Habsburg empire (after the division of Charles V's possessions in the XNUMXth century). The Iberian part, the Netherlands, Italy and America was maintained by Philip II and the “Germanic” part, the Erbland, by Maximilian.

In that Empire that progressively became multinational, “to be” Austrian was to belong to an elite free of national feelings, habitually speaking German, crowded in the imperial bureaucracy and endowed with state privileges. Austria was a collection of “islands” whose nobility were supposed to be cosmopolitan. Nobility was the guarantee of unity.

Thus, the first nationalisms will still be proclamations of intellectuals. They invented a past. Nationalist Germans resembled the Holy Roman Empire; the Hungarians the Terras de Santo Estevão; the Czechs the Lands of Saint Wenceslas etc. But the countries were very diverse and the loyalties to the Empire varied.

AJP Taylor defined 1848 as the awakening of nations: “The year 1848 marked the transition from an unconscious way of living to the conscious pursuit of one” (TAYLOR, 1985). For him, 1848 was not the product of the Industrial Revolution, but of its absence. In Vienna there was a landless proletariat, but not industrial capitalism. This was the pattern of 1848. Thus, 1848 became the beginning of preaching by intellectuals on behalf of nations supposedly asleep in peasant folklore. Not by chance, one of the strengths of 1848 was the students. Subordinates in Budapest to gentleman; but dominant in Prague and active in Italy.

In the “program” of 1848, alongside Hungary associated with Austria as a sovereign state and the unification of Italy and Germany, was the Independence of Poland, although there are those who interpret that process from a “non-national point of view” in favor of a affirmation of liberal institutions (ARTZ,1963, p. XI).

Poland, divided among the powers, exhibited constant revolutionary activity since the November uprising of 1830-1831 and its crushing by Russia. The uprising in Galicia in 1846 and the judgments in Berlin the following year weakened his participation in the Primavera dos Povos. The Poles acted prematurely (DAVIES, 1986, p. 166). However, several exiles from the defeated insurrections lived in France and became involved in the country's revolutionary attempts and secret societies. France, the most important case of 1848, was in a hybrid situation. It cannot be said that the country was as industrialized as England, but the national question had developed much earlier, since the Revolution of 1789 and the revolutionary clubs were not indifferent to internationalism, even if the word was not used.

In addition, the advance of the productive forces after the 1848 crisis was remarkable and the Revolution of 1871 will no longer be an uprising of a coalition of interests, but of a class: the working class of Paris. Hence, too, the Revolution in Paris had the characteristics of earlier popular riots plus an emerging class consciousness; among the popular revolutionaries there was a great variety: workshop workers, craftsmen, small shopkeepers and landlords, tenants, etc. And among the soldiers many peasants and popular Parisians. Despite this finding, it seems obvious that the Bourgeoisie always recruits its soldiers from among the people and that does not eliminate the fundamental contradiction that 1848 brought to light. For Marx and Tocqueville it was something clear: the class struggle. And they weren't wrong.

history and memory

Marx gives what he calls “historical memories” two functions: the first is to glorify new struggles; the second that of “antiquarian erudition”, which only aims to simulate the repetition of the past in order to maintain the status quo.

Thus, 1789-1814 is the period of revolutionary memory and 1848-1851 that of conservative memory that changes the political regime to maintain class domination. Cromwell invoked biblical phraseology and Old Testament prophets; Robespierre, Desmoullins, Saint-Just, Napoleon, the clothes of the Republic, the Consulate and the Roman Empire. The revolutionary spirit was called not to “prowl around again” but to face the mission of its time: to erect a modern bourgeois society. After that, the phraseology becomes hollow in his successors and the politics go from tragedy to farce.

However, the XNUMXth century Revolution “cannot draw its poetry from the past, but only from the future”. The other revolutions sought past models because they needed to hide their content. In order to obtain social support, the Bourgeoisie elaborated an ideology that covered its interests with a universal discourse.

The proletariat does not carry an ideology contrary to the dominant one. He criticizes his past at all times, preserving a memory of struggles that materializes in documents and organizational spaces and not in contemplative monuments. The proletariat does not experience any particular oppression to be resolved in the bourgeois system. He suffers universal misery and goes beyond any doctrine that anticipates the future content of a Revolution that Marx cannot even name: “There the sentence went beyond the content, here the content goes beyond the sentence” (MARX, 1928).

Now, if there is nothing to invoke from the past, if there is no language to borrow, what would be the role of proletarian memory? The lessons of its own past of struggles must be rescued as memory and also objectively contrasted with the science of History. Marx praises “the June insurrection, the most colossal event in the history of European civil wars”, denounces the murder of 3 insurgents and 15 deportations without trial. This revolutionary praxis, on the other hand, “sneers” at the first attempts, at insufficient measures, at mistakes, and is always “self-critical”, in Marx's words.

The 1848 Revolution itself was not useless because instead of learning “the lessons and experiences” at a school pace, the proletariat could use the abbreviated method of revolutionary practice to understand the necessary conditions of a social and not a surface revolution.

The political revolution does not change the mode of production and disguises itself with parliamentary fantasies. In the Social Revolution its first negative and destructive act is still political (the abbreviated method of learning in 1848), but in the immediately following moment the political theater unfolds and the backstage is on display. Well, in my opinion, this is exactly what “Blanqui and his comrades” are doing on May 15, 1848. And the proletariat in June of the same year. And Marx's conclusion is that May and June must come together. The political act and the content that goes beyond and contains it.

Back to the march of events

In France, the news that Polish patriots are being massacred by Prussian and Austrian troops provokes the indignation of republican clubs. Many Poles militate in them. Wolowski questions the Assembly and it decides to debate the issue on May 15th.

Blanqui is not insensitive to the Polish tragedy, but considers that the French economic situation is enough to occupy the people. Submitting to provocation and possible repression can erode popular sympathy for the movement. However, the Central Republican Society, known as the Blanqui Club (despite the honoree refusing that title) overtakes its leader and decides to go to the Assembly. It should be noted that Blanqui's opponent, Barbès, is also against it. Blanqui considers that madness, but he would never stop marching with the militants. Not in front of you, but with them. Italians, Irish and Poles join the procession gathered on the Boulevard du Temple. Blanqui is watched by police spies (DECAUX, 1976, pp.361-377). There are 50 thousand men, women and children. Or between 20 and 40 thousand (ROBERTSON, 1987, p. 80; AMANN, 1970, pp. 42-69). The purpose of the demonstration is for a commission to enter the Assembly.

Wolowski takes the podium and says that Poland is not dead, it just fell asleep. In the confusion Raspail sees men breaking everything and recognizes policemen among them. It is not by chance that Georges Sand considered the event obscure and Daniel Stern mysterious (DECAUX, 1976, p. 365).

Who is this Blanqui so incomprehensible, yet so present in those reports? Can we really get close to him?

Auguste Blanqui (1805-1881) is the son of a Girondin deputy to the Convention. He is the brother of a bourgeois economist, Adolphe. He participates in the insurrection of July 1830 and subsequent ones. He is not a theoretician, but defends “the communism of the soil and the means of production”. And well before Marx, he refuses to waste his time with “premature discussions about possible forms of future society” (ZEVAÉS, 1933, p. 23).

He was arrested after the Insurrection of May 12, 1839. The people of Paris released him in February 1848. He would be imprisoned again on May 15. Although that was an unarmed protest, the Assembly decided to teach the people a lesson and condemned several people for attempted coup d'état.

The idea that the “Blanquistas” invaded the Assembly to dissolve it and impose a new provisional government is common and frequent in the footnotes of the work. The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, by Marx. But it was a certain Aloysius Huber who declared the Assembly dissolved. Blanqui said it was a big mistake and Paul de Flotte, a friend of his, took to the tribune and denied the dissolution of the Assembly. However, the reason for the accusation of a coup d'état was already given. Huber had militancy in the popular movement, but was suspected of having been a police spy in the Monarchy of Luis Filipe. The very ease with which the population entered the enclosure, without any repression, was an indication that the decision to invade was a trap (ROBERTSON, 1991, p.69).

It is clear that Blanqui is not an amateur, nor was his presence in parliament a fluke or a product of individual action alone. He was with the real workers' movement. With the above considerations we deny the mere fact recalled by the reports and we find a concrete Blanqui.

Having demonstrated the successive mediations between the Blanqui of the reports and the real face of an unfinished Revolution, we understand that the concrete is a reality revealed by research that revisits what historians said and reinterprets the documentation, placing it in a totality.

For some, the facts are inaccessible. The historian only reaches statements about them. However, it is like that in any science. Research must be its object. Even if this is a rock that we can touch and get sensations, they would be far from telling us what a rock is without the help of geology.

In the reports, everything is immediate, abstract and devoid of the mediation of knowledge of Blanqui's trajectory and of the popular movement itself. Which does not mean that the abstraction was not real and really experienced by the witnesses. Among all of them, there are different angles to be recovered by the historiography according to the theoretical position of each one, after all Blanqui also became a myth and an important part of a tradition, involving biographers, novelists, militants and thinkers such as Walter Benjamin (HUTTON, 2013, pp. 41-54). It is the successive determined denials of that empirical fact that lead us to the synthesis of the reports, of the accumulated historical knowledge and its insertion in a totality.

We read that some characteristics coincide: paleness, a strangeness with the clothes, as if they were not those of a common popular man nor those of a well-heeled person; as if Blanqui had a unique role among the people who welcomed him; his leadership is uncontested, as he does not ask for the floor or the tribune. One of the reports reveals that pressed in front of the grate, when it breaks, he is pushed into the Assembly rather than leading the occupation. Historian Priscila Robertson (1987, p. 81) suggested that he accompanied the demonstration despite being against it in order not to lose influence. It could be, but it could just as well have been his simple merging with the movement, since he doesn't march at the head of the march.

Those present ask him to speak. He diverges from the movement, underscores the situation of penury of the people. His attention is called and he incorporates the collective decision, even though it is not his. The reports converge in the image of a silent audience in front of the speaker. Even Tocqueville, the most critical of eyewitnesses, heard Blanqui's every word.

In June, there would be other faces. Other less experienced leaders, like a certain Pujol, who agitated the first moments of the civil war of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie. But surely the insurgents would have freed Blanqui once more. In 1871 the Commune elected him president. in absentia and he did everything to obtain his release from the Versailleses.

The sources selected here are unanimous: on May 15, a crowd heard Blanqui in parliament. It was a real event. His clothes provoked the estrangement that perhaps the very group of demonstrators also provoked in the witnesses who acted in the political theater of the parliament. His face was pale like the poor of Paris. But at that moment, it was more than an ordinary, empirical face. He was the face of the Revolution.

* Lincoln Secco He is a professor in the Department of History at USP. Author, among other books, of History of the PT (Editorial Studio).


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