Florestan Fernandes – I

Carlos Zilio, SÓ, 1970, felt-tip pen on paper, 47x32,5
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By EMILIA VIOTTI DA COSTA*

Commentary on the political trajectory and academic work of the sociologist, whose centenary is celebrated this month

How to reconcile academic rigor and political militancy is a question that has tormented, if not paralyzed, many intellectuals of our time. There are few who, like Florestan Fernandes, managed to satisfy the sometimes contradictory demands of these two types of involvement.

Most ended up succumbing to the challenge, or abandoned intellectual work to dedicate themselves to politics, or sacrificed militancy to the demands of academia. This dilemma is peculiar to our time, when the intellectual became professional and his activities as a teacher, researcher and writer became increasingly absorbing, to the detriment of political engagement. For this reason, many intellectuals stopped believing in engaged culture and the term itself became suspect. The polarization caused by the Cold War also contributed to this, which led to confrontations and persecutions, reducing the space of freedom within the university.

In Brazil in the 60s, the university paid its price. Several renowned intellectuals were removed from their positions, with enormous damage to teaching and research - among them Florestan Fernandes, who at the time occupied a chair in sociology at the University of São Paulo. Years later, with the amnesty, many returned to university. Others preferred to continue their work on the margins of it. That was Florestan Fernandes' choice.

Once the military repression ended, another, more insidious form of repression took hold. Academic competition continued the work of repression that the state had begun. Florestan's work has been the target of criticism. Florestan felt isolated: “I came to think that I wasn't repressed by the dictatorship, but by my former companions”, he confessed. But he continued, with the same vigor, to publish his books, always remaining faithful to his ideas and political militancy. Although he has always been a free spirit, averse to party discipline and jealous of his independence, in 1986 he accepted the PT's invitation to run for federal deputy. He was elected by a wide margin of votes.

The committed cultural practice that characterized the 60s –and which subsists with great difficulty in regions where the professionalization of the intellectual was late or incomplete– tends to disappear among us. Increasingly locked up in the ivory tower of the academy, consumed by bureaucratization, grappling with reports and opinions, hunting for grants and invitations to participate in international meetings, forced to follow current fashions, today's intellectuals rarely fit into the gramscian models.

It must be remembered, however, that the intellectuals who were able to satisfactorily resolve the intellectual work and militancy dilemma were those who had the greatest impact on culture. This is the case of Florestan Fernandes, professor, author and politician, implacable critic of the Brazilian elites, tireless spokesman for the interests of the people. Florestan is, from every point of view, a milestone in the history of Brazilian culture. An example for the new generations.

Florestan joined the university at a time when, with the creation of the Faculty of Philosophy, Sciences and Letters, it was beginning a process of democratization, with the aim of creating a new intellectual elite. From a modest family, working since he was a child –as a shoeshine boy, tailor's assistant, waiter– to help support himself, he never forgot his origins. These, in part, explain its methodological preferences, its themes, its program and its socialist vocation. It was not by chance that he found in progressive intellectuals – C. Wright Mills, Thorstein Veblen, Max Weber, Karl Mannheim and Karl Marx – the material with which he elaborated an original synthesis.

His theoretical options found support in the post-war political moment, when various sectors of the population mobilized in the struggles for development and democracy that characterized the Vargas era and the JK period and culminated in the reformist moment of the João Goulart government.

After the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the climate in Latin America was one of optimism, reform and popular mobilization. In Chile, Eduardo Frei and then Salvador Allende seemed to usher in a new era. In Europe, intellectuals like Sartre made militancy a profession of faith. Nothing could be more natural than that many intellectuals in Brazil would follow this path. The dreams and illusions of that period, however, dissipated in the face of the reality of military coups and repression. Today we live in other times and all this may seem remote. But the history of this period is essential to understanding the life and work of Florestan Fernandes.

Fifty years have passed since the moment he began his intellectual activity at USP. During this period, he published over 35 books and numerous articles. In all of them he reveals a deep concern with the creation of a more human society, that is, more democratic and freer. For Florestan, sociology has always been an instrument for achieving this ideal. That's why he was so concerned about perfecting his methods.

Some fundamental themes can be distinguished in his work. The fight against racism, which is evident in “Integração do Negro na Sociedade de Classes” and “O Negro no Mundo dos Brancos” (1970); the analysis of the formation of Brazilian society in “The Bourgeois Revolution in Brazil” (1975); the critical evaluation of sociology in “Empirical Foundations of Sociological Explanation” (1963), “Essays in General and Applied Sociology” (1960), “Sociology in an Age of Social Change” (1963), “Elements of Theoretical Sociology” (1970 ) and “Sociology in Brazil” (1977); the concern with education in “Education and Society in Brazil” (1966) and “Brazilian University: Reform or Revolution?” (1975); the criticism of the military government and the New Republic in the essays of “Circuito Fechado” (1976), “A Ditadura em Questão” (1982), “A Nova República” (1986); finally, his interest in Latin America led him to publish “Dependent Capitalism and Social Classes in Latin America” (1973) and “From Guerrilla to Socialism – The Cuban Revolution” (1979), and “Power and Counter-Power in Latin America ” (1981).

As important as his research was his teaching work. Internationally known as responsible for the creation of a group of notable researchers, who came to reformulate sociology in Brazil, giving it a rigor it had never had before. Florestan had among his students intellectuals such as Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Octavio Ianni, Paul Singer, Maria Sylvia de Carvalho Franco, Luis Pereira, Eunice Durham and many others.

Recently, in 1993, in an interview with Folha, Florestan reaffirmed his faith in socialism, which he sees as a constantly changing process, and in democracy, which he sees as a conquest of the popular classes and not as a gift from the elites or the State. One can agree with him or not, but it is impossible not to admire his courage, his tireless spirit, the consistency of his positions and, above all, the admirable balance between political militancy and scientific rigor that he managed to achieve.

*Emilia Viotti da Costa (1928-2017) was Professor Emeritus at USP, author of several reference books such as From Senzala to Colonia.

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