Michael Löwy's utopias



Commentary on the tribute book to the Marxist militant and theorist

Speaking of his old friend Michael Löwy, in the book dedicated to him, Roberto Schwarz points out, in an especially expressive passage of his beautiful testimony, the unique combination that from an early age marked the conduct of life of the “great man”, as he jokes: “an arrangement unusual, in which duty, fantasy and revolution seem strangely not to oppose each other, but to collaborate”. With that, he offers the motto for reading this set of essays, in which colleagues and friends gather to examine, with critical sympathy, a truly unique trajectory. Brazilian-European, surrealist-socialist, romantic-revolutionary, disciplined-libertarian, atheist-religious; the list of contrasts could go on for a long time – as long as you never lose sight of the fact that the contrasting terms must always appear together, and inseparably, in an alchemy whose secret Michael seems to be the only holder.

I spoke of alchemy, and that brings me straight to the term that several of the contributors to the book identify as the one that would best express the orientation of Michael's thinking when he gives way to his indefatigable socio-political-historical-cultural curiosity (which has already resulted in dozens of of books and countless articles, most of them translated into 25 languages ​​– not bad, for someone who certainly despises the discourse of “productivity”): the idea of ​​“elective affinities”.

Leaving aside the sources of this idea in Löwy's thought (in his mind, the thing certainly goes beyond Max Weber), it is worth noting that the fine and flexible character of the notion of elective affinities (when it allows one to escape the establishment of ties rigid causal lines, in favor of attention to the mutual resonances between orientations of thought and conduct that follow their own path) could not fail to fascinate an author always in search of the most subtle and comprehensive forms (in the sense of establishing relationships between complexes of meanings and not point-to-point) within society.

Which society? The Brazilian? This or that European entity? The American, in the broad sense? The answer is: each one in its moment, as a representative of something that transcends it and that is projected on the horizon as an unfulfilled possibility to always be evoked as such: the true society, the free association of free men and women. Utopia, therefore, as the title of the book already indicates, which plays with this counterpoint of particularity and universalization possible when speaking of “Michael Löwy's utopias”. But this walking paradox doesn't just look at the horizon, with the pose of Plato in Raphael's painting. If he occupied a small spot in that painting (and if he had been in Rome at the time, he could have been found in the painter's studio, interviewing him), Michael would probably be looking with a scornful eye at the attitudes of Plato, and also of Aristotle, so rigidly opposed.

The complex typology of characters developed in the Jewish ghettos of central and eastern Europe includes one figure, that of the luftmensch, that creature that floats in the air, in the rarefied atmosphere of his ideas and fantasies, utopian perhaps. If it were possible to build a luftmensch with our feet solidly planted on the ground of present history, we would come closer to the likeness of Michael Löwy, that cosmopolitan atheist impregnated to the marrow by the best that Judaism offered to the world.

But, after all, what does this man do besides weaving utopias with the threads of his “insubordinate Marxism” (as the title of the book also says)? First, he did not begin, contrary to what his later work might suggest, along the path of a sophisticated treatment of themes in the sociology of knowledge (which includes the analysis of cultural and political movements), but with an article, a characteristic mixture of modesty and boldness. , at Brasiliense Magazine by Caio Prado Júnior, on the ideology of trade union leaders.

There is his first field work, carried out by an engaged militant, perhaps inspired by his contact with the sociologist Azis Simão, a pioneer in the area. Before that, he had already given proof of the true militant's attention to the various dimensions of the social struggles around him, by being one of those who most strongly encouraged Florestan Fernandes to commit himself to what ended up marking the master's trajectory: the great campaign in defense of the school public, threatened by the retrograde forces that Paulo Duarte also fought in the magazine anhembi.

All of this certainly contributed to this unique blend of a demanding researcher (after all, from the great authors of the XNUMXth century to ordinary citizens, no one knows how many he has already interviewed, nor how many libraries and archives he has visited for unusual and ingenious tasks, such as re-examining Max's sources. Weber in the elaboration of his work on religious ethics and capitalism) with the flight of imagination and theoretical deepening at the right time.

Throughout the book's nineteen texts, including Leonardo Boff's preface, the diversity of Löwy's work is revealed. In them, there is a discussion from the dilemmas of the intellectual's social condition to Michael's relationship with great figures of European Marxism, as Olgária Matos does in the case of Walter Benjamin and Maria Elisa Cevasco in Raymond Williams' interlocutor of Löwy – by the way, Marcelo Ridenti recalls that he never dwelled on Brazilian thinkers and little on Latin American ones, and links this to the conquest of a prominent academic position in France, escaping from the subordinate condition of specialist in exotic things –, passing through his presence in Brazilian Marxism and Latin America and for its attention to the new relationships that were established over the course of the century between revolutionary and religious movements. It would be pointless even to suggest an exposition of all these contributions. It is better to collect here and there a few themes, which allow to illustrate its diversity and richness.

In his examination of the question of the social insertion of intellectuals, Wolfgang Leo Maar, who in this group well represents the most severe Marxist position although flexible at the right time, uses in central passages of his argument the concept of objective possibility, picked up by Löwy in the Weber lineage -Lukacs-Goldmann and which plays a role in his thinking that may perhaps be seen as complementary to that of elective affinities. The same concept is present in several other essays, in testimony to its importance, as occurs when Alfredo Bosi uses it precisely to reconstruct the theme of Liberation Theology and locate Michael's dialogue with it. It is as if, as a whole, it points to a robust conception of utopia, which involves the intricate game between those two concepts and, in doing so, also gives content to the equally central idea of ​​criticism – not just any criticism, but the revolutionary, which demonstrates the limits of the prevailing state of affairs to change it.

It is clear that the problem of the historical realization of socialism permeates the texts as a whole to some extent. Especially, as one would expect, in Isabel Loureiro's essay on Michael's great heroine, Rosa Luxemburgo (her reference since the old days of the Independent Socialist League, with Hermínio Sacchetta). In this context, another theme dear to him emerges, that of the historical alternative socialism or barbarism. Although this interpretation is not found in these terms in Isabel, I believe it is plausible to state that, for Rosa, the imminence that she understood to be inexorable of the final crisis of capitalism did not mean (contrary to those who see in her mere “economism”) the solution without more than historical problem posed by the real possibility of barbarism.

It is important here that it is precisely the crisis of capitalism without a socialist solution that constitutes barbarism – and that precisely because of this, the immediate construction of a revolutionary socialist alternative becomes imperative. But, points out Isabel, in its current phase capitalism, although not in open crisis, secretes barbarism from every pore. Michael is not inattentive to this, as demonstrated by his repeated and differentiated incursions in the search for contemporary possibilities of constituting non-capitalist forms of society, including his position on the planetary environmental problem. Several contributions in the book allude, from different angles, to this search for contemporary ways of giving concrete content to the confrontation with capitalism.

Resorting to a metaphor used by Michael with reference to the situation of the painter – that one sees wider from the highest viewpoint, and that, historically, the highest point is that of the proletariat – Flávio Aguiar pays him elegant homage , by emphasizing the painter more than the gazebo (which also welcomes nearsighted people). He states that “Löwy perceived and welcomed, in his thought, the innovative power of this encounter between a theology freed from its oppressive constraints (...) and the paths opened by the new paths trodden by libertarian, revolutionary or transformative thought (...). Only the great painters are capable of intuitions as fertile as they are beautiful”. The safe choice of the viewpoint, the rigor in the target, the fruitful and beautiful intuition. Here's a good portrait of Michael Löwy.

*Gabriel Cohn is professor emeritus at FFLCH-USP. Author, among other books, of Weber, Frankfurt (Quicksilver).

Originally published in the magazine Advanced Studies, v. 22, no.o. 62, January-April 2008.


Ivana Jinkings and João Alexandre Pechanski (org.). Michael Löwy's utopias. Reflections on an insubordinate Marxist. Sao Paulo, Boitempo, 2007.


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