Florestan Fernandes – Political science

Dora Longo Bahia, Paraíso – Consolação (project for Avenida Paulista), 2019 Acrylic, water-based pen and watercolor on paper (24 pieces) - 29.7 x 21 cm each


One of the legacies of Florestan Fernandes was also the creation of a political science

Since postgraduate programs in social sciences (and even in human sciences) were consolidated in the 1980s and 1990s, no discipline has acquired such notoriety and status positive as political science. Created in the United States at the beginning of the XNUMXth century, it was brought to Brazil, as we know it today, as a study of political institutions and the behavior of their agents, by three young researchers in the social sciences. Bolívar Lamounier, Wanderley Guilherme dos Santos and Fábio Wanderley Reis broke ground practically unknown in Brazilian universities. As every discipline that wants not only to acquire space in areas of knowledge already established in science, but also to start its own disciplinary ethos, with its codes, habits, rituals, specific methods of research, its own language and vocabulary and the selection of punctual figures in the conformation of the field, political science challenged consecrated knowledge and representative personalities. This is the case of São Paulo sociology and the eminent presence that enunciated it with greater vigor and academic prestige, Florestan Fernandes. Since then, it has been established in our social sciences and in our public debate that Florestan Fernandes dealt with exuberance and incomparably the most important problems of Brazilian society, “without concern” cognitive, epistemic and specific with the constitutive institutions of the political system in Brazil. Thus, even without clearer and more directly addressed enunciations, the assumptions of the founders of Brazilian political science and the heirs of the initiatory legacy aimed to dispute the symbols of glorification and respectability of USP sociology and its pioneering master. Here there was (and is) an articulation of political, disciplinary and professional interests.

It can be said that the dispositions of the announcers of the new national political science converged with the type of democracy that would be built in the country after the end of the dictatorship in 1984. More specifically, the democratic regime would become the constitutive object to which the social sciences, in particular political science, should focus their elaboration and research efforts. Thus, while in the 1930s and 1980s our social sciences sought to understand the characteristics of the Brazilian social formation, the conditions of national development and what had led to the military-business coup of 1964, from the transition onwards, intellectual resources had to be focused on the understanding of the newly established democracy. However, the point is what standard of democracy did we want? And, consequently, what did the political science under construction want? The political science of this period, at least that practiced by those who disputed the spaces of prestige and consecration with the São Paulo sociology of Florestan Fernandes, understood democracy as a structure of institutional arrangements that would give irrefutable importance to formalist procedures. Bolivar Lamounier[1], one of the artificers of our political science will say that “the faith in development and modernization” as axes of democracy is naive. In this way, models of interpretation such as those of Florestan Fernandes (and Celso Furtado) are “anemic” for thinking, understanding and consolidating democracy in institutional and procedural terms: certain formalisms are more important in the context of post-dictatorship democracy than any evaluative and substantive model, however minimal. In other words, it was necessary in “Brazilian political science [to give] due attention to the institutional sphere”[2]. Indeed, attention to our industrialization guideline, the complex processes of urbanization, the relationship with the hegemonic central economies, the way of the Brazilian people as such and the character of the class exploitation of a country with a slavery matrix had to be placed in background in nascent political science. Now, the focus of the research should take a rigorous look at: the exclusive game of the political elites, the systems of government, electoral, party, parties and the behavior of intra-institutional actors. In brief: democracy depended on the constant inquiry “by” political science of the quality of the arrangements of the “political-institutional structure of the country”[3]. Since then, political science, exercised in the terms of its founders, has had a distinguished voice in dealing with the “democratic” policy that governs us.

However, on this centenary of the birth of Florestan Fernandes, it is suggestive that we return to his style of doing political science. Not to establish a sterile competition between disciplinary fields and names that represent them symbolically – it is about deepening our critical understanding of the policy practiced in Brazil and the reasons for it. And if political science, disciplinary and institutionally based, had and has loyal commitments to the formal procedures of Brazilian democracy – a way that is clearly conservative in certain aspects, just like its American progenitor[4], and which revealed that trait in the context of the 2016 coup against the Dilma Rousseff government, as there were few political scientists who did not “subscribe” to the supposed legal and institutional rites of the impeachment process and political legitimacy (but this requires and awaits another text) – “independent” of its response to the fundamentally substantive problems of society (material, social, economic, cultural), Florestanian political science constitutes a radical, even revolutionary, critique of the policy exercised in Brazil, even the so-called policy democratic. In addition to the almost obvious reference to the monumental and decisive work of Florestan Fernandes, The Bourgeois Revolution in Brazil: essay of sociological interpretation, let’s see three moments, three texts, from the sociologist’s theoretical corpus that can (and should) be read as a critical political science aimed at subalterns and their expectations of social transformation in Brazil, namely: The Political Science of Karl Mannheim de 1946, Social Changes in Brazil 1974 and the The Contradictions of Dependent Capitalism of 1995.

It follows, then, that the history of disciplinary disputes are not always spaces for clarifying who actually built what from the point of view of publishing texts, use of identification names, specific terms and vocabulary. Few say that sociology "began" with Montesquieu and his social, cultural, and moral analysis of the conditions of successful law; we will hardly find anyone defending that political economy was already theorized in Locke's texts from when he approached wealth and the constitution of property originated from work (the one who reaps the fruit has the right to it and its monetary implications) and yet, who will affirm vehemently that the critique of taste and habits before gaining theoretical and rigorous modes of conceptualization with Pierre Bourdieu in The Distinction e Class Tastes, Lifestyles she appears in der Marcel Proust's avant-garde modern novel, the In Search of the Lost Time. With Florestan Fernandes the same thing happens. Who, in a discipline with such a specific and technical perspective as political science, and which, as we said, has just gained academic-institutional (and political) strength and prestige; in other words, with a rigid crust of own research styles (in the approach to its objects) and reverence for excellent university research (this must be recognized) – one would imagine that in 1946 the founder of our social (scientific) sciences published a article for discipline.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that perhaps the name-term political science first appeared in our academic and university world in Karl Mannheim's Conception of Political Science. Result of a final essay for a course given by Florestan Fernandes at Graduate School of Sociology and Politics (course offered by Emílio Willems' anthropology chair), what do we find in this initiatory text?

In it, the young Florestan already outlines his concerns in thinking about the subjects of the social sciences with rigor and scientificity, but without failing to observe the concrete dynamics of life in society in a critical way. And for Florestan, a political science that did not do so would be compromising its status as a human discipline. Hence the relevance of Karl Mannheim, in the course of Florestan Fernandes. In the author of Ideology and Utopia he will find politics being investigated not as a static and perennial institution – political science for the German sociologist had to be seen in the context of “cultural changes”[5]. Thus, the objective of political science, in Mannheimian terms, consists “in the scientific study of the spheres of social reality in the process of to become"[6]. Becoming or social becoming; this is the constitutive nucleus of Florestan Fernandes' political science here at this initial moment. Thus, starting from Mannheim, the sociologist from São Paulo will develop a theory about the study of politics, which is significantly peculiar. Those who are used to observing a political science that is disciplinary and politically “rational” and positivist – and mimicking the institutional process of power – will be surprised by the Florestanian notion, at least in the aforementioned essay, of the investigation of politics referenced by “irrational social situations ”[7] that oppose norms and structured arrangements.

Now, in its non-institutional aspect, politics (and the science that investigates it) makes explicit variable zones of irrationality: for Florestan Fernandes, in a Durkheimian echo, while sociology deals with systems and social organizations “subject to norms”[8] of behavior (static), political science has to deal with circumstances of extreme malleability of social life. It is that in corporate practice, especially in moments of greater social, cultural and moral tension, there are “groups and/or social strata”, presumably subaltern and marginalized given Florestan’s ever-present concerns, “which, in successive generations, aim to to submit [I would say subvert] [the] situations [of] rational control”[9]. The irrationality of action and active living (and its conceptual expression, the to become political) as one of the perspectives (the most important, perhaps) of the social process – it is the very subject of Florestan Fernandes' political science. He will say: “it is through the collective element that the manifestation of interactive social processes and the action of man help to forge the process of becoming. In summary; politics as a science must give concrete guidance for action, in terms of a broader point of view […] [and looking at] social zones in constant flux […]”[10]. Political science, indeed, can be, as Florestan teaches us, a creative and inventive (scientific) activity: and not exclusively inert because it is exclusively focused on political institutions.

It would not be by chance, therefore, that one of the concerns in the sociology (and in political science) of Florestan has been the problems of social change (the constant and sometimes irrational flow) in peripheral societies, and the Brazilian one with greater attention. Any social science constituted in the labyrinthine soil of an undeveloped, non-hegemonic society, such as Brazil, that does not have scientific issues on the horizon, the circumstances of social change will be committing damage against itself and the country it inhabits. Social change and the way in which it was approached by Florestan Fernandes are indexes of what we are calling here the political science of the master of national sociology. Indeed, to understand the complexities of social change in societies with dependent formation is to place oneself from a “critical and participant perspective”[11]. For this reason, in the essays that make up the Social Changes in Brazil, we find Florestan presenting the notion of “excess power”[12] that the ruling classes incessantly seek to keep to themselves – even with the conformation of social and, sometimes, economic metamorphoses.

Thus, with the notion of “surplus power”, typical of a political science (from the periphery of capitalism), which critically observes the rudeness of political-institutional power when dealing with salaried, marginal, Social Changes in Brazil is aware of the characteristic fact that even in intense dynamic processes and with a high capacity for changing the forms of organization of Brazilian society, the social changes that occur here still allow “the ruling classes [...] to use the State as a bastion of self-defence and attack, thus imposing their class privileges 'in the interests of the Nation as a whole', and that from the top down”[13]. Florestan Fernandes is telling us that the cunning (cruel and violent) of our ruling elites always creates political-institutional and political-organizational elements for itself, in order to protect it from the irruption of “dispossessed actors”[14]. Now, and although in a certain way it can promote social changes, the Brazilian ruling class, understanding from the colony who are its main enemies (black men and women enslaved and formerly enslaved, a rebellious mass of workers, marginalized by the rationality of the economic system, non-conformist black women fighting for their children and the community – Marielle Franco is an example of this – and young black workers and peripherals) transform the State “not into a mere committee of the private interests of the bourgeoisie”[15]; the State and its institutions here “become[m] a terrible weapon of oppression and repression, which must serve particular interests [...] of preservation and expansion of economic, sociocultural and political privileges [and exploitation]”[16]. A political science that deals with our party game, our coalition Executive, our regimental voting system, our interested composition of ministries, the practical language of our judiciary and its readiness to serve the dominant classes by not observing the surplus of power will be just a few steps away of looking only and fixedly at the political institutions in which the elites live, outlining their plans and with their backs to society where the fight for (dignified) existence is a daily battle: a fight against even the weapon of oppression and repression mobilized by those. This was certainly not the political science of Florestan Fernandes. That is why sometimes it feels strange to read him as also exercising this noble discipline. What were the bases of the constrained modality of social changes in Brazil?

The social changes in Brazil that, each time they occurred, replaced (and replace) the excess of power of our dominant classes and elites had their socio-historical structuring bases the dynamics of what Florestan Fernandes called the contradictions of dependent capitalism. In this topic of his theoretical and intellectual interventions he is specifically concerned with the political and economic peculiarities of countries that are not part of monopoly capitalism – “those advanced countries of Europe [and the] United States”[17] and their respective bourgeoisies. The point of interpretation here will be to understand the political struggle of societies, in the specific case of Brazil, in which “bourgeois domination […] did not [make] history through the national revolution and its acceleration, but […] [made] the conversely, the path of its containment and emptying[18]”. Now, Florestanian political science is attentive, once the substantive differentiation between monopoly capitalism and dependent capitalism has been established in the concrete and active configuration of “State power”[19]. So that more than a rigorous and scientific approach aimed at delineating the field of sociology, Florestan Fernandes is concerned with the real political impact of the type of bourgeois revolution in Brazil. If, in hegemonic societies, social changes – the becoming – managed to spread across the nation and accelerate socioeconomic, sociocultural and, above all, sociopolitical processes, in dependent capitalism there is the “reverse”[20], because around here the cycles of the bourgeois revolution (Octávio Ianni) when they appear, they centralize power. Thus, although our institutions acquire internal complexity as a constitutive structure of the State – the latter, as such, and, contradictorily, in the development of its functions, adapting to social changes, makes its political power over the working classes and the group of marginalized “without frills” ”. I.e; a cohesive, occult, vile and violent state-political power without any pretense.

Within the limits of this space and text, we can only indicate that, in explanatory terms, Florestan was essentially astute in observing that in societies of structural dependence there is a “dissociation [in] […] the process”[21] Social. By which the elites of the moment manage to separate “development at the economic level [from its extension] at the political level”[22]. More precisely: the political level changes without changing and sometimes regresses to cruel institutional arrangements (as we have been witnessing with the Bolsonarist group since 2018). open and democratic society […] built [that is] an abyss”[23] between the “spheres of life”[24] in Brazilian society. In the black social agent, this particularity was explicit. At various times in Brazil’s political history, it is possible to observe intense processes in the “pace of economic growth, […] [for example], the transition to industrialism”[25] and the increase of our insertion in the complexity of the global chains of production in the last decades, but in the same movement of the contradictory totality we see “the pure and simple counter-revolution in the [state] political plane (transformation of the authoritarian representative State pure and simple in the police State -military ultra-repressive)”[26] – and then, or again, the reorganization of the power elite (to remember the happy expression and work of Florestan Fernandes's American combat companion, the accursed sociologist, Charles Wright Mills) in the democratic-autocratic State (post-1984) so ​​well analyzed by the master of Maria Antonia. (In Lincoln Secco’s Florestanian formulation, updating that interpretation to the present day: the creation by our ruling class of a “military-robed democracy”.)

What is always and consciously sacrificed is democracy; that eventually could become a space for articulation, organization and rebellion of the “more or less marginalized and excluded from the nation”[27]. Thus, our governmental institutions, argues the political science of Florestan Fernandes, systematically acquire the aspect of a non-negotiable sphere of “re-aggregation and […] reorientation of bourgeois domination [that seeks] to adapt[ itself] to the complex and drastic demands of a […] transition to monopoly capitalism”[28] and more recently to surveillance capitalism.

In this sense, what calls attention in Florestan's political science is the peculiarity of the set of concepts, terms and expressions that are engendered in the interpretation of power in Brazil. check in The Contradictions of Dependent Capitalism decisive sentences for the study of politics on national soil; in a way that, always attentive to our particularities, Florestan mobilizes notions such as: “investor states”, “safe political space [for the elite]”, “perfect oligarchy arena”, “exclusive monopoly of State power”, “containment and emptying of democracy”, “disguised neocolonialism”, “composite hegemony” and “autocratic bourgeoisie”[29]. However, this constellation of categories and formulations was actually the desire for critical intervention (from the left) of an engaged intellectual (a radical publicist, as my classmate Bernardo Ricupero says) in the struggle for those from below. Because against the grain, Florestan Fernandes knew that for the “becoming” and “effective social change” – the transformation and emancipation of the Brazilian dependent society –, for the destruction of the “systematic use of the police-military power of the governments” and of the ruling elite , it was necessary to disseminate a political science that would warn that material power had to be faced by another material power: it is urgently necessary to oppose the “social volcano” to our political institutions (always ready for counter-revolution).[30] of the marginalized people, of the masses, always excluded and despised.

A political science – well understood things about our appreciation for the plurality of conceptions of methods of investigation of high methodological refinement, of researchers with fine expertise, of rigorous collection of statistical data and theoretical models – that in Brazil does not glimpse “justice of [and for] the people by [their] own [initiative]”[31], because he doesn't want to look around him; can look at at least every period the Statistical Yearbooks from the moment. This was one of the legacies of Florestan Fernandes – the creation, too, of a political science.

*Ronaldo Tadeu de Souza is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Political Science at USP.


[1] Conf. Bolívar Lamounier – Redemocratization and Study of Political Institutions in Brazil. Sergio Miceli (org.) Themes and Problems of Research in Social Sciences. São Paulo: Sumaré/Fapesp: Rio de Janeiro: Ford Foundation, 1992.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] See about this João Feres Jr. Learning from the mistakes of others: what the history of American political science has to tell us. Sociology and Politics Magazine, no. 15, 2000.

[5]Florestan Fernandes – Karl Mannheim's Conception of Political Science. In: Elements of Theoretical Sociology. São Paulo. Companhia Editora Nacional, 1974, p. 225.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibidem, p. 227.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibidem, p. 226.

[10] Ibid., pp. 226 and 257.

[11] Florestan Fernandes – Social Changes in Brazil. In: Octávio Ianni (org.) Florestan Fernandes. Attica, 1986, pg. 138.

[12] Ibidem, p. 145.

[13] Ibidem, p. 144.

[14] Ibidem, p. 145.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Florestan Fernandes - The Contradictions of Dependent Capitalism. In: In Search of Socialism: Latest Writings & Other Texts. Shaman, 1995, pg. 125.

[18] Ibidem, p. 126.

[19] Ibidem, p. 127.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibidem, p. 128.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Maria Arminda Nascimento Arruda – A Sociology of Intellectual Expulsion. In: Florestan Fernandes –Closed Loop: Four Essays on Institutional Power. Globe, 2010, p. 15.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibidem, p. 126.

[28] Ibidem, p. 135.

[29] Ibid, pp. 124-164.

[30]Ibidem, p. 130.

[31] Ibid.

See this link for all articles


  • Introduction to “Capital” by Karl Marxred triangular culture 02/06/2024 By ELEUTÉRIO FS PRADO: Commentary on the book by Michael Heinrich
  • About artificial ignoranceEugenio Bucci 15/06/2024 By EUGÊNIO BUCCI: Today, ignorance is not an uninhabited house, devoid of ideas, but a building full of disjointed nonsense, a goo of heavy density that occupies every space
  • Franz Kafka, libertarian spiritFranz Kafka, libertarian spirit 13/06/2024 By MICHAEL LÖWY: Notes on the occasion of the centenary of the death of the Czech writer
  • Impasses and solutions for the political momentjose dirceu 12/06/2024 By JOSÉ DIRCEU: The development program must be the basis of a political commitment from the democratic front
  • Union registrationSUBWAY 11/06/2024 By LAWRENCE ESTIVALET DE MELLO & RENATA QUEIROZ DUTRA: The Ministry of Labor has decided to grant union registration to Proifes. However, union registration is not the same as union representation
  • The strike at federal Universities and Institutescorridor glazing 01/06/2024 By ROBERTO LEHER: The government disconnects from its effective social base by removing those who fought against Jair Bolsonaro from the political table
  • Confessions of a Catholic LadyMarilia Pacheco Fiorillo 11/06/2024 By MARILIA PACHECO FIORILLO: Congenital reactionism is not only the preserve of evangelicals
  • The STF, Artificial Intelligence and the Labor Courtsouto-maior_edited 07/06/2024 By JORGE LUIZ SOUTO MAIOR: The implementation of the replacement of the human being by AI presupposes that it has already been trained to act in the way desired by the ruling class
  • A myopic logicRED MAN WALKING _ 12/06/2024 By LUIS FELIPE MIGUEL: The government does not have the political will to make education a priority, while it courts the military or highway police, who do not move a millimeter away from the Bolsonarism that they continue to support
  • Strengthen PROIFESclassroom 54mf 15/06/2024 By GIL VICENTE REIS DE FIGUEIREDO: The attempt to cancel PROIFES and, at the same time, turn a blind eye to the errors of ANDES management is a disservice to the construction of a new representation scenario