Conversations with Carlos Nelson Coutinho



The role of intellectuals in the long and arduous struggle for another political and cultural hegemony, based on democracy and the construction of socialism

Carlos Nelson Coutinho, one of our brilliant Marxist intellectuals and the main disciple in Brazil of the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci, would have turned 80 on June 28, 2023 (he left us on September 20, 2012).

The vitality of his thought, under the sign of permanence, motivates me to reproduce here the revised version of our conversation about the role of intellectuals in the long and arduous struggle for another political and cultural hegemony, based on democracy and the construction of socialism. The interview was published in two books: Combats and utopias: intellectuals in a world in crisis (Record, 2004), edited by me; It is Interventions: Marxism in the battle of ideas (Cortez, 2006), which brings together his essays and interviews.

On an afternoon in the summer of 2004 in Rio de Janeiro, Carlos Nelson received me with a broad smile, a cup of coffee and the damp hair of someone who had woken up around noon, after working tirelessly until almost dawn. To each question, he answered without sparing a minute, sometimes alternating accurate reasoning with brief sips of other coffees and apologies for smoking. His gaze moved pendularly: now towards me, now towards the insubordinate place on the horizon where he sought intersections between worldviews, critical commitment, the humanization of life and socialist conviction.

For four hours, Carlos Nelson analyzed the public responsibilities of intellectuals; the stalemates of sociocultural and political processes in Brazil; the resilience of Antonio Gramsci's legacy; the meaning of being a Marxist in the XNUMXst century; and the dilemmas for the left worthy of the name to realize itself as a political force committed to conquering social emancipation, at a time when, as he points out, “barbarism is what awaits us, or what already hits us, if we pass passively through the arms".

The main moments of the two conversations follow.

A holdover from the 60s into the XNUMXst century

Enormous mutations took place, but at the same time one can see, behind the discontinuity between the 1960s and the beginning of the XNUMXst century, some lines of continuity. The battle for hegemony continued to mark this entire period, with moments that, especially at the beginning of the period, were more favorable to the left.

To sum up what I feel, I remember that Livraria Leonardo da Vinci, in Rio de Janeiro, organized in 2002 a series of debates about past decades. It was up to me and Leandro Konder to talk about the 1960s. After preparing the text of my intervention, I thought to myself: how I miss the 1960s! It was a time when we had high hopes. Paradoxical as it may seem, it was more hopeful to live under the dictatorship than it is now. You had the idea that you were going to break out of that and build something really new.

If Eric Hobsbawm referred to the “short 1960th century”, we could speak of the long 1956s. In fact, the decade began in 1970 with the XNUMXth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, where Stalin's crimes were denounced. ; and, in a way, ended with the collapse of Eurocommunism in the early XNUMXs. Eurocommunism was an attempt to recover the democratic core of communism and, at the same time, to renew Marxist thought.

And, in the midst of all this, 1968 occurred, with the French May, the Prague Spring and so many other libertarian movements throughout the world, North and South, East and West. It is no coincidence that, at the beginning of that long decade – in a declaration made, if I am not mistaken, in 1958 – Jean-Paul Sartre affirmed that Marxism was the unsurpassable philosophy of our time. At that moment, surely, Marxism disputed hegemony with great force.

Since then, we have witnessed successive triumphs of capital in the field of class struggle. The correlation of forces has shifted against us. The advance of capitalism was also evidently reflected in the field of culture. Postmodernism – what Fredric Jameson aptly called the “cultural logic of late capitalism” – with its attempt to deconstruct totalizing worldviews, indicates a loss of strength for Marxism. We know that Marxism places totality as a basic criterion of its methodology. Although I believe that there are still forces that resist this irrationalist avalanche, I cannot help but recognize that this beginning of the 60st century does not seem very favorable to an intellectual like myself, formed in the XNUMXs of the last century.

Forty years later, I look at the world with more skepticism and more pessimism. But I want to say, emphatically, that I have not given up hope. I always adopt and quote that couplet by Antonio Gramsci: “pessimism of the intelligence and optimism of the will”. This is not an irrational pessimism, but one that feeds on critical reason. As for the optimism of the will, which is an indication for us to keep theory and practice together, it rests on the fact that almost everything Marx said about capitalism has been confirmed. Marx's critique of capitalism is increasingly current. Today's capitalism - whose "globalized" nature Marx and Engels had already highlighted more than 150 years ago, in the Communist Manifesto – did not eliminate, but even sharpened, all its contradictions.

What we must rethink and discuss is the question of the revolutionary subject, the subject capable of operating transformations. In my view, this subject is still in the world of work, but it is no longer the factory working class, as Marx thought. We have to study the new morphology of work and also the various social movements that, without coming from the world of work, pose demands that I call radical, as is the case of the feminist and environmentalist movements, to cite two examples. They are symptoms that things can start again for us. We need to start over again, with the modesty of someone who has lost a battle, both in the political and cultural sense, but with the conviction that the outcome of the war has not been decided.

Transformations from above in sociopolitical processes

If we observe the history of Brazil, we will see that the country has changed, it has undergone important transformations over time, but they have always been made based on arrangements between sectors of the dominant classes, with the clear objective of excluding more intense popular participation. in this transformation process. We can see this in Independence.

It is the result of a maneuver by the elites, which made our first emperor the heir to the Portuguese throne. It also happened during the proclamation of the Republic, when, as the republican journalist Aristides Lobo wrote, the people watched that military march in amazement, without knowing what it was about. This occurred in 1930, which I consider the most important turning point in modern Brazilian history, and which is the result of another elitist arrangement.

Antonio Gramsci called this kind of transformation from above a “passive revolution”. It is interesting to note that passive revolutions are always responses to the demands of subordinate classes, although these do not yet manifest themselves in an organized way, capable of making them effective protagonists of the transformation process.

Caio Prado Júnior and Florestan Fernandes created important categories of analysis of the elitist and anti-popular processes that characterized social transformations in Brazil. They demonstrated that Brazil retained colonial traits and failed to effectively configure itself as a nation. Our citizenship deficit is all too well known. The agrarian problem, for example, was never satisfactorily resolved. With the neoliberal policy of the last decade, the country lost instruments for establishing a national, autonomous and sovereign policy; it regressed, in a way, to the colonial situation denounced by Caio Prado and Florestan.

Intimacy in the shadow of power

I would say that the privileged milieu of culture, particularly of modern culture, is what Gramsci called “civil society”, that is, the set of private apparatuses of hegemony that organize interests and values, and to which intellectuals generally attach themselves. , at least in countries where transformation processes were of the “Jacobin” type, that is, from bottom to top. In Brazil, where civil society has always been weak and, until recently, primitive and gelatinous, intellectuals have had to face important challenges. As they could not organically connect to the popular strata, since these did not have an adequate political expression, a remarkable trend occurred in our history, that is, the “co-option” of the intelligentsia by the mechanisms of power.

I draw attention to the fact that this co-option does not necessarily imply that the co-opted intellectual defends explicit political and ideological positions of the ruling class, but “only” that they are led to a certain cultural asceticism, adopting “neutral” cultural and ideological positions. Something that I, using an expression of Thomas Mann, called “intimacy in the shadow of power”. Intellectuals have a certain amount of freedom to seek their own paths, as long as they do not challenge power, that they do not question power relations and the very structure of society.

I believe that the presence of the cultural industry and the media in the formation of Brazilian culture has increased. I don't perceive any expressive movement, in the sense of a literature and an art more turned to the people's problems. Remains a relative hegemony of the intimate culture. Perhaps something new is happening in cinema.

Ways of co-opting intellectuals

I would say that a dangerous form of co-option of intellectuals has been carried out for some time, among us, by the cultural industry and the media. We could say that the media, in a sense, operate as a collective intellectual. In the 1970s, the media recruited educated intellectuals. They were well-known and respected people, who came from the field of left-wing culture, such as Dias Gomes, Oduvaldo Vianna Filho, Paulo Pontes, Armando Costa and others. Of course, there were aesthetic and political limits to cultural creation in the mass media. However, civil society pressures on the media opened loopholes that helped these left intellectuals to produce significant things on television.

It would be a mistake to imagine that the media is a homogeneous space, without contradictions, in which only the systematic manipulation of public opinion prevails. The difference is that now the media is creating its own organic intellectual – someone it projects as an intellectual, with less autonomy and less creativity. To the extent that it is controlled and hegemonized by the dominant class, the media can be considered as an organic collective intellectual of the dominant class itself, even if, in certain circumstances, this situation can suffer shocks. The people who are now writing telenovelas, for example, have practically only done this in their lives. I don't remember a great writer who, in recent times, has taken his talent to television.

The new authors do their apprenticeship already inside the media. They are organically constituted as media intellectuals, as media cultural producers. This impoverishes the creation process. The critical potential diminishes to the extent that the intellectual is no longer the one who, even limited by the aesthetic and political universe of the media, maintained a certain critical distance. The technical quality of the TV is high, the actors and directors are very good. But it has become less creative, with less room for contestation.

Co-optation makes it difficult, but not impossible, to develop critical thinking. A good example of intellectual independence is that of Lima Barreto. A War Office official, he wrote two devastating anti-militarist novels— Polycarp Quaresma e Numa and the nymph. We have the case of Graciliano Ramos, who, as a federal inspector of education, was linked to the State machine, even writing articles in the magazine political culture, edited by the Department of Press and Propaganda (DIP) of the Estado Novo. Nevertheless, Graciliano Ramos has a work of a profoundly critical nature, written in this same period.

Carlos Drummond de Andrade used to say that there is a difference between serving a dictatorship and serving under a dictatorship. At the same time that he was chief of staff of the Ministry of Education in the Estado Novo, Drummond wrote The People's Rose, his most politically committed book of poetry, where he said – among other beautiful things – that “this is a time for a party, a time for broken men”.

Therefore, there is no mechanical and direct relationship between co-option and the absence of critical thinking. In democratic periods, when public space is greater and civil society organizations gain relative autonomy, co-opted intellectuals are more likely to adopt political and aesthetic positions of clear opposition. In the dictatorship, this is much more difficult, but even so, it is not impossible, as we saw in the examples of Graciliano and Drummond.

The issue of national-popular culture

Sociologist Renato Ortiz, who worked and still works with Antonio Gramsci's texts, has already decreed the end of national-popular culture. According to him, we would be in the international-popular phase. But it is necessary to reread Gramsci and see what he understood by “national-popular”. Gramsci clearly said that the Greek classics and Shakespeare, who are evidently among the most universal authors of all time, are nationally popular. That is, national-popular has nothing to do with nationalism, much less with populism. For Gramsci, the author linked to the problem of the people and the nation is able to offer a broader and more concrete representation of the real and, for that very reason, more universal.

Part of the ideology of passive globalization is the idea that the national state is over, that the nation is no longer a space for decision-making. On the contrary, I think that the nation still remains an obligatory reference. With the adaptations to the period in which we live, national-popular culture continues to express the idea that a writer and an artist must have ties with the people and respond to the problems they address in their work from a point of view that reflects the interests of society. nation and the people.

Precisely for this reason, the national-popular writer is not a populist, someone who only reports in a naturalistic way what people are experiencing and passively accepts their prejudices. National-popular is Graciliano Ramos, not the Jorge Amado of the last phase. The national-popular writer places himself from the angle of popular interests to respond to the great national questions, which are increasingly articulated with universal questions. Marx and Engels already said, in the 1848 manifesto, that capitalism was creating a “universal literature”, which evidently does not negate the obvious fact that Balzac is French, Tolstoy is Russian and Machado de Assis is Brazilian. By the way, speaking of Machado, he knew that the “nationality” of a writer is not defined by the theme he addresses, but by the point of view he adopts.

Perhaps it is difficult to speak of a national-popular movement today. It doesn't seem to me that there is, in Brazil today, something as significant in this sense as there was, in the early 1960s, the movement that was organized around the proposals of the Popular Centers of Culture, the famous CPCs. This movement had repercussions, albeit through multiple mediations, in various fields of art, especially in theatre, cinema and popular music. But also in literature: I would say that the most expressive works created during the dictatorship are nationally popular, such as the novels Quarup by Antonio Callado and Incident in Antares by Érico Veríssimo, but also the poetry of Ferreira Gullar, José Carlos Capinam, Moacyr Félix.

Take a good look: I am not saying that all this comes directly from the CPC, which, by the way, in its theoretical formulations, said a lot of nonsense, it was quite sectarian. I say that the movement that is at the origin of the CPC created a cultural soil from which some of the most expressive artistic creations of the 1960s and 1970s sprouted, in a movement of dialectical overcoming.

Today I only see topical manifestations, not movements of that type. Unfortunately, I haven't read many recent Brazilian novels, but I would say that the last great national-popular artistic production that I remember reading was Long live the Brazilian people, the notable novel by João Ubaldo Ribeiro, published in the 1980s. It is one of the greatest novels in Brazilian literature, placed on the same level as Dom Casmurro, Polycarp Quaresma, St. Bernard, Great Sertão: Veredas and few others. In Long live the Brazilian people, the entire historical formation of Brazil is seen from a clearly national-popular point of view, in the Gramscian sense of the term, that is, without any concessions to either nationalism or populism.

In the 1990s, there was an ebb of that process of strong activation of civil society that occurred between the end of the 1970s and the presidential election of 1989. This ebb was, in large part, motivated by the growing political and ideological-cultural hegemony of neoliberalism . The set of neoliberal proposals operated in the sense of promoting a general depoliticization of society and, consequently, also of culture. We had the attempt, often successful, to transform civil society into this amorphous and depoliticized thing, today pompously called the “third sector”. Gramsci understood civil society, on the contrary, as an arena of class struggle, as a political space par excellence, not as something – in the expression that has become common today – “beyond the State and the market”.

Neoliberal hegemony blocked the flowering of a national-popular art, which was strongly announced in the 1960s, which remained deaf but latent during the dictatorship and reappeared in the late 1970s and part of the 1980s. the great artist that emerged in the 1990s? We have good authors working — João Ubaldo, Moacyr Félix, Moacyr Scliar, Ferreira Gullar.[1] Interesting names appeared, such as José Roberto Torero and Ana Miranda. But no big picture has emerged in recent years. Outside the “culture” created by the media, we witness the permanence of an ornamental and intimate culture, disconnected from the problems and afflictions of the Brazilian people. As I said before, perhaps the brand new cinema is an exception. Let's wait and see.

The possibility of democratization of culture

Not only possible, but necessary. However, for there to be a democratization of culture, there must simultaneously be a general democratization of Brazilian society. The more democratic spaces are conquered within civil society, the faster we will advance – even if it is not a mechanical relationship – in the field of the democratization of culture. And it is always necessary to remember: an effective democratization of culture in Brazil, which transcends the high culture of intellectuals and reaches the great masses, has as its starting point a democratization of the means of communication, of the media. This requires greater control by society over these powerful instruments of creation, diffusion and cultural action. We need to make the mass media controlled by society, not by private monopoly groups. These groups may even take into account certain demands of society, but they operate without effective social control.

social media control

It is not feasible to imagine that this [social control over the media] will occur if an elitist model of society persists, in which the masses do not participate in politics or have a determining weight in the creation and consumption of a high-level culture. As long as this model of society persists, there will continue to be an abyss between high culture and popular culture, with the latter condemned to only very rarely overcome the limits of a folklore-type subculture. This “utopia” is only feasible, as I said, in the midst of a broad process of general democratization of society, activation of civil society, pressure coming from a public opinion constituted from the bottom up.

I think we should fight to make it possible to create, even at the legislative level, forms of social control of the means of communication, which prevent the private owners of these means – which, moreover, in the case of radio and television channels, are concessionaires of the public power – the complete freedom, for example, to transmit the information they want and to hide the information that does not seem adequate to their interests.

One of the challenges is to come up with adequate legislation. But look carefully: I am not preaching and I am against the nationalization of the means of cultural production. This will not be how we will have effective democratization. What I defend is a more collective management of the means of cultural production. Perhaps this could happen through self-management: the cultural producers themselves would define the diffusion policies.

For example: a committee made up of journalists and personalities from different groups and civil society organizations would effectively control the information that is conveyed, since this is the most sensitive terrain to ideological manipulation. Why not imagine large cooperatives of intellectuals to control the media?

I would like to insist that the solution does not consist in nationalizing the media, as that would also lead to a loss of critical capacity. I am at least skeptical about the democratic nature of a cultural policy implemented directly from the State. Cultural policies are created from civil society. The fundamental task of the State is to ensure the material conditions for the cultural policies arising from civil society to be carried out.

The State must finance those activities that, because they are not immediately profitable, are not interesting for the market, as is often the case in theater, cinema, even publishing. But it is up to the State, above all, to make great culture (a symphony by Beethoven, a theatrical performance of Shakespeare) available to the broad masses of the masses, which can even be done through television. Not to mention the fundamental task of the State, which is to ensure everyone has a good level of education, thus allowing the mass of the population to have access to cultural products of a higher nature.

Cultural creation and collective movements

The great artistic, cultural or philosophical creation, even if it is linked to collective movements, is fully realized through individual personalities. I could quote Balzac, Goethe, Shakespeare, Hegel, Kant and many others. Of course, this conviction of mine does not prevent me from recognizing that the great intellectual and artistic personality expresses a movement, a collective conception of the world. If you look at the CPC as a collective producer of culture, you will see that it did not, strictly speaking, create anything that had a cultural value beyond immediate agitation and propaganda.

But a good number of individual creations by Vianinha, who was one of the leaders of the CPC, continue to have an indisputable aesthetic and cultural value. your play tear heart, for example, would not exist without the collective movement of the CPC, but it could not be created by ten hands. Those plays that the CPC staged here and there had the value of creating a cultural movement that, in turn, generated a unique figure like our dear Vianinha.

It is not that this individualization does not happen in politics, not least because there are strong individual political leaders, such as, among many other possible examples, Lenin. But the presence of the collective subject, in politics, is much stronger than in artistic or philosophical creation, it is even decisive. Lenin is Lenin only because he was the leader of the Bolshevik Party. All of a sudden, in asking this question, you asked me this question: are we back to a time when the individual politician replaces the political leader of a party? I think often yes.

Politics today is largely media-driven. Prime Minister Berlusconi, for example, is not the expression of Forza Italia, the party he created; Forza Italia is nothing more than a Berlusconi creation to legitimize itself ex post. Personalism is a very bad thing in politics, as it ends up consecrating a type of leadership that only serves to consecrate what exists, to brutalize the masses, not to social transformation and awareness.

In art and philosophy, on the other hand, it is difficult to collectively create a good work. The worldview that the artist or philosopher expresses is collective, but the transformation of this worldview into artistic form or philosophical construction is almost always individual. The issue is particularly complicated in the contemporary world, because, on the one hand, we have the collective intellectual embodied by the media, which ends up crushing individual talent and thus having an anti-artistic role. At the same time, those who produce alone lack that social support that allowed the emergence of a Balzac, a Mozart, a Cézanne. Anyway, I think that the collectivization of the cultural subject can be a serious problem for artistic creation. In politics, the opposite is true.

Structuralism and the misery of reason

I still agree with my old position of 30 years ago: that, philosophically, structuralism was reactionary, insofar as it emptied social thought of the great questions of dialectics, historicism and humanism. But I think I was unfair in harshly attacking some structuralists who were on the left and, in Brazil, took a stand against the dictatorship. György Lukács said a very expressive phrase: “There are intellectuals who have a right-wing epistemology and a left-wing ethic”. Most structuralists would perhaps take this position, but I ignored the ethical side and hit hard on the theoretical side.

I think that the so-called “tucanate intellectuals” deserve a harsher criticism. They have a right-wing epistemology and right-wing ethics. These are cases of intellectual transformism. See the theoretical production of Fernando Henrique Cardoso in the 1960s and 1970s. Despite the various debatable points of his theoretical production – in my book Democracy as a universal value, from 1980, I already criticized some of Fernando Henrique’s positions that seemed liberal to me – no one could imagine that that left-wing intellectual, very close to Marxism, who preached a socialist alternative to the necessarily associated-dependent character that he lucidly saw in Brazilian capitalism , became the president of the Republic who deepened the association of the Brazilian bourgeoisie with international capital.

I would like to draw attention to the fact that this is not a phenomenon of individual betrayal. A significant part of the Brazilian intelligentsia, which resisted during the dictatorship, later assumed positions more to the right, even within the spectrum of democracy. It is a collective phenomenon, which results, in my opinion, from the much more complex and plural character of our post-dictatorship civil society.

Third way links with neoliberalism

in my book Structuralism and the misery of reason, published in 1972, I maintained that bourgeois ideology, the ideology of the dominant classes, had two strands: one was clearly irrationalist, according to which reason does not capture reality, this can only be done through intuition and sensitivity; and another that impoverished reason, to the point of making it instrumental, merely formalist reason. I situated structuralism as the version up to date of the misery of reason.

Today, in postmodernism, we have a combination of irrationalism and the wretchedness of reason. The refusal, for example, to understand universality has a clear irrationalist character, but we also have the continuity of elements of formal rationalism, which I perceive in the fetishism of technology that is so fashionable today. That is, reason placed at the service only of the particular, of instrumentality. Postmodernism has everything to do with neoliberalism: both turn to the general depoliticization of society and, consequently, of culture.

The so-called “third way” seems to me to be a symptom that neoliberalism is beginning to reveal its limits. Defenders of the “third way” are people who apply a neoliberal policy, such as Massimo D'Alema, Tony Blair and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, but who have or had in the past a certain commitment to leftist values ​​and try to propose, as if this were possible, a neoliberalism with a human face. This, of course, is ideology in the bad sense of the word, that is, a way of covering up policies that remain strictly neoliberal.

I don't see any different perspective in the "third way", which, incidentally, was practically born dead: now there is talk of "progressive governance". I regret that an important intellectual and committed in the past to progressive causes, such as Anthony Giddens, has become one of the theorists of this nonsense that is the “third way”. In my view, this is a hypocritical manifestation of neoliberalism. La Rochefoucauld, the great French moralist of the eighteenth century, said that hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue.

That's what the “third way” is: a hypocritical manifestation of neoliberalism, which knows very well that the virtue lies with another type of policy. It is an indicative phenomenon that the pure and simple hegemony of neoliberalism, open and wide open, is suffering shocks.

Multiculturalism and universal values

My friend Joseph A. Buttigieg, editor of the American edition of the prison notebooks, is very critical of both cultural studies and multiculturalism: “It's not what Gramsci said,” he says. Antonio Gramsci had a clearly universalist vision. He certainly thought particular; he was able to refer to both an article on Abyssinian blacks and the statements of a XNUMXth-century Italian Catholic magazine as a reference for his reflections.

He was always very concerned with cultural diversity, with the enormous cultural pluralism of the modern world, which he valued, always looking for a positive element in all these particular manifestations. But there is always, at the same time, a clear universalist orientation, which I do not always see in the so-called cultural studies and in multiculturalism, even if they call themselves “critics of the present”.

Cultural studies and multiculturalism are important to draw attention to differences, to identities, so as not to let diverse things be subsumed into the sea of ​​abstract universality. Gramsci knew, moreover, that concrete universality feeds on diversity and plurality. But so-called cultural studies, multiculturalism and also feminist and ecological studies often lack a universal vision, a search for totality, which seems to me to be present in Marxism and, particularly, in Gramsci's Marxism. It is the idea that struggles should not be waged in favor of universal values, but rather the affirmation of identities and differences. I think that the recognition of differences cannot oppose the affirmation of totality, of universal values.

O public role of critical intellectuals

I have already referred to an intellectual figure who strongly influenced the culture of the 50s and 60s, that is, Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre is a classic example of a traditional intellectual in the Gramscian sense of the word, that is, of an intellectual who is not directly linked to any apparatus of hegemony, but who plays a fundamental role in shaping public opinion; when on the left, this type of intellectual denounces what seems wrong to him, defends values ​​of solidarity and dignity, keeps the spirit of rebellion alive. Sartre was a worthy follower of Voltaire.

Now, this type of intellectual still exists in the contemporary world. Perhaps the most famous of these today is the American Noam Chomsky, but there are other examples, such as the recently deceased Pierre Bourdieu in France. In Brazil, I would think of figures like Celso Furtado and Antonio Candido. The fact that there are figures like this demonstrates that this type of intellectual continues to have an important role to play, denouncing, defending transformative proposals and, above all, mobilizing public opinion. Perhaps Chomsky influences today less than Sartre did in his time, but the important thing is that this function of the traditional intellectual is still on the agenda and has been performed satisfactorily by some great figures of our time.

Many intellectuals continue to have, from a moral and ethical point of view, the idea that social transformation is fair and necessary. But, as mediation between them and social reality has become nebulous and even difficult, there is a tendency for several of these intellectuals to retreat to the academic space, unconcerned with their social responsibility. This is not a betrayal; it's not that these intellectuals have necessarily screwed up. This is an objective condition: such intellectuals often do not find ways to act otherwise and end up giving up playing a more direct social role.

However, despite everything, there are still a good number of intellectuals who pose the problem of social intervention and who try to solve it, perhaps a little chaotically, each in their own way, even because the common spaces of the past have been weakened, or i.e. political parties, organisations, etc.

It is, at times, a solitary intellectual combat, but I would say that the intellectuals who fight this combat have everything to reorganize themselves and return to play the role very well defined by Gramsci: the intellectual must commit himself to the organization of society and fight for the political and ideological hegemony of the class block with which it identifies. Of course, the way in which this happens today is quite different from that of Gramsci's time; the intellectual world has changed, just as the world of work has changed, and not only in relation to the time of Marx and Gramsci, but even in comparison with the time of the welfare state, started after the Second World War.

Many say that Gramsci and Lukács are surpassed because both had high expectations regarding the role of intellectuals and these expectations were not met. For the most part, this is true. Gramsci and Lukács, in effect, bet heavily on the revolutionary role of intellectuals, a role that is now quite diluted. I believe, however, that it is a condition for the resumption of a battle for hegemony that intellectuals – understood in the broad sense that Gramsci attributed to them – return to performing their public functions.

Communication with subordinate classes

Gramsci has a very rich theory of intellectuals precisely in this sense. According to him, there is the great intellectual, the producer of ideologies, but there are also countless ramifications and mediations, through which the small and medium intellectuals make the great ideologies and theories reach what he calls “simple” i.e. to the people. For Gramsci, there is no direct relationship between great philosophy, great culture, and what he calls “simple”; it is a relationship that takes place through the mediation of a large mass of small and medium intellectuals, to whom we must dedicate enormous attention.

In the battle of ideas, in the struggle for hegemony, we must pay attention not only to the production of great intellectuals, but we also have to take into account the way in which small and medium intellectuals establish a relationship between this production and the common sense of “simple men”. ”.

Another interesting point in Gramsci is the statement that, between intellectuals and subordinates, or the “simple ones”, there is always a dialogue. Lenin affirmed that the revolutionary Party's mission was to bring "from outside" political, socialist consciousness to the labor movement. This statement, among other problems, gives intellectuals a weight they don't have. The function of intellectuals, as creators and propagators of ideologies, is above all to dialogue with the “simple”.

Gramsci said that the people feel but do not know, while the intellectual often knows but does not feel. Thus, although we know in theory that integration between intellectuals and the people is extremely important, we often forget about it in practice. We are pleased when our university department has two or three Marxists, when in the department magazine, which circulates to a hundred people, three or four articles of Marxist inspiration are published. This is important, but it will only play a social role when the ideas of Marxism reach the broad masses.

For Gramsci, it is more important to spread among the masses a correct idea already known by intellectuals than for an intellectual to create a new idea that becomes the monopoly of a restricted group. The socialization of knowledge, especially knowledge linked to social thought, is a fundamental task for intellectuals – a task that, often out of vanity, we do not always do well.

In this task of socializing knowledge, there are many positive examples. I've already mentioned Noam Chomsky, who certainly has weight in American public opinion and not just American opinion. In the United States, much of the public opinion against the right and militarism is inspired by great intellectuals, such as Chomsky himself, Edward Said, Susan Sontag, Gore Vidal, Michael Moore and others. This also happens in Brazil.

So, contrary to the postmodern opinion that the great universalist intellectual has lost his function, I would say that he continues to have the same functions that Gramsci attributed to him, only in different morphological conditions. That is: it changed the morphology of intellectuals, just as it changed the morphology of the world of work, but – in both cases – the social functions of these groups remain. Intellectuals continue to be as important today in the production of hegemony and counter-hegemony as they were in Gramsci's time and in the glorious 1960s.

The crisis of parties as agents of transformation

That's what the parties should be, that is, collective intellectuals, agents of the collective will, expressions of the ethical-political or of universality. While social movements bring into play issues that are often decisive, but always particular, the great task of the political party should be to universalize the demands that come from different social sectors. In this sense, a party that intends to be revolutionary has to place itself as the creator of a transforming collective will, of a universal will. Gramsci would say: of a national-popular collective will.

In practice, parties have not fulfilled this function. In Europe, for example, the parties of the left, which once had a revolutionary position, both in the social-democratic and in the communist, are increasingly similar to the American Democratic Party, that is, they become federations of lobbies grouped around media figures. The same occurs with right-wing parties, which lose ideological density and become mere administrators of what exists.

The old party form – as a grouping based on a universalist world view – is less and less present even in Europe, where it had a decisive weight for more than a century. What remains of the opposition that existed, in the UK, between the Conservatives and Labor? Or, in Italy, between Christian Democrats and Communists? We can thus speak of an “Americanization” of European politics.

I fear that the same process is taking place in Brazilian politics. I watch, with anxiety and fear, the conversion of the PT – from a party that was created in the idea of ​​social transformation, with a clear socialist banner and linked to social movements – into a government party, diluted in an absolutely amorphous front, into a party that seems completely abandon its original vocation as an organization fighting for social transformation. It is one thing to see this movement of current reality; it is quite another thing to make a virtue of necessity. I think we should continue fighting to build parties capable of performing the role of aggregators of collective wills and, therefore, carriers of hegemony and counter-hegemony.

Unfortunately, at the moment, this is not the hallmark of parties that call themselves left. One of the tasks of the intellectual today is to strive to build parties of this type, as well as social movements rooted in civil society. And, to the extent that there are parties that can be instruments of popular mobilization, the intellectual must make his contribution so that such parties effectively seek to transform reality. If there is no suitable party option, it remains for the intellectual to act autonomously, like Jean-Paul Sartre and Noam Chomsky, thus maintaining his critical capacity and his role in the formation of new relations of hegemony.

Influence of Gramscian ideas in Brazil

In an article about the reception of Antonio Gramsci in Brazil, published in the late 1980s, I drew attention to the fact that Gramsci arrived in Brazil in the 1960s and was used by many of us, then young communist intellectuals, as an instrument of a essentially cultural battle. At that time, we underestimated the indisputably political dimension of Gramsci's thought. We continue to delegate to the leadership of the Communist Party the task of elaborating the political line; we created a false division of labor, in which it was up to us only to define the general lines of cultural policy.

Gramsci appeared to us, then, only as the defender of the philosophy of praxis, of national-popular literature, but still not as the theorist of the socialist revolution in what he called “the West”. This proved, in the late 1970s, to be an impossible division of labor. We Gramscians then began to get involved in politics as well, to question, based on Gramsci, what the Party leadership continued to defend. We ended up all leaving the Party.

Today, Gramsci's influence in Brazil remains very strong. In the midst of the so-called “crisis of Marxism” – I am not talking about a “crisis” in the sense that Marxism has no answers for what is happening, but in the sense that today it is a much less influential cultural position than years ago – , Gramsci is one of the thinkers who most resisted and maintained his influence. He resisted here and abroad.

I have been invited to several Gramscian congresses in different countries. I could see, for example, that Gramsci's presence is very strong in Cuba, where he is today the banner of intellectuals who want to democratize Cuban socialism, introducing the problem of civil society. I am told that Gramsci disappeared in the period when Cuba allied with the Soviet Union and reappeared with force after the collapse of the Soviet Union itself.

It is a phenomenon more or less generalized in Latin America. Gramsci is very present in Argentina and Mexico, and has returned to Italy, after a phase in which he practically disappeared. But I would not say that he is returning only as a cultural theorist, as happened in Brazil in the 1960s: he is now, more and more, in Cuba and Brazil, in Italy and in the United States, an important point of reference to think about a new socialist and communist policy.

Gramsci's survival of the crises of Marxism

Gramsci realized that it was necessary to renew Marxism, creating a new theory of the State and a new theory of revolution. He was thus able to make Marxism contemporary in the XNUMXth century and, I believe, in the XNUMXst century. Certainly, there are other Marxist thinkers who have also contributed to this, recognizing that many of Marx's statements are dated and that the relevance of Marxism derives not from his topical statements but from the correctness of his method. I think, for example, of György Lukács, who offered us – with his Ontology of the social being – the most lucid philosophical reading of the legacy of Marx and Engels. Some contributions from the so-called Frankfurt School, especially those of Herbert Marcuse and Walter Benjamin, are also important for this necessary renewal of Marxism.

The challenge of being an assumed Marxist

It is perhaps more difficult to be an outspoken Marxist now than it was in the 1960s. In those days, being a Marxist was almost second nature. At least half of Brazilian intellectuals (and not only Brazilians) were either Marxists or sympathized with Marxism. In any case, in contrast to other countries, Brazilian Marxism has resisted better in recent decades.

And it resisted due to a peculiar phenomenon: the growth of a leftist party, the PT, in this period of Brazilian history. While in Europe there was an ebb of communist and social democratic parties in the 80s and 90s, in Brazil, on the contrary, we saw the emergence and expansion of a left-wing party that, although not declaring itself Marxist, is certainly influenced by Marxism and contains within it several Marxists. At least, that's how it was until very recently. If in the 1960s the predominance of Marxism among our intellectuals was much stronger, today Marxist positions occupy a reasonable space in Brazilian culture.

In any case, it is important to note that being a Marxist is not about repeating what Marx says. He said a lot of things that are obviously outdated and others that were wrong even in his time. To be a Marxist is to be faithful to Marx's method, that is, to the ability that such method revealed to understand the contradictory dynamics of reality and the trends of modern society. Therefore, to be a Marxist one must be a changing animal.

I have insisted – shocking even some more orthodox Marxists – that the essence of Marx's method is revisionism. For years, revisionism was considered one of the main enemies of true Marxism. The example was Eduard Bernstein, who actually proposed a revision that meant abandoning Marxism. Therefore, every revisionist has become a traitor. Despite this, I think that it is part of the essence of Marxism to constantly renew and revise itself. There is no true Marxist who is not a revisionist. This is the case, for example, of Lenin, who revised several Marxian theses, such as, among others, that the socialist revolution would begin in the most advanced countries.

One of the characteristics of the Marxist method consists precisely in stating that reality is historical, that it is always changing – and, therefore, those who are truly Marxists are always revising their concepts to account for this ever-changing reality.

How to escape capitalist barbarism

It is certainly still possible. The current situation, as I have said, is quite unfavorable for us. Since I started thinking about politics, more than 40 years have gone by, the situation has never been as unfavorable to the left as in the last period. But there have been other historical periods, before these 40 years of activism and reflection, when things were even worse. Imagine what a person on the left felt when almost all of Europe was occupied by Nazi troops, which, among other advances, reached up to 40 kilometers from Moscow. There were then profoundly negative moments, when barbarism (in its crudely Nazi form) seemed to have triumphed. But the fact is that Nazism was defeated in just over five years.

There is hope, therefore, of overcoming barbarism once again. But for that to happen, we must fight against it, just as the peoples fought against Nazism. Victory over barbarism will not be the result of a historic fatality. On the contrary: barbarism is what awaits us, or what already hits us, if we passively cross our arms. The alternative we face continues to be the dilemma formulated by Rosa Luxemburg: socialism or barbarism. It is up to us to reinvent that socialism that, adapted to the XNUMXst century, will free us from the barbarism in which we are increasingly involved.

* Denis de Moraes, journalist and writer, is a retired professor at the Institute of Art and Social Communication at the Fluminense Federal University. Author, among other books, of Sartre and the press (Mauad).


[1] Moacyr Félix died in 2005; Moacyr Scliar, in 2011; João Ubaldo Ribeiro, in 2014; and Ferreira Gullar, in 2016.

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