Abolition

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By MÁRIO MAESTRI*

Brazil's victorious social revolution

This May 13th, another Christmas of the end of slavery in Brazil takes place. Our country was one of the first American nations to institute and the last to abolish colonial slavery. Of the 523 years of Brazil's history, more than 350 passed under the lash of the slave order. Despite the overcoming of slavery having been the only victorious social revolution in Brazil, constituting the most glorious and significant success of the national past, the anniversary of Abolition will pass, once again, half-forgotten. The 13th of May will continue to be fought and mistreated, even by many of those who should have greeted it with pride and emotion.

Abolition was once a great date celebrated above all by those who lived through it and understood its historical dimension. In recent decades, it has been slandered and the object of a veritable conspiracy of silence. Paradoxically, the deconstruction of Abolition was launched, in 1988, by leaders of the black movement who, on the contrary, should unfold in the celebration and discussion of its importance, using its memory in the fight for the second abolition, now social, in alliance with all the exploited and oppressed.

cordial brazilian

The cordial, compromising and peaceful character of Brazilians was once one of the great national myths. The abolition of slavery was presented as proof of this alleged reality. Abroad, the end of the dreadful institution motivated fratricidal struggles. In the USA, the Civil War, from 1861 to 1865, caused six hundred thousand victims. In Haiti, in 1804, when independence and the destruction of the slave order were consolidated by enslaved workers, in the most violent social war in the Americas, there was not a single former slave owner left on the island.

In Brazil, on the contrary, the transition to free labor would have been carried out without violence, due to institutions sensitive to the progress of the times, enlightened leaders and the humanitarian soul of the so-called elites. In this scenario of peace and harmony, the dazzling image of Isabel, the Redeemer, stands out. Taking pity on the suffering of black slaves and unconcerned about the fate of the throne, the imperial regent signed, with a gold pen, the diploma that put an end to captivity and, eighteen months later, to the monarchy.

Fraternal society, homeland of racial democracy

On May 13, 1888, the construction of a fraternal society devoid of racial and class barriers began. The remaining inequalities were due to non-essential deficiencies of Brazilian civilization, anchored by a structural concord experienced by rich and poor; by whites, blacks and browns; by the descendants of the colonizers and by the original peoples. At least, that was what was suggested and, not infrequently, claimed.

Referential national events – Independence, in 1822, Abolition, in 1888, and the Republic, in 1889, the end of the oligarchic-federalist order, in 1930, not to mention the “Redentor”, of 1964 –, would have as common denominator occurred without trauma, or almost, due to the national, peaceful and consensual character of the Brazilian people. The patriarchal and compromised character of the slave order was also presented as the great construction of a magnanimous national nature that broke contradictions of race, creed and class.

Since the 1930s, the origins of a happy slavery, of a world alien to racism, of a compromised Brazilian have been explained by Gilberto Freyre, the most brilliant – and cabotino – intellectual produced in this so-called Terra dos Papagaios, in Casa-Grande & Senzala. Literally sanctioned by the Brazilian State, this essay, at the beginning almost skinny, gained pages after pages, often contradictory, until the current volume of XXX size, perhaps the author hoping that its length would bury the proposed nonsense.

happy slavery

In 1985, Brazil experienced “redemocratization”, under the permanent control of the ruling classes, in which the bandits of the previous day maintained their privileges and were granted amnesty for their crimes. However, in previous years, the growing mobilization of workers in cities and fields and the emergence of combative black entities had laid bare the sad reality underlying the discourse of “Brazilian fraternity”, of “racial democracy”, of a country without class contradictions. .

The laudatory narratives about Abolition, about the patriarchal and consensual character of slavery, about the fanciful racial democracy, about the absence of contradictions, oppositions and social and class hatreds were definitively clenched against the sad contemporary reality, which the social movement unveiled in all its length and depth.

At the end of the 1970s, in the face of the most myopic, a situation was laid bare in which the black population was opulently represented among the most exploited and marginalized popular segments. It was revealed, more and more, a reality where black skin commonly made access to work difficult, favored even more excruciating wages, constituted a true passport to prison and even to the cemetery.

The fight for memory

The struggle to recover the senses and realities of Brazil's slave-owning past had been long and hard. Initially, pacifying and apologetic proposals for a neo-patriarchal slavery prevailed, enshrined by Gilberto Freyre, as we have seen. Only in the 1950s, the French Trotskyist Benjamin Péret and the communist Clóvis Moura unavoidably pointed out the slavery character of the old Brazilian social formation, the domain of contradiction opposing enslaved and enslavers, the need to destroy slavery for the advancement of the old social formation Brazilian.

Those revolutionary readings were literally cancelled, remaining without immediate developments in the world of representations of the past. In the following years, benign descriptions of slavery and “racial democracy” were refuted by sociologists such as Florestan Fernandes, Octávio Ianni, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Roger Bastide. However, they denied the determination of the past by enslaved workers, presented as historical non-agents of their history.

Those and other authors proposed that the overcoming of slavery was a kind of “white business”, in the words of Octávio Ianni, where the captives did not intervene and did not obtain substantial gains. Slavery had come to an end by the decision of the ascending dominant classes, to give way to more dynamic forms of capitalist exploitation. A vision close to that of Gilberto Freyre, who went so far as to propose that the end of captivity was against the interests of the enslaved.

Centenary of Abolition

During the 1988st Centenary of Abolition, in XNUMX, leaders of the black movement uncritically embraced the thesis of Abolition as a “white business”, with the aim of better denouncing the situation of economic and social marginalization of the Afro-descendant population. It should be noted that, at that time, without neglecting the anti-racist struggle, the leaders of the black movement prioritized the material claims of marginalized black segments – wages, education, housing, health, security, etc.

In order to demystify Abolition as an emancipationist movement, it was emphasized that it had taken place without compensation for enslaved workers. That the abolitionist movement essentially sought to free captives and create cheap labor, as proposed by not a few social scientists. It was even suggested that after Abolition, the conditions of existence of the black masses would have, in many senses, perhaps worsened, a thesis also defended by Gilberto Freyre, in Houses and shacksOf 1936.

The May 13 criticism, to denounce the real situation of the contemporary marginalized black population, confused civil liberation and social emancipation; the abolitionist struggle against slavery and the sanctioning by the regent of law torn from Parliament by the semi-revolt enslaved, supported by the radicalized abolitionist movement. Literally throwing the baby out with the bath water!

May 13th versus November 20th

The 20th of November, defined as the National Day of Black Consciousness, began to be agitated as the opposite of the 13th of May, the date of white mystification. On November 20, 1695, he died fighting, alongside a few followers, who escaped the destruction of the mocambo dos Macacos, in a wilderness in the backlands of the captaincy of Pernambuco, Zumbi, the last military commander of the confederation of the quilombos of Palmares, a historic success luminary of social struggles in Brazil in the colonial period.

With the 20th of November, the struggle of enslaved workers in the past was honored, and racism and the situation of a large part of the black population in the present were denounced. It was necessary to continue, like Zumbi and his quilombolas, the struggle to obtain the demands of the black population and to destroy the iniquitous social order. Perhaps as a kind of toxic revenge of history, this referential date has also been abandoned by the new black identity directions.

There is no point in putting the 20th of November before the 13th of May. The luminary Palmares epic involved part of the Northeastern slave colonies and never proposed, and historically could not have proposed, the destruction of slavery as a whole. Palmares resisted for decades, determined the history of Brazil, but was defeated. The abolitionist revolution, although late, involved the entire nation and its social classes. And, above all, it was victorious, putting an end to slavery and ushering in a new national era.

last shovel of lime

The well-intentioned criticism of the 13th of May, without any objective historical basis, strengthened the readings of the ideologues of the propertied classes who, since 1888, sought to conceal the meaning of those dazzling successes, born of the efforts and struggles of the enslaved masses, allies to radicalized abolitionist sectors. A view pioneered by Clóvis Moura, in Senzala Revolutions, and by so many other social scientists, who interpreted the past from the perspective of the oppressed.

To better denounce the situation of the marginalized black population, the Judas da Abolição workout laid the last stone in the construction of forgetting and discrediting the most important Brazilian historical event – ​​the abolitionist revolution culminating in 1887-8. This is what Marx had warned was 'the road to hell paved with good intentions'.

It was forgotten that, celebrating the 13th of May, the myth of the liberation granted, with Isabel as its promoter, was not reaffirmed. It was ignored that, with the commemoration of Abolition, the importance of a greater historical overcoming was recovered. Victory materialized by the enslaved who prepared and imposed the end of the slave order, supported by a radicalized pluriclassist bloc. It was ignored that Abolition was the only social revolution to date victorious in Brazil.

Being a slave in Brazil

Those who criticized Abolition ignored what it was like to be a slave in Brazil. The impact of May 13, 1888, on the conscience and life of legally freed slave laborers was immense. For a century, they and their descendants baptized their children, clubs, associations, publications with that date or, undeservedly, with the name of the heiress of the house of Bragança, who was largely responsible for maintaining captivity almost until the 20th century.

In the early 1980s, Mariano Pereira dos Santos, a centenary former captive, who had known misery as a free man, before dying, stated, moved, that the black people had lived “in glory”, after the “Liberation”, the way with the which the captives commonly referred to Abolition. Maria Benedita da Rocha, Maria Chatinha, also a centenary former captive, who had also known a life of misery, spoke passionately about the end of captivity on her farm.

On May 13, 1888, in the cities and in the fields, the drums and atabaques resounded powerfully, injuring the eardrums of the defeated slave traders in a final vendetta. A celebration that extended to freedmen and free blacks, who saw the extinction of an institution that was justified by the alleged inferiority of the “black race”. On November 15, 1889, not a few “May 13” feared the restoration of slavery or tried to defend the monarchy, since they saw in the Republic a movement against their interests, in which, in a way, they were not mistaken.

A Feast of the Oppressed

The vision of the 13th of May as a concession from the Redeemer constitutes an alienated crystallization in the popular memory of those magnificent days. It constituted a conscious movement of the ruling classes to corrode the referential sense of successes carried out by enslaved workers and their allies. Paradoxically, the radical meaning of these journeys has already been unveiled by numerous historiographical works, among which the magnificent The last years of slavery in Brazil, by Robert C. Conrad, and, From the Senzala to the Colony, by Emília Viotti da Costa.

Today there is an abundance of historiography describing the extreme tension under which the radicalized abolitionist movement achieved victory, in May 1888, after decades of struggle. Victory obtained by linking its political, cultural and ideological agitation to the action of the enslaved mass, the main stakeholder and protagonist of the Abolitionist Revolution. In the aforementioned work, Robert Conrad registers Abolition as the achievement of the insurrection, not always bloodless, of the captives who, in the last months of slavery, massively abandoned the coffee farms or claimed and obtained contractual work relations from their former owners.

In the last moments of slavery, an abolitionist project, without compensation for the slaveholders, was approved in parliament, by a large majority, when the coffee farms were deserted of their captives and the armed forces were unable to quell that rebellion. On May 13, the imperial regent did nothing more than sanction the so-called Lei Áurea, signing the death certificate of an institution in agony due to the decisive action of the enslaved workers. Without the latter, slavery would have continued, who knows, for years to come.

victorious social revolution

In a historical sense, it was the structural opposition of the enslaved classes, during the three centuries of captivity, that created the conditions that later led to the destruction of serfdom. The permanent, conscious, semi-conscious and unconscious rejection of the captive to the forced labor imposed insurmountable limits to the development of slave production, uniquely cohesive, determining high costs of coercion and surveillance that opened spaces for superior forms of production, as proposed by Jacob Gorender, in colonial slavery, referential work on the organization of the slavery past.

In 1888, the abolitionist revolution destroyed the colonial slave mode of production that had dominated and shaped society in Brazil for more than three centuries. To deny this reality due to economic conditions, past or present, of part of the population descended from enslaved workers, is to understand and explain history with non-historical views. The great victory of the Abolitionist Revolution was civil freedom and the end of the slave organization of society and production.

In a pre-capitalist context, the limits of Abolition were objective. During the Colony and the Empire, the economic, political, ideological and military cohesion of society and slave production was unique, which had its state superstructure in the monarchy. The harsh conditions of work and existence; geographic, economic, cultural dispersion, etc. of the enslaved; the repression to which they were subjected, etc. objectively prevented the birth and expansion among the exploited of conscience and abolitionist program, in an immense pre-national territorial space.

Limits of the abolitionist revolution

There was no room for the development of free classes that would support the struggle of the enslaved. All anti-slavery rebellion was harshly and ruthlessly repressed. In the last decades of slavery, with the end of the transatlantic African slave trade in 1850, the captive was a social category in decline, which fought above all for minimal citizen rights. In other words, freedom. It was the demand for civil freedom that united the struggle of rural captives, concentrated in the Center-South, to that of urban captives, then numerically unrepresentative.

The proposed Abolition without content does not proceed because the captives were not compensated. Only those who have always enjoyed freedom devalue freedom. In the great transitions between modes of production known to humanity, which represented relative but substantial gains for the oppressed classes that boosted them, generally unconsciously, there was never compensation for direct producers. In the transition from ancient slavery to feudalism, from feudalism to capitalism, etc., there was no full social emancipation and indemnification of direct producers. The social and political emancipation of the oppressed is possible only in the transition from capitalism to socialism, due to the high development of material productive forces.

However, in theory, Abolition could have ensured better material conditions for former captives and former freedmen, through the distribution of land, the only indemnity then possible. As experienced by other slave-owning regions of the Americas. There are several reasons why this did not happen in Brazil. The enormous power of the landowners, the limited distribution of servile gardens, the priority demand for freedom made movement for the distribution of land difficult.

Victory in the struggle for the concession of a colony would have required the union of captives, caboclos, squatters, European settlers, etc. A reality then practically impossible, due to the low level of awareness and organization and the high heterogeneity and dispersion of the exploited rural classes. The fact is that the captives did not claim the division of the land, emphasizing the struggle for civil freedom and contractual working conditions. Not infrequently, they withdrew to uninhabited regions, where they lived semi-isolated. However, the concession of land was explicitly defended by the most consequent abolitionist leaders – André Rebouças, José do Patrocínio, etc.

abolitionist program

The government formed by the Liberal Party, on June 7, 1889, and deposed by the republican coup, on November 15, was ready to carry out some form of distribution of land plots for former captives, caboclos, etc. However, the landless were disputed as labor by the landowners, the true support base of the republican coup. The Land Law of 1850 was created precisely to manufacture the landless, to go and work on the large farms.

It is historical incongruity to propose Abolition as a “white man's business”. Slaveholders always wanted more blacks, not get rid of them. During the First and Second Reigns, the Braganças fiercely defended slavery and the slaveholders, the hegemonic ruling class, until months before Abolition. In the final months of slavery, the most reluctant slave traders, who already recognized the inevitability of the end of the institution, made an effort to exploit their captives for a few months, a few days, a few hours more and, above all, demanded compensation for the release of recognized property. by law.

In the absence of economic achievements at the time of Abolition, the republican counter-revolution – oligarchic and federalist – on November 15, 1889 also weighed. Radical federalism put an end to the abolitionist movement, a national reformist project, as proposed. The historical limits of Abolition should not minimize the importance of the conquest of minimum political and civil rights, by seven hundred thousand “slaves” and “free wombs”. On May 13, 1888, the distinction between free and enslaved workers was overcome, beginning the history of the contemporary unified Brazilian working class, which the ruling classes strive to crack.

closing circle

In the 1990s, the historic defeat of the world of work and neoliberal euphoria also determined the general fate of historiography. In Brazil as elsewhere, the media spotlight, the interest of publishers, the good historiographic tone pointed to monographic, intimate, biographical and exotic studies, reassuring consciences and pacifying spirits. From a science that sought to liberate, history became, strongly, the art of entertaining and intoxicating readers.

Interest in and incentives for studies of the urban working classes, the peasant movement, the essential phenomena of human society, and analytical and structural studies of the past declined. Research on slavery, on social formations, on modes of production, in disrepute, were dominated by theses that resumed the proposals of benign and consensual slavery defended in the past by Gilberto Freyre and, before him, by the slaveholders.

Nowadays, with the unhindered advance of world and national conservatism, the circle of denial of Abolition ends with an identical silence about the 20th of November, only less explicit. Senzala, Eito, Trunk, Quilombo, enslaved work, servile resistance, abolitionist revolution are events related to the world of work, today defeated, denied and devalued.

A new black identity movement, born in the shadow of big capital and imperialism, does not dream of overturning the table where a privileged few sit, as Zumbi and thousands of quilombolas and insurrectioned captives tried without success. A battle in which the captive coffee growers were victorious, within the limits of historical possibilities, in 1888. Identitarianism only seeks to be given a few seats, in the last rows, at the dinner of the powerful.

Their revolution and ours

The identity movement moves away from and denies enslaved workers as their ancestors. It searches in the past, above all, only the rare Africans and Afro-descendants who became rich during and after slavery. They serve as paradigms and proof of the possibility of realizing “black entrepreneurship” today. Advertising operation that claims that everyone can get there, through unbridled self-exploration. Even if, in the real world, only one or the other ascends the capitalist food chain. Stepping, of course, firmly, on whites, blacks, browns, yellows and so on. For among wolves one must howl like wolves.

History is an objective and complex process, tending upwards, where yesterday's partial and contradictory social conquests eventually make more substantial advances possible. A movement that may also experience historical setbacks. Regression that gives rise to and promotes, as in the present day, the obscuring of the understanding of the past and its connection with the present. In a context of proposed eternal validity of the capitalist order, individuals are enclosed in an achronic existential space, in which there is no longer what was or what will eventually be. There is only the imprisonment in a now, without reflection and conscience, of beings reduced to the function of producers and consumers, in the best of cases.

Concluded on May 13, 1888, the Abolitionist Revolution was the first major national and modern mass movement in Brazil, promoted by the abolitionists and supported and carried out by enslaved workers, in alliance with freedmen, free workers, middle segments and a few non-owners. -slavers. Until now, it was the only victorious social revolution in Brazil, which dissolved the organization of the dominant society, giving way to another, more advanced one.

Rescuing and revealing the meaning and history of the Abolitionist Revolution, we will more easily follow the path pointed out by the enslaved workers, who dared, despite the dangers they ran, to abandon the slave quarters, carrying their hoes as weapons, to put an end to the slave order, in the no that distant year of 1888. If the situation we are experiencing hurts and displeases us for its ugliness and brutality, as it could not fail to be, the responsibility does not lie with our ancestors, who made their revolution, within the limits of objective possibilities. The responsibility rests simply with us, who have not yet done ours. And, to do so, we cannot fail to salute the brave enslaved workers and abolitionists who, on May 13, 1888, showed us the way forward. So, get to work. And long live Abolition!

* Mario Maestri is a historian. Author, among other books, of Sons of Ham, sons of the dog. The enslaved worker in Brazilian historiography (FCM Editora).


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