Brazilian left and republican tradition

Image: Dominique Zinkpè


Excerpts from the interview given to Ricardo Musse, on the occasion of the book launch

Situational studies

This genre has taken root among us since the military regime. Left-wing intellectuals have made situation analysis a recurring activity, even as a survival exercise. It was imperative to understand the terrain we were standing on. The situation fluctuated a lot, as the military regime was based on a composition of very heterogeneous forces. Many of the articles that Fernando Henrique Cardoso published in the 1970s and 1980s had this mark. Under the dictatorship, in the resistance circles of which I was part, we practiced this genre quite frequently. The tradition remained, including because the media chose intellectuals as privileged interpreters of the political situation, disseminating their analyses.

Interpretations from Brazil

It is possible to detect in each conjuncture study traces of the great interpretations of Brazil. The dominant axis in the contemporary understanding of the country is Raymundo Faoro's interpretation, supported by Simon Schwartzman's reading of the power holders. This matrix guides both the PSDB and PT programs. In fact, Fernando Collor's inauguration speech – written by José Guilherme Merquior, according to reports – also derives from Raymundo Faoro: the demonization of the State, the fatalistic vision that evaluates the 500 years of our history as a succession of disasters, in contrast to the conceptions that value the national dimension, history and Brazilian culture. Before the first inauguration, in a speech in the Senate, Fernando Henrique also spoke out in favor of a break with the “Vargas Era”.

The speech during the formation of the PT was based on similar arguments that were widely accepted: the denunciation of populism, identified with a Vargas legacy, as a factor in the disorganization of the subaltern classes, especially the working class.

The assessment of the situation is anchored in interpretations of Brazil based on the following disjunctive: do we have to break with our history – whether in a liberal or democratic-popular direction – or is it a history that we have to continue-discontinuing? The latter, valuing a republican culture, is the stance in which I try to establish myself.

The republican tradition

I see the Brazilian republican tradition as a permanent process of incorporation, through an incessant mobilization of the popular masses, always under the control of the elites. Since the Empire, we have conceived civilization as a project, a telos. The republican ideal did not emerge, among us, from the mercantile world, it was born in the public sphere, in the State. The price of this was that we always had precarious freedoms, under the control of ruling elites and corporate orders. But to this tradition we owe a political life and a conception of the public that were never restricted to the systemic mechanisms of the market.

Despite the weight of economic life in the last three decades, these institutional marks of our republican tradition were not cancelled, on the contrary, they were renewed, above all, in institutions linked to law, such as the Public Ministry. I don't know how long this will last. The world of the market continues to gain ground, especially after the predominance of the PSDB-PT axis. But there are also reasons and characters for resistance.

Iberia and Americanization

Iberia and America are very rooted in our society. We can feel the presence of America in the reasons for Independence, in the liberal rebellions of the Northeast, in the actions of intellectuals such as Tavares Bastos, Teófilo Otoni, Rui Barbosa. However, the advancement of mercantile interests, of “Americanism”, never reached the political level with a well-established project, as they lacked the courage to address the agrarian issue. They preached political reform, but stopped short of the need to democratize land ownership.

They thus allowed the Iberian tradition, with which we were born, to administer the State, defend the territory and the ideal of national unity, in addition to organizing public life. And, further ahead, with Vargas and JK, he led the modernization of the economy and the country based on strategic planning, as in the cases of labor legislation, oil and steel and the advance, with Brasília, towards the occupation of the West . The public sphere, therefore, by carrying the idea of ​​the modern, found its form of legitimization in the Brazilian republic. Certainly with the authoritarian staleness that we are only now beginning to shake off.

The unfinished transition

In the last decade of the military regime, we had, on a social and political level, a fantastic affirmative movement. Millions of people were mobilized. Workers' action was widespread, with strikes in categories that remained passive for decades. On the other hand, it was a moment of fatigue for liberal-democratic opinion – Ulysses Guimarães, Tancredo Neves, Franco Montoro. It was a very particular liberalism, anchored in a republican tradition that affirmed the public as a powerful dimension. This brand persisted in the 1988 Constitution, as a heteroclite composition between the Brazilian republican aspect and the new emerging interests.

The composition between intelligentsia, unions and political elite were successful in shortening the dictatorship's stay. But as the struggle progresses, the victorious political forces become disorganized. Fernando Collor clearly tried to give another outcome to the transition. He accepted the limits, imposed by the market, for regulatory intervention in the economic order. Fernando Henrique also entered this trap. With the Lula government this situation deepened.

The dictatorship of the market

I imagined, in 2002-2003, that the Lula government would promote a return to the republican tradition. There were signs in this direction: the inauguration speech, the creation of the Economic and Social Development Council – a corporate organization in the style of Getúlio Vargas –, the revaluation of the State and the national issue, etc. There was hope for a reinterpretation of the Iberian theme by “American” elites from the trade union movement.

The Iberian tradition is exhausted, there is no longer any way to run the country. The “Americans”, alone, also encounter difficulties, as the Collor episode demonstrated. The solution would be for “Americans” originating from socially emerging sectors to lead the Iberians, the modern driving the backwardness. Fernando Henrique made a mistake by allying himself with oligarchic backwardness and not with the ancient Iberia that made the country. In fact, our representatives of the modern world not only refused to lead Iberia but also capitulated to the interests of the Brazilian bourgeoisie.

Right, center and left

Brazilian society has lost its clarity. In the late 1980s, the political spectrum was defined quite precisely. There was a tripartition between liberals, under the command of Collor; the republican tradition, embodied in the PMDB and the political center; and on the left, the PT, with its social grammar. This subdivision today shapes the PT, and to some extent also the PSDB. We have the neoliberal PT, by Luiz Gushiken and Antonio Palocci; that of the prevalence of the national question, by Dilma Rousseff; and the left wing that continues to think about social issues outside the scope of politics.

The right-wing intellectuals that the newspaper Folha de S. Paul highlighted in a recent article were all created by the media. Without it, they would not exist as intellectuals, as they do not organically express the interests of the socially dominant classes. The true right in Brazil, and in the world, results from the naturalization of the existing state of affairs, from which it is accepted that we must be governed by market variables. Economists exercise a true pontificate over Brazilian political life.

Is another world possible?

The contemporary scene is hellish. There is no way to disregard the economic context. Another world will only be possible if we take this world into account as an effective reality. It is necessary to transform it from within. This is what the Palocci regime failed to do. There was no possibility of a rupture, but some dissent could have been opened. The first year of the Lula government appeared to show that it would be feasible to combine the BNDES wing, with Carlos Lessa, and Antonio Palocci's group. One side did not need to prevail over the other in such a devastating way as it did.

At the University and in public opinion, the tradition most capable of thinking about the country is being disarmed. Today we have a social science entirely crouched before the world, reverent to a blind empiricism that refuses to see the bankrupt state of our main political institutions. It has become a knowledge entirely given over to the naturalness of our sociology and speculating on it.

Up to intelligentsia Brazilian today, once again, an enlightening intervention on the state of affairs that is plaguing the country. The other side has done nothing but advance in its project of undoing what remains of the public in Brazilian society. The focus of resistance is still the 1988 Constitution, which institutionalized, in some way, the Brazilian republican tradition.

The New Puritans

One of the few new cultural manifestations that I notice in Brazil today is that of the Pentecostals, with their endogenous process of training pastors, generally coming from the popular world. The visible face of this phenomenon is entrepreneurship, the result of a new ethical conception of the individual and a pedagogy focused on work. This is a resurgence of the puritanism that flourished earlier in intelligentsia formed at the height of positivism – Euclides da Cunha, Luiz Carlos Prestes –, this time it is revived at the bottom of the social scale. This movement, instead of being relegated to limbo due to prejudices of a religious nature, needs to be mobilized by republican-oriented political forces, alongside the fundamental, traditionally established confessions, for political and social change.


PT and PSDB repeat the picture of the Empire when it was said: nothing more similar to a saquarema (conservative) than a luzia (liberal) in power. These are parties born from the world of interest in São Paulo, with the tendency to free the economy from political constraints. Both with a negative view of the Brazilian republican tradition, based on the denunciation of the patrimonial State; both adhere to the theory that considers populism as a practice that undermines the authenticity of social life. I have been highlighting this interpretative communion between the two since the 1980s. They are the twin towers of the Brazilian bourgeois order.

The PT after the crisis

An unresolved schism was established between Lula and the PT, which tends to worsen with Lula's re-election. If he wins, he will govern with the reasons of State, with the exception clauses, dictated by the market, that dominate Brazilian politics. It will not be a victory for the PT or the social movements. The PT will remain tied up. At no point did the president mobilize his party's cadres. The new ones were emptied, such as the Economic and Social Development Council. The very idea of ​​participatory budgeting has left the scene. In short, bureaucracy won, once again.

A party is like a football club – a fashionable metaphor –, it can lose seven times and it won't disappear. However, the PT lost its vigor and it was not just due to the passage of time, but due to politics. This government did not necessarily need to take the path it did.

The future of the country

The scenario we have is not very encouraging. But, I think there is a further horizon. I see promising signs in youth, culture and, especially, the energy of Brazilian popular life. The poor Brazilian is not a crouching Indian. We also have well-designed institutions, such as those that regulate electoral competitions; and with solid corporations, such as the judiciary and the Public Ministry. The 1988 Constitution, as a guide for social life, increasingly penetrates the consciousness of ordinary people.

*Luiz Werneck Vianna (1938-2024) He was a professor at the Department of Social Sciences at PUC-Rio. Author, among other books, of The Passive Revolution: Iberism and Americanism in Brazil (Revan).

Originally published in the newspaper Folha de S. Paul, notebook more!, on March 12, 2006.


Luiz Werneck Vianna. Brazilian left and republican tradition – Conjuncture studies on the FHC-Lula Era. Rio de Janeiro, Revan, 2006, 230 pages. []

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