Florestan Fernandes – IV

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Commentary on the intellectual and political trajectory of the São Paulo sociologist.

There were many struggles and combats faced by Florestan Fernandes during his fruitful life.

In recent years, although physically weakened by an illness – cirrhosis of the liver caused by a transfusion of contaminated blood – that required constant medical care, Florestan never used his weapons. His virtue consisted in openly defying bad luck, opposing it with the lucidity of his combative spirit and the strength of his moral integrity. The illness did not silence the passionate defense of the ideas that would constitute the very reason for its existence. Reports from a newspaper report that, a few days before his death, when entering the operating room, with a weak but serene voice, he testified: “What keeps me alive is the flame of socialism that is within me”.

For those who today, in intellectual circles, opted for the cynicism of reason and the pessimism of will – in the exact inversion of what the revolutionary taught in fascist prison – such a statement would not fail to sound pathetic or quixotic. However, far from rhetoric and the profession of faith, Florestan – through the affirmation of socialism – expressed with complete authenticity the second nature that was harmoniously molded in him, the product of an acute human sensitivity and a radical intolerance in the face of any and all forms of violence. social oppression and exploitation.

Florestan's sociological and political learning, as he recognized, began when he was six years old, when he began to work in order to help his mother, a widow, washerwoman and maid, to pay the rent for the cellars or bedrooms of tenements in the periphery of the city of São Paulo. There were several adventures and misadventures that dotted a childhood and adolescence marked by the need to look for work, sometimes “humiliating and degrading”. He and his mother – in his words, the “sum of two weaknesses does not make a strength” – were “swept by the storm of life” and what saved them was the wild pride of the uprooted.

Lost in a hostile world, the young man turned inwards to discover in the “techniques of the body” and “the wiles of the weak” the means of self-defense for survival. But, from the life experience shared with the other marginalized and offended people in the city, the teenager will draw decisive lessons that will accompany him throughout his life: “Human character came to me through those cracks, through which I discovered that the 'great man' did not it is what imposes itself on others from above or through history; it is the man who extends a hand to his fellow men and swallows his own bitterness to share his human condition with others, giving of himself, as my Tupinambá would do”.

Overcoming obstacles for the poor, self-taught young man, “without birth or name”, in São Paulo in the 40s, the proletarian lumpen arrives at the University of São Paulo. The unusual talent for empirical research and the voracity for reading the sociological and anthropological bibliography available (mostly in a foreign language) transform the “promising student”, in a few years, into the brilliant assistant of the Sociology II chair. An unimaginable break in the life of a man of rustic origins. Integrating, therefore, from an early age into the thinking elite of USP, becoming intellectually sophisticated through literate education and the acquisition of new standards of living; Florestan, however, will never deny his “wild, wild nature, as the son of Dona Maria” – the most precious legacy he carried with him until the end of his life, as he pointed out in some testimonies.

Few intellectuals in Brazil can be qualified as original and creative thinkers. Florestan is one of them. Without reference to his documental work, as already noted, it will be difficult to understand contemporary Brazilian society as his works analyze – with astuteness and rigor – the dilemmas, contradictions and possibilities of Brazil in this century. More than 50 published books – some still in print – will continue to guide new research and academic essays in the field of social sciences and critical reflection on the Brazilian social formation, in its multiple dimensions – economy, politics, culture, racial relations, etc.

As a militant intellectual (Marxist and Leninist, as he liked to emphasize), Florestan always sought to answer the inevitable question: how to reconcile scientific theoretical activity with political and ideological radicalism? He was convinced that it was impossible – and also undesirable and unproductive – to separate sociological inquiry from the socialist movement by isolating sociology from socialism. Reality, he said, required that both advance interconnected, influencing each other in a permanent, profound and fruitful way. Refusing to accept the traps of the alleged axiological neutrality, he was categorical in stating: “Basically, we have to shoulder the responsibility of knowing in relation to which we are functional (or instrumental): to conservative thinking, which has inexorably become counterrevolutionary […] or to socialist thought, the only one that embodies the potential of the revolutionary transformation of the prevailing social order in Brazil”.

In this regard, he always expressed an unrestrained dissatisfaction with his own intellectual trajectory, being relentless in his self-criticism: "All the attempts I made to combine the two things failed". But the explanation had structural reasons that were independent of the generous will of the critical thinker: there was no strong socialist movement rooted in Brazilian society that would serve as a substrate and support for intellectuals with a socialist background. Although he rejected the observation that he would have privileged science “against socialism”, he recognized – evaluating his academic production in the 40s and 50s – that if “a path had been followed, in which I could define my perspective as a social scientist from a strong socialist movement, I would never have worked with the themes I worked with”. It should be noted, however, that the classic works on the Tupinambá, the black people and folklore in the city of São Paulo (which had the excluded, the marginalized, the uprooted as their object) were elaborated from the perspective of a social theory criticism.

A careful and systematic evaluation of his body of work has yet to be done. In addition to the aforementioned issue, controversial issues raised by their work should be debated and clarified; for example, in the field of historical materialism, his attempt to reconcile – particularly in his early works – the functionalist method and the dialectical method, the nature of his Marxist interpretation, his vision (and criticism) of the so-called “real socialism” and the explanation of its crisis and collapse, the theoretical consistency of his defense of revolutionary socialism in the contemporary world, etc.

Florestan was, in Brazil and abroad, a vehement enemy of the military dictatorship. In his case, the military regime was not wrong to forcibly retire him from USP, in an attempt to intimidate and silence his voice. Through books, articles and interviews in newspapers and magazines, courses and a tireless activity as a lecturer, his word was never silenced.

In the mid-80s, the tribune and militant writer – after having turned down previous invitations – joined the Workers' Party. Raising funds from the sale of his books and with the enthusiastic support of militancy committed to his ideas, Florestan was elected federal deputy in 1986, with more than 50 votes. In 1990 he would be re-elected, failing to run in the last legislative elections. The socialist intellectual, however, always maintained a critical stance towards “professional politics”, not allowing himself to be seduced by the charms, privileges and facilities inherent to parliamentary representation in the bourgeois democratic order.

An active federal deputy, with an outstanding performance in the area of ​​education, he did not fail to point out a certain isolation within the party. Speaking about his presence in the PT, in an interview in 1989, he stated: “I am very welcome in the PT; They like me a lot, but there I was relatively isolated. I am like a thrush that sings alone”. Florestan, as is known, did not join any PT tendency; as an “independent”, he always maintained a friendly and cooperative relationship with the internal factions, refusing to discriminate against anyone. As a possible antidote to the negative effects of the increasing institutionalization of the PT, he considered the existence of tendencies to be positive – particularly those committed to revolutionary socialism.

Loyal to the PT – as well as a generous contributor to Brazilian social movements and leftist parties (former PCB, PC do B, PSB and other small groups) as well as to Latin American leftist parties – Florestan, however, never abdicated his revolutionary convictions. As a result, he questioned the so-called “PT socialism” (whether in the form of “democratic” socialism or in the version of “modern” socialism) as well as the theoretical refusal – if not hostility – of sectors of the party towards Marxism.

In his parliamentary activities, he never failed to assert his status as an intellectual. But as a radical intellectual – without any resemblance to the pseudo-intellectual 4 “extremists”, the so-called “chair socialists”, mocked by Marx, “who lay on their sofas and cursed the revolution, which was impossible…”

His last writings and testimonies manifested a deep dislike for the internal dynamics and political and ideological positions recently assumed by the PT: the excessive internal bureaucratization to the detriment of the participation of militancy, the fetishization and cult of democracy, the growing attachment to electoralism, the reduction of political at the institutional level, the isolation of the party in relation to the most combative social movements and its detachment from the broad marginalized and dispossessed layers – in short, the perspective of social democratization of the PT was an alternative that he personally would not accept to validate. At the First Congress, he unequivocally asked: “Will the PT maintain the nature of a historical need for workers and radical social movements, if it prefers the 'occupation of power' to the revolutionary Marxist perspective?”

At his funeral ceremony, Florestan's question reappeared in the symbolism present there: the flowers of the landless – some of them had been massacred, in Rondônia, on the eve of their death – and the PT's red flags were held by companions chanting the old song that identifies communists all over the world. For Florestan Fernandes, the verses of proletarian internationalism were never a dissonant song. Or, as he would say, “they were not dead letters or a poem without charms”.

Gaius Navarro of Toledo is a retired professor at Unicamp. He is the author, among other books, of Iseb: Fábrica de ideologies (Attica). website editor marxism21.

Originally published in the magazine Marxist critique, No. 3, 1996. [embed link]





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