suicidal state



Reflections on fascism and the problems of the political use of the death drive concept

La vie est un minotaure, elle dévore l'organisme (Buffon).


Enjoy the sacrifice of self

In the long and dispersed tradition of authors who dedicated themselves to describing the libidinal economy of fascism, there is at least one surprising point of convergence. It is likely that it was formulated for the first time by Theodor Adorno, back in 1946. Let us return to the conclusion of his text “Anti-Semitism and Fascist Propaganda”:

At this point attention must be paid to destructiveness as the psychological foundation of the fascist spirit […] It is no accident that all fascist agitators insist on the imminence of catastrophes of some kind. While warning of impending dangers, they and their followers are excited by the idea of ​​inevitable doom without even clearly differentiating between the destruction of their enemies and themselves […] This is the agitator's dream: a union of the horrible and the wonderful, a delusion of annihilation masquerading as salvation (Adorno, 2015, p. 152).

That is, it is a question of talking about destructiveness as the “psychological foundation” of fascism, and not just as a characteristic of immanent dynamics of social struggles and processes of conquest. For, if it were a question only of describing the violence of the conquest and perpetuation of power, it would be difficult to understand how one arrives at that point where it would not even be possible to clearly differentiate between the destruction of one's enemies and oneself, between annihilation and destruction. the Salvation. To account for the uniqueness of this fact, Adorno will speak, decades later, of a “desire for catastrophe”, of “end of the world fantasies” that socially resonate typical structures of paranoid delusions (Adorno, 2019, p. 26).[I]

Statements like those by Adorno aim to expose the uniqueness of patterns of violence in fascism. For it is not just a matter of generalizing the logic of militias directed against vulnerable groups, a logic through which state power is supported by a parastatal structure controlled by armed groups. Nor is it just a matter of leading subjects to believe that the impotence of ordinary life and constant plundering will be overcome through the individual strength of those who finally have the right to take the authorized production of violence for themselves. In this regard, we know how fascism offers a certain form of freedom, it has always been built on the vampirization of revolt.[ii] Nor is it a combination of indifference and extreme violence against historically abused groups. This articulation did not have to wait for fascism to appear, but it is present in all countries with a colonial tradition, with their technologies for the systematic destruction of populations.[iii]

However, if Adorno speaks of “psychological foundations”, it is because it is necessary to understand violence, mainly, as a psychic mutation device. A mutation that would have as its axis of development a certain generalization of destructiveness to the ways of relating to oneself, to the other and to the world. In this horizon, psychology is called upon to break the economic illusion of individuals as interests-maximizing agents. On the contrary, it would be necessary not to ignore libidinal investments in processes in which individuals clearly invest against their most immediate interests of self-preservation.

This diagnosis of a race towards self-sacrifice, in a process in which the figure of the protective state seems to give rise to a kind of predator state that even turns against itself.[iv] A state animated by the unstoppable dynamic of self-destruction of oneself and one's own social life was not exclusive to Frankfurtians. It could also be found in Hannah Arendt's analyses. It is enough to remember how, in 1951, Arendt (2013, p. 434) spoke of the astonishing fact that those who adhered to fascism did not waver even when they themselves became victims, even when the monster began to devour their own children.

These authors were sensitive, among others, to the fact that the fascist war was not a war of conquest and stabilization. It had no way to stop, giving us the impression that we were facing a “perpetual movement, without object or target”, whose impasses only led to an ever-increasing acceleration. Arendt (2013, p. 434) will speak of “the essence of totalitarian movements that can only remain in power as long as they are in motion and transmit movement to everything around them”. There is an unlimited war that means the total mobilization of the social force, the absolute militarization towards a conflict that becomes permanent.

Even during the war, Franz Neumann will provide a functional explanation for such permanent war dynamics. The so-called Nazi “State” would actually be the heteroclite and unstable composition of four groups in perpetual conflict for hegemony: the party, the armed forces and their Prussian aristocratic high command, big industry and the state bureaucracy:

Devoid of all common loyalty and concerned only with the preservation of their own interests, the ruling groups will split as soon as the miracle-producing leader finds a worthy opponent. For now, each group needs the other. The armed forces need the party because war is totalitarian. The armed forces cannot organize society “totally”, which is the task of the party. The party, in turn, needs the armed forces to win the war and thus stabilize and even expand its power. Both need monopoly industry to ensure continued expansion. And all three need bureaucracy to realize the technical rationality without which the system could not operate. Each group is sovereign and authoritative, each is equipped with legislative, administrative, and legal powers; each is able to quickly and ruthlessly make the necessary compromises between the four (Neumann, 2009, p. 397-398).

In other words, only the indefinite continuation of the war allowed this chaotic composition of sovereign and authoritarian groups to find a certain unity and stability. It was not, therefore, a question of a war of expansion and strengthening of the State, but of a war thought of as a strategy of indefinite postponement of a State on the road to disintegration, of indefinite postponement of a political order in a regime of collapse. And, to sustain such continuous mobilization, with its monstrous demand for effort and incessant losses, it is necessary for social life to organize itself under the specter of catastrophe, of constant risk invading every pore of the social body and of ever-increasing violence. necessary to allegedly immunize oneself from such a risk.[v] That is, the only way to postpone the disintegration of the political order, the tacit fragility of the order, would consist in managing, in a movement of continuous flirtation with the abyss, a junction between calls to self-destructiveness and the systematic reiteration of hetero-destructiveness.[vi]

It will not be by chance that, decades later, we will find some analysts suggesting the figure of the fascist State as a social body marked by an autoimmune disease: “the ultimate condition in which the protective apparatus becomes so aggressive that it turns against its own body ( that he should protect), leading to death” (Esposito, 2008, p. 116). The systematic presence of the topic of protection as immunization against the degeneration of the social body would, in fact, be an expression of the awareness of the deep antagonisms that cross a society in dynamics of radicalization of class struggles and revolutionary sedition. Since Hobbes, we know how the use of the topic of immunization against “diseases of the social body” is mobilized in situations of revolutionary upheaval.[vii] It would not be different in a preventive counterrevolution like fascism. This immunization will require the acceptance, by all actors of the order, of the militarization of society and the transformation of war into the only possible situation for producing the unity of the social body.

But even accepting such a hypothesis, there is still at least one point not entirely clear. For even an infinitely sustained war does not necessarily imply a self-sacrificial turn. It was to make this specificity even more explicit that, decades later, authors such as Paul Virilio (1976) coined the term “Suicidal State”. This was an astute way of going against the grain of the liberal discourse of equality between Nazism and Stalinism by insisting on the structure of violence as a distinguishing feature between the fascist state and other forms of totalitarian states. The term “suicidal” will prove to be fruitful because it was a way of remembering how a State of this nature should not be understood only as the manager of death for specific groups. He was the continual actor of his own catastrophe, the cultivator of his own explosion, the organizer of a thrust of society out of its own self-reproduction.[viii] According to Virilio, a State of this nature materialized in an exemplary way in a telegram. A telegram that had the number: Telegram 71. It was with him that, in 1945, Adolf Hitler proclaimed the fate of a war that was then lost. He said: "If the war is lost, let the nation perish". With him, Hitler demanded that the German army itself destroy what was left of infrastructure in the weakened nation that saw the war lost. As if that were the true end goal: that the nation perish by its own hands, by the hands of what it has unleashed.


The politics of suicide and the death drive

The discussion on the “suicidal” nature of the fascist State was resumed in the same year by Michel Foucault, in his seminar in defense of society (in an unjustified and deeply mistaken approach to the violence of real socialism) and years later by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, in thousand plateaus. Faced with the destructiveness regime inherent to fascism and its permanent movement, Deleuze and Guattari will suggest the figure of an uncontrolled war machine that would have appropriated the State, creating not exactly a totalitarian State concerned with the extermination of its opponents, but a State suicidal incapable of fighting for his own preservation. Hence why it was the case to state: “There is in fascism a realized nihilism. This is because, unlike the Totalitarian State, which strives to close all possible lines of flight, fascism is built on an intense line of flight, which it transforms into a line of pure destruction and abolition. It is curious how, from the beginning, the Nazis announced to Germany what they would bring: at the same time the nuptials and death, including their own death and the death of the Germans […] A war machine that had only war as its object and who would rather abolish his own serfs than stop the destruction.” (Deleuze; Guattari, 1980, p. 281).

As can be seen, 30 years later and in a different philosophical tradition, the topic initially addressed by Adorno returns, including the memory of the alliance between annihilation and salvation. But, in deepening this point, Guattari will go one step further and will not have problems in stating that the production of a line of destruction and a pure “passion for abolition” would be related to “the tuning fork of the collective death drive that would have liberated from the ditches of the First World War” (Guattari, 2012, p. 67). This allowed him to state that the masses had invested, in the fascist machine, “a fantastic collective death drive” that allowed them to abolish, in a “phantom of catastrophe” (p. 70),[ix] a reality they detested and to which the revolutionary left did not know how to provide any other response.

According to this reading, the left would never have been able to provide the masses with a real alternative for rupture, which necessarily involved the abolition of the State, its immanent processes of individuation and its repressive disciplinary dynamics. This is Guattari's way of following statements by William Reich (1996, p. 17) such as “Fascism is not, as one tends to believe, a purely reactionary movement, but it presents itself as an amalgamation of revolutionary emotions and reactionary social concepts”. The issue could not be reduced to what fascism forbids, but what it authorizes must be understood, the type of revolt it gives form to, or even the libidinal energy it is able to capture.

It reminds us that there are many ways to destroy the state, and one of them, the counterrevolutionary way proper to fascism, would be to accelerate towards its own catastrophe, even if it costs our lives. As I would like to show later on, the suicidal State would be capable of making the revolt against the unjust State, against the authorities that excluded us, the ritual of self-liquidation in the name of the belief in the sovereign will and in the preservation of a leadership that must enact your omnipotence ritual even when your powerlessness is already clear. In this way, the notion of fascism as a preventive counterrevolution and as a form of pure and simple abolition of the State through the self-immolation of the people linked to it are added.

But here we could ask ourselves whether the death drive hypothesis is, after all, the true name of the psychological foundation of fascist destructiveness. What could she bring us? For this initially seems to put us before the classic topic of the alleged immanent destructiveness of the human order, of primary hostility among humans as a permanent factor threatening social integration.[X]Let us remember how, when asking himself about the reasons for the war, in view of the impacts of the First War, Freud in fact mobilizes the instinct of destruction, this instinct that acts within every living being and strives to lead it to disintegration, in making life regress to the state of inanimate matter. But this serves, at best, as a generic and ahistorical explanation of the libidinal bases that can be mobilized by States that use the topic of total war and extermination as a model of social management.

In this sense, the risk of such an appeal to the death drive seems to be in resorting to a certain “metaphysical core” of politics, with its idea of ​​irreducible violence in interpersonal relationships. Ultimately, and this is perhaps the biggest problem, it would tend to turn all violence and destructiveness within political conflicts into the expression of a drive that would be the reverse of politics. There were many times when the death drive was called upon to play the role of the reverse side of politics, in a formula that would eventually resurrect a certain humanism, with a strongly moralistic nature, of those who allegedly defend the “forces of life” (which means always “life as it is configured today”) against the “empire of death”. It was in this way that we saw, for example, the death drive being evoked as the name of what is hidden behind “international terrorism”, “direct actions”, among others.[xi]

In any case, this is not what we will find in the hypothesis of the suicidal state of Deleuze and Guattari.[xii] It is with this risk in mind that Guattari (2012, p. 52) will say that the death drive is not a “thing in itself”, that it is only constituted when “we leave the terrain of desiring intensities for this of representation”.[xiii] Even in thousand plateaus we find statements such as: “we do not invoke any death drive” as an alleged drive immanent to desire. This is a way of stating that there would be a historical metamorphosis responsible for the advent of the death drive, a proposition that is far from the Freudian hypothesis of the biological inscription of the death drive.

The insistence on this possible specific historical metamorphosis aims, in its own way, to free the Freudian topic of the immanent self-destructiveness of the organism from its immediate translation into a policy of terroristic disintegration of the social body. In previous works, Deleuze demonstrated that he was aware that the Freudian discovery could not be restricted to the forms of war dynamics that imply simple self-destruction.

Em Difference and repetition, we found, for example, the idea of ​​the death instinct as a drive base for depersonalization processes that were closer to the aesthetic impulses of criticism of egologically determined expression. Hence the statement that: “The death instinct is discovered not in relation to destructive tendencies, not in relation to aggressiveness, but in terms of a direct consideration of the phenomena of repetition. In a bizarre way, the death instinct serves as an original positive principle for repetition, that is its domain and its meaning. It plays the role of a transcendental principle whereas the pleasure principle is only psychological” (Deleuze, 1969, p. 27).[xiv][xv]

It will not be by chance that the notion of repetition as a transcendental principle will be invoked when talking about Proust and the series of repetitions through which affective relationships are related to a virtual object, opening space for the possible experience of the pure form of time. Or, still, to speak of a search, proper to the aesthetic experience, “determined by its indetermination”, that is, by what Maurice Blanchot (1955, p. 111), thinking about Kafka's writing, describes as an extreme negativity that , “in death made possible, work and time, it allows finding the measure of the absolutely positive”.[xvi] In this case, another form of link between self-destruction and hetero-destruction appears as possible. At that moment, Deleuze (1969, p. 148) believes that this productive aspect of the Freudian construction would still be trapped in the “object model of an inanimate indifferent matter”, which we should get rid of. And it is possibly the need, a decade later, to more clearly separate the potency of this “original positive principle” that will lead Deleuze and Guattari (1980, p. 198) to state: “Self-destructions are invented that are not confused with the drive to death. Undoing the organism never meant killing oneself, but opening the body to connections that presuppose an entire assemblage, circuits, conjunctions, levels and thresholds, passages, distributions, intensities, territories and deterritorializations measured in the manner of a survey”.

We can say that, in this way, it is about operating a separation in which a kind of “aesthetic matrix of the death drive” can be thematized in its specificity, despite a certain “political matrix of the death drive” linked, originally, to the theme of the impacts of the First World War. A separation that we can even find in Jacques Lacan, when he speaks of the death drive as a “creationist sublimation”.[xvii] Let us also note how what we can call the “aesthetic matrix of the death drive” recovers, in a productive key, the proximity perceived by Jean Laplanche between the fragmentary and polymorphic character of the sexual drive of the first topic and the force of disconnection proper to the drive of death. death in the second freudian topic.[xviii]

This aesthetic matrix resonates the disruptive potential of the Freudian concept of Unheimlichkeit: a concept resulting from Freud's reflections on certain aspects of romantic aesthetics. It is not by chance that the Freudian text on the concept is written at the same time as the first five chapters of Beyond the pleasure principle.

Let us recall how, not by chance, unheimlich it is initially said of phenomena that blur the distinction between the living and the dead, between the animate and the inanimate (Freud, 1995, p. 237). Phenomena that provoke the similarity between the inanimate and the living. Freud addresses them, among others, through examples of fascination with doubles, which, according to his interpretation, carry the condition of “unsettling messengers of death” (p. 238). He still speaks of the desire for repetitions that provoke helplessness and restlessness. Even when describing the repetition compulsion in In addition to the pleasure principle, Freud will provide a double axis for understanding the phenomenon: one linked to war neuroses, the other linked to children's games. That is, if one axis leads us to psychic destruction, the other places us in front of a productive process in which the traumatic experiences of loss and annulment are symbolized in such a way as to open a new field of relationality and action.

In other words, it should be remembered that the death drive has a triple origin within Freudian thought: a historical-political one, linked to the mobilization of destructiveness by the modern State in an unstoppable dynamic of state administration of extermination; an aesthetic, linked to the decentering force inherent to processes of depersonalization and criticism of egologically determined expression; and a biological one, linked to the unique dynamic of organisms to produce death by their own means.[xx]

Taking this into account, we have the right to ask ourselves whether the political recovery of this aesthetic matrix of the death drive (and perhaps this is what would, in fact, be at stake in the thought of Deleuze and Guattari) would not open us up to a post-death politics. humanist, in which the theme of the junction between self-destruction and hetero-destruction could be conjugated in a way that is not exactly suicidal, but linked to structural transformations that would allow the emergence of political subjectivities that are no longer dependent on the perpetuation of the figures of the individual and conscience. This would lead us to admit that the articulation between drive and politics could serve, in this case, to think about the drive bases of the desire for social experiences of decentering and identity criticism. In other words, drive bases for a certain “revolutionary becoming of people”. A becoming that will always begin with the affirmation that death by its own means will be better than the life it proposes to us. This path of reflection has yet to be explored in a more systematic way.[xx]

We should also note that such variability in the political problem of violence and destructiveness may show the uselessness of using the death drive as a concept with a strong explanatory potential for political phenomena. If the death drive can be the basis of both suicidal dynamics and revolutionary processes of structural transformation, if it can be the basis of both the worst regressions and the most desired transformations, then one has to wonder about its real usefulness in clarifying the field of the politician. Which does not mean that the topic of the “Suicidal State” does not have its interest and its function, although perhaps we are obliged to approach it from another angle.

This would lead us, finally, to be more critical in relation to the use of the concept of death drive to account for the specificity of the regime of violence in fascism. Because, even admitting that there are destinies of the drive that can be realized as brute and direct destructiveness, it would be necessary not to be satisfied with the ghost of pure annihilation and ask yourself what is positive in this fascist quest for the self-destruction of the people.

*Vladimir Safatle He is a professor of philosophy at USP. Author, among other books, of Ways of transforming worlds: Lacan, politics and emancipation (Authentic).

Initial excerpt from the collection's chapter Time, organized by Daniela Teperman, Thaís Garrafa and Vera Iaconelli. Belo Horizonte, Authentic, 2021.



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[I] Adorno and Horkheimer had already insisted on fascism as a social pathology of a paranoid nature in Dialectic of Enlightenment (ADORNO; HORKHEIMER, 1992).

[ii] “The rebellion against institutionalized laws becomes lawlessness and the authorization of brute force at the service of established powers” ​​(HORKHEIMER, 2007, p. 81).

[iii] Not by chance, technologies for managing social violence, such as concentration and segregation camps, were initially developed in colonial situations. See, for example, Roubinek (2016).

[iv] On the figure of the “predator state”, see, for example, Chamayou (2016).

[v] Hence the meaning of statements like these by Goebbels: “In the world of absolute fatality within which Hitler moves, nothing makes sense anymore, neither good nor evil, neither time nor space, and what other men call of 'success' cannot serve as a criterion [...] It is likely that Hitler will end in catastrophe” (apoud HEIBER, 2013).

[vi] As we found in Balibar [sd].

[vii] See Thomas Hobbes on “the diseases of commonwealth" in Leviathan, chap. XXIX.

[viii] “So we have in Nazi society this absolutely extraordinary thing: a society that absolutely generalized biopower, but which, at the same time, generalized the sovereign right to kill [...]. The Nazi state made absolutely coextensive the field of a life that it manages, protects, guarantees biologically and, at the same time, the sovereign right to kill anyone – not just others, but its own […]. We have an absolutely racist State, an absolutely murderous State and an absolutely suicidal State” (FOUCAULT, 1997, p. 232).

[ix] “All fascist meanings reverberate in a representation composed of love and death. Eros and Thanatos unite. Hitler and the Nazis were fighting for the death, even the death of Germany. And the German masses agreed to follow him to their own destruction” (GUATTARI, 2012, p. 70).

[X] As we can find in Derrida (1995).

[xi] See, for example, Roudinesco (2015) or Enriquez (2003).

[xii] Even if this is Land's (2007) accusation.

[xiii] Note that Deleuze is more reticent than Guattari in using the concept of death drive. So much so that he will state: “each time a line of flight becomes a line of death we do not invoke an inner drive of the 'death instinct' type, we invoke an assemblage of desire that brings into play a machine definable objectively or extrinsically. ” (DELEUZE; PARNET, 1996, p. 171).

[xiv] This position is still present in the anti-Oedipus “The death instinct is pure silence, pure transcendence, not given in experience. This point is absolutely impressive: it is because death, according to Freud, has neither a model nor an experience, that he makes of it a transcendent principle” (DELEUZE; GUATTARI,

[xv] p. 397).

[xvi] It is with this in mind that we must read Deleuze's fundamental passage: "a state of free differences that are no longer subjected to the form given them by an I, that develops into a figure that excludes my own coherence at the same time in than the coherence of any identity. There is always a deeper 'one dies' than an 'I die'” (DELEUZE, 1969, p. 148).

[xvii] “The death drive is a creationist sublimation, linked to the structural element that means that, as long as we relate to whatever it is that presents itself in the form of the signifying chain, there is somewhere, but surely outside the world of nature, the beyond this chain, the ex nihilo on which it is founded and articulated as such” (LACAN, 1986, p. 252).

[xviii] As Laplanche (1990, p. 123) states: “Eros is what seeks to maintain, preserve and even increase the cohesion and synthetic tendency of both the living being and the psychic life. Whereas, since the origins of psychoanalysis, sexuality was, by essence, hostile to bonding, the principle of 'disengagement' or triggering (Entbildung) which was only linked through the intervention of the Ego, what appears with Eros is the connected and binding form of sexuality, highlighted by the discovery of narcissism”.

[xx] This point, long discredited, has been recovered by contemporary biologists such as Jean-Claude Ameisen and Henri Atlan.

[xx] In this regard, see also: Martins, 2021.

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